Wilson, a disabled former plantation manager, reached that status Friday when President Barack Obama granted him clemency for his 1985 felony conviction of having sold alligator hides to undercover federal agents just over the Georgia border from Beaufort County.
Wilson was one of eight people pardoned Friday by Obama, bringing the number of clemency grants during his administration to 17.
Wilson, 61, said he applied for the pardon six years ago under President George W. Bush and had given up hope it would ever be granted.
"I waited and waited and waited," Wilson said. "Mine should have been done a whole lot sooner. The crime that I committed was no major crime."
Hannah August, a White House spokeswoman, declined to comment on Wilson's pardon.
Wilson said he was manager of the Fife Plantation, a former slave rice estate and Civil War battlefield on the Savannah Back River in Beaufort when he started killing gators and selling their hides.
Alligator hunting is now legal in South Carolina and Georgia -- with a limit of one per person during the one-month season from early September to early October -- but it was illegal back in 1982.
And Wilson, driven by financial need from his children's illnesses, was killing a lot more than one gator a year.
"I didn't hunt them," Wilson said. "I needed money for my kids' doctor bills. I was making good money as the plantation manager, but I had to have more money because a couple of my kids stayed sick all the time over and over. It got us to where we couldn't even buy a loaf of bread. We got on food stamps in order to stay alive."
Three decades ago, an average-size gator hide sold on the black market for $30 -- compared to up to $300 now.
Wilson thought he'd found a good thing when he started selling "a whole lot" of alligator pelts -- he declined to disclose the exact number -- to two eager buyers in Georgia.
Wilson would kill the gators at the Fife Plantation, whose grounds he knew like the back of his hand, skin them and cross the border into Georgia with the hides.
After a month of purchases, the buyers flashed their federal badges. Wilson had been snared in a sting run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Wilson said a prominent defense attorney, William Moore, helped him get a short sentence under a plea agreement that netted him three months and 18 days in the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kan., plus 300 hours of community service.
Moore, now a federal judge in Savannah, could not be reached for comment Friday evening.
With his voting rights restored by the pardon, he plans to back Obama in next year's election.
"Now that he's done me a favor, I'll do him a favor," Wilson said.
The Associated Preess contributed to this report.