The large wooden pieces cut a moving display of patriotism: handmade American flags that occasionally bear the name of a fallen hero.
Churned out of a pig barn next to Troy and Ranemma Walker’s Norwood Young America home — with help from her mother and his buddies working, Troy said, only in exchange for beer and food — the signature products of Dog Tag Furniture Inc. have attracted national media attention for the noble cause they supported.
“When I found out not one veteran organization’s sole purpose is to provide financial assistance [for funerals] that’s how Dog Tag got started,” said Troy Walker, a 10-year Army veteran, on Fox News’ “Fox and Friends” last year. “I’ve done it in my garage, I’ve made over 100 flags. I keep doing it. I’ve got it down to a pretty good system.”
But now Walker’s nonprofit is under federal law enforcement scrutiny after authorities discovered that nearly all of the $490,000 raised in the past year has instead allegedly helped pay for personal expenses like tattoos, private school tuition, mortgage payments and a family trip to Disney World.
Agents looking for evidence of fraud and money laundering raided Walker’s home earlier this month, according to court papers, seizing business records, electronics and even raffle tickets for a planned Oct. 13 “build-a-thon” fundraiser that, like Dog Tag Furniture itself, is now staring at an uncertain future.
According to an affidavit filed this month by a U.S. postal inspector who successfully applied to search the Walkers’ property, bank records for Dog Tag Furniture debunked multiple public Facebook and Twitter posts claiming that donors had helped the nonprofit pay for military funerals.
“This is what your funds paid for today,” Walker wrote in one Dog Tag Furniture Facebook post last December, linking to a veteran’s obituary. “[His] family’s pain was eased a little. He received a full military honor funeral and was buried with the respect he earned, because of YOU!”
But, U.S. Postal Inspector Christine Kroells wrote, pointing to bank records reviewed by the government, “it does not appear that any Dog Tag Furniture funds were used to pay for D.D.W.’s funeral.”
Through media appearances and online posts, Walker claimed that Dog Tag Furniture helped families pay for at least 200 funerals, paying $3,600 apiece on average. But, citing at least four alleged false claims online, Kroells added that investigators could find evidence of only $3,295 of the $490,000 raised between August 2017 and July 2018 actually going toward any funeral expenses.
Walker, who has said he started the initiative after first helping raise money to pay for the funeral of one of his “battle buddies” who died by suicide, claimed all proceeds from donations or wooden flag sales went into helping families of veterans bury their loved ones. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs provides only a $300 “burial allowance” and up to $762 for a plot for veterans who experience “non-service-connected” deaths. Service members who die in combat receive a roughly $2,100 allowance.
“We paid for many funerals of ... people I call family,” Walker writes on his website. “We continue to assist families and NEED YOUR HELP. WITHOUT YOU WE CANNOT CONTINUE!”
But, according to Kroells, $9,000 of what donors sent Dog Tag Furniture instead helped pay for a Walker family trip to Disney World; $17,000 covered mortgage payments and another $19,000 was paid to a media strategies company. Walker allegedly also used $66,000 for payroll expenses and paid $7,000 to a law firm representing him in a dispute with the city, according to Kroells.
According to Dog Tag Furniture’s website and previous media interviews, Walker acknowledged that the company was first founded as a for-profit to raise money for the Disney vacation — which the family took earlier this year — before the couple shifted its focus following the suicide of Walker’s friend.
Marsh Halberg, an attorney for the Walkers, said in an interview this week that rather than orchestrating a fraud scheme, the Walkers instead became overwhelmed by their nonprofit’s sudden national media exposure and the ensuing flood of interested donors. Halberg said “thousands and thousands” of flags have been delivered to donors as promised.
“There are a couple of different issues,” Halberg said. “Did people get what they paid for? Two, are funerals actually being paid for — and our answer is yes. ... This is not a get-rich scheme. These people are living very modestly and their board is aware of what they are doing.”
Ranemma Walker is listed as chair of the board and treasurer on Dog Tag Furniture’s website. Meanwhile, the nonprofit is also still listed as “active/in good standing” on the Minnesota Secretary of State’s website.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the ongoing investigation.
“We hope that they follow the money and show that this is a small organization that got overwhelmed quickly and tried to do their best to make sure everything was in place as quickly as they could and with no criminal intent,” Halberg said.