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Two Charged with Scamming $2.6 Million from Prisoners and Prisoners’ Families

Two Michigan men have been charged with defrauding thousands of prisoners and their families nationwide out of an estimated $2.6 million. Their scheme targeted black and Hispanic prisoners with direct mailings that offered to provide legal and appellate work.

In September 2010, John Henry Wilson, 54, was charged with 66 counts of fraud while Lari Zeka, 27, was charged with 60 counts of aiding and abetting mail fraud. Wilson owned University Legal Services LLC, University Legal Research Services LLC and Appellant Research Services LLC. Wilson and Zeka worked for two of the companies.

They told their victims that for a fee they could conduct legal research and retain lawyers. The victims were led to believe the legal research was needed to help win an appeal and the retainer would be used to assist in the case. Wilson and Zeka used fake names when corresponding with their victims and portrayed themselves as attorneys or as representing attorneys who worked for the companies. Zeka was diverting money to another firm he operated, Paramount Research Group.

Neither Wilson nor Zeka were licensed to practice law, nor did their companies employ lawyers. Once the victims paid, no research was done and no attorney worked on the prisoner’s case. Some of the money the pair fraudulently obtained apparently was used to restore vintage military jeeps; federal agents confiscated two “museum quality” jeeps from Wilson before the indictments were issued.

“This fraud scheme preyed upon family members who were desperate to obtain help for loved ones,” U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said in a prepared statement. “Not only did this scheme exploit people in need of legal services, but it also denied them access to justice.”

Wilson was additionally charged with being a felon in possession of 13 firearms and four counts of failing to file tax returns. The charges against Wilson and Zeka remain pending, with a jury trial scheduled for April 3, 2012. See: United States v. Wilson, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Mich.), Case No. 2:10-cr-20581-RHC-MAR.

This is not the first time Wilson has been busted for running a scam involving legal representation for prisoners. According to the State Bar of Michigan, a permanent injunction was issued against Wilson and University Legal Services in January 2003, enjoining him from drafting legal documents, supplying legal advice and providing legal services. At that time, Wilson was offering research related to “post conviction remedies” for prisoners for a fee, but “few, if any, services were ever provided.”

Sources: Detroit News,,

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Related legal case

United States v. Wilson