HOUSTON -- It took less than an hour for the con men posing as Olympus Moving to steal everything single mom Camille Bailey had worked her entire life for.
The “movers” she had hired even took all of the shoes belonging to her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, leaving the young girl to walk around their empty apartment in just her bare feet.
Bailey, who lived in west Houston before her recent move, found “Olympus Moving” on Craigslist. The group advertising there had assumed the same name of a legitimate company based in New York that currently holds a B+ rating with the Better Business Bureau.
But the men Bailey invited into her home that Friday afternoon in late August, were not employees of the New York company that had earned the rating, according to representatives of that company. Instead, they are a group of men state investigators with the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles now believe have potentially scammed thousands of Texans, operating under so many different company names they have managed to stay off the radar of criminal prosecutors.
“Everything we’ve worked for, for the last two years, has just been wiped out,” Bailey said. “No shoes -- not even me-- no socks, no nothing, everything is on the truck.”
Bailey said she also handed over boxed up items that meant nothing to the movers, but were priceless to her, such as every picture she had ever taken of the first two years of her daughter’s life.
So when the young nursing student needed to scale down to a smaller place during the ongoing economic slump, she put her trust in the people behind the ad which promised a two-man move for $39.99 an hour, for a minimum of two hours. The ad also stated in writing there were “no hidden fees” and even bragged, “We are quite simply the best at what we do! Don’t settle for less!”
But state investigators who have tracked the men they believe placed the ad have a different take on its words.
KHOU: So when they say, “We are simply the best at what we do”, they may not be lying?
State DMV: If they’re referring to simply the best at stealing from Texas consumers, they probably are the best we have.
Bill Harbeson is the Director of the Enforcement Division of the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles. He says his state investigators have tracked the same group operating under a long series of moving companies that are all unregistered but operating across Texas, including in Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and Houston.
KHOU: Would it be unreasonable to think they have hit thousands of people in Texas?
State DMV: It is possible.
Harbeson says two individuals have consistently worked together under those various companies: Anthony Fanelli and Andy Bueno.
“These are the bad guys we’re dealing with,” he said.
In December of 2009, the Texas Department of Transportation attempted to send a message to Anthony Fanelli, by taking him before the non-criminal State Office of Administrative Hearings, where Fanelli was fined for operating “Half Price Movers” illegally, unregistered, and without proper insurance.
An administrative law judge issued a fine to Fanelli, which he never paid, according to state officials.
Harbeson said he believes Fanelli went on to work with Bueno, continuing to work with moving companies that would scam Texas consumers long after that administrative hearing. He believes they should be pursued criminally.
“The first thing that comes to my mind is organized crime,” he said. “I consider this worse than a burglary.”
Harbeson said burglars take your items in a very impersonal manner. He believes the group in question, however, gets to know their victims first, before eventually leaving them with nothing or taking high amounts of cash from them.
Based on a long record of similar complaints, Harbeson said he believes the group knows what they are doing and plans ahead.
“They gave me a receipt for almost $1,600,” Camille Bailey said. “I would like to stop this from happening to anyone else.”
But the Department of Motor Vehicles, the chief regulator of moving companies in Texas, does not have the authority to pursue the movers criminally. Ask Harbeson about the reasons why his investigators cannot step in, and his answer betrays a long list of bureaucratic roadblocks and red tape that Fanelli and Bueno have benefited from for years.
First, the DMV only recently took over the regulation of movers from the Texas Department of Transportation. That shift, Harbeson said, is a good thing for consumers, because he says TXDOT leaders simply did not have the will to prioritize taking strong actions against illegal moving companies.
Second, he says, the DMV only has the legal authority to regulate registered moving companies in Texas. While they have the power to take a registration away or take administrative actions, they have no legal authority over companies that operate in the shadows. He says police agencies and prosecutors need to take more aggressive action anywhere they can.
But there’s a problem there too, and it’s one that a young police officer in Houston ran into when he met Bueno face to face.
Houston police officer Alex Vinogradov patrols Houston’s west side. By the time he responded to Bailey’s call for help, he had already responded to two other calls from consumers who had hired Bueno and company.
In each case, the consumers he took reports from described how Bueno would gain their trust and confidence early on with warm smiles, only to deliver bills stocked with sky high fees for shrink wrapped items.
