Go on, take the money and run
If you want to know the best way to get the local jewelry community angry at the mere mention of your name and business, you should try hiring and inexplicably firing more than a dozen of its members within a 12-month span – then skipping town without paying customers for contracted consignments. That's the plan allegedly enacted by Charles Hart Bengyak, a nomadic jeweler who hightailed it out of Austin earlier this year, after reportedly falling into a significant amount of debt and failing to pay at least one woman, South Austin resident Karen Kreps, $6,500 for a ruby-and-diamond ring he sold on consignment from his Heirloom Jewelry and Coins business on Burnet Road.
Bengyak's time in Austin began in 2007, when he arrived after a stint in Reno, Nev., and settled into a room in the South Austin home of Martha Simmons, longtime owner of Gemsources with her husband, Greg Fisher. Fisher passed in 1999, but he had known Bengyak, Simmons said, through two online trading networks for jewelry.
When he arrived, Bengyak already had a checkered past. According to the Fort Pierce News Tribune, he was arraigned in Fort Pierce, Fla., on aggravated assault charges in 1971. In 1983, according to court records, he beat (on appeal) accusations of failing to pay up on promissory notes – accusations similar to that alleged by Kreps. Simmons was apprehensive about Bengyak, but ultimately, she said, she "listened to all his stories," and introduced him to a number of jewelers in the area. She regrets that decision today.
The Ruby Ring
Bengyak spent a short period of time at Simmons' home, she recalled, before relocating to a house on Nameless Road in nearby Leander. By then, he'd established himself as a local source for watches, gold and silver bullion, and assorted jewelry, eventually acquiring enough inventory to enable a move into a suite at 9222 Burnet Rd. That's where Kreps came in, and everything began to unravel.
Kreps walked into Bengyak's store in July 19, 2012, and consigned to him a 3.52-carat ruby encased atop a ring that also featured two trilliant diamonds weighing 1.23 carats total. The ruby itself was GRA-certified (Gemological Rating Laboratory of America) and replacement valued, in 1988 by Goldtech Corp., at $19,000. According to the signed invoice, Bengyak guaranteed Kreps $6,500 for it "upon sale"; Kreps says he told her it could take "several years" to sell. She handed over the ring, along with a handful of other items Bengyak bought for $102.45. The two didn't speak again until October 2013, when Kreps called Bengyak to inquire about the sale. He told her, she recalls, that he hadn't been able to sell the ring, but was working on moving it.
Except that he had in fact already sold the ring, via eBay, to a guy in Birmingham, Ala. – or so says his former shop manager, Michael Robison, who started as a part-time sales associate for Bengyak in September 2012 before becoming a manager in early 2013. Mandy Anglen, the employee in charge of Heirloom's eBay account (HeirloomJewelryandCoins12, since deleted), apparently negotiated the sale in August. An email sent from Bengyak to Robison reflects that the jeweler had "$8,000 in PayPal from the ring" – Robison says this was Kreps' ring – but also a mounting pile of debt. "We just bounced every check we've written since Friday," Bengyak wrote in the Aug. 20, 2012, email. "Plus that $4,000 check."
Buy Dear, Sell Cheap
Meanwhile, the shop that had grown big enough to necessitate a move into its own suite had begun to fall apart. According to several former employees, Bengyak abruptly fired the bulk of his staff in December 2012, retaining Robison to hire new employees. Robison brought in Gregg Maston and Thomas Pachalos, two veterans of the local jewelry industry; but both say they were moved into diminished roles and eventually pushed out when Bengyak relocated his grandson and daughter from Florida to work in the shop. "He didn't understand business," says Pachalos, 62, a longtime jeweler who also spent 16 years as a crime scene and fingerprint specialist with the Austin Police Department. "When the economy on gold began to fall, he started buying, and didn't realize he was losing money.
"The bookkeeper would tell him how much money he had to spend, and he would actually spend more than the cash he had in the bank. Customers would come back with bad checks, and we would pay them in cash."
Robison left, too, in Nov. 2013, after Bengyak returned from a trip to Reno. "Charles had failed to meet payroll for over eight weeks," he emailed the Chronicle from Haiti, where he and his wife were completing adoption of a child. Robison eventually filed a complaint with APD over the lost pay, though that got dismissed when, he says, it was sent through the unemployment office for employer investigation. Unpaid and out of a job after a stint at another jewelry shop, Robison's since moved back with his family to his native Knoxville, Tenn.
On May 14, 2014, Kreps drove by 9222 Burnet and discovered Heirloom Jewelry and Coins was no longer there. The store's website was down; its phone was nonfunctional. Facebook updates had dwindled, and Heirloom's Twitter account had grown stale. Kreps tracked down a former Bengyak employee, who told her Bengyak had split to Nevada.
The trail's end
Two weeks later, Kreps received a call from James Akridge at Commerce Management Company, who told her Bengyak defaulted on a five-year lease in December of 2013, after falling into significant debt. (Reached by the Chronicle, Akridge said he'd "prefer not to discuss anything" relating to Bengyak.) Kreps tried emailing Bengyak to ask about the ring. Bengyak never responded, but Kreps tracked the email's status via www.didtheyreadit.com, an email tracking website, and confirmed that it had been opened, a summary email reports, "23 times by 4 readers." She sent a certified letter, demanding $6,500 or the ruby's return, to an address in Reno tied to Bengyak and a second Heirloom Jewelry shop. Her letter was returned unopened.
Kreps says that when she phoned the Austin FBI, she was told the feds don't get involved until damages for stolen property amount to more than $200,000. She tried Reno police, who said they couldn't act without a police report from APD. Tough luck, she soon discovered; APD informed Kreps it can't forward a report to another police agency unless there's an assigned officer and a secure fax number. APD generally does not discuss open investigations, but Detective William Lacombe confirmed the department continues to look into the Heirloom matter.
In any case, Bengyak's time in Reno proved short. The Chronicle found him in Las Vegas recently at a shop called Fantastic Coins & Heirloom Jewelry, where earlier this month he and his daughter Kim King relocated from a space owned by Bengyak's son-in-law on South Decatur to a suite on Rainbow Boulevard. Reached by telephone two weeks ago, Bengyak responded to questions about the status of Kreps' ring by saying such questions should be redirected to Robison, who Bengyak claims "robbed [him] blind." Last Saturday, Bengyak left a voicemail (below) on Kreps' phone reiterating that charge verbatim, and claiming to be homeless. (Contacted by email, Robison called Bengyak's accusation "absolutely untrue!") Bengyak also said that he'd filed his own police report concerning Robison with APD Detective Orlando Smart. Smart confirmed that Bengyak had indeed filed a report, and the investigation remains open, but "there isn't enough information to file charges."
Pachalos, Maston, and other former employees say Bengyak's word is worthless.
Kreps continues to hope for the return of her ring or $6,500, and she believes she's not the only one left ringless and cashless by Bengyak. Indeed, Robison claims that another woman filed a report to the APD before he began working at Heirloom, alleging that Bengyak hadn't made good on a promise to pay her back for a diamond ring valued at $20,000. "Anything bad that can happen to that man, he definitely deserves it," says Pachalos. "He hurt a lot of people."