As Tammy Estrada was dealing with the shock of her 24-year-old son’s suicide in July, a co-worker stepped up to help by starting an online GoFundMe campaign to collect money for the family’s funeral costs.
“I felt relieved because this was an unexpected death, and I didn’t know what to do,” said Estrada, 41.
But when she needed the funds to pay off some of the $14,000 in funeral expenses for her son, Christopher Mathews, Estrada said, she learned that her co-worker had pocketed nearly $2,500 from the charity account. The Santa Fe Police Department is investigating the allegations, but officers haven’t released the name of the suspect because she hasn’t yet been arrested or charged with a crime.
“She basically profited from my son’s death,” Estrada said. “And it’s devastating because there were other co-workers who donated, trusting that I would receive that money for the funeral expenses.”
The case is among a growing number of fraud and theft cases involving popular online crowdfunding campaign sites like GoFundMe, which are largely unregulated. While most fundraising campaigns are sincere efforts to help families in need, some are designed to prey on people’s emotions following tragedies.
Hundreds of accounts were set up in the names of victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting, for instance. But The Associated Press, in a report earlier this week, said it found many were vague about how the funds would be used. Some were set up without consulting a victim’s family.
Estrada, who works as a nurse at the Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, said she didn’t seek help covering her son’s funeral expenses. But she welcomed the aid when a family friend asked to set up a fundraiser with the Santa Fe Harley-Davidson store and when she learned that a co-worker at the hospital had set up a GoFundMe account.
“Us as coworkers help each other out when needed,” the GoFundMe account says, adding, “a very well know[n] co-worker Tammy Estrada lost her son today and us a team are asking that we help her and her family out with donations at this time.”
Mathews, who was born Rikki Cisneros but had legally changed his name, took his own life July 15.
Estrada said her son, who had an 8-year-old daughter, had recently been evicted from his home and was unemployed. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression, which made it a challenge for him to keep a job, she said. “We tried to get him help for years.”
In August, Estrada said, she began sending Facebook messages asking the coworker, who she rarely sees because they work different shifts, if she could use some of the funds to pay off funeral debts. But the woman said she couldn’t access the money.
Estrada finally emailed GoFundMe and received a response Wednesday that said the funds had been deposited in the co-worker’s bank account. The email cited three transactions, one July 26 and two July 28, totaling $2,437.47.
The same day, Estrada reported the incident to police.
Greg Gurule, a spokesman for the police department, said Friday that officers are still investigating the case.
Estrada said she feels betrayed.
“It’s awful because my son’s death was such a devastating tragedy,” she said, “and now I’m having to deal with this.”
Contact Uriel J. Garcia at 505-986-3062 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ujohnnyg.