Michael H. Wilson's decade-long journey in the public eye took him from Buffalo to Canada and Vietnam and finally, on Tuesday, back to Buffalo — this time in a downtown courtroom.
For Wilson, dressed in a prison garb and wearing handcuffs, it was a sharp departure from the days when, as a 21-year-old investment guru, he impressed people with his purchase of a $6.3 million home in Hamburg.
Now 30, Wilson admitted Tuesday it was all a hoax fueled by a $10 million scam that cheated investors.
Wilson, who fled the U.S. seven years ago and eventually was discovered in Vietnam by the FBI, pleaded guilty to a felony fraud charge and will face a recommended sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
Wilson, who admitted continuing his fraud scheme while in Canada, also will be required to pay $5.2 million in restitution.
"Did I ever have any doubt? No," said Adam S. Cohen, special agent in charge of the FBI in Buffalo, when asked about Wilson's arrest in Vietnam. "It was a long but very worthwhile prosecution."
A native of Ohio, Wilson came to Buffalo in 2007 and, with his purchase of a 126-acre estate on Boston State Road in Hamburg, quickly gained a reputation as a young but wealthy investment adviser.
At the time, the $6.3 million price tag was a record for residential home sales in Erie County.
Less than a year later, Wilson's home was raided by the FBI and IRS, and suddenly there were reports of disgruntled investors coming forward and pointing fingers at Wilson. One Texas businessman called him a “junior Madoff.”
“Though he defrauded investor victims out of millions of dollars, at this point, no amount of money will enable the defendant to avoid the finish line which he set for himself through his actions," acting U.S. James P.Kennedy Jr. said in a statement Tuesday. "That finish will be a sentencing proceeding in federal district court."
By the time Wilson was indicted in 2010, federal prosecutors already had seized a Hummer, Corvette and Mercedes-Benz, as well as seven flat-screen televisions and 15 paintings and sculptures, from Wilson's home.
Until his arrest in Vietnam and eventual return to Buffalo last year, Wilson had never appeared in a courtroom to face the charges against him.
He stood before U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny on Tuesday and admitted he was the ringleader of a scheme that targeted wealthy, sophisticated investors by offering high returns on complex investments.
"If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," Cohen said of the promises Wilson made to investors.
Led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott S. Allen Jr., the prosecution claimed it wasn’t uncommon for Wilson’s clients to pony up as much as $250,000 apiece as part of their initial investments, but that Wilson never invested those funds.
Instead, he spent the money on personal items, including his luxury home in Hamburg.
"This is an extraordinarily gifted young man," said defense attorney Edward C. Cosgrove, "and anyone with even a brief understanding of his criminal activity would have to reach the same conclusion."
Wilson's guilty plea ends a prosecution that started seven years ago and took investigators to both Canada, where he fled and has dual citizenship, and later Vietnam, where he escaped to when it appeared Canada might approve his extradition.
Declared an international fugitive by Interpol, he eventually was found in Vietnam, arrested and returned to the United States to face trial.
In the end, Wilson chose to plead guilty, the latest chapter in a case that has already resulted in two other convictions.
Daniel Rice, a retired Boston, Mass., police detective, pleaded guilty to wire fraud in connection with Wilson’s investment scheme. Rice admitted inducing a broker to invest $100,000 with “George Possiodis,” an alias Wilson often used when dealing with investors.
In his plea deal, Rice said he kept about $40,000 of the $100,000 for himself and gave the rest to Wilson.
In 2013, Wilson’s brother, William, also admitted a minor role in the scheme. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge and admitted helping his brother commit one of his crimes.
The three convictions are the result of an investigation by the FBI and the IRS' Criminal Investigation Division.