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Marine founder of fraudulent charity linked to Chattanooga terrorist attack pleads guilty

Marines carry Lance Cpl. Skip Wells’ casket into the First Baptist Church of Woodstock July 26, 2015 in Woodstock, Georgia. (Corporal Ian Ferro/U.S. Marine Corps)
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The founder of a charity accused of defrauding the mother of a July 16 shooting victim in Chattanooga pleaded guilty Thursday.

The FBI accused John Shannon Simpson of lying about his military record and pocketing about $390,000 that was raised to send U.S. Marines and their families on vacation. He dedicated only about 19 percent of the money raised over two years to the charity’s cause.

Simpson’s most lucrative target was Cathy Wells, the mother of Lance Cpl. Squire “Skip” Wells, one of five military servicemen killed in a terrorist attack here in 2015. Before she learned of his dubious military record, Cathy Wells gave Simpson $135,000, according to the FBI.

Simpson pleaded guilty Thursday to one count of wire fraud in U.S. District Court in South Carolina. Cathy Wells did not attend the hearing but plans to testify at his sentencing hearing. No date has been set, but she has been told Simpson will return to court in about two months.

“I trusted him because he said he was a Marine,” Cathy Wells told the Times Free Press on Thursday. “He violated that trust. To me, he violated that oath. So I mean, I want him to know, ‘You [expletive] with the wrong Marine mom.'”

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In a July 2016 Times Free Press article about the federal investigation, Simpson denied any wrongdoing. He said allegations were only rumors from parents jealous of his stature as the founder of a successful charity.

“It’s just the class of people they are,” he said of his accusers. “These people will always gossip about something. They have such a sorry life. They need to talk about something. Right now, they’re attached to the foundation.”

Simpson began his U.S. Marine Corps career in June 1993, working as a financial technician. But three years later, according to a police report, he abandoned his post and returned to his hometown near Anderson, South Carolina. In June 1997, Simpson knocked on doors in a local neighborhood, supposedly soliciting money for the fire department. One neighbor called the police.

A sheriff’s deputy pulled Simpson over and arrested him for driving on a suspended license. After running his name through a database, the deputy learned Simpson was wanted by the Armed Forces. He then went before a court martial and received a bad conduct discharge as a private, the lowest rank possible.

Seventeen years later, Simpson formed Marines and Mickey, a charity that ostensibly would send Marines and their families to Disney World or Disneyland. He also paid for some parents to fly to Parris Island or San Diego to watch their children graduate boot camp. While there, Simpson asked the new marines and their families to donate to his charity.

Rather than explain his unceremonious exit from the Marine Corps, according to multiple people who worked with Simpson, he told new recruits that he was a decorated, 20-year veteran. He said he retired as a master sergeant who worked reconnaissance missions and later served as a drill instructor.

According to the FBI, he asked recent boot camp graduates to sign up for automatic withdrawals, sending $25 a month to the charity. They gave Simpson their debit card information. Later, they realized higher-than-authorized amounts were going to Marines and Mickey, totaling about $5,000 among seven recruits.

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During a Times Free Press investigation, multiple mothers of Marines said Simpson asked them to raise funds for his cause, asking them to promote the charity in private Facebook pages dedicated to a new class of recruits. Some mothers worked with him to raise money through donation websites such as Go Fund Me.

But Simpson’s biggest haul came as the result of the terrorist attack in Chattanooga. Days after Skip Wells died, Cathy Wells’ sister reached out to Simpson. She was looking for a way to honor her nephew, and Simpson’s charity seemed perfect. Every year since he was 3 years old, Cathy and Skip Wells went to Disney World together.

Their last trip wrapped up eight days before the mass shooting. It was the first trip Skip Wells paid for.

“It sounded perfect to me,” Wells said. “What better way to memorialize the two things he loved. And of course, he’s got himself a Gold Star parent, a recent bereaved parent and took advantage of it. I see it now. I didn’t see it then.”

Simpson became a source of comfort for Cathy Wells, and they talked on the phone almost every day. They began hosting joint fundraisers for Marines and Mickey. Through a combination of death benefits and donations in Skip Wells’ honor, according to the FBI, Simpson received $135,000. That included a $75,000 check Cathy Wells sent him, which Simpson told her he would use to open a barber shop named after her son. Proceeds from the barbershop, in turn, were supposed to go back into the charity.

In January 2016, at Cathy Wells’ direction, the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga cut a $25,000 check to the charity. This was money raised for the families of the July 16 victims, with the help of retired NFL quarterback Peyton Manning.

Watching Simpson raise money through Facebook on what he doubted was a legitimate military career, an old friend of Simpson’s in South Carolina reached out to another former Marine. He was hoping to learn how he could fact-check Simpson’s military claims. As pure coincidence, the friend he contacted was Jason Weeks, who happened to be a close friend and confidant of Cathy Wells. Weeks told the Times Free Press he had been suspicious of Simpson from the beginning.

Cathy Wells confronted Simpson but did not receive her money back. The FBI launched an investigation in April 2016. In January 2017, the Lee County, Florida, Sheriff’s Office charged Simpson with burglary, kidnapping and sexual assault. He pleaded no contest to those charges and received a nine-year sentence.

Law enforcement transferred him to South Carolina in October to face a trial in U.S. district court on the wire fraud charge. His plea Thursday came before prosecutors sent the case to a grand jury.

“I’m glad,” said Lynn Hayes, the mother of a drill instructor who used to work with Simpson. “I just hope he gets the maximum time so he can sit in there and think.”

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© 2019 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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