A notorious Nashville scammer who's been arrested more than 100 times is going to jail.
Multiple local Facebook groups with thousands of members have spent the past three months tracking Paul Aniel around town, in the hope he'd be rearrested and put behind bars.
That effort paid off earlier this month, when the 53-year-old man with oversized, owl-like glasses and little wisps of white hair on either side of his balding head appeared in a Davidson County court room. In his orange scrubs and handcuffs, Aniel admitted to Judge Mark Fishburn that he's taken advantage of people.
"I'm sorry, and I apologize," he said. "I just want one more chance. That's all I want. Please."
But prosecutor Tammy Meade wasn't buying it. "We've been trying to make you accountable for a decade, and you still keep thumbing your nose at the system and doing what you want to do," she said, gripping the attorney's stand.
Aniel was in court for a scam he's pulled countless times since 2010. He flags down drivers on a highway exit ramp, says he's out of gas and asks to borrow some money.
If you've spent time in a big city, you've probably heard a story like this before. But Aniel's case comes amid growing concerns about panhandling in a city on the rise.
"It's just the principle that that person, you know, stole from them," says Jeff Napier, who created one of the three Facebook groups dedicated to taking down Paul Aniel. The pages have a combined 10,000 members and are filled with memes, photos and tips about how to outsmart Aniel and other local scammers.
And the comment sections … Let's just say they can get a little nasty.
Napier's still salty about his own run-in with Aniel on Briley Parkway about two years ago.
"He, like, jumps out in front of me. Just about had to actually swerve to miss him. And he's waving frantically like something's wrong," Napier says. "I didn't know if it was a health issue or what, so I just thought I'd help the guy and pull over."
Aniel said he'd left his wallet at home and needed $40 for gas to get to Chattanooga. Napier gave it to him, without hesitation. But when Napier found out later he'd been scammed, he was frustrated.
"You know, what can you say? I mean, it happened. It's not like the only $40 I ever had," Napier says. "But it's just kind of like, you know, it's a little aggravating to know that he's doing this professionally and doing it to lots of people."
Local lawmakers are also grappling with rising concerns about scamming and aggressive solicitation. Metro Councilman Freddie O'Connell proposed legislation earlier this year that would have made it illegal to panhandle in certain areas with high foot traffic. He says people – especially women – are telling him they feel unsafe.
"As someone who is trying to fight for a quality of life that extends to anybody spending time downtown or in Nashville's urban core, you know, we can't do that well if an entire class of people is feeling like they can't be there safely," O'Connell says.
But soon after O'Connell introduced the panhandling legislation, he reversed course. He now wants to eliminate Metro's aggressive panhandling fines altogether. O'Connell worries stiff penalties for panhandling would only make it harder for people who are already struggling to support themselves.
"In Nashville, but I think also just in American society in general, we don't elevate concerns about mental health, and we certainly haven't systemically addressed issues of housing and poverty," he says. "You know, Nashville's not a city that has built a single unit of housing during this explosive period of growth for someone who would be experiencing homelessness."
To be clear, Paul Aniel didn't just face panhandling charges. Sometimes he gets aggressive, and at his latest court hearing, the prosecutor also accused him of felony evading arrest and driving with a revoked license.
Aniel wanted the judge to put him on probation, so he could join a drug treatment program. When his job selling vacuums door to door proved unprofitable, Aniel said, he started scamming out of desperation.
"Part of it was the cocaine, trying to make easy money through my addiction. I never addressed that. Never addressed any kind of mental health issues," he said.
But the prosecutor was resolute.
"Now that he's facing more jail time, suddenly he wants to turn over a new leaf," she said, incredulous. "And after lying to the people of Davidson County and the courts for 10 years, he thinks all of a sudden we should believe him. I submit to the court this is one more scam that he's trying to run."
The judge agreed and sentenced Aniel to two years in jail.
When he gets out, he'll owe more than $20,000 in court fees.
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.