4 charged with using 'Wounded Warrior' name to collect donations

By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 16, 2018

WASHINGTON – Using a variation on the name of one of the most well-known veterans charities, four suspects in Indiana have been charged with bilking people out of $125,000, according to federal and local law enforcement in Indiana.

The scheme involved collecting donations for two fraudulent organizations, the “Wounded Warrior Fund” and the “Wounded Warrior Foundation” – both plays on the legitimate Florida-based Wounded Warrior Project, according to the indictment, unsealed Friday.

The case was investigated by the Clark County Sheriff’s Office and the U.S. Secret Service field office in Louisville, Ky. The suspects were indicted by a grand jury Feb. 28.

According to the indictment, the scheme was led by James Linville, 44, of Clark County, Ind., who incorporated the Wounded Warrior Fund in 2011 and Wounded Warrior Foundation in 2014. He and three accomplices – Thomas Johnson, 42, and Joanie Watson, 38, along with Linville’s girlfriend Amy Lou Bennett, 40 – are under arrest, officials said. Three have pleaded guilty. The fourth was expected in court later Friday.

The suspects are each charged with more than 70 charges of attempted and actual wire and mail fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud.

“Our American veterans have dutifully served this country through many wars and deserve better than to be deprived of donations from giving donors,” U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana Josh Minkler said in a statement. “The acts of these fraudsters have eroded the trust and goodwill of those who want to contribute to legitimate fundraising organizations, including those that support our veterans.”

In his incorporation filings, Linville identified the two scam organizations as nonprofits serving Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio , and listed himself as president and Johnson as vice president. Linville is suspected of using the alias “Sgt. Bob Davis” and Johnson of using the alias “Paul Bradley” to raise money for veterans and their families by telephone and through flyers. Bennet and Watson are suspected of picking up the donations. Neither Linville nor Johnson have served in the military, the Secret Service said.

The four are also accused of getting free hotel rooms, gift cards and restaurant meals, ostensibly for veterans’ families. They are charged with defrauding more than 1,000 victims over six years, the indictment said.

“Everything they did was for personal use,” Richard Ferretti, special agent in charge of the Louisville field office of the Secret Service, told Stars and Stripes. “No veteran’s family that we found as of yet has benefited from the money solicited.”

Ferretti said many of the victims are not aware they were defrauded. He, Minkler and other law enforcement officials held a news conference Friday hoping more victims would come forward. He said the higher the fraud loss, the more time the suspects would get at sentencing. They face 20 years in prison.

One of the reason the scam was so successful, Ferretti said, was because Linville was a professional fundraiser and was very convincing.

Also key was the name, because the legitimate charity, Wounded Warrior Project, is so recognizable. Ferretti said some of the victims wrote checks to Wounded Warrior Project, and Linville or Johnson cashed them anyway.

Ferretti said WWP worked closely with investigators. WWP issued a statement Friday welcoming the indictments.

“We are grateful law enforcement will hold those involved accountable for their actions and the harm they have caused our nation’s bravest and their families,” the statement said. “WWP is committed to ensuring donor intentions are honored and we take this responsibility seriously.”

Twitter: @DiannaCahn