Hours after 74-year-old Robert Godwin Sr. was killed in cold blood on a neighborhood street in Cleveland, crowdfunding pages for the slain man’s family began popping up online.
One of those pages was created by Facebook user Wesley Scott Alexander, a stranger 2,000 miles away in Phoenix. He wrote online that he had seen the horrific video showing Godwin’s shooting death and thought it was “disgusting.”
His goal was to raise $20,000 “and help the family cope,” he wrote. In less than 24 hours, the page had exceeded that goal, raising more than $33,000 — including $4,500 in a single hour.
“Social Media never ceases to amaze me,” Alexander said.
There was just one problem.
While donations were pouring into the GoFundMe page he set up, the Godwin family was warning the public not to donate to GoFundMe due to the proliferation of fake pages.
“We’ve gotten word from Mr. Godwin’s family that there are several GoFundMe accounts set up not by the family,” Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams said at a news conference Monday morning. “So they’re asking people not to contribute to any GoFundMe or any memorial or any account right now in Mr. Godwin’s name.”
Debbie Godwin, who was identified in news reports at Godwin’s daughter, further warned people about it on Facebook, saying that the family would not be setting up a GoFundMe page.
The confusing sequence of events — in which good and bad intentions become difficult to separate — has become a routine element of tragedies that capture the public’s attention. In the aftermath of those tragedies, scam artists are quick to take advantage of the public’s innate desire to reassure victims and inject order and compassion into chaotic situations.
“If you have questions about a campaign, you should first try to contact the Campaign Organizer directly by visiting their campaign and clicking or tapping the envelope icon to send them a direct message,” GoFundMe writes on its page on safety. If you still have concerns that a page is misleading or fraudulent, let our team know by reporting it here.”
In the wake of the Godwin killing, GoFundMe is trying to resolve the problem so that donations can continue. GoFundMe spokesman Bobby Whithorne said in a statement that it’s not uncommon for numerous crowdfunding pages to be set up for one victim.
But, Whithorne told The Washington Post, in the case of Alexander’s page, the site has “spoken with the GoFundMe campaign organizer, members of the family, and local authorities. We’ll guarantee the money will be deposited directly into the family’s bank account.”
Asked whether this is protocol, Whithorne said, “We monitor the entire platform. We ensure the funds raised go to the family or [are] refunded to the donor.”
Whithorne suggested that people use Alexander’s page for donations for the Godwin family.
“GoFundMe has vetted this campaign and it’s authentic,” he added. “They are in direct communication with the family and have confirmed all funds will be deposited directly into their bank account. This is the only campaign verified by the family.”
Alexander could not immediately be reached for comment, but he noted on Facebook that several fake campaigns had sprung up, while his had been endorsed.
“I am just a kid from Arizona who unfortunately saw this video on Facebook and wanted to help,” he wrote on his GoFundMe page. “Take initiative. I’ll post photos of me delivering the help. I know this won’t bring their loved one back but it’s the least we can do. I hope they find peace.”
Police say Godwin was killed by 37-year-old Steve Stephens, who pulled up in his Ford Fusion on a road in east Cleveland about 2 p.m. Sunday. Stephens was later seen in a Facebook video saying, “I found somebody I’m about to kill.”
“I’m about to kill this guy right here. He’s an old dude,” Stephens said as he approached Godwin, who was reportedly walking on a sidewalk looking for aluminum cans to collect.
“Can you do me a favor?” he said to Godwin before asking him to say the name Joy Lane.
“Joy Lane?” Godwin responded.
“Yeah,” Stephens then replied. “She’s the reason why this is about to happen to you.”
The video showed him ask Godwin how old he was, then raise a gun and pull the trigger. The camera spun around; when the picture came into focus, Godwin was on the ground.
It all lasted less than a minute.
This story has been updated.