Vinogradov noticed a pattern, and wanted to act to protect the public.
In Bailey’s case, he said Bueno wrote in charges for shrink wrap, after she signed the contract.
Vinogradov determined Bueno was running an outright scam and operating unethically, intentionally deceiving consumer after consumer. He wanted to put a stop to it.
By the time Bailey called for help, however, the movers already had taken everything she owned.
But, Vinogradov reviewed a recorded phone conversation she made with the supposed owner of the company she hired. In the call, Bailey offers to pay the bill and all its added fees in cash, if only she could have her priceless items back. But the owner tells her that her items are already on a semi-truck, and headed out of state. She was told, if she wanted her items back, to drive to Lafayette, La. and to call the owner back when she gets there. She was told she would have to pay the bill in full, in cash, and then provide her own moving company to move the goods back to Houston if she ever wanted to see her items again.
Bailey, who had lost a large plasma TV, expensive furniture, and a top-of-the-line bed, began to lose all hope.
But each time Vinogradov responded to a new consumer, he ran smack dab into yet another roadblock when it came to getting permission to make an arrest.
“I called our district attorney, but I already knew the answer,” he said. “The Harris County D.A. declined to file criminal charges.”
That was the response, even though Vinogradov said he told the D.A.’s intake prosecutor he believed he had detected a pattern to how this same company was operating with multiple victims.
Vinogradov informed his superior officers he could not make an arrest. But they, too, had been told that where a contract is signed the D.A. will typically refer the cases to be dealt with as civil disputes in lawsuits, where victims like Bailey would have to spend more money trying to go after a company they may never be able to find.
Musa Musallam, the CEO of MNM Distribution Corporation, said when separate officers from the Houston Police Department responded to his own run-in with the movers, they too, determined Bueno was running a scam. He said they, too, had their attempts to make an arrest rebuffed by the intake officer at the district attorney’s office. Musallam was eventually told he would have to pursue his case in the civilian courts.
“It was like stealing with the protection of the D.A.,” Musallam said.
A reluctance to act when a contract is involved may be one reason why Bueno offered to stick around if we wanted to call the police, shortly before he drove off with KHOU-TV’s furniture. You see, following multiple complaints to our station we had set up an undercover sting, which Bueno responded to. In our case, similar to other consumers, Bueno promised the shrink wrap would be included in our move but still delivered an inflated bill packed with fees for the plastic.
When our undercover consumer wouldn’t pay the inflated charges, once again, Bueno drove off-- this time with our furniture.
KHOU contacted the Harris County D.A.’s office.
KHOU: I think the feeling is the criminals essentially have got one over on the D.A.
DIVISION CHIEF: I would say, that’s not true.
Lynn Parsons runs the intake division for the Harris County District Attorney’s office. We asked her why her division had not done more previously to respond to officers who thought they had identified patterns or simply reported the same scam.
“I don’t know what else to say. Perhaps it wasn’t made clear to that person what, in fact, the officer was relating,” Parsons said. “But the matter is, there is a pending investigation on this entire, entire move activity right now.
Parsons said for a criminal prosecutor to get past the hurdle of a contract being signed, law enforcement would have to prove Bueno and Fanelli intended to scam people from the very beginning. She said a clear pattern of victims would have to be proven out. She added, multiple investigative and law enforcement agencies were currently working on a larger case which may indeed be presented to a prosecutor soon.
But in the meantime, KHOU decided to see what we could learn on our own about the movers’ intentions.
We contacted both Bueno and Fanelli, and told them both we intended to broadcast a story in which state regulators and consumers alike accused them of taking part in a widespread scam using multiple company names.
Bueno never returned our calls. Fanelli did. In his initial conversations with KHOU, Fanelli said he simply “loaded” the trucks while working for Bueno.
We asked Fanelli if he could come in to our studios and speak to us about the issue.
He showed up.
KHOU: A lot of people feel you and Andy Bueno have scammed them.
FANELLI: It’s not me, I just load trucks.
KHOU: Has it ever seemed odd to you when, at the end, consumers feel like they didn’t get a fair deal?
FANELLI: I’m not there.
KHOU: Why do you always leave?
FANELLI: Because I don’t want to be a part of [Andy Bueno’s] stuff.
