South Carolina

Man raised money to send Marine families to Disney. He pocketed most of it, feds say

John Simpson
John Simpson Florida Department of Law Enforcement

A charity raised funds to send Marines and their families to Disney theme parks, but its founder John Simpson pocketed most of the money for himself, according to a federal indictment filed this week in South Carolina.

Simpson raised about $481,000 for the charity, but spent only about $90,000 of that actually helping Marines, the feds charge. The other $391,000 went to enriching himself, paying off his mortgage and bills, and for his then-wife’s “adult novelty business, Red Room Toys,” according to court filings.

Sherri Lydon, the U.S. Attorney in Charleston, South Carolina, accuses Simpson of lying about his military career to raise money. The indictment states he “falsely represented himself as a retired career marine with as much as 20 years of service, a retired Master Sergeant, a former Drill Instructor, and a Recon Marine.”

In fact, according to the court filing, Simpson served less than five years in the Marine Corps and was given a bad conduct discharge after going absent without leave in 1998.

Simpson is currently in prison in Florida after he was sentenced in 2018 to serve nine years for sexually assaulting his former girlfriend, according to the Anderson Independent Mail.

Lying about his military career, the indictment says, helped him scam people for more donations.

Simpson, who lived in Anderson County, South Carolina before moving to Florida in 2013, told the Anderson Independent Mail by email, “We did nothing wrong.”

The newspaper wrote in early 2017 that Simpson said “he has provided investigators with 613 documents showing that Marines & Mickey paid for 41 Marines and their families to visit Disney theme parks and also sent 313 relatives of Marines to boot camp graduations.”

Simpson spoke to the newspaper at about the same time federal officers filed a sealed criminal complaint accusing him of wire fraud, court records show. That complaint was unsealed last year.

Simpson founded Marines & Mickey in May 2014 and ran it until June 2016, according to court documents. His primary victim, prosecutors say, was Cathy Wells, the mother of Lance Cpl, Skip Wells, “a United States marine killed in the active shooter attack at a military recruiting center in Chattanooga, Tennessee in July 2015,” the indictment reads.

Simpson approached the grieving mother at her son’s funeral in Georgia, the Independent Mail reports. She helped him raise more than $65,000 from individual donors and a community foundation in Tennessee, and loaned him another $75,000, the newspaper reports.

“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,” Atlanta television WXIA reported last year.

Simpson also asked people for money during Family Day at the Parris Island Marine Corps Recruiting Depot in South Carolina, according to the indictment. Six people gave him their credit card information for monthly withdrawals of $25, the feds say. “Instead of making the agreed upon withdrawals, Simpson made unauthorized withdrawals from their accounts in a combined total amount of more than $5,000,” the indictment states.

Charles Duncan covers what’s happening right now across North and South Carolina, from breaking news to fun or interesting stories from across the region. He holds degrees from N.C. State University and Duke and lives two blocks from the ocean in Myrtle Beach.