Family of veteran killed in Portland attack fighting over $1.2 million donated by public
By SHANE DIXON KAVANAUGH | The Oregonian (Tribune News Service) | Published: December 2, 2017
It took just days for supporters to raise a seven-figure sum of money for the victims of May's horrific MAX train attack and their families.
It took just weeks for a thorny dispute over the money to break out.
Now, five months later, lawyers for Micah Fletcher and the families of Rick Best and Taliesin Namkai-Meche continue to clash over how to divide nearly three-quarters of $1.6 million raised online after police say Jeremy Christian plunged a knife into all three men's throats.
More than $600,000, raised by a local Muslim community group, was finally given to the families last month, though not before the lawyer for one family threatened legal action.
The rest, raised on GoFundMe by a Portland restaurateur, remains in the hands of the crowdfunding platform as the families struggle to reach an agreement.
The disputes, gleaned from interviews and documents reviewed by The Oregonian/OregonLive, raise difficult questions about financial fairness after a tragedy. How should money be divided between the living and the dead? What is the monetary value of grief and suffering? Who decides who deserves what?
Often, the rush to help results in loosely organized campaigns formed with little foresight and planning.
Deepening the divide in the Portland stalemate, the parties avoided mediation and rejected a common fund-distribution formula used in other well-known national tragedies.
The impasse has taken a toll on those involved, lawyers said.
"Good-hearted people opened their wallets. Now there's a fight over money," said Erin Olson, who is donating her time to represent Namkai-Meche's parents. "My clients are troubled by that. I'm troubled by that. My clients don't want this to become a public spectacle."
They have also placed a great burden on the very people and organizations who came to the aid of those in need.
"Sometimes I feel like it wasn't worth the effort," said Nick Zukin, the restaurateur behind the GoFundMe campaign. "At least I know that the campaign will make a difference for these people's financial future."
HELP RUSHES IN
On May 26, a man later identified as Christian began spewing anti-Muslim threats at two teen girls riding the MAX light rail near the Rose Quarter. One of the girls was wearing a hijab.
The three men stepped in to intervene, police and witnesses said. Christian pulled out a knife and struck them, killing Namkai-Meche, 23, and Best, 53. Fletcher, now 21, was severely wounded.
Within hours of learning about the attack, Zukin created a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for the families of the three men. The effort went viral, at one point pulling in thousands of dollars every few minutes.
Four other crowdfunding efforts cropped up, each attracting a flood of donations. Nearly 35,000 people donated to the five campaigns, which collectively raised more than $1.6 million.
Some of the campaigns, created with a clear beneficiary in mind, have gone smoothly.
One, on the site YouCaring, raised nearly $150,000 for the girls who witnesses say Christian had targeted. A GoFundMe campaign organized by a friend of Fletcher's, meanwhile, drummed up nearly $275,000 to help pay for the survivor's hospital bills.
The money from those campaigns was distributed to the intended beneficiaries, according to both companies.
The disputes involve the two campaigns that raised the largest sums of money and solicited funds to assist the three men or their families.
Zukin's "Tri Met Heroes" ultimately topped $586,000 from 11,000 donors.
The Tigard-based Muslim Educational Trust brought even more. Its "Muslims Unite for Portland Heroes" raised $610,000 also from 11,000 donations worldwide, bringing the two funds' total to almost $1.2 million.
"It was really beyond anything we could have imagined," said Wajdi Said, the group's president.
HORNS QUICKLY LOCK
The euphoria didn't last.
Correspondence and other documents show lawyers for each family began communicating weeks after the attack about how to divvy up the funds. Disagreements emerged almost immediately.
Olson, the attorney for the parents of Namkai-Meche, who graduated from Reed College in 2016, proposed in a June 26 email that both funds be split equally into thirds. She indicated Fletcher was "agreeable" to the arrangement.
