NCIS investigating Marines and Mickey charity

Skip Wells is seen in this photo provided by his family.

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The Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigates felonies affecting the Navy and Marine Corps. Spokesman Ed Buice said anyone with information about Simpson or his foundation can offer tips at 1-877-579-3648.

Federal criminal investigators confirmed this week they are looking into John Simpson, founder of an organization that partnered with the mother of one of the military servicemen killed on July 16.

Members of the Lance Corporal Skip Wells Foundation publicly accused Simpson two weeks ago of misappropriating funds. They said Simpson befriended Wells' mother, Cathy Wells. She and Simpson held joint fundraising events, splitting the money between her foundation and his own, Marines and Mickey.

The leaders of the Wells foundation don't believe Simpson used most of the the money for Marines and Mickey. They also accuse him of lying about his military record.

"I can confirm that [the Naval Criminal Investigative Service] is responding to complaints regarding financial practices of the charity 'Marines and Mickey,'" NCIS Public Affairs Officer Ed Buice said in a statement. "If other individuals have similar concerns, NCIS would like to speak with them. Beyond that, NCIS does not discuss the details of ongoing investigations."

Several foundation members said they contacted the FBI about Simpson, though FBI spokesman Stephen Emmett wrote in a statement last week, "It would be premature to say we are investigating." Emmett said this week that status has not changed.

The Marines and Mickey website said the foundation sends Marines' family members to Disney World or Disneyland. The organization also is supposed to fly families to boot camp graduations at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island or the Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego.

But Jason Weeks, a co-chairman of the Wells foundation, said his group became suspicious of Simpson. He and others said Simpson was vague when he talked about his time in the military, though he told them he was a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance, an elite unit that gathers information on enemies.

Weeks said a military contact tipped him that Simpson didn't actually serve in Force Recon. He said Simpson also refused to show Wells foundation members how he spent money he has raised with Marines and Mickey.

Cathy Wells started the foundation in her son's name to raise money for his high school's band and Junior ROTC programs. Weeks said Simpson raised about $35,000 during joint events with Cathy Wells. He also said Cathy Wells loaned Simpson $75,000 to build a barbershop named after Skip Wells.

Maeghan Jones, director of the Chattanooga Foundation, said Cathy Wells also requested the group give Simpson $25,000 from Peyton Manning's Chattanooga Heroes Fund.

Simpson has not returned multiple calls seeking comment, though he denied the allegations in a post on his website last week.

Charlie Coons, a friend of Simpson's in South Carolina, said he stands by Simpson. He said he has helped buy supplies for a thrift store in support of Marines and Mickey. Coons said he was not sure whether Simpson lied about his military record, but he is confident his friend is actually working to help Marines.

He pointed to Simpson's website, which shows pictures of families at Disney World holding up "Marines and Mickey" signs.

"As far as donating money for a mission to Marines and Mickey," Coons said, "I 100 percent have seen that happen. I've seen him come out and select these families."

Another friend in South Carolina, Vaughn Keown, also said he stands behind Simpson. He said he and Simpson have met with a building and codes inspector in Beaufort, S.C., about a building that Simpson wants to turn into a thrift shop and barbershop.

Simpson's post alleged members of the Lance Corporal Skip Wells Foundation want to take over his own organization. When he refused to give up the reins, he said, they lied about him in retribution.

"This is nothing short of Blackmail and extortion," Simpson wrote. "Also, myself, My Foundation and its volunteers have been receiving threats via Facebook, emails, and phone calls."

He added: "As far as Stolen Valor (for lying about his military record), I never said I was a Force Recon Marine."

However, an archived version of Simpson's website acquired by the Times Free Press reads: "Marines & Mickey began in May 2014, Founded by John Simpson, a retired Marine who was a Recon Marine."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@times