Four area men face charges in coin theft

A Kountze man being held in the Hardin County Jail for allegedly stealing more than $100,000 in gold coins from an elderly couple in Runnels County, about 50 miles south of Abilene, is also being looked at by the FBI for his alleged involvement with similar crimes throughout the U.S., The Examiner has discovered.

Justin Allen O’Neal, born May 2, 1975, was arrested in September along with three other local men – Ryan Lambeth, William O’Conner and Thomas Eckert – although Eckert told the newspaper he was an unwitting participant in O’Neal’s scheme. Eckert said he was asked to drive O’Neal to meet with “clients” in Runnels County in exchange for a “couple hundred dollars” because O’Neal did not have a driver’s license. O’Neal is on felony probation for intoxication assault with a motor vehicle, according to state records.

“All I did was drive out there,” said, Eckert. “I had no idea what O’Neal was doing and I did not know he was not giving people the coins, keeping their money. I didn’t know any of that stuff. All he told me was ‘I don’t have a license, we need somebody to drive,’ so I drove out there. He said he would give me a couple hundred bucks and that was it. I never even got a hundred bucks for going out there. I drove out there and drove back. He did his thing with the coins and never gave me my money. So, I said to hell with it.”

Eckert said he knew O’Neal from when he worked with him at Universal Coin & Bullion several years before but O’Connor was not with him, Lambeth and O’Neal on the trip to Runnels County.

All four men have been arrested and charged with first-degree felony theft and could face charges of organized criminal activity, according to Runnels County Deputy Steven Gray.

Gray said he believes all of the men named and arrested were complicit in the alleged crimes and there are two other individuals who are also being investigated.

“We have two more that we are looking at but O’Neal, O’Connor, Eckert and Lambeth have all been arrested and are out on bond – all except for O’Neal,” Gray said. “The (Texas) Ranger arrested them there. When we go to grand jury, we are also going to try to get indictments, not only for the theft, but for organized criminal activity.”

The investigation into O’Neal began after an elderly woman alerted the Runnels County Sheriff’s Office that O’Neal had tried to talk her into parting with her gold coin collection and then took them without her permission during a visit to her home.

According to Gray, O’Neal gained the trust of an elderly woman in Runnels County by pretending to be O’Connor and promised to help her with her coin collection, as well as pay off the debt for the coins on her credit cards.

“I knew the people here in the county who had gotten taken, and she had given me a call wanting to talk with me and came in to visit,” Gray said. “Her husband was just put into a nursing home and she didn’t want him to know anything about it – she is 86 and he is 97. So, we sat down and she gave me all of her information.”

Gray said the former government employee kept meticulous records and was able to show him everything he needed, including names and descriptions, to begin investigating the theft of her coins.

“The coin salesman she had been dealing with, that is who this guy (O’Neal) portrayed himself as,” Gray said. “He portrayed himself as William (Billy) O’Connor. She had never met Billy but had numerous conversations with him buying coins and stuff. She was going to try and sell some coins and this guy saying he was Billy O’Connor showed up to help her sell some of her coins. He was going to look into it and when he left, all the coins left with him.”

But even though O’Neal is believed by Gray to have taken the coins on his fist trip to Runnels County, he made two return trips to the woman’s home and even installed two safes in her closet to supposedly keep the coins safe.

“He came back two more times to visit with them … but he had already sold the coins,” Gray said. “He was a smooth guy. He spent several hours that first visit. He didn’t switch coins. She had the coins in their original wrappers and envelopes in a suitcase. He came in and inventoried everything – he and the others. They put them back in the envelopes and put them back in the suitcase and put them back up for her.

“The next time he brought two safes and mounted them in her closet. He told her he checked the coins again and then he put them back in the closet. The third time he came back he showed her a couple of bogus checks or photocopies of checks saying that he had paid off her credit card debts and he was there to collect his coins. He must have picked up the empty boxes because he sold her coins right after the first trip.”

