Former San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Deputy Pleads Guilty to Fraud and Tax Charges in Multimillion-Dollar Investment Swindle
LOS ANGELES – A former San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputy has pleaded guilty to multiple felonies for deceiving victims into investing at least $5.6 million with him, then using their money on extravagant gambling, taking private jet airplane rides and buying luxury items for his girlfriends, the Justice Department announced today.
Christopher Lloyd Burnell, 51, of Highland, pleaded guilty on Monday afternoon to 11 counts of wire fraud and two counts of filing a false tax return.
According to court documents, Burnell falsely claimed to have accumulated tens of millions of dollars from lawsuits he purportedly won against the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department and Kaiser Permanente; from selling a patent for an air-cooled, bullet-resistant vest to Oakley Inc.; and through investments in small businesses and money-lending opportunities. The scheme began no later than November 2010 and continued until September 2017.
After deceiving victims into believing he was a wealthy businessman, Burnell then induced victims to invest up to hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time with him by offering exclusive investment opportunities that promised rates of returns as high as 100% to be repaid in a few weeks, according to prosecutors’ trial memorandum. In some instances, Burnell asked the victim for an initial trial investment with him, during which he would fulfill his promised returns – and gain the victim’s trust – only to ask for a larger amount from them.
But these investment opportunities did not exist. Rather, Burnell spent the money on maintaining a life of luxury. Burnell spent victims’ money on, among other things, gambling and luxury items, including losing more than $2 million in gambling at the San Manuel Casino in Highland, $500,000 in private jet trips, $70,000 on Louis Vuitton merchandise, and $175,000 on luxury cars and an apartment lease for his then-girlfriends, the trial memorandum states. Burnell continued this investment fraud scheme for years until he could not identify new victims to defraud and the money from his victims ran out.
Burnell caused victim-investors to distribute at least $5,672,380 to him, according to court documents.
As victims began to raise concerns to him about a lack of repayment and defaults, Burnell claimed that his money had been tied up in a trust fund and his remaining assets had been seized by federal authorities. He then cheated some of the victims out of additional funds by falsely claiming he needed loans to pay for his then-wife’s cancer treatment, a child custody dispute with his father-in-law, and other personal expenses.
To alleviate victims’ concerns, Burnell showed many victims a fabricated Wells Fargo bank statement that said he had more than $150 million in his account that he would use to pay back victims once his funds were no longer tied up. In truth, Burnell had less than $6,500 in that account.
Burnell did not report any of the money he received from victims in 2011 or 2012 on his personal income tax returns that he filed jointly with his then-wife. Instead, Burnell only reported income from gambling winnings in 2011 and 2012 – estimated to be more than $1 million – all of which was purportedly offset by gambling losses.
United States District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald has scheduled an August 15 sentencing hearing, at which time Burnell will face up to 20 years in federal prison for each wire fraud count and a statutory maximum sentence of three years in federal prison for each tax count.
IRS Criminal Investigation and the United States Secret Service investigated this matter.
Assistant United States Attorney Jerry C. Yang, Chief of the Riverside Branch Office, and Assistant United States Attorney Robert S. Trisotto, also of the Riverside Branch Office, are prosecuting this case.