At least four online fundraising campaigns on a popular website have raised more than $310,000 in less than a week on behalf of the loved ones of Philando Castile, who was fatally shot by a police officer in Falcon Heights.
Representatives of the family, however, advised in an e-mail on Tuesday that all donations be sent to Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church at 501 W. Lawson Av. in St. Paul and not to the GoFundMe efforts.
In their few days of existence, each GoFundMe page has been peppered with questions about their legitimacy and whether the money will actually go to the stated recipients.
While GoFundMe officials say online that it's up to potential donors to size up what's legitimate, a spokesman for the crowdfunding site said Tuesday that the company seeks to weed out fraud.
"It's important to understand," GoFundMe spokesman Bobby Whithorne told the Star Tribune, "that fraudulent campaigns make up less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all GoFundMe campaigns. We have a thorough verification process, deploy proprietary technical tools, and a dedicated team … works around the clock to monitor fraudulent behavior."
The most successful of the four campaigns invoking Castile's memory was started by Xavier L. Burgin, a filmmaker working in Los Angeles who doesn't know the family. He was motivated to help because "I've seen these problems before" of young black men being killed by police in the United States, he told the Star Tribune Tuesday.
His fundraising page roared past its $100,000 goal and stands at more than $187,800, with the sole stated recipient Valerie Castile, Philando's mother. Burgin repeatedly reassured visitors to his page of his good intentions.
He first set the campaign's goal at $20,000 "to make sure I wasn't asking too much," he said Tuesday, but soon raised it several times over after being "truly shocked and inspired by how much people want to help and wanted to give."
Burgin said the process of transferring the money to Castile's mother is nearly complete, promising that he's receiving "not a nickel."
"GoFundMe gets in touch with her and gets her information from her to confirm that she is who she says she is," he said. From there, he said, the money is moved to a bank account that she controls. "They're doing all of that process now," he said.
Now that his involvement is over, Burgin is directing potential donors to a GoFundMe page set up by Allysza Castile, Philando's sister.
So far, her page has collected more than $68,000, and the doubters have surfaced there as well. One wrote: "This is the 3rd gofundme page for your family members funeral. … It looks like the family is making money off this man's death. I'm sorry. This is just wrong."
Another GoFundMe page was initiated by Verquisha Powers, who said she has been friends for roughly 10 years with Philando Castile and his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, the woman in the car when Castile was shot. Her page stands at more than $53,900.
And just like the others, Powers addressed fears of a rip-off: "I wanted to clarify a few things regarding this fundraiser since I have gotten a few inquiries. This page is specifically for Diamond 'Lavish' and her daughter's future. We are transparent with what the funds will be used for."
A far more modest effort by Stephen A. Baker, who introduced himself as a Baltimore firefighter, has collected $670 in pledges toward a $1,000 goal. The sincerity of his page was immediately questioned, like the others.
GoFundMe's Whithorne said the website is "in touch with all of the campaign organizers" making appeals in Castile's memory, and "all funds will go to the intended beneficiary of the individual campaigns." The page with the most modest of donations has yet to declare a beneficiary, Whithorne said.
Some campaigns fraudulent
All efforts at verification and warnings to donors notwithstanding, cases of fraud have surfaced over the years throughout the country.
In Minnesota, a woman who set up a GoFundMe page to aid the families of three fishermen who went missing on Lake of the Woods stole some of the donations that poured in, according to charges filed in February. Retina R. LaValla, 28, of Baudette, Minn., was charged with felony theft for allegedly taking money meant to help the families pay for the search and funerals.
Hundreds donated to the crowdfunding page LaValla created, raising about $27,800. Prosecutors say she admitted to using the money for bills and groceries. Even so, she is fighting the charges and is scheduled to go to trial in September.
Searches for the three men, who worked as fishing guides, began after their boat was found capsized Oct. 3. Later, the bodies of Justin Haugtvedt, 22; Cody Ostendorf, 24, and Keith Ayers, 28, were found.
LaValla said she was friends with Haugtvedt and organized the campaign to do something for the families. "I felt helpless and had a hole in my heart," she said soon after the three were reported missing.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482