Attorney: Founder of charity tied to Chattanooga terrorist attack faces federal charges

Attorney: Founder of charity tied to Chattanooga terrorist attack faces federal charges

May 16th, 2018 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Staff photo by Doug Strickland / Cathy Wells, mother of Skip Wells, talks with Jason Weeks at Thunder Creek Harley Davidson after a motorcycle ride from Atlanta to Chattanooga to honor the memory of her son on Saturday, July 9, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

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The founder of a charity accused of defrauding a July 16, 2015, terrorist attack victim's mother now faces a federal charge, his attorney said Tuesday.

John Shannon Simpson, who started Marines & Mickey supposedly to send service members to Disney theme parks, is due in U.S. District Court in South Carolina on a charge of wire fraud. Robert Hines, his attorney in an unrelated Lee County, Fla., case, said U.S. marshals have placed a hold on him at the local jail.

Simpson is accused of gaining money from Cathy Wells, the mother of Lance Cpl. Squire "Skip" Wells, after lying to her about his charity and his own military record. Skip Wells died in the mass shooting by Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez at the U.S. Naval and Marine Reserve Center on Amnicola Highway.

Cathy Wells helped raise money for Simpson's charity. In a July 2016 Times Free Press article, her friends estimated she helped him gain $160,000, including $25,000 from the Chattanooga Heroes Fund, which consisted of money raised by former NFL quarterback Peyton Manning. Jason Weeks, a family friend, said Cathy Wells also loaned Simpson $75,000.

Simpson has been in a Lee County, Fla., jail since an employee of his charity accused him of stalking and sexual battery. On Thursday, Simpson pleaded no contest to those charges, as well as first-degree burglary with assault, tampering with a witness, and violation of injunction for protection.

As part of a negotiated plea agreement, Simpson received a sentence of nine years in a Florida prison. Hines said that defendants in that state generally serve about 85 percent of their sentences, assuming they don't violate any policies while incarcerated. That would put Simpson in a Florida prison for about 7-1/2 years.

But Hines said U.S. marshals also have placed a hold on him, proof that he will be extradited to U.S. District Court in Columbia, S.C.

Hines said Simpson faces a federal wire fraud charge.

An online search of that district court's website does not show any official case filed against Simpson as of Tuesday.

"There's something brewing up there," Hines said. "Whether he's been indicted or not, I don't know. But there's something going on."

John Shannon Simpson, the founder of Marines & Mickey, faces federal charges in South Carolina and has pleaded guilty to sexual battery, stalking and burglary in Lee County, Fla.

John Shannon Simpson, the founder of Marines &...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

An officer in the Lee County, Fla., jail said federal agents put a "hold" on Simpson when he first entered the jail in January 2017. That is a message from the agents, explaining to the local officers that they want to talk to him. Before he gets shipped to a state prison, the local officers are supposed to alert the federal agents.

Cathy Wells called the news "outstanding." She said she has been in contact with an assistant U.S. attorney for months but has not gotten any confirmation on when the charges will go to the grand jury. She said she plans to continue to frequently call the prosecutor, hoping to get more information.

"There's too much at stake and it's too important," she said. "If he thinks I'm going to lie down and let this go, he's dealing with the wrong person."

Simpson met Cathy Wells in the days after her son's death. Cathy Wells' sister found Simpson's charity online, and the family thought it would be a good way to honor Skip Wells. Cathy and Skip Wells traveled to Disney World every year, and they had returned from their most recent trip eight days before the terrorist attack.

Simpson said he was a 20-year veteran of the Marines Corps, a retired master sergeant, a former Reconnaissance Marine and former Parris Island drill instructor. He and Cathy Wells partnered on fundraisers for the charity in Skip Wells' name, including a trivia night and a concert.

In early 2016, a mutual friend of Weeks and Simpson reached out to Weeks, asking him to look into Simpson's military credentials. Weeks said he was already skeptical of Simpson's claims. According to the Manpower and Reserve Affairs Department, Simpson was actually enrolled in the Corps for three years as a financial technician in the 1990s and was involuntary discharged after a court martial because he abandoned his post.

Weeks and Cathy Wells then met multiple former volunteers for the charity, themselves the parents of Marines. The volunteers said they doubted Simpson actually sent veterans to Disney theme parks with the money raised.

Simpson denied that claim in an interview with the Times Free Press two years ago.

Cathy Wells, left, the mother of Lance Cpl. Squire Wells, known as "Skip," is embraced by Lance Cpl. Kurt Bright, one of Wells' best friends upon arriving for a memorial service for her son at Sprayberry High School where he attended, Tuesday, July 21, 2015, in Marietta, Ga. Crowds gathered at the suburban Atlanta high school to remember the Marine who was fatally shot in an attack on military facilities in Chattanooga, Tenn. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Cathy Wells, left, the mother of Lance Cpl....

Photo by David Goldman

"It's just the class of people they are," he said. "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."

He also gave the Times Free Press the names and phone numbers of six people who supposedly benefited from his charity. Of those, five returned calls seeking comment. Two said Simpson gave them checks covering the costs of their trips. Two said they received nothing.

The other person said Simpson paid for his family's hotel — but not the actual tickets to Disney World. The family didn't realize that would be the case until they arrived in Orlando, Fla.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Columbia, S.C. didn't return a call seeking comment Tuesday.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.


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