ATLANTA — A charity claiming to help Marines is accused of stealing from them instead. That's the accusation in a federal complaint made public Thursday, indicting John Simspon of wire fraud.
11Alive Investigator Rebecca Lindstrom has followed this story for the past two years. The case is connected to the death of Lance Cpl. Skip Wells, a Marietta man killed in a terrorist attack on a recruiting station in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 2015.
Simpson is accused, in part, of using Wells name to raise money from several fundraisers to support his charity, Marines and Mickey. It was supposed to help Marines struggling financially, or to send families to Disney World to reconnect after a long deployment. But, Lindstrom found victims in North Carolina, Florida, even California, who said Simpson never made good on those promises.
It was Wells’ own mother who helped expose Simpson, after she gave him money to open a barbershop in her son's name. Simpson took the money, but, according to the complaint, he never opened the store.
Thursday, prosecutors said they agreed that the charity had missed its mark, diverting nearly $400,000 of donated money to buy himself a car, pay his personal mortgage and rent, eat out and go shopping. Prosecutors said Simpson spent some of the money at the Museum of Sex, and nearly $900 at the adult novelty store, Red Room Toys. Thousands were withdrawn from the Marines and Mickey account in cash, so it's unclear how Simpson spent it.
MORE | Read the full complaint
Victims claim Simpson told them he had a heart for helping Marines because he was a retired Master Sergeant and recon-Marine. But through an open records request, 11Alive learned Simpson actually served as a clerk and records show he had a bad conduct discharge after going AWOL.
Timeline of John Simpson history assembled in Lindstrom's research:
- July 10, 1994 – Enlisted in the Marines.
- June 19, 1997 – Arrested for unlawfully carrying a pistol, and driving under suspension. Plead guilty to both charges according to S.C. Court Records.
- August 20, 1997 –Involuntarily discharged with the rank of "private" after a special court-martial according to military records.
- February 2, 1999 – Arrested for passing fraudulent checks. Plead guilty in a bench trial in 2000.
- July 2005 – Receives a business license in SC to start the company: Simpson Security.
- July 2012- Simpson Security's license expires.
- December 9, 2013 - Complaints filed in Florida alleging John Simpson's "Semper Fi Security Systems" is operating without a license.
- February 19, 2014 - Florida Department of Business & Professional Regulation issued a cease and desist order against John Simpson's Semper-Fi Security Systems.
- May 9, 2014 – Creates the "Marines And Mickey Charity" in Florida.
- September 25, 2015 - "Marines And Mickey" Dissolved in Florida due to unfiled paperwork.
- September 2015 - Marines and Mickey re-files for charity status in South Carolina.
- September 2015 - Simpson is banned from the TRI-Command properties, which include Parris Island, due complaints about his fundraising practices.
- February 26, 2016 – Lance Corporal Skip Wells Foundation cuts ties with Marines and Mickey.
- March 2016 – NCIS investigating complaints against Marines and Mickey.
- January 2017 - US DOJ files a complaint for wire fraud against Simpson. Case is sealed.
- October 18, 2018 - Simpson makes first appearance. Criminal complaint is unsealed.
Here's how to vet a charity to make sure you aren't getting ripped off:
- Check with the IRS's non-profit database, which has a tool called the Exempt Organizations Selection Tool. There, you can enter the organization's name and see if there's a 501c3 tax exemption
- The website charity navigator rates charities on their accountability and transparency
- Guidestar is another site where you can look at a non-profit's financial documents.