DETROIT, MI -- The saying is imitation is the finest form of flattery. It can also be a crime. Two men promised freedom for criminals serving time. Instead, they defrauded millions from the prisoners' family members.
U.S. Postal Inspector Kimberly Orlando said, "Neither one of these suspects have a college education and would tell the victims that they were attorneys. [...] They went so far as to tell people they worked the O.J. Simpson case, they worked the Scott Peterson case. They were just very over the top and be very persuasive."
John Wilson and Larry Zeka used fake names and pretended to be lawyers who could help the families of prison inmates. They claimed they could overturn or at least reduce the length of prison sentences.
Desperate families played right into their hands. When they did, the conmen would ask for somewhere between $600 to $1,200 to simply "look" at the case.
Orlando said, "At the height, he was receiving several hundred envelopes a week at this business location."
Then, Wilson and Zeka would tell victims it was a good case and ask for more money. But once victims sent him that 'retainer fee' they cut off all communication and never did anything for the money they received.
Orlando said, "Over five years, 2,000 victims lost more than $2 million."
Postal inspectors started tracking this case after receiving complaints. They raided Wilson and Zeka's homes and offices.
After removing papers and computers - inspectors got full confessions and learned all about the operation. The men confessed to targeting people who didn't have access to a computer and didn't know how to research to verify their backgrounds.
Authorities say both men took the money and spent it all on personal items. Orlando said, "He was living the high life while these people could barely put food on their table - it's disgusting."
Orlando said the victims were devastated. "It was hard enough for them to watch their son or whomever to go away to prison and then they have this belief that they are getting out."
Postal inspectors said it's important to do your homework before contracting with anyone offering their services. They say if any of these victims had looked up this business with the Better Business Bureau, they would have found their negative ranking.
A judge sentenced John Wilson to 20 years in prison and ordered him to pay back $2 million for his role in this scam . Larry Zeka also pleaded guilty. He's awaiting sentencing.
U.S. Postal Inspectors