The booming business of fencing stolen catalytic converters in Oregon attracts a motley crew.
In November, WW told the tale of a failed snowboard designer turned Uber driver, who allegedly ran a $22 million racketeering ring from a suburban lakehouse. He was joined by a San Diego surf bum, seemingly oblivious to the business’s shadowy underpinnings, and a small-time thief on the run with a fake New York state ID. All were indicted by a Washington County grand jury last year.
Since then, another figure has emerged whose indictment was not made public at the time. His name is Robert Yelas.
The 23-year-old DJ—and former Oregon State University honors student—parlayed a youthful experience ripping off coin dealers into what prosecutors allege was a lucrative new fraud: selling catalytic converters, presumably stolen off Corvallis cars.
According to Beaverton Detective Patrick McNair, police watched Yelas deliver “truckloads” of catalytic converters to a warehouse in Aurora, the hub of an operation that shipped 44,000 of the stolen car parts to East Coast metal recyclers. The parts were worth millions of dollars thanks to the heavy metals they contain.
Yelas was one of more than a dozen people pulled in by police during the yearlong investigation. “We’d watch people do deliveries to the shop, and then we’d follow them away until we could get a positive identification,” McNair tells WW.
But unlike they did with many of his alleged co-conspirators, police didn’t immediately contact Yelas.
When WW outlined the operation in a recent cover story (“From Portland to Jersey,” Nov. 30, 2022), Yelas’ theft and racketeering charges were sealed.
The charges weren’t made public until his arrest in November. The Washington County District Attorney’s Office said it was normal to seal charges prior to an arrest but declined to explain the delay.
Yelas pleaded not guilty and was released. He appeared briefly in a Washington County courtroom in January, where his attorneys asked for more time to review the “3,000 documents” they’d received through discovery. Yelas is now awaiting a February court date.
“I have no comment,” Yelas says. But his rap sheet and extensive social media accounts tell some of the story.
This isn’t Yelas first brush with the law. He was arrested and sentenced for a remarkably similar crime in 2017 as a high school senior in Bend—this time, purporting to sell a precious metal of a different variety.
Records from that case are sealed because Yelas was charged as a juvenile. A press release from the Deschutes County District Attorney’s Office announced his sentencing but withheld the details. “Kids can and will make stupid decisions,” DA John Hummel said.
But a spokeswoman for the Bend Police Department confirmed the following account of the crime, first published in the Bend Bulletin.
Yelas bought counterfeit 1-ounce gold bars off Alibaba for $8 apiece. Each bar came with a fake receipt from an East Coast metals dealer.
He then turned around and sold the bars to buyers on Craigslist. A friend, classmate Caleb Knight, delivered the goods. (Yelas later told detectives he roped in Knight to give himself plausible deniability in case he was caught—he didn’t want to jeopardize his chances of getting into a good college.)
The plan unraveled when the owners of a Bend coin shop grew suspicious. Bill Fleming drilled into one of the “gold” bars and injected a drop of nitric acid, a substance that doesn’t react with gold. It reacted.
Through a bit of electronic sleuthing—Yelas had a habit of reusing screen names—police detectives unearthed his Reddit account.
“Where is the best location to hide $50,000 in your house from cops/people etc?” he asked, in a now removed post. “How would you launder/structure an illegal amount of money?” he asked in another.
More victims came forward. Yelas and Knight were ordered to pay around $60,000 in restitution, the bulk of which went to Fleming.
The conviction did not impede Yelas’ future. He attended OSU that fall, made the honor roll, and eventually graduated with a degree in computer science.
In the meantime, he was building an impressive résumé. He started a company doing marketing for local small businesses. Then, according to his LinkedIn, he organized events for Google before interning at Garmin as an aviation software engineer.
But that résumé ends abruptly in 2020. That’s when, prosecutors say, he again turned to crime. He’s charged with his involvement in the Lake Oswego racketeering ring, which charging documents say began operating in the beginning of 2021.
Like the other alleged middlemen facing racketeering charges, Yelas created an LLC in his name. He called it Delta Recycling in incorporation papers filed in March 2021.
And he dissolved it Aug. 4, 2022—days after Beaverton police raided the Aurora warehouse and arrested Brennan Doyle, the alleged cat-trafficking ringleader in Lake Oswego.
It’s not clear how Yelas obtained the catalytic converters. But police watched him drop off loads of the devices in his pickup truck. He’s charged with two counts of aggravated theft, both occurring in July 2022.
During this period, catalytic converter thefts skyrocketed, Corvallis police say. There were 11 reported thefts in 2020, Corvallis police Lt. Gabe Sapp told the OSU campus newspaper. By 2021, there were 99.
Most of them were taken off Priuses. Two “OSU vehicles” were targeted back in August.
Meanwhile, Yelas was reimagining his life. His online persona shifted from computer nerd to globe-trotting DJ.
He set up a website account for “DJ Yelas” and began hosting ladies’ nights at a Corvallis nightclub (cover: $5). His Instagram is filled with pictures of him sightseeing and partying across Europe and Asia in early 2022. A sample caption: “when you do what you love you don’t work a day in your life.”
The account was taken down hours after WW gave Yelas a call.
His TikToks remain public. In one, shot last Halloween, Yelas, dressed in a cowboy hat and sleeveless flannel, chugs a beer while egging on the crowd from the roof of a frat house, perilously close to the edge. As of Monday, it had been liked 96 times.
Catalytic converter theft dropped in Portland in the wake of the Doyle raids. And there’s some evidence it did in Corvallis too—there were only 35 reports last year, down 64% from 2021.
But even back in November, law enforcement officers were warning WW that little was stopping new criminals from filling the void.
In December, police raided a $7 million operation that had trafficked 28,000 stolen catalytic converters through Medford and Bend. Its 25-year-old ringleader had been fencing the car parts since late 2021, prosecutors say.
And theft reports are back up in Corvallis. There have been 15 already this year, Lt. Sapp says.