By Kevin Reagan
Staff Writer San Tan Sun
Scottsdale Police have arrested a Chandler man on felony charges that he allegedly attempted to scam his friends, police officers and prosecutors into believing he was dying of an incurable illness.
Christopher Nelson, 49, was indicted last month by a county grand jury on 18 felony counts of fraud, forgery, and identity theft for an elaborate effort to convince the public he was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS – a rare disease that destroys the nervous system and typically ends in death within a few years of diagnosis.
Authorities suspect Nelson used wheelchairs and walkers to simulate symptoms of the disease in order to evade court dates and solicit donations from sympathetic friends.
The alleged ruse is the second time Nelson has recently been accused of faking a debilitating illness for financial gain.
A few years ago, Nelson was suspected of utilizing social media and fake email accounts to swindle thousands of dollars out of his old high school classmates by projecting himself as a feeble, needy invalid who was near death.
But authorities claim Nelson invented his digital to manipulate dozens of people into handing over cash donations they thought would be spent on saving Nelson’s life from pancreatic cancer.
According to Scottsdale Police, several of Nelson’s former classmates from Coronado High School reported giving Nelson more than $30,000 between 2010 and 2015 after he posted Facebook posts about needing funds for cancer treatments.
Nelson’s friends organized several fundraising parties to cover medical costs that Nelson claimed weren’t being covered by insurance.
To cover his tracks, authorities say, Nelson used a relative’s identity in a fake email address to communicate with donors, organize fundraisers and forge documents describing nonexistent oncology treatments.
“It appeared Nelson also created other fake email addresses so he could surreptitiously read and be part of group emails and monitor what was being planned and said about his fake medical condition,” a police report states.
Over 40 people donated a total $15,000 and the defendant’s friends raised another $15,000 by selling T-shirts in support of Nelson’s supposed cancer treatment.
One of Nelson’s former classmates told Scottsdale Police the suspect asked for an additional $2,300 to undergo experimental treatments at Virginia Piper Cancer Institute.
Nelson allegedly asked the friend to also drive him to the hospital and to pay for his lunch.
When friends started asking questions about Nelson’s health status in 2014, the defendant reportedly got defensive and would email them digitally-altered images to support his stories.
As more donors became suspicious of Nelson’s claims, the defendant decided to end the fundraising operation by faking his own death. In September 2015, friends received an email informing them Nelson had committed suicide.
Investigators later discovered Nelson had allegedly wrote the email and sent it through a fake address.
By 2017, investigators had made contact with more than 20 of Nelson’s classmates and confirmed the suspect had never been diagnosed with cancer nor undergone any treatments. He was arrested and indicted on fraud charges in December 2017.
Nelson’s criminal case had been pending in court when authorities uncovered more evidence earlier this year to file additional charges against him.
In February 2020, Nelson appeared in court on a motorized wheelchair and unable to verbally communicate. He claimed to be suffering from ALS – more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease – and was only able to communicate by blinking his eyes.
Scottsdale Police later discovered Nelson allegedly forged documents from the Mayo Clinic to support his claims of having ALS. The defendant also used his fake diagnosis to seek donations of wheelchairs, walkers and $9,000 for a speech-generating device.
Nelson also solicited someone through social media to fix his truck for free so the defendant could take “one last ride” before he succumbed to ALS, according to authorities.
Investigators conducted a surveillance operation outside Nelson’s Chandler residence and observed him walking, talking, dancing, doing yard work and lifting heavy objects – contradicting how he presented himself in court.
Court records show Nelson has been accused of scheming and deceiving Valley residents for decades.
His criminal history in Maricopa County dates back to 1995, when he first pleaded guilty to one count of fraud.
In 1998, Nelson again pleaded guilty to theft charges and was placed on probation for a couple years.
He faced several felony charges in 2014 after authorities caught him using the identities of his acquaintances to harass someone who had filed a restraining order against him. Nelson pleaded guilty to criminal impersonation and was sentenced to one year in prison.
Not long after Nelson was released from the Arizona Department of Corrections in 2017, he was charged in the cancer fraud.
The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office has been attempting to restrict Nelson’s movements since his 2017 offenses due to the level of fear his victims have for possible retaliation.
“The defendant is a danger to not only himself but to the community in which he resides,” prosecutors wrote.
Scottsdale Police asks anyone who may have been defrauded by Nelson to contact the agency at 480-312-8141.