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Press Release

Local Man Sentenced In Nationwide Fraud SchemeTargeting Prisoners And Their Families

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Eastern District of Michigan

A Yale, Michigan man was sentenced to 240 months’ imprisonment today on convictions pertaining to a mail fraud scheme that defrauded thousands of prisoners and their families across the country, United States Attorney Barbara McQuade announced today.  McQuade was joined in the announcement by Postal Inspector in Charge E.C. Woodson, U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Detroit Division and Special Agent in Charge Erick Martinez, Internal Revenue Service, Criminal Investigation.

John Wilson, age 57 of Yale, Michigan, pleaded guilty last December to devising and executing a scheme to defraud and to obtain more than $2.6 million from the family members and friends of defendants incarcerated across the United States. Specifically, John Wilson raised false hopes that Wilson could overturn the convictions or reduce the sentences of the inmates if their friends and family members hired  Wilson’s companies.

According to the indictment, John Wilson operated three businesses in Southeastern Michigan: University Legal Services LLC (ULS), University Research Services LLC (URS), and Appellant Research Services LLC (ARS).  Co-defendant, Lari Zeka was an employee of ARS and URS.  ULS, URS, and ARS sent direct mailings to inmates across the country offering to conduct legal and appellate work on the inmate’s behalf. When a family member or friend telephoned John Wilson or Lari Zeka, they explained that payment was required for two phases: legal research and attorney retainer.  Wilson and/or Zeka promised that legal research would be provided during the first phase which would help win the inmate’s appeal.  Wilson and/or Zeka promised during the second phase, the “attorney retainer” phase, that an attorney would be provided to assist in the case. These representations by Wilson and Zeka induced people across the United States to mail large amounts of money to URS and ARS, purportedly for appellate research and appellate representation when, in fact, any research provided would not assist the inmate and no attorney would ever be provided to work on the inmate’s appeal. 

According to the indictment, Wilson and/or Zeka frequently used fictitious names in correspondence with the victims and both repeatedly represented themselves as attorneys or represented that attorneys were on the staff. Neither Wilson nor Zeka is licensed to practice law and no attorneys were on staff at any of the companies.

Wilson also pleaded guilty to the federal offense of failing to file income tax returns.

United States Attorney Barbara McQuade said, “This fraud scheme preyed upon family members who were desperate to obtain help for loved ones.  Not only did this scheme exploit people in need of legal services, but it also denied them access to justice.”            

E.C. Woodson US Postal Inspector in Charge said, “Today marks a victory for all who entrust their money to others within the U.S. economy, including individuals who are incarcerated.  Postal Inspectors have protected Americans from those who use the U.S. Mail for fraudulent purposes since the passage of the Mail Fraud Statute in 1872.   The sentencing of John Henry Wilson demonstrates the Postal Inspection Service's continuing commitment to protect all citizens of the United States.”

"Wilson both took advantage of his clients and failed to file his tax returns claiming his income," said IRS Special Agent in Charge Erick Martinez.  "He now faces prison time for his actions."

In addition to a sentence of 240 months, the district court ordered over $2 million in a money judgment for the monies he obtained from the victims of his scheme.   In a companion civil forfeiture lawsuit, the government has already successfully forfeited a 2003 auto trailer and two vintage Jeeps restored by Wilson with proceeds from the fraud.  As part of his plea, Wilson also agreed to abandon thirteen firearms seized from his home.

McQuade congratulated the hard work of the inspectors at the United States Postal Service and the agents at the Criminal Investigations Division of the Internal Revenue Service for their efforts in pursuing this case.

The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Resnick Cohen and Assistant U.S. Attorney Margaret Smith. Assistant U.S. Attorney Gjon Juncaj handled the criminal forfeiture allegations and the civil forfeiture action.

Updated March 19, 2015