For nearly six years, Michael H. Wilson, the twenty-something investor who wowed people with his purchase of a $6.3 million home in Hamburg, avoided prosecution.
He was first indicted in 2010, charged in connection with an $8 million investment scam, but never appeared in any U.S. court.
On the run and eventually discovered in Canada, Wilson soon found himself facing extradition back to Buffalo but managed to disappear again.
This time, the savvy young investor with a love for the good things in life surfaced halfway across the world – in Vietnam.
He also found himself under arrest.
“This marks the end of a very long chase,” U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. said Monday. “This demonstrates the long arm of the law is capable of reaching the country of Vietnam.”
It’s no secret investigators and prosecutors made Wilson’s return a priority. From Day One, he was seen as the ring leader of a scheme that targeted wealthy, sophisticated investors by offering high returns on complex investments.
Prosecutors say 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 used the money to buy a luxury home in Hamburg, valuable art work and several top-shelf vehicles, they said.
“He needs to face justice for what he’s done,” Adam S. Cohen, special agent in charge of the FBI in Buffalo, said Monday.
The first evidence of the FBI’s interest in Wilson came in July 2009 when agents searched his home – two separate but adjoining properties – on Boston State Road in Hamburg. At $6.3 million, the properties were at that time the most expensive home ever purchased in Erie County.
By the time he was indicted a year later, disgruntled investors were coming forward and pointing fingers at Wilson. One Texas businessman called him a “junior Madoff.”
Authorities say Wilson, who moved here from Cleveland, put down $2.5 million on the two Hamburg properties but never made any other payments. The 126-acre estate, which in addition to the two houses includes ponds and wooded areas, was later taken away from him, as were a Hummer, Corvette and Mercedes-Benz.
A federal judge also ordered the forfeiture of seven flat-screen televisions and 15 paintings and sculptures. They included two works by renowned artists Frank DiVita and Michael Flohr valued at $23,000.
The forfeiture followed Wilson’s indictment on 47 counts of fraud, conspiracy and money laundering. At the heart of the prosecution is the allegation that he ran an investment firm that bilked investors out of $8 million over a 12-month period.
“The Vietnamese authorities located him and he’s now in custody,” Hochul said Monday.
Cohen said the FBI is working with its international law enforcement partners in Vietnam and elsewhere to ensure Wilson’s return to Buffalo. While optimistic, he and others remember all too well the time and effort it took to arrange Wilson’s extradition from Canada.
And then he fled.
“We’re optimistic he’ll be returned,” Cohen said, “but there are always obstacles along the way.”
Cohen said much of the credit for Wilson’s arrest should go to an FBI agent in Cambodia who just happened to be familiar with the Wilson case and was able to work with law enforcement sources there to locate and eventually arrest him.
Wilson’s decision to leave Canada for Vietnam is spelled out in an affidavit filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott S. Allen, the lead prosecutor on the case.
Allen says Wilson was scheduled to appear in a Canadian courtroom on Feb. 11 to face possible extradition to the U.S. but never showed up. Canada issued a bench warrant for his arrest, and Interpol declared him an international fugitive.
In his court papers, Allen says the FBI is preparing travel plans in the event Wilson is deported, but that Vietnam must first determine if he committed any crimes there.
If he is returned to Buffalo, it would mean Wilson would, for the first time, face charges in a case that already has resulted in two 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 investigators say Wilson often used when dealing with investors.
They also claim Wilson used 12 separate companies, including one called Phantom Holdings, to run his investment schemes.
Rice, in his plea deal, said he kept about $40,000 of the $100,000 for himself and gave the balance 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 two convictions are the result of an investigation by the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigation Division.