'Serial con man' tied to fraudulent church sent to prison

News 6 investigation uncovered con man's schemes

ORLANDO, Fla. – Michael Anthony Nelson, who federal prosecutors had previously described as a "serial con man," has been sentenced to 30 months in prison for lying to his probation officer.

A series of News 6 investigations revealed that Nelson had been running a fraudulent church while on supervised release from prison for several past fraud convictions.

While living in an Orlando halfway house shortly before his release from federal custody in 2016, Nelson began operating a Winter Park law firm even though he is not at an attorney, News 6 discovered.

Following those reports, U.S. marshals arrested Nelson for allegedly violating the terms of his supervised release.

As a judge was about to hear evidence about Nelson's alleged probation violations in August, federal prosecutors offered Nelson a plea deal.

In exchange for admitting that he lied to his probation officer, prosecutors would recommend that the eight months Nelson had been locked up in the Seminole County jail since his arrest were sufficient punishment.

Under the plea deal, Nelson would have been released from custody this Wednesday.

However, in a relatively unusual move, U.S. District Judge Carlos Mendoza decided to depart from the prosecutor's plea agreement and sentenced Nelson Friday to more than two years in federal prison.

"Do you believe (Nelson) presents a risk to the community?" Mendoza asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Kara Wick prior to issuing the sentence.

"Yes," replied the prosecutor.  "An economic risk."

Nelson has spent more than 15 of the past 18 years in federal prison for bank fraud, mail fraud, wire fraud, computer fraud and aggravated identity theft, court records show.

After convictions in Central Florida, California and Illinois, judges have ordered Nelson to repay fraud victims more than $1.5 million.

Of the $826,000 in restitution owed in the California and Illinois cases, Nelson has only paid $2,200 so far, according to the U.S. Probation Office.

Senior Probation Officer Julio Dominguez told the judge he had notified federal law enforcement agencies in 2016 about Nelson's potentially fraudulent law firm, called Marsha Ward & Team Ombudsman.

The firm was named after a part-time Texas motel employee whose cousin had once been incarcerated with Nelson.

Dominguez said he was told that federal authorities would not be conducting a criminal investigation into Nelson because, at the time, no victims had come forward claiming Nelson had defrauded them.

That changed several months later, when several clients of the law firm began accusing Nelson of posing as a lawyer and taking their money.

However, the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to prosecute Nelson for any new crimes.

"Oh, I'm mad. I'm really mad," Suzanne Brown told News 6 in August after learning prosecutors had offered Nelson a plea deal for violating his probation.

Brown and her husband claim they paid Nelson more than $50,000 thinking he was an attorney.

Nelson did not provide then with any legal services, the Browns told News 6.

"Somebody like this needs to spend time in prison permanently so he won't hurt other individuals," Matt Brown said.

Mendoza said a "victim impact" video, in which the Browns urged the judge to issue Nelson the maximum five-year prison sentence, prompted him to do further research into the convicted con man.

"The video catapulted me deeper into the file," said the judge.

Nelson's attorney, Michelle Smith, disputed the Browns' claims, saying that the couple only paid Nelson $8,800 and that he did produce some legal documents for them while indicating he was not a lawyer.

Smith encouraged the judge to follow the prosecutor's recommended sentence, pointing out that Nelson's mother, Betty, had died in July due to complications from high blood pressure.

"These eight months have been harder than anything in my life," Nelson said as he stood in the courtroom wearing a jail uniform.  "I didn't have the opportunity to say goodbye to my mom."

As he begged the judge for "one last chance," Nelson held up the last letter he received from his mother while in jail that urged him to "do better."

"I'm not a risk to the community. I'm not a risk for financial fraud," said Nelson.  "I'm not going to let my mom down."

Prior to overriding the prosecutor's recommended sentence, the judge gave Nelson an opportunity to withdraw his previous guilty plea.

Nelson declined, instead agreeing to face sentencing without knowing how much prison time he might receive.

"You have a very long history of separating people from their money," Mendoza said as he sentenced Nelson to 30 months in federal prison, followed by three years of supervised probation.  "I'm convinced the defendant remains a danger to society."

About the Author:

Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter Mike DeForest has been covering Central Florida news for more than two decades.