In an effort to help her neighbors who were affected by the wildfires that claimed 14 lives and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses in her home state of Tennessee earlier this year, country music star and Sevier County native Dolly Parton established a fund for the victims.
Unfortunately, that good deed was tainted by scammers who tried to hijack the fund.
David Dotson, president of the Dollywood Foundation, said on Wednesday that the My People Fund awarded 900 families a total of $9 million in the first six months after the fires.
However, five criminals set up an elaborate scheme to defraud the fund. Debra Kay Catlett, her son, Chad Alan Chambers, and three associates – Rocco Boscalia, Ammie Lyons and Esther Pridemore – have been charged with conspiracy to defraud the Dollywood Foundation’s My People Fund in a sealed presentment handed up by a Sevier County grand jury.
Dotson said the accused scammers were among those who benefited from the fund, but only at first. Thanks to an investigation led by Gatlinburg Police Department Detective Rodney Burns, the scheme was discovered and halted soon after it was launched.
The Knoxville News Sentinel reported on Friday that a Sevier County grand jury charged the five scammers with money laundering, criminal conspiracy and felony theft. An arraignment date hasn’t been set.
Records show that the accused were able to take around $12,000 before their operation was discovered.
“It’s unfortunate but when something good happens, there’s always a handful who want to exploit things,” Dotson said. “They went through extremely elaborate means.”
Chambers is identified in the indictments as the chief architect of the alleged scam, although it was his mother’s database of rental properties that made it possible, according to records reviewed by USA Today Network–Tennessee.
Catlett had worked as a photographer for real estate publications in Sevier County and, as a result, had a database of rental cabins, which contained addresses and owners’ names.
Using that database, the group identified cabins that had burned in the wildfires and used property tax records to create fake leases with forged signatures. The leases were then used to obtain temporary driver’s licenses with those corresponding addresses via a service the Tennessee Department of Safety had established to help wildfire victims whose licenses had been lost in the fires, according to court records.
The scammers presented the temporary driver’s licenses and leases to the My People Fund as proof that they had been displaced by the wildfires when, in fact, none of the five were impacted by the fires. Two of them didn’t even live in Sevier County, and a third was in jail at the time, records show.
Once the Dollywood Foundation realized that the temporary driver’s licenses could be used for the wrong reasons, the foundation stopped accepting those as proof of displacement by the fires.
“No one had to prove anything to get the temporary driver’s licenses,” Dotson said. “We started having suspicions … None of these folks (the alleged scammers) made it through the entire distribution process (before being discovered). Law enforcement responded in a very timely and thorough manner.”
Dotson said each family legitimately displaced by the fire was given $1,000 per month for five months after the deadly blaze, followed by $5,000 in the sixth month. Funds left over after that initial six-month commitment made by Parton and the foundation were then turned over to another wildfire relief organization, Mountain Tough, he said.
The case is being prosecuted by Sevier County Assistant District Attorney General Ron Newcomb.
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