AURORA, Colo. — The families of some of the victims of the Aurora theater tragedy spoke at an organized press conference Thursday, alleging the overseers of a prominent memorial fund are withholding millions of dollars that were intended for them.
Family members told emotional, personal accounts and accused the non-profit organization Giving First of political posturing, deceit and the improper usage of their murdered loved ones in an effort to obtain over $5 million in donations.
Arizona resident Tom Teves, the father of slain 24-year-old Alex Teves, read a statement and did the majority of speaking for the victims. He said the administrators of the fund did not distribute any donations to the victims or their families until pressed by the group that stood before the media Thursday.
“We’re certain that everyone who has donated their hard-earned wages expected those funds to go directly the the victims,” Teves said. “Giving First used photos of our murdered loved ones to promote the charity, promising the money would go directly to victims. Giving First then informed the victims they would receive no checks.
“They informed us this was consistent with Giving First’s mission statement. We took exception with that process.”
Teves consistently stressed that the victims weren’t demanding all the donations go directly to the them and their families. The group, he said, just wants a “robust voice” in the conversation about how the funds will be distrusted. To date, Teves said there is not a single victim on any board making decisions about the disbursement of the donations.
Teves went on to define his group’s broad definition of the term “victim.”
“We define victim as anyone inside the theater or apartment complex” of suspected gunman James Holmes, Teves said. “Anyone who has been physically or emotionally harmed or murdered (is a victim). That group includes family members. We’re extremely inclusive with that term.”
When it came to dealing with the defined group of victims, Teves said Giving First and the Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance (COVA), one of the 10 non-profits that Teves said had previously received a $350,000 portion of the memorial funds, were dismissive until the victims’ families began to mobilize.
After issuing an ultimatum that the victims wanted “robust” inclusion on a memorial fund disbursement committee by Aug. 17, Teves said COVA sent $5,000 checks to the families of the 12 individuals who were killed in the attack. He said the two non-profit organizations then went to the local media touting the 7/20 Recovery Committee, which was organized to make decisions about the memorial fund distribution.
Teves said that sparked a dialogue between the victims and the committee, which he said ended in the committee suggesting that if the victim’s families wanted donations, perhaps “we should start our own fund,” Teves said.
Unsatisfied with that exchange and their continued lack of inclusion on a decision-making body, Teves said the victims group threatened to go to the media on Aug. 24. That, he said, sparked a response from COVA.
“They admitted our inquires to Giving First had accelerated the process in getting the $5,000 checks,” Teves said. “They said Giving First had handled communication about the memorial fund poorly and they said they would stop disbursement of the funds until the victim’s families were better represented.”
The victims’ families received an email 36 hours later — the first correspondence from any of the non-profit organizations, Teves said — saying the 7/20 Recovery Committee had been established. There was no victim representation on that committee, Teves said.
That is what brought the victims’ families — and some victims displaying the physical scars of the attack in the form of casts and splints — before the media Tuesday, Teves said. From there, Teves turned the microphone over to members of the group behind him.
Chantel Blunk, the young wife of slain 24-year-old Jonathan Blunk, was among the most vocal when describing how she has been attempting to care for the two children Jonathan left behind.
Blunk didn’t just accuse COVA of acting improperly, she accused office members at the non-profit organization of treating her rudely when she asked for funds to fly to Denver from her home in Reno, Nev. to attend one of accused gunman James Holmes’ hearings.
Claiming her 4-year-old daughter Haley has been having nightmares and asking if her mom is ever going to bring her dad back from one her trips to Colorado, Chantel said she “begged” a representative at the COVA office for funds that would allow her to buy a plane ticket for her daughter in an effort to bring the child closure.
“They told me there was no more funding,” Chantel said. “The lady just said no. She didn’t even say sorry. And then she told me this was the last plane ticket I was going to be receiving.”
After apologizing to a member of the governors office for an outburst earlier this month, Teves challenged Governor John Hickenlooper to hold the non-profit he publicly recommended responsible for actions he believes to be morally reprehensible.
“Governor Hickenlooper, we allowed you into our families at the worst times in our lives,” Teves said. “You pledged you would remember us. Are you a man of your word, or were those just words?
“What we demand is a robust voice in how this fund is implemented,” Teves finished. “Evil started all of this. Good has to finish it.”
Will C. Holden, KDVR.