Texas authorities are looking for a man accused of scamming a California business owner by charging him a $20,000 down payment for 60 tons of chicken feet that never showed up.
Vanquil Jones, a 26-year-old from Baytown, is also suspected of conning three women in their 60s out of hundreds of thousands of dollars through internet scams, according to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. He faces felony money laundering charges.
“There’s no doubt in (my) mind that if he can continue these online scams, he absolutely will,” Assistant District Attorney Keith Houston said in a statement. “We’re hoping someone can come forward to help us locate him.”
Prosecutors said the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office alerted their Houston-area counterparts to the food scam in September, after the owner of a California company reported that he had never received the vast order of chicken feet he bought online from “Tyson Food International” — not to be confused with Tyson Foods Corp., the well-known and legitimate meat company.
The California business owner had wired the down payment to a person who used the alias “Michael Lamson,” and when the shipment didn’t arrive he called to complain, according to a complaint filed in Harris County in March. “Michael Lamson” told the business owner that if he wanted the order fulfilled, he would need to pay for the entire shipment of chicken feet upfront, the complaint said.
The business owner refused, demanded the down payment be refunded and called authorities to report what he suspected was a scam, according to the complaint.
Baytown police learned from the county clerk that “Tyson Food International” was tied to Jones, and that its listed address was at a “known high-crime apartment complex” in the city, the complaint said. Authorities tracked the wire transfer to a Bank of America account in Baytown, which was linked to Jones as well — and from which Jones had withdrawn the $20,000 down payment less than a week after the transfer, prosecutors said.
Looking at Jones’ bank records revealed something else: Huge sums of money had come into his account from three women, whose wire transfers totaled more than $211,000, the complaint said. Police said they spoke to all three women over the phone.
One, a 65-year-old widow with cancer, said she “had fallen in love with a man she met online who then coerced her into sending money,” according to the complaint. That woman sent four wire transfers totaling $45,500, police said.
Another woman, 65, wired $26,200 to Jones, according to the complaint. Police said she told them she had been reached by email about an investment, and then a Swiss attorney phoned her and convinced her to wire the funds “to receive a greater payback, which never happened,” the complaint said.
The third woman, 67, lost more than $120,000 in two wire transfers to Jones’ account but “seemed embarrassed and angry about the situation” and wouldn’t elaborate on the scam to police, the complaint said.
Baytown police officers spoke to Jones, and he told them he owns and operates a catering business called Tyson Foods International, admitting he decided on the name because it recalls the more famous Tyson, prosecutors said. He told officers he ran the company with an African man named “Genie,” whom he met at his job at the airport, according to the complaint. “Genie” provided catering and delivery services “typically via U-Haul truck,” Jones said, while Jones did the cooking and handled the payments, the complaint said.
There was no record of communication between Jones and a person named “Genie” on Jones’ phone, according to police.
Jones said he knew large sums of money were flowing into the bank account, but he assumed they were from “customers or family or friends of ‘Genie,’” police said. Though Jones said he did all the cooking, he couldn’t produce grocery or shopping records and had nowhere to cook food “other than his small apartment … which is not large enough to accommodate such large orders of food as the incoming wires suggest,” according to the complaint.
After that initial conversation, Jones would no longer speak with officers, and they couldn’t track him down, according to the District Attorney’s Office.
“This investigation revealed how this one individual was able to wreak havoc on the lives of several people from the comfort of his home, behind a computer,” Houston said in a statement.
Prosecutors asked anyone with information on Jones to call Crime Stoppers at 713-222-8477.