HOUSTON – Houston Police Major Offenses Swindle Unit detectives were able to identify six suspects in what investigators are calling a ‘Wobbly Wheel’ swindle.
Four of the suspects are still on the run and police are asking for the public’s help to apprehend them. Police said the suspects took advantage of vulnerable drivers in the Houston area.
“They travel up and down the streets of Houston, and they honk at everybody,” said HPD Detective Tom Ferguson.
Investigators said 36-year-old Paul Yonko, his brother 31-year-old Sam Yonko, their brother-in-law 29-year-old Nick Stanley, 57-year-old Suellen Stanley, her daughter, 38-year-old Sue-Ellen Stanley, and Paul Yonko’s girlfriend, 31-year-old Monica Mito, as well as other family or affiliated family members were involved in swindling drivers to give them money in exchange for “help.”
All six have been charged with engaging in organized criminal activity, which is a third-degree felony.
"They would look for people who are by themselves," Ferguson said.
Investigators said the family would work in teams, honking at drivers and telling responding drivers that their wheel was wobbly or that there was something wrong with their vehicle.
“They’d honk and say, ‘Hey! Your wheel’s about to fall off. Pullover, please. We don’t want you to get hurt. We’re good Christians,'" Ferguson said.
Police said the suspects would then pull the driver over and pretend to help.
“Then they’ll say they got a part, they’ll fix it for you for free, they’ll put the part on and then go, ‘Oh my gosh, you know what? That part costs $400, $600, $900,'" Ferguson said.
In many cases, Ferguson said the suspects would take the drivers to a nearby ATM and intimidate them into giving them cash.
“They target drivers who are alone. Ultimately, they rely on people’s good nature,” Ferguson said.
Investigators put out a call for the suspects 7 months ago. They received six cases that drivers reported. That grew to 50 reported cases, which police whittled down to 24 to secure indictments.
The Harris County District Attorney’s Office said each case would be a misdemeanor, however, since they aim to prove that the family worked together and orchestrated many of these crimes, the office would work to prosecute a third-degree felony charge for engaging in organized crime. The alleged victims were from ages 18 to 86 years old.
“They self-describe themselves as gypsies and they tend to organize themselves as families,” said HPD Detective Jason Alderete.
Police said Paul Yonko and Suellen Stanley are behind bars after being previously arrested. The other four are still on the run. Police are asking anyone with more information about the suspects to give Houston Police or Crimestoppers a call.
If any driver is approached in this fashion, police advised them to refuse help from strangers and rely on the help they are familiar with or call the police.