Veterans groups question fundraising by self-proclaimed 'master thief'

·6 min read

Sep. 16—SALEM — At first, it seemed like a good opportunity for some local veterans to make extra money on the weekend, at $22 an hour.

According to a job posting, they would simply be required to wear something that indicated their military background and sit at a table outside area supermarkets with a petition asking to "Please help homeless veterans." Alongside the petition was a large green box with a slot, for people to make donations.

Some local veterans signed up. They and others have been sent all over Essex and Middlesex counties, including Stop and Shop and Market Basket stores in Peabody, Danvers, Middleton, Ipswich, Haverhill, North Andover, Reading, Dracut, Lowell, and more recently, on Cape Cod.

But after veterans agents in several North Shore communities learned who was running the operation — a man with a 40-year criminal history, most of it involving theft — they started asking questions.

When they and the leaders of several veterans groups weren't satisfied with the answers they were getting from Sean D. Murphy, the Salem Veterans Council took the rare step of issuing a public letter recommending that people not donate to the campaign — and have asked the Attorney General's office and the state's Department of Veterans Services to look into the operation. A spokesman for Attorney General Maura Healey's office acknowledged Wednesday that it had been made aware of the matter but that he could not comment.

"Everyone wants to end veteran homelessness," said Kim F. Emerling, Salem's Director of Veterans Services, who said he simply asked Murphy to come to a meeting show him where the money is going.

But Murphy, he said, was not forthcoming, and then left the meeting after about 20 minutes.

Murphy said he has sent some of money to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, but was not specific as to amounts. Efforts to confirm that with the Washington, D.C., based organization were unsuccessful this week.

The Salem Veterans Council's letter does not name Murphy specifically but refers to the two entities in which he's involved, Political Petitioning of MA LLC and Help Homeless Vets Inc.

"Although the solicitations and donations may appear to be for a worthy cause, as late as August 19 ... we cannot confirm that these donated funds have been used to assist any of our local homeless veterans," the letter states. "Therefore, the Salem Veterans Council cannot support this program at this time. We recommend that you do not donate to this organization or allow them to solicit outside of your business until they provide valid documentation related to the collection and distribution of donated funds."

Skeptical of venture

In an interview Wednesday, Murphy acknowledged his background might set off alarms, but said the two entities, incorporated under the name of a longtime girlfriend Rikkile Brown and run by him on a day-to-day basis, are legitimate.

He called the Veterans Council letter, sent out last month, "harassment and retaliation," and said he's considering a libel lawsuit against several individuals who he believes wrote the letter or posted online about it.

Murphy, 58, spent more than a decade in prison for a $2 million burglary at an Ohio Brinks warehouse and then served two years in the highly-publicized theft of Super Bowl rings from an Attleboro jewelry manufacturer. He was released last July and remains on probation.

"I don't deny that," he said. "In fact, I think I was pretty good at it. I didn't get caught, I got told on." Murphy said that there is a book and movie in the works about his exploits.

But he says what he's working on now is a legitimate venture intended to help veterans.

Officials are skeptical.

Stephen Patten, who is the veterans agent for the city of Peabody, is also a former military lawyer and former prosecutor in the Essex District Attorney's office.

Patten said he's fielded questions about the operation from veterans, and said he can't see any reason for Murphy not to disclose how much he's raising and where it's going. Patten and others also point to an incident last year outside the Swampscott Whole Foods.

Plans delayed

In September, 2021, two months after his release from Bristol County Jail, Murphy had an encounter with police who alleged that he was soliciting donations while dressed in camoflage shorts and hat, and a Marines T-shirt. Swampscott Police filed an application for a criminal complaint in Lynn District Court alleging that Murphy was violating the Stolen Valor Act and engaging in larceny by false pretense.

However, a clerk magistrate "show cause" hearing has been postponed numerous times since last year.

Murphy said Wednesday he believes that complaint "is just gonna die in the water," and alleged that the only reason police filed was because they were called by a former correctional officer with a grudge against him. "I wasn't doing anything wrong," he said. "The manager gave us permission."

After that encounter, he said, he and Brown decided to hold off on pursuing their plan to start a charity. They picked back up in June.

"They have zero evidence," Murphy said of the newer accusations. "Because we wouldn't open our books to them, they started a criminal investigation. That's tortious malfeasance."

"It was clear they were looking for a witch hunt," Murphy said of the Aug. 19 meeting. "I think they want to shake us down."

"Every penny is going to be distributed according to the letter of the law," Murphy said.

Seeking approval

When asked by a reporter for specific figures, he declined to provide them, saying he would disclose them on an IRS filing if the "Help Homeless Vets Inc." group is approved as a 501©(3) charitable organization.

He said that he is waiting to hear back from the IRS and will then submit the paperwork to the state's Charities Division. At the time officials asked him about the money, he said, they had just filed for the 501©(3) status.

"If I want money, I know how to go out and get money," he said.

Alexander Tilkens, the commander of the Salem DAV, which assists local veterans, said there were "a lot of red flags" when he and others looked into the backgrounds of Murphy and Brown.

"Everyone deserves a second chance, but because of the lack of transparency we could not make a determination," said Tilkens.

One concern he and others have is that people will feel "burned" and stop giving to any veterans charity out of fear that the money isn't helping. He said nonprofits in the area — including the VFW, Amvets and the DAV — are working directly with local veterans in the community to provide help to those who need it.

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis