A former San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputy was able to sustain a high-living existence that involved gambling away more than $2 million at the San Manuel Casino in Highland, spending $500,000 in private jet trips as he trotted around the globe, attiring himself in finely-tailored suits, purchasing more than $70,000 worth of Louis Vuitton merchandise, driving luxury cars and leasing a string of apartments for his then-girlfriends using the proceeds from what was by all reports a pretty poorly disguised Ponzi scheme.
Christopher Lloyd Burnell, 51, who lived at 29550 Santa Ana Canyon Road in Highland, was able to sustain a plush existence paid for with $5.6 million in proceeds netted by his deceiving victims into believing he was a wealthy businessman and inducing them to invest in nonexistent ventures. Burnell was able to cozen his victims to entrust to him, in some cases as much as hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time, which he said was being ventured toward exclusive investment opportunities that would provide investors a doubling of their money in as little time as two to four few weeks, according to a federal prosecution team’s trial memorandum.
Burnell pleaded guilty on Monday, May 9 to 11 counts of wire fraud and two counts of filing a false tax return.
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 office, prosecuted the case after an IRS criminal investigation unit and the United States Secret Service concluded their investigation into Burnell’s activities.
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.
In perpetuating his schemes, Burnell accurately represented himself as a one-time sheriff’s deputy, based on his having graduated from the department’s academy in 2000, after which he went to work in the detention system. He left the department after sustaining an injury he claimed was work-related in January 2002, and returned to full employment status in February 2006 after passing a physical. He left the department’s payroll for good in November 2006.
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 as well as from selling a patent for an air-cooled, bullet-resistant vest to Oakley Inc. He claimed this wealth allowed him to take advantage of certain short-term and high-yield investment opportunities that he could cut others in on. The scheme began no later than November 2010 and continued until September 2017, prosecutors said.
In some instances, Burnell asked the victim for an initial trial investment with him of a few hundred dollars, thereafter fulfilling his promise of a prompt and a 100 percent return plus a refunding of the original outlay, in this way gaining the victim’s trust. He would then seek to interest the investors into taking a far deeper plunge. Many did.
In fact, no actual investments were ever made. Rather, Burnell spent the money on maintaining a life of luxury. Burnell succeed in coaxing victim-investors to provide him with at least $5,672,380, according to court documents.
Upon victims expressing their concern about a lack of repayment and defaults, Burnell would typically claim 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 some of his victims’ concerns, Burnell showed them a fabricated Wells Fargo bank statement indicating 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 actuality, Burnell had less than $6,500 in that account, which he shared with his then-wife.
Burnell was able to perpetuate his scam with many of his victims, ironically, by the outward ostentatious show of his grand lifestyle, which fooled many victims into being placated and convinced that Burnell was simply undergoing a temporary cash flow problem. He was able to continue the investment fraud scheme for years until he could no longer recruit new victims to defraud and the money from his victims ran out.
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.
Burnell’s wife divorced him in 2020.