Aurora shooting shows: After tragedy comes controversy

USA TODAY, September 4, 2012

By Yamiche Alcindor and Oren Dorell

Colin Goddard got $100,000 in victim compensation after being shot in the Virginia Tech massacre. A friend injured in the same classroom got much less.

Goddard doesn’t agree with the reasoning.

“She was right next to me. She was terrorized for the same amount of time,” said Goddard, 26, of the attack by Seung-Hui Cho that left 32 dead on April 16, 2007.

Such disparities are at the heart of a controversy seen almost as often as mass tragedies in America. Public donations for survivors, victims and their families often lead to contentious debates between the organizations entrusted with millions of dollars and the victims who want more say in how the money is distributed.

The latest example is the movie-house shooting in Aurora, Colo., that left 12 dead and 57 injured. Families of 11 victims who died called a news conference last week to criticize fundraisers for not giving them a voice in how $5 million in public donations will be administered.

Decisions on how to collect money, how to give it away and what restrictions, if any, will be placed on recipients come with every horrific tragedy. Some experts believe victims should decide how to use the money, while others say charities know victim needs best.

“Anytime a compensation fund is established it immediately triggers questions about how soon, who and how much,” said Kenneth Feinberg, an attorney who administered funds set up for victims of 9/11, Virginia Tech and the BP oil spill. “The American legal system is very cold. If you get hit by a bus and you’re a stock broker, you’re going to get more money. These special funds are no different. Everyone counts other people’s money.”

The only way to ease that anger, he said, is to get money to victims fast and with few strings attached. Others, such as those running the Aurora Victim Relief Fund, disagree and say they would rather funnel the money through non-profits who will decide how to help victims.

Cheryl Haggstrom, executive vice president of the Community First Foundation running Aurora’s fund, defended their two-step process. She said her organization doesn’t have the means to track how individuals spend and finds it easier to report money given to agencies that have contact with victims.

After tragedies, people might not think clearly, said Nancy Anthony, president of Oklahoma City Community Foundation. She helped give out donations after the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people.

After the bombing, victims and their families expressed anger at how payouts were handled and the limits placed on them, Anthony said.

“What’s happened to them might have compromised their ability to be rational,” Anthony said. “You’re not trying to be paternalistic, but you’re trying to help people make good judgments about what they should do to go forward.”

That type of thinking enrages some victims and their families who say they have varying needs and are capable of making decisions.

Melisa Cowden, whose ex-husband Gordon Cowden was killed in the Aurora shooting, knows best what she and her four children need now that they depend solely on her income, she said.

“I would much rather … not ask for permission and do with it as I see fit,” she said of the money. Instead, she’s left feeling embarrassed and overwhelmed as she tries to make her case to fund administrators.

Every victim fund run by Feinberg allowed people to spend the money as they wished, he said. In the cases of 9/11 and Virginia Tech, families had to agree not to sue. Both incidents, however, had their own controversies.

Several families after 9/11 criticized Feinberg and others for unfairly dividing the $7 billion distributed in the 33 months after the attacks. Money only went to the families of those killed or physically injured; in addition, the victim’s salary at the time of the attack was taken into consideration. Anyone who escaped the towers unharmed received nothing.

Sgt. Tim Sumner’s brother-in-law, Lt. Joseph G. Leavey, a New York City firefighter, was killed in 9/11. He cautioned that families should be patient and not take their frustrations with the tragedy out on those trying to help them. He added, however, that families must decide for themselves how to use donations.

“The intent of these donations is obviously to aid the families and not to aid these charities,” he said, calling Anthony’s assertions “ridiculous.”

After the 1999 Columbine massacre, families complained publicly about how the funds were being distributed. Even the definition of who was a victim was a matter of dispute, said Brian Rohrbough, whose 15-year-old son, Daniel, was among 13 people killed by two Columbine High School students.

Rohrbough recognized victims as people who were injured or killed. But United Way, which raised about $5 million after the shooting, had a much more inclusive definition, at one point offering $1,000 to people who watched news about the incident on television, he says. Mile High United Way did not return messages left seeking comment.

The same issue is at play in Aurora. Tom Teves, whose son Alex was killed in the shooting, said the families’ definition of a victim is “extremely inclusive.”

“We define a victim as anyone inside the theater or the apartment complex who has been physically or emotionally harmed or murdered as a direct or indirect result of the coward’s actions,” and their family members, Teves said.

After Columbine, money was raised using the names of those killed or injured, and donors expected that money to go to families, Rohrbough said. “Yet this foundation was set up with the direct intention of doing everything except directly helping the families,” he said.

United Way quickly agreed to give half the money it raised to the victims’ families, Rohrbough says. “The rest had already been given away” to groups associated with the United Way.

Rohrbough says he confronted a United Way leader on a live television interview about how many victims they had spoken to. “They hadn’t talked with one,” he says.

Charity leaders “blame the victim because they’re caught in their fraudulent behavior,” he says. “They attack the victim to have them shut up.”

He has choice words for the fundraising after Columbine and current effort in Aurora: scam and fraud.

To keep things fair after Virginia Tech, money was given out equally to those who lost a family member despite the victim’s income, Feinberg said. Money for the injured was based on how many days a person spent in the hospital.

For Goddard, who was shot four times and spent six days in the hospital, that meant he got more than $100,000 and the cost of his undergraduate tuition. But, he still wrestles with how victims were categorized.

A friend who was grazed in the back of the head and spent only a couple of hours in the hospital had to choose between cash and the cost of school. The choice infuriated her and her family.

Now, when Goddard, who had to write essays about the shooting and his injuries to get money, hears funds are being collected after a tragedy he anticipates problems.

“When you try to put a value to a dead family member or an injured family member, it gets really difficult,” he said. “I know that there are families with the Aurora shooting that won’t be happy with how the process plays out.”