Decorated combat pilot accused of stealing $124K from veterans group

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SAN DIEGO — A decorated Vietnam War pilot embezzled $124,000 from the veterans society where he was the treasurer to fund his lavish lifestyle after going bankrupt, authorities said.

Anthony Ventura, 71, of Lincoln in Northern California pleaded guilty Tuesday in U.S. District Court in San Diego, admitting that he stole the money from the Distinguished Flying Cross Society, assistant U.S. Attorney Phillip L.B. Halpern said. The society is an organization of pilots and airmen from all five military branches who were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for acts of heroism and extraordinary achievement during flights.

Ventura, charged with federal counts of wire fraud and filing a false tax return, admitted that in 2014, after filing for bankruptcy, he embezzled the money “in order to maintain his lifestyle,” including trading stocks and maintaining his stable of horses, Halpern said.

The Distinguished Flying Cross Society, among other things, awards scholarships to the descendants of its members.

“Regardless of how significant an individual’s contribution is to our society or how desperate their financial condition, there can be no excuse for stealing charitable funds that are destined for the awarding of scholarships,” acting U.S. Attorney Alana Robinson said.

Ventura is a decorated Navy pilot who flew combat missions in Vietnam, earning numerous awards including a Bronze Star and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Between July 2012 and January 2016, Ventura served as treasurer for the Distinguished Flying Cross Society, a position that gave him access to and control of the organization’s bank accounts, credit cards and bookkeeping records.

But an investigation by the FBI and IRS found that after filing for personal bankruptcy in 2014, Ventura opened a secret credit union account where he transferred the $124,000 from his organization’s coffers. He used $67,000 of that money to buy stocks and bonds and more than $30,000 to run his personal horse stable, Sovran Star Stables.

He also withdrew more than $25,000 in cash to cover personal living expenses and created fake quarterly financial statements to hide the theft from the Distinguished Flying Cross Society’s board of directors.

“The FBI is proud to serve this organization of war heroes by uncovering a scheme that stripped their funds intended for charitable and noble purposes,” said Special Agent in Charge Eric S. Birnbaum.

“It is unfortunate that Naval Veteran Anthony Ventura’s service to this country will now be tarnished by his decision to embezzle funds from the Distinguished Flying Cross Society, which also led him to file a fraudulent tax return on its behalf,” said Damon Rowe, the special agent in charge of the IRS criminal investigation. “Mr. Ventura ignored his duty to file an accurate tax return and will now be labeled a convicted felon, in addition to a decorated naval aviator.”

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