SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A one-time top member of the notorious Aryan Brotherhood who claimed to have turned his life around after 45 years in prison is now charged with defrauding Northern Californians out of nearly $400,000 in unemployment benefits.
Michael Thompson, 69, was arrested Monday in Lake County. He and co-defendant Eric Hutchins, 45, are accused of taking advantage of at least 16 people last year as the state Employment Development Department was handing out money to help those whose jobs were lost because of business closures during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hutchins was arrested in late May, according to jail records.
They were expected to enter pleas on June 22. A message seeking comment from the county public defender's office, which represents the men, wasn't immediately returned after hours on Wednesday.
Prosecutors allege that the men, who had met in prison, bilked mainly homeless people or transients who were living off Social Security or disability payments by pretending to counsel them, the Sacramento Bee reported.
Thompson and Hutchins would convince the victims to provide information allowing them to apply for unemployment money from the state in their names and then inflated the victims' incomes in order to receive the maximum amount, prosecutors said.
“Basically, the story was, ‘Oh, well, we’re going to apply for unemployment for you, we’ll take a fee and we’ll give you the rest,’ ” county District Attorney Susan Krones told the paper on Wednesday. “And in most of these cases they never got any of the unemployment.”
Thompson and Hutchins also were accused of falsely applying for EDD benefits themselves, alleging they were working while they were still in prison, and they are suspected of $1.5 million in loan fraud, authorities said.
California has said bogus EDD payouts to fraudsters — including prisoners on death row — cost it about $11 billion.
Thompson was paroled in mid-2019 after serving time for two 1973 murders in Orange County. He claimed to have been a high-ranking leader of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang who taught himself to read and earned college degrees while in prison.
He was paroled after turning on the group and cooperating with authorities in criminal cases.
Thompson became a life coach and drug counselor and was featured in several documentaries, portraying himself as a symbol of redemption, the Bee said.