Post-massacre, church's town fights over aid
Victims wonder where money went; church is planning $3M rebuild.
Sutherland Springs, the tiny community that banded together after 26 people were shot dead in November, is now being pulled apart by disputes over the money intended to help it heal.
Two donors who raised more than $1.3 million have cut ties with First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, and victims want answers on how donations are being spent, especially after plans for a massive new $3 million church were unveiled.
“This has gotten way out of hand — way out of hand,” said Lisa McNulty, 54, who lost her daughter in the shooting and says she never received donations the church received for her family. “There’s some greed going on, and it’s wrong.”
Church leaders say they’re working hard to distribute funds to victims and their families after receiving thousands of checks from donors around the world. They are following the law, they insist, and aren’t using victims’ relief funds to pay for the new church.
Funding feuds are common in tragedies such as the Sutherland Springs church shooting when huge sums of money collide with fragile emotions, experts said. But if not handled quickly, and properly, they can perpetuate long-term trauma, especially in
a small community.
“There are going to be some people who are not going to be satisfied no matter what,” said Pat Dziuk, head of the church’s Restoration Committee. “God bless them. I know they’re hurting and I’m sorry, but we’re not going to make everyone happy.”
It’s unclear how much cash has flowed into the small community in the six months since Devin P. Kelley targeted First Baptist for his deadly massacre. A Dallas Morning News analysis of dozens of online funds as well as individual and corporate donors has confirmed that at least $3,023,675 has been given since the shooting.
More than $1.4 million was raised through the website GoFundMe.com for specific families. An additional $405,000 was donated to various general victims funds, and more than $1 million in cash and in-kind donations was raised to rebuild the church.
But the $3 million total does not include several other pots of money of unknown amounts, including the church’s victims fund, money raised by supermarket chain H-E-B and potentially dozens of private or unpublicized relief accounts.
H-E-B donated $150,000 to help retrofit victims’ homes, pay their bills and provide them gift cards for gas and groceries. But it has chosen not to disclose how much was raised through customer donations at checkout stands and online, a company spokesman said.
The church also has declined to release information on its fundraising totals because the restoration committee has not counted it all yet, Dziuk said this week. The church has the power to set its own rules for how its funds should be distributed, tax experts said, and unlike other nonprofits, it won’t have to disclose details of these funds to the IRS.
“I’m not going to publish that until I have the funds broken out,” said Dziuk, adding that the church had received “thousands of pieces of mail” it was still working through. The church controls not just these donations, but also money donated to the community association and other relief accounts started at local banks.
“The one big question that everyone is asking is, ‘You’re building this big church. Are victim funds being used for that?’ The answer is absolutely, positively no way,” Dziuk said.
The church issued a fact sheet Thursday that said it’s “working to finalize its initial reports to the membership with regards to donations received and distributions made” and an open letter that said it was “committed to integrity in the allocation of this money.”
Much of the dispute in Sutherland Springs seems to stem from poor communication among the church, the community and the donors, according to multiple interviews with people on both sides of the debate.
Facebook has become the center of the fight, with words like “cult” and “greed” bandied about by those questioning the church’s silence, “lynch mob” and “witch hunt” to refer to those asking questions. One particularly active group was archived due to “threatening messages,” its moderator said.
First Baptist is paying specific victims’ expenses with proof of need, like copies of bills and prescriptions, and is also requiring confidentiality “by all parties.” Earlier this week, the church dramatically modified its application for funds, according to forms posted on Facebook, by removing prohibitions on requests for money “to relieve the consequences of sin, such as bail bonds, drug/ alcohol issues” and limits on how many requests can be made per year.
But some victims thought each family would be getting a lump sum of money like after the Las Vegas shooting. Others wish the church’s process for receiving help was easier to navigate. And still more just want more information about how the money is being spent.
McNulty was hoping to retire before losing her daughter Tara in the shooting. As the sole caregiver for two grandchildren also wounded that day, she worries about providing for them, but hasn’t requested money because she doesn’t want to hand over her personal information.
“My grandson fell down the stairs the other day. I had to take him to the emergency room to make sure that the plate in his leg hadn’t been jostled and moved. Am I supposed to go to the church for $20 for gas and wait two weeks?” she asked. “And I’m sure as heck not going to give them my account numbers.”
McNulty also claims the church has received donations for specific families, including hers, that have not been handed over. The Dallas Morning News reviewed copies of the alleged checks, which were paid to the church with “to the family of Tara McNulty” in the memo line.
Kati Wall, a local teacher who lost her parents in the shooting, said the church helped her cover the salary she lost while she was off work. But it took months to reach the church, she said, and once she did, she had to prove she couldn’t get the money elsewhere before it would help.
“The process is the thing that really bothers me,” Wall said. “What if you need help right now?”
Mike Ritch, who helped raise almost $100,000 for the victims, was upset by stories like these and even thought about asking for his donation back. He’s now cut ties with the church.
“I’ve been asked to do another fundraiser for the victims’ families that fell through the cracks,” said Ritch, the co-founder of Smokin’ Angels BBQ Ministry. “I won’t be doing anything to help this church in the future. Not after the way I’ve seen their leadership treat others from the community.”
Brad Beldon is also stepping back from the church rebuild, for which he helped raise more than $1.1 million (one-third of the $3 million total). It became too difficult after a national Southern Baptist group was brought into the project without his knowledge, he said. In March, he sent a cease-anddesist letter so the church wouldn’t use his nonprofit to continue fundraising.
“I’m so sorry everything has become so controversial as many truly wanted to help the victims of Sutherland Springs,” Beldon recently posted on Facebook. “With that being said, we’ve offered to install the roof on the new sanctuary, when the time comes.”
‘Nothing but helpful’
Pastor Frank Pomeroy and his wife, Sherri, have pointed to IRS rules that charitable organizations must follow.
“Emotions are running high,” Sherri Pomeroy wrote on Facebook on April 5. Mentioning her daughter who died in the shooting, she said, “We lost Belle. While yes it was tragic and unfair and devastating, my financial loss does not compare to someone who lost their breadwinner.”
“Some people believe that we can just simply divide all money that was donated strictly to ‘victims’ or ‘survivors.’ They just don’t understand how complicated that is.”
Dziuk defended the church’s rules, including requirements that victims exhaust other funding means first. He said they “probably” could have distributed the money faster, “but this isn’t the only thing we’re doing. We’re in the process of building a new church.
Many victims have also shrugged off criticism of First Baptist. Kris Workman, who was paralyzed below the waist in the shooting, said the church has “been nothing but helpful for me.”
While Workman has not asked the church for money, receiving funds instead from H-E-B, insurance and the state’s Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund, he said the rules “make perfect sense to me.”
“There seems to be a lot of confusion all around. I think if everyone sat down with the restoration committee like I did, they would better understand,” Workman, a former race-car driver, told The News. “They have explained the policies in place and the logic and reasoning behind them.”
Terri Smith, president of the Sutherland Springs Community Association, said it’s not too late to keep the community together:
“It’s not too late to fix it. Everything in this world is fixable.”
Sheree Rumph of San Antonio prays on Nov. 6 at a row of 26 crosses that were put up near the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs.
Rachel Vasquez places flowers in a fence in November outside the Sutherland Springs Baptist Church to honor victims of the gun massacre there earlier that month. Tensions over aid to victims had grown in recent weeks.