Aurora Theater Shooting

National Compassion Fund Helps Victims of Aurora Theater Shooting, Other Tragedies

"You do not want to be a victim in this country." — Tom Teves, father of Aurora theater shooting victim Alex Teves

More than seventy victims of mass killings from the last twenty years and their families — many connected to the Aurora theater shooting and the Columbine massacre — have come together to make sure that donations intended for victims go directly to them, and to prevent organizations from preying on people during the most grievous time of their lives. This is what many people in this nationwide network say happened after a mass tragedy shook their lives.

The group helped form the National Compassion Fund (NCF) in 2013, in the wake of the Aurora theater shootings. On July 20, 2012, a masked man opened fire in a crowded Aurora movie theater, leaving twelve dead and seventy more wounded; closing arguments in the trial of the killer start tomorrow in the Arapahoe County Courthouse. After the theater killing spree, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper called on the Community First Foundation to start collecting money for the victims. The Aurora Victim Fund was created and the first $100,000 raised was disbursed to local nonprofits and government agencies, such as Aurora Mental Health and the Aurora Chamber of Commerce.

But diverting funds from injured victims to groups is not what Americans intended when they donated to the fund, NCF members say, pointing out that some victims of the crime aren’t in the Denver area. Many families of the deceased live out-of-state, as do dozens of survivors, some of whom still face large medical bills for ongoing physical conditions.

Tom Teves, who lost his son Alex in the Aurora shooting, and Anita Busch, whose cousin Mikayla Medek died in the theater, called Community First weeks after the massacre to ask for money to meet immediate needs. Community First advised the two to consult the organization’s mission statement, which said it gives solely to other nonprofits. After that, Teves became the spokesman for the 82 named theater victims and their loved ones while Busch worked aggressively behind the scenes to bring immediate support to families in need. Teves took their battle to the media frontlines in August 2012 and publicly accused Community First of handling the Aurora Victim Fund irresponsibly.

“We’re certain that everyone who has donated their hard-earned wages expected those funds to go directly the the victims,” Teves said in a press conference. Community First “used photos of our murdered loved ones to promote the charity, promising the money would go directly to victims. (They) then informed the victims they would receive no checks.”

Eventually, Hickenlooper called in Ken Feinberg, who arbitrated funds for 9/11, the BP oil spill and the Virginia Tech shooting, to handle the Aurora Victim Fund. The money was entirely disbursed by November 2012, but some victims received nothing because of the limited funds and the number of people affected by the Aurora catastrophe.

Aurora survivors Stefan Moton, Caleb Medley and Ashley Moser will be in wheelchairs the remainder of their lives. Heather Snyder lost a finger, and Ryan Lumba had his small intestine removed, rendering him unable to eat or exercise normally. Bonnie Kate Zoghbi walks with crutches after nine surgeries on her leg, with more anticipated. Dozens others experience chronic pain and ongoing anxiety, and will require further medical procedures for their injuries.

“You do not want to be a victim in this country,” says Teves, who believes the Aurora funds wouldn’t have been released had they not fought for it. (Community First Foundation declined to comment for this story.)

Zack Meltzer was the first to advise Busch to look into the Aurora funds, “because it happened to us,” he says. Meltzer lost his 34-year-old son in the September 11, 2001 attacks. “I advised them to fight harder at the beginning,” Meltzer recalls. “(After 9/11), I felt so alone and helpless. Who was I to fight these big charities?”

Meltzer says that he, along with thousands of others affected by 9/11, were re-victimized by the Red Cross. In the months following the 2001 tragedy, the big-name nonprofit spent $147 million on September 11 relief, less than one-third of the $543 million that was pledged. The organization’s president resigned in October 2001, and the Red Cross dispersed most of the remaining funds over the following five years.

The sour funding experiences for victims of 9/11 and Aurora are not unique. Eighteen years after the Oklahoma City bombings, money stopped reaching survivors who were promised various forms of aid while $10 million sat in the Oklahoma City Community Foundation. Victims of the Columbine High School shooting unaffectionately renamed the Mile High United Way’s fundraising effort — the Healing Fund — the Stealing Fund. Virginia Tech victims accused the university of keeping hundreds of millions dollars in donations meant for people directly affected by the event.

This is why the NCF was formed: to make giving money to people harmed by mass tragedies more transparent, trustworthy and stress-free for donors and recipients. And, above all, to make sure that 100 percent of funds go directly to victims.

“We started to build this group, and as we compared notes we saw a pattern,” says Scott Larimer, whose 27-year-old son, Navy Petty Officer Third Class John Larimer, died in the Aurora theater shootings.

The NCF formalized its operations under the National Center for Victims of Crime when it reached out to victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting; Christina Hassinger, daughter of Sandy Hook Dawn Hochsprung, is now an active part of the group. The NCF set up its first fund in response to the 2014 Fort Hood shooting that left three people dead. Hassinger and family members of victims of different mass shootings together contacted organizers of funds for those affected by the killings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

“We're a family of survivors making sure that victims and survivors in the future don't get taken advantage of,” says Amar Kaleka, who lost his father, Satwant Kaleka Singh, in the Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting in 2012. Kaleka sits on the board of the NCF.

Victims say they know best what other victims need. Those directly affected by a mass killing should always have a say in how money is disbursed and spent, they argue, and the process of obtaining funds should be simple. This was not the case for many Aurora victims and others, who say they had to fight tooth-and-nail to have money released to them.

NCF supporter Eric Mace, who lost his daughter Ryanne Mace in the 2009 Northern Illinois University killings, says no one should dictate how victims should heal. Although he felt helpless after losing his only child, he says he felt empowered by the ability to help others with the donations he received. “There’s a point at which you feel absolutely helpless,” Mace explains. “You couldn’t stop your daughter’s murder. You can’t find the person that did it, you can’t take revenge. But you have this unbelievable fire of energy that you have to do something. That’s the only thing you have to reclaim.”

Caren Teves, mother of Alex, says that people can’t imagine what victims still go through. Aurora victims’ families received death threats after the shooting, which began again when the killer went on trial this past spring. Larimer says that when his wife Googled her own name in a computer course, she was presented with photos of her son’s murderer. 

Busch still wonders if Aurora victims received all the money raised on their behalf. The third anniversary of the shootings is next Monday, and people harmed in the theater shooting are still struggling to keep their heads above water financially, she says.

With closing arguments in the trial this week, NCF members plan to ramp up effort to refocus the public’s attention on victims’ needs and away from the killer. They hope people will choose to give, knowing with certainty that their donation will directly go to the victims it’s intended for.

The NCF operates under the umbrella of the nonprofit National Center of Victims of Crime, which helps allow 100 percent of money given to the fund to go directly to victims. Find out more about donating to the National Compassion Fund here. Lo Snelgrove is a second-year journalism master’s student in the College of Media, Communication and Information at the University of Colorado Boulder. CU News Corps is a news project within the Department of Journalism in the CMCI at CU-Boulder; read more CU News Corp coverage of the Aurora shootings here.

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