A La Plata couple, pretending to be victims of Hurricane Katrina, accepted assistance including gift cards and motel lodging from the American Red Cross and the Waldorf Jaycees, the Charles County sheriff's office said.
Kelvin R. Dunn, 31, and Zenia A. Pebbles-Dunn, 30, are charged with four counts of theft. Police found Dunn on Wednesday night at Robert J. Fuller Transitional House in Waldorf, and Pebbles-Dunn turned herself in at the sheriff's office in La Plata the next day.
On Sept. 20, the couple went with one of their two children to the Waldorf Jaycees, presented what appeared to be an Alabama driver's license and asked for assistance after "coming from the South where the hurricane hit," according to a police report. The Jaycees' staff gave the family two $25 Wal-Mart gift cards and a $20 Food Lion card and provided lodging at a Waldorf motel for seven nights at a cost of $385, the report said.
The couple also applied for assistance at the American Red Cross office in Baltimore, receiving payment for two additional nights at the motel, police said. The Red Cross also sent a $1,265 check to the Dunns, but police said that it was intercepted.
"It's just a shame that somebody like that from down here would take advantage of the donations that people so kindly give to the Red Cross," said Mike Zabko, director of the agency's Southern Maryland chapter. "We're doing everything we can to safeguard those funds. . . . If people are doing unscrupulous things, they're going to get caught."
The threat of fraud is a concern for charitable organizations, especially after a large-scale disaster such as Hurricane Katrina. The American Red Cross is looking into 1,162 cases of alleged fraud in connection with the storm, said Devorah Goldburg, a Red Cross spokeswoman. The organization has a team of fraud investigators and is working with the FBI, the Justice Department's Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force and state and local authorities to protect donations, she said. Goldburg said about 60 percent of the cases have been turned over to law enforcement.
"We prosecute to the fullest" and seek restitution, she said. "If you have defrauded us a certain amount of money, the court mandates you pay it back."
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Red Cross raised more than $1 billion and was defrauded of about $7 million, Goldburg said. After Katrina, she said, cases have involved such schemes as fake Internet sites purporting to collect on behalf of victims, wire fraud and people posing as evacuees.
Police said that Dunn had once lived in Alabama but that he had been in La Plata before, during and after the storm. They said he was not from the part of Alabama hit hard by the hurricane. According to the police report, Dunn said he asked for assistance because his family was homeless and needed help. Dunn also said that although he told people he was from Alabama, he did "not claim to be a hurricane victim. They drew those conclusions themselves," according to the report.
Maggie Schwartz, manager of the Waldorf Motel, where the couple stayed, said they "told us that they were victims of Katrina, that they had lost everything in the hurricane and all they had were the clothes on their back."
Schwartz said they told a heartfelt tale of how their infant son almost drowned in the floodwaters. Schwartz said she and her staff bought the family food, diapers, baby formula, toys and gift certificates to Wal-Mart.
"It was over $400," she said. "We all just really opened up our hearts and gave, gave, gave."
Dunn told police he was trying to start an organization called Harvest Ministry.
"The best we can tell, he's attended church locally but not in any leadership role," said Capt. Joseph Montminy of the sheriff's office. About Harvest Ministry, Montminy said, "I'm not sure it exists."
Schwartz said she called the sheriff's office after she became suspicious about the family. One clue came, she said, when her secretary went onto a Red Cross Web site to arrange direct payment to the motel and found that the Zip code from Dunn's address on his Alabama driver's license was not from the area affected by Katrina. Another red flag, she said, was the couple's car, which had Maryland tags. At that point, she said, it became clear to her:
"I think we've been had," she said.