The Best family was not. In a July 13 letter, lawyer Robert J. Miller argued his clients should receive most of the money because Best, an Army veteran and his household's breadwinner, left behind a wife and four children. He added that Namkai-Meche's mother, Asha Deliverance, ran a successful business and was financially stable.
Miller also wrote that Fletcher should receive little or no money from Zukin or Muslim Educational Trust because he had survived the attack, later had his medical bills waived, and would receive nearly $300,000 from the separate crowdfunding campaign.
Olson called Miller's proposal a "non-starter."
At one point, Fletcher, a Portland State University student, proposed to forgo any funds raised by Zukin if they were shared equally between the dead men's families, according to documents and his lawyer, Rosemary Brewer, of the nonprofit Oregon Crime Victims Law Center, which provides free representation to its clients.
The Best family balked at the offer.
"We didn't feel like that was an acceptable resolution," Miller, who declined to disclose his financial arrangement with the family, told The Oregonian/OregonLive.
Nothing appears to have changed.
Documents show the lawyers repeatedly discussed using mediation to settle the remaining funds. Olson at one point suggested the attorneys consult with the National Compassion Fund, an independent organization that has helped administer victims' funds for tragedies such as the Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech and Pulse Nightclub shootings.
The lawyers' proposals also deviate from the way that funds have been distributed after other notorious attacks in recent years, said Kenneth Feinberg, a leading expert on mediation and alternate dispute resolution.
Feinberg helped create funds for those killed or injured by the 9/11 attacks, the Boston Marathon bombing and other large-scale tragedies. He said he employs a standard formula for distributing money. All families of those killed, he said, receive the exact sum of money, regardless of dependents or economic circumstances. Victims who survived, meanwhile, receive a proportionally smaller sum of money unless they've sustained debilitating physical injury.
"Is it just? I wouldn't say it's just. I wouldn't say it's fair," Feinberg said in an interview. "Funds like these are mercy, plain and simple. How can any amount of money bring back a lost loved one?"
THE TOLL OF GIVING
The donations and ensuing struggle speak to a broader question: Should donors who give to charity have a stake – emotional or logistical – once money has left their hands?
People who give to those suffering after a crisis tend to want to see their money go to good use, said Princeton Professor Peter Singer, who has written and lectured extensively about altruism and giving.
"I don't think people should be expected to give with no strings attached or no judgment," Singer said. "They should only give if it should do some good.
"And if a lot of their donation is going to lawyers' fees, it is reasonable for them to feel that their gift has been at least partially wasted."
Fletcher and the families of the slain men declined to be interviewed for this story. Each of the lawyers said their clients were moved by the overwhelming generosity and that they hoped the ongoing dispute would not reflect otherwise.
"There was an incredible outpouring of support by those who set up the crowdfunding accounts and donated to them," Brewer said. "Micah is incredibly grateful to the community."
After several months, donors began to see their gifts pay off. The Muslim Educational Trust moved ahead to distribute the money it raised. In mid-November, the group said it would split the funds into thirds among Fletcher and the Best and Namkai-Meche families.
Miller, the Best family lawyer, sent a letter to the organization's attorneys, who are providing free representation, calling the decision a breach of "fiduciary duties" that could "be subject to appropriate legal remedies."
Said, the Muslim Educational Trust president, said the organization intended to distribute the money equally among the three. It had taken the group's attorneys several months to finalize disbursements because donations continued to trickle in through October.
"Our goal was always to heal, not to divide," Said told The Oregonian/OregonLive, adding that he was disheartened by the disputes.
The fate of the funds raised by Zukin, meanwhile, remains uncertain. He said that he and his lawyers, who are also providing free representation, have developed a distribution plan based on the number of survivors in the family, which would leave the Best family with a majority of the fund.
Zukin said that they are working with the lawyers from all the families and GoFundMe to get the funds distributed.
"It probably would have been easier if everyone would have just been willing to come together and talk this through in the beginning," he said. "But I will keep moving forward as fast as they will allow me."
That leads to the final hurdle: GoFundMe says it won't release any money until everyone agrees on a deal.
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