Gray said the coins were sold to American Rare Coin and Collectibles in Bloomington, Minn., and Gray said the company had already re-sold most of the coins.“They are supposed to be holding two coins for me,” Gray said. “And from what I understand through the feds and the Rangers, that is where almost every coin he stole has gone.

“It wasn’t one of these where they said ‘I am going to take your coins and get back with you’ where it would fall under a civil matter. It was a, ‘I am going to help you out but first I am going to steal your coins.’”

Over the years O’Neal bounced around local coin companies before opening his own operation, International Trading Company in Lumberton. The company has an “F-rating” with the BBB and failed to respond to 10 complaints about delivery issues and billing matters in the past 12 months.

Gray said he had been working with Mike Fuljenz, president of Universal Coin & Bullion (UCB) of Beaumont, to get additional information on the stolen coins because they had originally been purchased from First Fidelity Reserve, a company Fuljenz is associated with as a consultant. It is also the company where O’Connor worked until June.Gray said American Rare Coin and Collectibles didn’t have any records or information on the coins they had purchased from O’Neal or to whom they were sold.

“They say they don’t know where they went because they don’t keep any records,” Gray said. “These are graded coins and they all have serial numbers, which I have entered into TCIC/NCIC (Texas Crime Information Center/National Crime Information Center databases) but they claim they don’t write anything down on the serial numbers or who they sold them to. To me it is a crock.

“The coin dealer I am dealing with in Beaumont – First Fidelity – had records on everything but the place in Minnesota, I checked with them up there and they didn’t know, they were no help and didn’t offer help. As a matter of fact, they said they wouldn’t do anything.”

Neither John Saffert nor Mark Senden of American Rare Coin and Collectibles in Bloomington returned phone calls seeking comment about their company’s involvement in the purchase of stolen coins.

Fuljenz said he was familiar with O’Neal because he had previously worked for Universal Coin & Bullion on two occassions - most recently ending his employment in January 2007. Fuljenz said O’Neal was terminated and not eligible for rehire.

In fact, according to court records from the 356th Judicial Court in Hardin County, Fuljenz obtained a judgment against O’Neal in July preventing him from contacting current or former customers and vendors or suppliers of UCB after he proved O’Neal had taken customer lists from his company.

Additionally, B.J. Garrett of Imperial Currency in Sour Lake said he spoke to the FBI as recently as Tuesday about O’Neal. Garrett told The Examiner O’Neal had worked for him in the past. Lambeth had also work for Garerett’s company before going to work for O’Neal’s company.

“They are trying to build their case,” Garrett said of the FBI. “He was fired from this company, as well, in 2009. He went and opened IT (in Lumberton) and things went down from there. He would go to people’s houses doing trade deals, essentially taking their coins, selling them and not sending them anything back. He was keeping them and spending their money.”

Scott Bauer, the FBI’s supervisory special agent in Beaumont, said it was the policy of the U.S. Department of Justice that he could neither confirm nor deny an investigation by the agency. However, he did confirm the state’s criminal case against O’Neal and the other men involved. He did not answer further questions when pressed.

Information obtained by The Examiner from a deposition in the case involving UCB revealed O’Neal would sometimes take a few lesser valued coins and leave them with people while he took their rare coins, sold them and refused to return their phone calls for months when they tried to ask about the money they were owed.

“My concern is how we help people avoid this type of thing,” Fuljenz said. “What he is doing is using ex-salespeople at my company and other companies as the window to get into people.

“I think one thing that will help is for people to make sure their dealer is lawfully conducting business by asking for their Texas telemarketing registration number and their proof of Patriot Act Anti-Money Laundering compliance. These guys weren’t lawfully licensed by the state, weren’t PCGS (Professional Coin Grading Service) or NGC (Numismatic Guarantee Corporation) authorized dealers or members of other leading coin dealer organizations, which are things customers should check for.”

Fuljenz said he will buy back any coin that is recovered by the woman in Runnels County at the price she paid.

Attempts to reach O’Connor were unsuccessful and a number could not be located for Lamberth. O’Neal declined a jailhouse interview with The Examiner.