— GoFraudMe (@gofraudme) October 12, 2016
Barry Sutton was working as a civilian contractor when he was killed by a car bomb in Afghanistan last year, but he received a soldier’s homecoming.
Police escorted his casket from the airport to a funeral home in Rome, Ga. People stood on either side of the procession route, waving flags. An honor guard presented colors at his funeral — paying tribute to the former police officer and sheriff’s deputy.
Amid the fanfare, Brandy Holder, a family friend, told people that she wanted to organize something special.
Sutton loved hunting with his three daughters, Summer, Erin and Katlin. Holder said she would organize one last hunting trip for the girls in their father’s memory.
“She just wiggled her way in,” Freddie Sutton, Barry’s older brother, told The Washington Post. “I don’t know how she got put in charge of the idea. I think she sold the kids on it first.”
Holder also sold the community on it.
On a GoFundMe page seeking donations, she called the trip “one more time in the blind for Barry.”
“The dates are already reserved,” the GoFundMe page said. It included pictures of Sutton’s hearse and a photo of his daughters, holding rifles and smiling. The page also quoted scripture and included a picture of Sutton wearing fatigues, framed by American flag-patterned angel wings.
“I am currently searching for a place to have the deer hunt . . . . Part of this money I’m hoping will also go to purchase a special bracelet for each daughter, it will be unique and one of a kind.”
According to his obituary, Barry Dean Sutton had served in the Marines Corps and worked in law enforcement, first with Georgia’s Floyd County Police Department, then with the Floyd County Sheriff’s Office. He was also a school resource officer at Armuchee High School, his alma mater. He was working for DynCorp when he was killed in Kabul at the age of 46, the obituary said.
The donations poured in — nearly $4,800 in all.
It seemed as if everyone in the small town of Armuchee donated, Freddie Sutton said.
The girls “loved duck hunting, deer hunting, any kind of hunting,” Sutton said. “That’s what they did. It made sense. Even the family gave — the cousins and aunts, plus other people in the community.”
Recently, they learned, it was all a lie.
Holder pleaded guilty on Wednesday to felony theft by conversion. She will spend two years in prison and eight on probation.
It’s still unclear what she did with the $4,778.32 from the GoFundMe account. The account has been suspended, but a cached version still exists.
Barry Sutton’s family members, who repeatedly asked where the money was before Holder stopped returning their calls, saw only $400.
It’s the latest example of someone using a crowdfunding website to fraudulently pull at heart strings — and purse strings.
According to the watchdog site GoFraudMe, which featured Holder’s case, GoFundMe raised more than $2 billion as of February. A new campaign is started every 18 seconds. It raises $4 million each day.
Not all of it goes to good people falling on hard times or people in need of an act of kindness during a period of grief.
Earlier this year, Brandy Weaver-Gates was arrested after bilking people for $30,000 by pretending that she had cancer, even shaving her head to complete the ruse.
In September, GoFundMe shut down the campaign of Alexa Coria amid suspicions that her 11-month-old daughter’s accidental death wasn’t really accidental. Coria’s boyfriend is charged with murder, and she is accused of lying to help cover it up.
A GoFundMe spokesman told The Washington Post that it strives to protect donors.
“We deploy proprietary fraud prevention technical tools and have multiple processes to verify the identity of campaign organizers,” said Spokesman Bobby Whithorne. “We also have a dedicated team that works around the clock to monitor fraudulent behavior. We also utilize tools that are on par with the financial services industry in order to prevent fraud.”
He said a small fraction of campaigns are bogus. If GoFundMe finds out, Whithorne said, “we’ll place the funds on hold.”
That didn’t happen in the campaign for Sutton’s children. But Freddie Sutton said he didn’t blame the company. Everybody got played, he said.
“They were my brother’s friends,” he said. “But I think it was planned all along.”
GoFundMe is working with the family to ensure the funds from the campaign go to Sutton’s daughters.
This post has been updated.