NEW ALBANY, Ind. (WDRB) -- All four members of a southern Indiana group who ripped off big money posing as a fake veterans charity are heading to federal prison.
James Linville, Thomas Johnson, Joanie Watson and Amy Bennett confessed in federal court this week to the elaborate scam that duped people into thinking they were donating to help veterans and their families. Their punishments range from three to five years behind bars.
"We're just glad that they got fair sentences, and there's been some justice in it," Cosette Spears said.
The group exploited the death of Spears' 21-year-old son, Cpl. Jordan Spears, of Memphis, Indiana. He died in 2014 serving as a U.S. Marine in the Persian Gulf.
"(Jordan) wanted to be a Marine from the time he was 8 years old, and he ended up dying doing what he loved to do," Greg Spears said of his son.
The suspects used their fake "Wounded Warrior Fund" and "Wounded Warrior Foundation" to collect donations they claimed would help play for Spears' funeral.
"We were just sickened by the way they took advantage of the whole community using our son's name," Greg Spears said. "It just devastated our whole family."
Federal prosecutors said over six years, the group scammed about 1,000 donors out of more than $125,000 in cash, gift cards, merchandise and in-kind donations.
"That the people were so generous to give is noted," Cosette Spears said. "Unfortunately, it didn't go to the causes it was supposed to."
Most of the victims were from southern Indiana. But the scam reached five other states, including Kentucky and Ohio.
Court records detailed each members role in the scheme. They say Linville was the mastermind who formed the fake charity. Prosecutors say Linville and Johnson would tell people they were veterans, and their nonprofit supported different causes. Watson would pick up the checks.
"It is truly un-American what they did," said Jennifer Culotta, Joanie Watson's defense attorney. "She's heartfully sorry for all of her actions, because they were despicable, and she realizes that."
Court records say the money the group scammed from unknowing businesses and families went to drugs, gambling and liquor. All four involved pleaded guilty to conspiracy and fraud related charges. Linville received the longest sentence of five years.
Watson flipped and gave prosecutors information about her husband, Thomas Johnson, to get a better deal. But in the end, she's serving a sentence that's six months longer due to a more extensive criminal history.
The couple is still married.
The judge also ordered they must pay back the donations, totaling more than $134,000.
"We want to thank all the law enforcement and all of those who helped bring them to justice it was a lot of hard work," Cosette Spears said. "We appreciate that."
Three local law enforcement officers are being honored for their work in exposing the scheme and arresting the four suspects. U.S. Attorney Josh Minkler is awarding them the high honor of receiving the United States Attorney's Award to U.S. Secret Service Senior Special Agent John Ely, Clark County Sheriff's Office Maj. Donnie Bowyer and U.S. Secret Service Special Agent Jeff Ehringer.
"This is clearly one of the most despicable frauds that I have ever seen in this district," Minkler said.
Ely said other agencies had attempted to investigate this scheme but were unsuccessful.
"They would not or could not put this case together," he said. "That's one thing I'm proud of: the Secret Service's relationship and teamwork with the Clark County Sheriff's Office."
Bowyer picked up the case in 2015, and the U.S. Secret Service agents joined the investigation in 2016. The officers spent countless hours over three years talking with the defendants under cover, collecting incriminating voicemails, reviewing bank statements, conducting interviews and gaining admissions.
"When we heard about how despicable this case was, it had gone on too long," Ely said. "We were not going to allow that to happen any longer."
Minkler said without the officers' dedication and diligence, they would not have all the solid evidence needed to prosecute the case or the scam could still be going on. He also said he was satisfied that all four would be spending time in prison, "where clearly I think they belong."
During the sentencings Wednesday and Thursday, the defendants said they were sorry and were taking full responsibility. The officers said there was no sign during the investigation that any of them felt any remorse for what they were doing.
"If they're sorry, they're just sorry these guys are so good and caught them," Minkler said.
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