San Bernardino County man sentenced to 14 years in federal prison for multimillion-dollar investment fraud and cheating on his taxes


Date: August 30, 2022


A Highland man who used his work history as a San Bernardino County sheriff's deputy to gain investors' trust and later invest millions of dollars with him, only to use their money to fund his extravagant lifestyle, was sentenced today to 168 months in federal prison.

Christopher Lloyd Burnell was sentenced by United States District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald, who also ordered him to pay $7,592,491 in restitution. At today's hearing, Judge Fitzgerald described Burnell as "one of the most evil people that I have ever dealt with in the law" and ordered him immediately remanded into custody.

Burnell pleaded guilty on May 10 to 11 counts of wire fraud and two counts of filing a false tax return.

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. Burnell left the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department in May 2008. 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. 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 actually exist," prosecutors argued in a sentencing memorandum. "Rather, [Burnell] would spend the money on maintaining a life of luxury for himself and his Hooters calendar model girlfriends, gambling, and private jets."

Burnell spent victims' money on 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. 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.

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's victims lost a total of $7,592,491, which included their retirement and other savings and investment funds. According to court documents, some victims became depressed and suicidal, others lost their businesses, some were forced to sell their family homes and move into smaller residences, some had to tell their children they could no longer pay for their college education, and some suffered marital problems and got divorced. Some victims had their retirement plans shattered.

"Simply put, no words can explain the level of emotional and physical havoc [Burnell] wreaked on [his] victims' lives," prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum.

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.

IRS Criminal Investigation and the United States Secret Service investigated this matter.

Assistant United States Attorney Robert S. Trisotto of the Riverside Branch Office prosecuted this case.