DETROIT (WWJ/AP) – A Michigan man who reaped $2 million by telling inmates that he could spring them from prison wants to withdraw his guilty plea after learning he could face decades behind bars.
John Wilson of Yale was supposed to get his sentence this week in Detroit’s federal court, but it was delayed while a judge reviews fresh filings from attorneys.
Wilson, 58, pleaded guilty to fraud and a tax crime in December, admitting he duped 2,100 prisoners or family members across the country by offering to get them released through research and a successful appeal. The scam went on for a decade.
“They’re not going to get out early,” Wilson said when confronted by investigators in 2009.
Wilson said he expected to face a possible maximum sentence of 17 years in prison, based on guidelines calculated by prosecutors before the guilty plea. But he now fears the minimum punishment could be 30 years in prison after the guidelines were reviewed by the U.S. Probation Department.
In a recent filing, defense attorney Douglas Mullkoff acknowledged that Wilson was told the guidelines are advisory and the judge could set his own.
“Still, there is a marked difference between being close to accurate and being not even half right,” Mullkoff said.
Wilson could face a stiff sentence even if U.S. District Judge Robert Cleland throws out the guilty plea and orders a trial. But prosecutors, of course, would first have to prove their case.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Resnick Cohen said the guilty plea should stand.
“Hundreds of potential witnesses and 2,100 victims have been notified that this case has come to a conclusion and that their testimony and documentation are no longer required,” she said in a filing Tuesday. “They have all emotionally and mentally prepared for closure, not trial preparation and the reopening of old wounds.”
According to the indictment, Wilson’s three businesses sent direct mailings to inmates offering to provide legal and appellate court work. When a family member or friend contacted Wilson or co-defendant Lari Zeka, they explained that payment was required for two phases: legal research and attorney retainer.
Prosecutors say people across the U.S. mailed large amounts of money to Wilson’s businesses, 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 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.
Zeka, of Macomb County’s Macomb Township, pleaded guilty in January and is awaiting sentencing.
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