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4 Hoosiers receive prison time for pocketing donations meant for veterans
Billy Kobin, Louisville Courier Journal Published 7:58 a.m. ET May 31, 2019 | Updated 8:00 a.m. ET May 31, 2019
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Four Southern Indiana residents who stole more than $125,000 from people and businesses in Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio and elsewhere in a scam targeting America's veterans were sentenced to federal prison this week.
Joanie Watson and James Linville, both of Clarksville, and Amy Bennett and Thomas Johnson, both of Henryville, were given prison time ranging from three to five years during sentencing hearings Wednesday and Thursday in U.S. District Court in New Albany.
U.S. Attorney Josh Minkler announced the punishments Thursday and also praised the work of investigators from the Clark County Sheriff's Office and U.S. Secret Service who handled the case.
James Linville (Photo: U.S. Attorney's Office)
The conspiracy was led by Linville, who prosecutors said filed paperwork in December 2011 with the Indiana Secretary of State's Office to form the Wounded Warrior Fund Inc.
In August 2014, Linville and Johnson also filed paperwork to form the Wounded Warrior Foundation Inc.
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Linville and Johnson used the aliases of "Sergeant Bob Johnson" and "Paul Bradley" when contacting businesses and people in Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio and other states to solicit donations for their organizations.
They promised the donations would help provide things such as clothes, school supplies, holiday shopping and long-distance call minutes to families of active military service members.
Amy Bennett (Photo: U.S. Attorney's Office)
According to Minkler, many victims believed they were supporting the Wounded Warrior Project, a well-known charity that serves veterans.
"We do this out of respect for their dedication and willingness to serve our country," read one flier for the Wounded Warrior Fund, according to court records.
Instead, the group of scammers kept the more than 1,000 donations that totaled more than $125,000 in checks, cash, in-kind donations and gift cards for their personal gain, according to prosecutors.
“On Memorial Day weekend we reflect on the sacrifices veterans and their families have made for this country,” Minkler said Thursday. “These fraudsters eroded the trust and good will of those who want to donate to legitimate fundraising organizations that support our veterans. Our veterans deserve better than having donations misdirected into the pockets of thieves.”
Thomas Johnson (Photo: U.S. Attorney's Office)
According to prosecutors, Bennett and Wilson would pick up and deposit checks and other donations from individuals and businesses who intended to donate to veterans and their families.
The four were facing a range of conspiracy, mail fraud and wire fraud charges and up to several decades in prison.
Linville received five years and Watson received three and a half years in prison. Johnson and Bennett each received three-year prison sentences.
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A federal judge ordered them to also pay back the donations, which ended up totaling more than $134,000.
Prosecutors previously said there were other members of the group, but their names were not included in the indictment that was unsealed in March 2018.
The four defendants were accused of using several banks in Indiana — in Seymour, New Albany, Austin, Jeffersonville, Clarksville — and one in Louisville.
Joanie Watson (Photo: U.S. Attorney's Office)
Members also used debit cards tied to the nonprofits' accounts to make purchases at a casino, liquor store and Redbox, among other places, according to court records.
They also sold donated items such as tools and jewelry at pawn shops, court records said, or kept them for themselves.
Minkler announced Thursday he would give the United States Attorney's Award to Clark County Sheriff's Office Maj. Donnie Bowyer, Secret Service Senior Special Agent John Ely and Secret Service Special Agent Jeff Ehringer for their work in exposing the scheme.
In July 2017, Linville threatened to sue a Clark County sheriff's deputy if the detective continued investigating the Wounded Warrior Foundation, according to the indictment.
"Put me in a jail, I dare you," Linville said in a voicemail left for the detective, according to court records. "...I will make a mockery of your f****** court and I'll destroy the Sheriff's Department."