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Wyoming County man charged in scam

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A Wyoming County man pocketed nearly $240,000 through a charity fund he created to supposedly purchase calling cards for overseas military servicemen and women, police said.

Prosecutors said the man might be connected to similar scams in at least two other states.

State National Guard officials became suspicious of the West Virginia Veterans Relief Fund and its founder, Jerry Lewallen, 58, when they discovered the headquarters was an abandoned house in Mullens, according to a criminal complaint filed in Wyoming County Magistrate Court. The only other contact for the fund was a P.O. box in Charleston, the complaint said.

Mullens Police Chief Ray Toler and Officer J. Meadows began looking into Lewallen's activities and noticed he was using the same IRS tax-exempt code on his website as Common Ground Charities, a legally registered 501(c)3 in Indiana.

According to the complaint, Lewallen promised Guard officials he would mail them international calling cards for overseas military if they forwarded the receipts to Common Ground.

Guard officials received only 10 cards about every four months and had requested to be removed from the fund's website months ago, according to the complaint. Toler found that Common Ground also requested to be removed from the website and filed complaints with the Indiana Attorney General's Office, according to the complaint.

The West Virginia Veterans Relief Fund is not registered with the IRS or the Secretary of State's office.

Police executed a search warrant on Aug. 25 at a motel room where Lewallen was staying and seized his computer and bank records, Toler said in an email.

After looking through the records, Toler discovered that the fund generated about $285,000 since 2008, according to the complaint. Toler said only about $43,000 of it had benefited legitimate charity work.

The officers met with Lewallen's sole employee who said he made about $100 a day soliciting donations. The employee said Lewallen used the name "Lou Allen or Sgt. Allen" when asking for money and told callers he needed $300 to sponsor soldiers, Toler said.

Toler and Meadows said they found Lewallen's wallet inside the abandoned house and allegedly found two OxyContin pills inside the motel room. Lewallen was arrested Aug. 25 and charged with obtaining money under false pretenses and possession of a controlled substance.

Wyoming County Prosecutor Rick Staton said he's since filed complaints with the state Attorney General and with the Secretary of State.

Staton said Lewallen would donate just enough money to gain people's trust to pen testimonials for his website. An active duty Air Force officer wrote a thank you note for the website but Staton said the officer later requested that the note be removed.

Staton said it's possible Lewallen operated similar scams in other states.

"It wouldn't surprise me," he said.

It appears Lewallen established similar websites in Arizona and Indiana, according to a domain registration search. These websites were created around the same month in 2010 when the West Virginia fund website was created.

Each website is registered to an address in Toronto, lists the same IRS tax-exempt code and uses the same images and graphics. Those websites also feature testimonials from servicemen and women.

Staton said additional charges might be filed against Lewallen.

"We're just finding out that at one point he got Wal-Mart to donate a bunch of gift cards and he kept them," he said.

Lewallen is currently being held in Southern Regional Jail in lieu of a $5,000 cash-only bail. If convicted of the scamming charge, he faces up to up to five years in prison and a fine not exceeding $1,000. He faces up to six months in prison and a fine no more than $5,000 for the drug charge. 

Reach Travis Crum at travis.crum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5163.

 


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