Post-mas­sacre, church's town fights over aid

Vic­tims won­der where money went; church is plan­ning $3M re­build.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Lau­ren McGaughy

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.”

Mil­lions do­nated

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.”

Poor com­mu­ni­ca­tion

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.”

JAY JANNER / AMERICANSTATESMAN 2017

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.

ERIC GAY / AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS 2017

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.

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