By Kevin Murphy
KANSAS CITY, Mo (Reuters) - A man who passed more than $160,000 in checks by claiming to be a victim of the May 22 tornado in Joplin, Mo., pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges on Tuesday.
Justin R. Compton, 31, wrote 225 checks at dozens of businesses in the Joplin region, according to court documents filed in conjunction with his guilty plea in Springfield, Missouri. Compton, of Springfield, convinced businesses to take the checks by saying he was a U.S. Army sergeant affected by the tornado, according to the federal court documents.
Compton opened a bank account in Ozark, Missouri but never deposited any money into the fund, the charges state. He admitted writing a total of $160,672 in checks.
The tornado in Joplin destroyed more than 9,000 buildings and took 161 lives. It generated an outpouring of donations and volunteer time from thousands of people around the country, but officials have been watching for fraud, said Lynn Onstot, a spokesperson for the city.
"The tornado has brought out the best in most people, but unfortunately there are some who try to capitalize on disasters, and that's what makes it sad," Onstot said.
Compton faces up to 30 years in prison without parole, a fine of up to $1 million and restitution, authorities said.
(Writing and reporting by Kevin Murphy; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Greg McCune)