Aurora theater shooting: Victims' families still concerned about donation disbursement

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In August, family members of eleven victims killed in the Aurora theater shooting came together for a joint press conference to express their concern that millions of dollars donated in their loved ones' names were not reaching them.

Three weeks and three meetings later, some of them say they still lack a strong voice in the process and don't know how the money will ultimately be disbursed.

"We just feel strung along. In the last three meetings, we have accomplished very little," says Jessica Watts, cousin of Jonathan Blunk, 26, who was killed in the July 20 massacre at the Century 16 theater. "These families may not get money for quite some time, weeks or months, and there's an immediate need."

The officials in charge of the funds argue that they are trying to be as efficient as possible, while ensuring that the process is fair.

Since the shooting, a little over $5 million has been donated for the victims and their families through a local nonprofit organization called Giving First as well as the Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance. So far, seventy families of those killed and injured in the shooting have each received $5,000. That's $350,000 total, leaving millions of dollars that still have to be disbursed.

An entity called the 7/20 Recovery Committee, made up of community representatives and local government leaders, is now charged with distributing the remaining funds.

At this stage, no family members of victims have a voting seat on that committee. That's part of the reason the families decided to call the August press conference, at which they also lamented the overall lack of transparency from the organizations involved.

Since that press conference, Watts tells us, there have been three official meetings involving family members -- one on the Friday after the news conference, another on Tuesday, September 4, and the third this past Saturday.

And there's still no clear plan of action, says Watts, 28, who has gone to every meeting and attended each court date of suspect James Holmes.

"We are still having a hard time getting [the families of the victims] a fair amount of input," she maintains. "We want to be able to have an opinion and a say in what's going on."

She adds: "Basically, their response to us is, 'We need to have more meetings. We need to take all these steps in order to get the money where it needs to go.'"

Repeating a message that was common at the lengthy press conference in August, Watts says: "It's not about us getting rich.... What we are asking for is a robust voice in this whole matter."

Continue reading for response from a special advisor to the 7/20 Committee. Rich Audsley, a special adviser to the 7/20 Committee, tells us the group is going to confer membership to family members. In addition, an advisory committee will be established, thereby giving many more family members an opportunity to make recommendations to the official voting "executive committee."

The meetings so far, he says, are "part of a broader process to determine the best, equitable way to distribute the funds of the Aurora theater victim fund."

He adds: "From the very beginning, the committee knew that the [family members] needed to have representation on the committee."

Audsley, formerly with United Way, was brought in as an adviser and is not a voting member. He says the executive committee has nine members on it and will probably expand to around fifteen thanks to additional family member representation.

"We've been very transparent in terms of communicating with the victims," he says, noting that the committee could not initially contact the victims due to a gag order surrounding the case.

He says a little over a month from now, he hopes the committee will have come up with a concrete "distribution plan" surrounding the remaining funds. "Then, we will get out the distribution to the victims as quickly as possible," he says.

Audsley can't say exactly when the money will reach victims, because each family has unique circumstances. Some may be out of state and others could be looking to set up specific trust funds in their loved ones' names.

"We are fully aware of the urgency and speed that is needed," he says, but adds, "We want to make sure we take the time that is needed to get this right."

Watts says she is going to attend every meeting until this is resolved, noting that after the shooting, she visited the site where crosses were put up for the twelve victims and made a promise to her cousin.

"I told him that I would be here with all of this through the end, and I would make sure that I was there representing him," she says.

She adds, "There is no amount of money in the world that will bring back my cousin or their daughters, sons, husbands. Our loss is permanent."

More from our Aurora Theater Shooting archive: "Aurora theater shooting: Bizarre court filing blames massacre on police chief, Illuminati"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.

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