KHOU: Because you know what he’s going to do with consumers?
KHOU: Shoot straight with me.
FANELLI: (Fanelli, nods head saying yes)
KHOU: How can you justify taking part in something like that?
FANELLI: (Pause) Don’t know.
Fanelli showed KHOU receipts showing dozens of times he had been paid in 2011 for moves with Bueno.
FANELLI: He pays me. I could show you the receipt.
KHOU: But does the receipt justify taking part, where you’re wiping consumers out of everything they own?
(Fanelli gets up and walks out of the interview)
But there’s something else you should know about Fanelli. You see, it is hard to say with certainty who he really is. Because on Oct. 17, 2003, nearly 8 years ago, the very same man was arrested by the Houston Police Department on an outstanding warrant from New Braunfels, TX, according to the Houston Police Department. On that day, he told the police his name was Stephen J. Lazauskas, which is how he was booked.
But before he walked out of our interview, we asked the man with more than one identity about the state’s allegations against him.
KHOU: The State of Texas believes you have been involved along with Andy Bueno in scams that have hit Texas consumers all across this state, for many years. What would you say to that?
FANELLI: Well, maybe I should interview with them.
We also asked him about something else our undercover cameras detected: Fanelli taking part in throwing away someone else’s shrink wrapped goods into a dumpster, to make room for our goods, just before the movers loaded us up.
We captured toys, stuffed animals, clothing, and furniture all getting dumped by the movers.
KHOU: So you dumped it into the dumpster?
FANELLI: Um huh. It was trash.
KHOU: That was trash to you but that was someone’s lifetime belongings. That was a young child’s toys.
Trash to you, not to them.
FANELLI: I didn’t say, “dump the truck.” It’s got nothing to do with me. He [Andy Bueno] told me to dump the truck, I dumped the truck.
KHOU: Does that make it okay, because he told you to do it?
FANELLI: (doesn’t answer)
Following our on camera interview with Parsons, the D.A.’s spokesperson sent us a written statement from Lynne Parsons, the chief of their intake division, to follow up which stated:
“Criminal statutes and case law have clearly established the law regarding theft by deception. In most cases, in order to prove criminal intent, there must be a clearly defined pattern of criminal activity; there has to be valid identification of the suspects; and there must be allegations of criminal wrongdoing to demonstrate the motive for the crime. Without these elements, the case does not meet the criteria for criminal prosecution, and it must be pursued civilly. Without other evidence, failure to perform a contract is not sufficient to prove criminal intent.
When a single individual is conned or scammed, in the absence of other evidence of criminal intent, the only remedy is a civil suit. However, when a clearly defined pattern of criminal activity is shown, then the cases can be joined together in one charge such as aggregate theft. HPD’s Major Offenders Division typically investigates this type of case. They have confirmed an ongoing investigation into the allegations that you have raised.”
HPD’s Major Offenders Division willingly interviewed with KHOU and confirmed its ongoing criminal investigation.
Officer Gilbert Brillon of Major Offenders displayed a book with five inches worth of paperwork describing victims’ stories who had been hit by Fanelli , Bueno and their crews, and told us they had received an entirely separate book, close to the same size, provided by the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Brillon, and others inside the Houston Police Department, have led the local law enforcement push to tie all the cases of victims together, and carry forward the investigations of patrol officers such as Vinogradov.
Many of the victims Brillon has collected stories of were told their goods would be taken out of state and far away from Houston and Texas. KHOU, similarly, was told the same.
However, we placed a GPS tracking device in our furniture and have been tracking its location for several weeks. Rather than travelling out of state, the tracking device moved to a nearby gas station, then to a nice residential neighborhood on Houston’s west side near the beltway and Briar Forest, before finally being taken one hour later to a storage facility off of Airline Drive on Houston’s north side, which is where the furniture remains.
KHOU is collecting stories of other people who have had similar experiences. If you have had an encounter with this group, please email reporter Mark Greenblatt at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition, the Houston Police Department asks you contact their major offenders division. Officer Gilbert Brillon may be reached by calling 713-308-3100.
Note: KHOU 11 News would like to thank the Better Business Bureau and its President Dan Parsons for the generous help provided on this story, including the use of the BBB’s investigator Monica Russo during the undercover portion of our research.