On March 21, the Bend Police Department detained two suspects, the 17-year-old Robert Yelas Jr. and the 17-year-old Caleb Knight. Both suspects are accused of aggravated first-degree theft by deception, first-degree theft by deception, felony computer crime, felony criminal conspiracy and money laundering. The defendants were charged as juveniles, but Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel said he is considering adult charges and expects to make a decision soon.
Investigators consider Yelas as the main suspect, who was the mastermind behind the scheme. Court documents stated that the two 17-year-olds purchased fake gold bars relatively easily from the internet, and conned a handful of adults in Oregon and Washington, which brought about $60,000 and assets to the main defendant.
The duo started their scam operation in the summer of 2016. After their arrest, Yelas detailed Bend Police detective Josh Spano how the two Mountain View High School students ran their operation. According to the main suspect, he purchased counterfeit Royal Canadian Mint and Perth Mint 1-ounce gold bars from aliexpress.com, an online retailer owned by the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. Several media outlets reported that these fake gold bars flooded the internet starting from 2015. After Yelas ordered the products, the bars came stamped and packaged to make them look authentic and included fake receipts from a metals dealer on the East Coast. The 17-year-old told police that he paid $8 for each bar.
Yelas confessed that he sold the fake bars as genuine ones on craigslist.org. According to the court documents, the scam was relatively successful, with the main defendant netting as much as $22,000 in one sale. With the help of his friends, the 17-year-old was able to hide his real identity for months. However, one victim who ran a coin business noticed the dimensions were off with the gold bars he purchased for more than $20,000. He became suspicious and ran a test with acid, which showed that the bars were gold, but only on the outside. He ran another test, which confirmed the fraud. The victim reported the case to the police and told authorities that he suspected that the inside of the bars was made of nickel or copper. According to him, each bar contained about $1 worth of gold.
Police information stated that Yelas would arrange the sales via email and text message and usually sent Knight to complete the sale. In correspondence with victims, Yelas reportedly went by “Collin” or “Connor.” However, two victims reported the sender line on his emails showed up as “Robert Yelas.” Law enforcement authorities identified the main defendant shortly after the investigation had started after a known counterfeiter suggested to look into Yelas’ records. Shortly after, investigators found Yelas’ social media accounts and learned he used the username “fruitgods” on Facebook. Spano said that detectives also discovered the 17-year-old’s Reddit account, where Yelas allegedly made posts such as “How would you launder/structure an illegal amount of money?” and “Where is the best location to hide $50,000 in your house from cops/people etc?” Police reported that the suspect had removed such posts from his account later on.
According to the court documents, Spano and another officer visited Yelas at his home. When they asked about the scam, the 17-year-old denied being involved. However, when Spano brought up his Reddit posts, the defendant admitted his part in his scam but saying that Knight was the mastermind. Spano told him he doubted that, and soon after, Yelas explained what happened.
Police information disclosed that Yelas admitted that he had the fake gold shipped to Knight’s house. He then set up deals and had Knight handle them. He said he used Knight so that he would not get caught. When Spano interrogated Knight, he told the detective that Yelas would pay him between $100 and $500 for each sale he completed.
When law enforcement authorities arrested the two suspects, much of the money was gone. Yelas showed Spano a linen closet where he hid the gold and the spoils of his scam. The 17-year-old removed some blankets and pulled out two plastic bags, one containing 22 fake gold bars and the other $7,800 in cash. He had $7,327 in his bank account at the time of his arrest and had earlier in the day transferred $5,000 to an account on kraken.com, a popular website used to exchange virtual currencies, such as bitcoins. Investigators claimed that the rest of the money was used to buy vehicles. Yelas purchased a 2006 Mercedes-Benz SLK sedan from his mother for $8,000. He also bought a 2005 Ford F250 for $8,000, and then also bought and sold a Volkswagen Jetta and a Mazda truck, court documents show.
Counterfeit Royal Canadian Mint and Perth Mint 1-ounce gold bars are up for sale on the dark web too. Even with the fact that Yelas used Kraken to exchange money to virtual currencies or the opposite, there is no evidence that he purchased the fake gold bars from the dark web.