Head of 'Marines & Mickey' charity faces federal charges for defrauding Gold Star mother
By TYLER JETT | The Chattanooga Times/Free Press | Published: October 19, 2018
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (Tribune News Service) — A charity founder is in federal custody over allegations that he defrauded the mother of a U.S. Marine veteran killed in the 2015 Chattanooga terrorism attack.
John Shannon Simpson appeared before a U.S. District Court judge in South Carolina on Thursday afternoon, when he was arraigned on a charge of wire fraud. According to a complaint from FBI Special Agent Tiffany Baker, Simpson diverted more than $390,000 in donations for his own use.
His most significant target was Cathy Wells, the mother of Lance Cpl. Squire "Skip" Wells, who was shot and killed in Chattanooga on July 16, 2015. Cathy Wells learned of Simpson's charity, Marines & Mickey, after her son's death. He said he sent Marines and their families to Disney World.
Cathy Wells thought this would be a good way to honor her son. She and Skip Wells traveled to Disney World every year, including a final trip the summer he died.
In February 2016, Cathy Wells learned that Simpson lied about his own military record. She began to suspect his charity was a fraud and demanded her money back. He refused, and she reported the case to the FBI.
"This has been a long time coming," Cathy Wells said Thursday afternoon. " I'd like to say I'm a relatively patient person. I think I've done pretty good on this, waiting. But, a huge sigh of relief."
According to the complaint, Wells helped Simpson raise $135,000 — the bulk of it through personal donations. In December 2015, she sent Simpson $75,000, which he said he was going to use to open a barbershop in South Carolina in Skip Wells' name. The shop was supposed to help further bolster Marines & Mickey.
In January 2016, at Cathy Wells' request, the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga sent Simpson another $25,000. The money came from funds raised by retired NFL quarterback Peyton Manning.
In July 2016, during a Times Free Press investigation into Marines & Mickey, Simpson denied using the money. In addition to Wells, mothers of other U.S. Marines accused him of running a dubious charity. He had convinced parents and servicemen to write him checks and set up automatic withdrawals from their bank accounts to his charity. Some had begun to demand proof that he was sending people to Disney World, as advertised.
"It's just the class of people they are," he said of his accusers two years ago. "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."
Jason Weeks, a friend of Cathy Wells', said Thursday he was relieved that Simpson is finally facing a federal charge. Weeks, a former Marine, felt uneasy about Simpson when he first met him in the months after Skip Wells' death.
Simpson said he served for more than 20 years as a Reconnaissance Marine and a master sergeant. He claimed to have then become a drill instructor. But Weeks said that Simpson didn't appear to have the confidence of a man with such a storied career. In a word, Weeks told the Times Free Press, Simpson seemed weak.
According to the FBI's complaint, Simpson actually served four years in the Marines, mostly as a clerk. He received a bad conduct discharge after he abandoned his post.
"The cloud that was hanging over us is finally gone," Weeks said Thursday. "No matter how it plays out from here, we know he's going to be in the right place. We can get the monkeys off our back and promote Skip's legacy."
While the FBI investigated Simpson, the Lee County, Florida, Sheriff's Office arrested him on a sexual battery charge in January 2017. (He pleaded guilty in May of this year and received a sentence of nine years in state prison.) Three days after his arrest, Baker filed the complaint against Simpson in U.S. District Court.
When the complaint was filed, a federal judge sealed the document so members of the public could not see it. The judge unsealed the complaint Thursday.
The FBI complaint outlines how Simpson allegedly used some of the money donated to him. Of the $75,000 that came in from Cathy Wells in December 2015, he cashed some money, transferred some of it to other bank accounts and spent some of it on a car, rent, a mortgage, a dental appointment, a doctor's appointment and Sephora, a beauty store.
Of the $25,000 that came in from the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, according to the complaint, he cashed about $6,500, spent $124 at Ben & Jack's Steakhouse in New York City and spent $40 at the Museum of Sex in New York City. He also allegedly paid $873 to the Internal Revenue Service on behalf of his then-wife's adult novelty shop, Red Room Toys.
The day after Cathy Wells and Weeks confronted him, according to the complaint, Simpson wired $47,000 to his father, John Calvin Simpson. Over several months, his father cashed out increments of this money. When the Times Free Press contacted him in June 2016, John Calvin Simpson said he believed his son's charity was on the up and up.
"He's not a con artist," he said of his son. "He just wanted to help people. The worst thing he did was lie about his military record, apparently. If he hadn't done that, he'd still be running the charity."
Before he met Cathy Wells, Simpson had been the subject of criticism for his work with other Marines. Rachel Roberts, a taxi driver in Jacksonville, North Carolina, near Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, said servicemen whom she picked up from the airport began to ask her if she knew about Marines & Mickey. They said they had met Simpson after their boot camp graduations, and he pressured them to give to his charity. Some said they had been pressured to set up automatic withdrawals from their bank accounts, with the money going to Marines & Mickey.
Roberts didn't trust Simpson and began to speak out against him on Facebook pages for the parents of Marines. She said Simpson then threatened her with a lawsuit.
Roberts befriended Cathy Wells two years ago, after the allegations came out. On Thursday, when a reporter contacted her, she said she was wearing a T-shirt with Skip Wells' face on it.
"Everything we accused him of is going to be proven," Roberts said. "And that's what matters. Everything we accused him of, everything Cathy had said, everything she fought so hard for."