Former clients of a Hilton Head Island immigration services operation whose owner is in custody for fraud might have to sue to try to get their money back, the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office says.
Prosecutors have had mixed results trying to prove disbarred attorney Michael Wyman intended to cheat people at the former Immigrant Angels Inc., which was listed as a nonprofit organization. And so far, some charges against him have been dismissed for lack of evidence.
Wyman was charged with 10 counts of breach of trust with fraudulent intent after the Immigrant Angels abruptly closed in early September. Dozens of people reported they paid Wyman to fill out immigration documents that were never sent to the Department of Homeland Security.
Wyman's defense lawyer says his client did not intend to swindle clients. Instead, Immigrant Angels was like "any other business that failed," public defender Ian Deysach said.
"The failure to complete a contractual obligation is a civil problem," Deysach said. "When someone promises to do a job and doesn't do it, you sue them. You don't throw them in jail."
Judge Ned Tupper agreed at a preliminary hearing in early December. He tossed out four charges in which the amount in question was more than $2,000 and less than $10,000, citing lack of evidence of fraud.
In response, the 14th Judicial Circuit Solicitor's Office filed four new charges of obtaining goods under false pretenses. A Beaufort County grand jury indicted Wyman on those counts Thursday, spokesman Daniel Brownstein said.
The new charges also will require the state to prove Wyman falsely represented himself with the intent to cheat his customers. Prosecutors are using the same evidence as before. Brownstein said the Solicitor's Office will not comment outside of a courtroom on the evidence against Wyman.
Wyman, who has remained in the Beaufort County Detention Center since his Sept. 26 arrest, also faces six fraud charges in Magistrate Court for an amount less than $2,000. He has requested a jury trial, which is pending.
Meanwhile, people who accuse Wyman of stealing their money continue to contact the Beaufort County Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Task Force.
"Due to the large amount of victims coming forward as a result of media exposure," the task force advises them to seek civil remedies instead of criminal prosecution, the Sheriff's Office said. According to the Beaufort County court filings, one Hilton Head Island resident has done so.
Sgt. Robin McIntosh said that despite the advice, victims could still pursue criminal charges. But, she added, "So far, the victims have been more concerned with getting their documents back, which is what we are working on now."
More than 300 original birth certificates, marriage licenses and other personal identification papers were confiscated from Wyman's office after Immigrant Angels closed. McIntosh said about 40 documents have been returned to their owners.
The exact number of people who paid Wyman and never received help is unknown.