MELBOURNE, Fla. – It was one of Natalia Larruscain's darkest days: The man she loved had just been sentenced to 12 years in federal prison for his role in a Brevard County cocaine ring.
Then came word from "the law offices of Townes, Boyd and Partners" of an offer to help cut the sentence. At least, their phone mail said they were law offices.
"They said they could do a lot more than our lawyer had done," Larruscain recalled from the couch of the home she and Kevin Renod Davis shared with her 3-year-old son. "He would probably be able to reduce it down to six years.
"He" was Dr. Michael Nelson, chairman and chief executive of Townes, Boyd and Partners, a self-described civil rights hero with degrees in law, accounting, psychology and theology. He also was a member of nine American Bar Association sections and committees, according to the client package sent to Davis in a federal lock-up in September.
Nelson drove a luxury car to work, sent mail on impressive-looking letterhead, and operated out of swank offices in Maitland.
But an investigation by WKMG found the 32-year-old Michael Anthony Nelson left something out of his package: that he was actually a federal prisoner living in a halfway house. He was running the so-called "law office" without attorneys and collecting fees while still serving a 5-year sentence for a previous con.
After WKMG questioned the Bureau of Prisons Nov. 7 about how Nelson could work at a fake law firm, Nelson was handcuffed by U.S. Marshals, marched out of the Maitland offices and returned to maximum-security custody.
Last week, employees loaded up company records and drove off, leaving clients such as Larruscain in the dark about their fees and cases. A woman named Betty Nelson, who has answered the firm's phone, refused to comment on where the firm may now be located.
The Bureau of Prisons has launched an investigation that will be referred to the FBI. The focus: How did a convicted con-man transitioning to life outside prison manage to create a fake law firm that solicited or received hundreds of thousands of dollars from convicted drug dealers or their families -- including a veteran professional basketball player?
Fresh out of a federal prison in Texas, Nelson arrived at an Orlando halfway house Aug. 14. Within 10 days, his mother Betty said, he persuaded her to establish the corporation of Townes, Boyd and Partners -- with her as sole corporate officer.
The next day 27-year-old Kevin Davis was sentenced to 151 months in federal prison, and soon Townes, Boyd and Partners would have one of its first clients.
"They just said they could help," recalls Natalia Larruscain, the 20-year-old Russian émigré who desperately wants Davis' sentence reduced.
So she went to the firm's offices in Maitland, just north of Orlando, and met "Dr." Nelson, self-described lawyer. "He said he would help my (fiancé) to come home."
She produced a $1,500 bill from Townes, Boyd and Partners, saying Nelson promised to file a motion for downward departure, a legal move that, if successful, can knock months or years off sentences.
She believed him.
After all, Nelson appeared to boast a law degree and provided a bar number used to identify attorneys. The document prepared for Davis and other clients to sign referred to "the law firm" of Townes, Boyd and Partners. And Nelson leased what Larruscain describes as "fabulous, gorgeous" offices, complete with fancy stationary with a letterhead listing six "advocates and counselors."
It did not say who those people were, but WKMG and Nelson's mother identified them as:
- Dora Townes, Nelson's deceased grandmother;
- Naomi Boyd, his step-grandmother;
- Betty Nelson, his mother; Rex W. Dison, 42, serving a four-year
- federal sentence for methamphetamine distribution;
- Porfirio Cardona Jr., 25, released in July from a three-year
- sentence for cocaine distribution;
- and Michael Nelson himself, sentenced in May 1999 to five years in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, bank fraud and money laundering.
Nelson and Cardona were incarcerated in the same Texarkana, Texas, prison where Dison remains, and where the firm of Townes, Boyd has offered its services to others. Nelson and Cardona declined to comment.
For Larruscain, the truth about Michael Nelson is difficult to bear. "It's really hard because that was the last hope I had," she said through her tears.
Staff gets suspicious
"Prestigious law firm seeks a sales exec w/ a min of 5-8 yrs sales & marketing exp."
So began an Oct. 5 Orlando Sentinel classified ad, asking prospects to fax resumes to Townes, Boyd and Partners.
Through ads and word of mouth, the firm attracted dozens of applicants and employed about 15 to 22 people, according to former employees. They were given titles including "litigation paralegal" and annual salaries of between $23,000 and $28,000 to start, and up to $50,000 if promoted to managerial positions.
At first, they had no idea what Nelson was up to, though their suspicions grew as they noticed no legal motions being filed.
Joseph Strait, a Titusville paralegal, said he interviewed at what he "thought was a legitimate criminal defense or appeals firm." The interview went well, but he was told days later the firm was not hiring. Strait, new to the field, said he hoped Townes, Boyd would help "get me off the ground."
Recently waived 12-year NBA veteran George McCloud, a high school standout at Mainland High in Daytona Beach, also was targeted by Nelson.
He told WKMG he gave Townes, Boyd $250,000 to invest after Nelson persuaded him he was a lawyer and a venture capitalist. In October -- after McCloud confirmed he obtained a promissory note from Townes, Boyd claiming he would be repaid $800,000 after four years -- he was informed Nelson was a federal prisoner pretending to be a lawyer.
On November 5, McCloud said he had gotten "every dime back" from Nelson. A week later, McCloud denied commenting at all.
Natalia Larruscain has a suggestion for Nelson: "I think he should go back to prison because he hurt me very much. He's lucky he's in prison right now because I am very, very angry right now. It's not right."