Michael H. Wilson donned many faces – investment wunderkind, indicted scammer, international fugitive – during his decade-long journey in the spotlight.
Even at the age of 21, when he first arrived in Buffalo, he wowed people with his purchase of a $6.3 million estate in Hamburg, a price tag that set a local record at the time.
And then came the fall.
Now 30, Wilson is expected to appear soon in a downtown courtroom to plead guilty and once and for all end the federal investigation into an $8 million scam targeting wealthy investors. No one will comment on when Wilson might plead guilty, but court records indicate the two sides have reached a plea agreement.
If he does plead guilty, it would mark the start of the end for Wilson, the onetime investment guru who arrived here from Cleveland in 2007 before running afoul of the FBI and fleeing first to Canada, and then to Vietnam.
"I remember him being very young," said Susan D. Lenahan, the prominent real estate agent who helped Wilson find the Hamburg mansion and estate, "and I remember being surprised that he could afford those kind of homes."
Not long after Wilson arrived here, the FBI and IRS raided his new home. Suddenly, there were stories of strange and shadowy behavior, including the claim that Wilson often used a fictitious identity when talking with clients.
Wilson also posed as "George Possiodis," his alias, in order to dupe his own employees and, at one point, even hired an actor to portray Possiodis at a staff meeting, investigators said.
Despite his youth, Wilson cultivated clients – many of them wealthy, savvy investors – by promising huge returns, according to court papers. At least one of his victims lost his retirement savings.
"They're junior Madoffs," Scott Albert, a Dallas businessman who claimed to be one of Wilson's victims, said at the time of the FBI raid in 2009.
Albert said investors like himself think Wilson's fraud is much bigger than $8 million. He claimed he alone gave $600,000 to Wilson and that the money went instead to help fund a down payment on Wilson's estate in Hamburg.
"I want this investigation to bring these guys down," Albert said at the time.
'Soft spoken' nice guy
What Albert and the other victims didn't know is that Wilson would escape prosecution for another six years.
Discovered in Vietnam last year, his arrest revived memories of a younger Michael Wilson and a lifestyle filled with big homes, luxury cars and expensive artwork.
More than anything else, it was his purchase of a 126-acre estate on Boston State Road in Hamburg that first cast the spotlight on him. At the time, it was the most expensive residential real estate deal ever recorded in Erie County.
"You don't forget your biggest sale," said Mary Zulawski, the real estate agent who represented the buyer, John A. Russo, son of Sorrento Cheese founder Louis Russo.
The property, now home to the Hamburg Brewing Co., was a wooded lot with several ponds and a 14,000-square-foot mansion with seven bedrooms, 11 bathrooms, a greenhouse and an indoor pool and lounge.
Wilson also bought several luxury cars, some of them gifts to family and friends. They included a Hummer, Land Rover, Range Rover, Corvette and Mercedes-Benz.
The FBI seized the cars, along with seven flat-screen televisions and 15 paintings and sculptures, and later sold them at auction. The art included two works by artists Frank DiVita and Michael Flohr valued at $23,000.
Despite this lavish lifestyle,Wilson wasn't brash or egotistical, Zulawski said. After the sale, she spent time with him and his mother, Rosemary, and came away convinced his story of sudden wealth was credible.
"Mike was a nice guy," Zulawski said. "He was soft-spoken. He seemed to know what he wanted."
Even now, she tells story after story of why she believed he was honest. When asked, Wilson produced documentation of his ability to borrow millions of dollars and, as part of his final deal with Russo, made a $2 million down payment.
"I don't think he entered the purchase without being truthful about what he had," she said of his personal wealth.
For Zulawski, the other telling memory is rooted in an inquiry she made about investing with Wilson's companies. He rejected it outright, she said, and told her he never accepts clients with less than $500,000 to invest.
When news of the FBI raid hit the media, Zulawski admits she was taken aback but now thinks his reaction to her investing with him was his way of keeping her out of trouble.
Took the money and ran
The FBI tells a far different story of Wilson and, in court papers, details how he financed his lavish lifestyle by collecting money from clients expecting huge returns.
It wasn’t uncommon, investigators said, for individuals 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 them for his personal benefit, including a down payment on his Hamburg estate, they said.
Edward C. Cosgrove, Wilson's lawyer, would not comment on the allegations against his client or the possibility of a plea deal, except to confirm that negotiations are underway.
"I have had considerable discussions with the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation regarding the indictment and its complicated financial machinations," Cosgrove said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott S. Allen also declined to comment on the possibility of a plea agreement.
By the time Wilson was indicted in 2010, disgruntled investors were coming forward and pointing fingers.
Only later did they learn that Wilson had allegedly used some of their money to fund his down payment on the Hamburg mansion.
Wilson had barely moved into his new home when the FBI, in 2009, showed up at his doorstep. Armed with search warrants, they seized business records from more than a dozen of his companies. Investigators say the companies operated under the general name, New Frontier.
A year later, a federal grand jury indicted Wilson on 47 counts of wire fraud. The indictment also charged his brother, William.
One of his first lawyers was defense attorney Paul J. Cambria Jr., but the two quickly parted ways. Cambria said his law firm had a conflict of interest, but he still remembers the young man with the big estate in Hamburg.
"I remember he bought a big home and then suddenly disappeared," Cambria said.
By the time his first court appearance arrived, Michael Wilson was gone. Investigators say he fled to Canada, where he has dual citizenship and could possibly fend off extradition back to the United States.
Years later, when Wilson was scheduled to appear in a Canadian courtroom for a final extradition hearing, he never showed up. Canada issued a bench warrant for his arrest, and Interpol declared him an international fugitive.
He turned up later halfway across the world in Vietnam.
Investigators eventually found Wilson and give much of the credit to a 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.
Six months later, he made his first ever court appearance in Buffalo.
Accomplices pleaded guilty
To understand Wilson's alleged scheme, all you have to do is hear the story of an Illinois man who lost his retirement savings.
The man, according to the FBI, converted his $241,000 in savings into a Treasury Bill and then transferred the Treasury Bill into one of Wilson's accounts.
In exchange, the man was promised a 250 percent return, according to court papers. In reality, he lost everything.
Even worse, perhaps, the FBI now believes some of the victim's investment, about $101,000, was used by Wilson to buy a Land Rover.
No one is certain how many people fell victim to Wilson's enticing promise of huge returns, but a guilty plea by the third and final defendant would end the eight-year-old prosecution.
Last year, 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,” the alias investigators say Wilson often used when dealing with investors.
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.