In the hours after a gunman attacked a Boulder King Soopers store in March, killing 10 people, the money began to arrive.
$10. $20. $100.
It came from the wallets of people across the globe who wanted to help, and, soon, large corporations and community foundations began chipping in. Now, three months later, more than $8 million has been collected, according to the public statements of the organizations taking in the donations.
But it is unknown how much of that money has so far been distributed to those hurt by the tragedy, and the debate over how to distribute the rest has become tangled with questions of accountability.
Some victims’ families have called for an independent audit of how the money is being distributed, saying they have been asked to produce bills or bank statements as part of receiving support and that they have not been given sufficient input into who gets what. The largest fund collecting donations related to the Boulder shooting has not made clear how it is deciding where its money goes — and more than 20% of what it has raised will go to fund a resource center rather than directly to victims.
Some of the distribution practices run counter to the recommendations of national experts on victim compensation. There are arguments over who even deserves to be considered a victim.
For those who lost the most in the shooting, it has become an anguish unto itself — a source of new pain and anxiety that has nothing to do with the actual dollars at stake.
“There’s no transparency to any of this,” said John Mackenzie, whose wife, Lynn Murray, was killed in the shooting. “There’s no good answers to any of the questions. It’s all kind of operating in the shadows.”
“It’s ridiculous,” he continued. “My wife’s dead. She was murdered at the King Soopers down the street from where I live. This is the last thing in my life I need to worry about when the community of Boulder came together to help me and nine other victims’ families.”
“A safe way for Coloradans to donate”
More than a dozen funds have been set up to help the victims of the Boulder shooting. Campaigns on GoFundMe have raised roughly $1.75 million. The Community Foundation Boulder County raised about $1.6 million. Elevations Credit Union raised $700,000.
Some of the funds are dedicated specifically to one victim, such as the more than $1 million raised via GoFundMe to help the family of Boulder Police officer Eric Talley. Others have vowed to give money directly to the families of those who were killed.
But at the center of the debate over how to distribute the money is the fund that has raised the most — the Colorado Healing Fund. Started in late 2018, the fund was intended for just this moment, to respond to the needs of victims in the aftermath of mass-tragedy crime. Then-Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, who still sits on the fund’s board, seeded the Healing Fund with $1 million from her office.
“The CHF will provide a safe way for Coloradans to donate confidently now and in the event of a mass tragedy crime, and ensure that their money goes to help victims, survivors and their families,” Coffman said in a statement when the fund was created.
But, despite its intent, the Colorado Healing Fund has never actually dealt with something of this magnitude before.
In 2019 and 2020, it took in and distributed only a few thousand dollars in donations. It has collected more than $4.4 million earmarked for the Boulder shooting and distributed about $2.4 million of that.
The fund’s leadership — made up of a board of trustees and an advisory committee stocked with political power players and people well versed in responding to tragedy — position the fund as a safe, credible way of helping in the aftermath of mass casualty events. They say it is their goal to provide thoughtful help to those suffering from the tragedy for as long as they can.
“We see our responsibility to victims in terms of their immediate needs, their intermediate needs and their long-term needs,” said Steven Siegel, a Colorado Healing Fund board member and longtime victim’s advocate. His experience stretches back to the Oklahoma City bombing trial and the Columbine High School shooting.
Deciding who is a victim
What everyone agrees on is that money donated to the Colorado Healing Fund after the Boulder shooting was given to help the victims of the tragedy.
But the scrutiny on the Colorado Healing Fund comes because the fund is using a broader definition for who qualifies as a victim and what it means to support them.
Siegel described a tiered system of identifying victims eligible to receive support. Category 1 victims are those who lost a loved one in the King Soopers shooting. Category 2 victims are people whose lives were directly targeted — the people named in criminal charges as victims of attempted murder.
Many victims’ funds would stop there, limiting their support to those most directly impacted. But the Colorado Healing Fund intends to keep going.
Category 3 victims are anyone who was in the store or the parking lot during the attack. There could even be Category 4 victims, Siegel said: People in the surrounding community who were impacted in some way by the tragedy.
In its latest report, the fund said it has distributed about $1.5 million so far to victims through the Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance, but it has not specified how much has gone to victims in each category.
Siegel said the fund has distributed some money that was split evenly among victims and has also distributed other money individually to help victims pay rent or cover other bills. This is consistent with the Colorado Healing Fund’s intention to take “equity and need” into account in its distributions.
Some money from the Boulder fund will not go to individuals at all. Last week, the Colorado Healing Fund announced that it would give $959,100 to help fund the #Boulderstrong Resource Center, where anyone impacted by the tragedy can receive mental health support.
Also, according to the Colorado Healing Fund’s rules, up to 5% of the money collected can be held back to cover the fund’s administrative expenses. And, though the fund plans to distribute most of the money by the end of the year, Siegel said the fund will hold some money back to cover future needs in the community.
“We want to hold back money for things we can’t anticipate right now,” Siegel said. “If we empty out all of our collective money, we won’t be in a position to do that.”
Siegel said the fund does not try to make an assessment of whether a victim truly needs its support to pay a bill — if the victim says they need help, Siegel said the fund will help. But he said the fund may ask victims to provide a copy of a bill or show a bank statement to verify amounts needing to be covered. He described the requests for bills as standard due diligence to make sure the fund has documentation for what it is paying out.
But, to victims like Mackenzie, this process has felt intrusive at a time when his personal life has already been turned inside-out for everyone to see.
He said the fund asked him for 30-, 60- and 90-day needs assessments and to provide bank statements, though he’s unsure what was done with them. He said he has not received any support from the Colorado Healing Fund to cover expenses — just the same lump distribution that every other victim’s family has received.
“You’re treated like an infant from Day One,” he said.
Disagreement over donor intent
This impression that fund leaders believe they know best how to distribute the money is at the heart of the criticisms from some victims’ families.
Starr Bartkowiak, whose daughter Tralona was killed in the Boulder shooting, said she was touched when she saw how much money had been donated to support the victims of the tragedy. It made her feel a sense of pride in the country — that so many strangers would give to honor the memory of her daughter, who was known as Lonna, and to make sure her family members are cared for during the worst moment of their lives.
Tralona’s death had brought a slew of unexpected bills — travel and funeral expenses among them. But more so it had brought an emptiness to Starr’s life. In a message to The Colorado Sun, she wrote that Tralona was “my first born child, my best friend and the light at the end of the tunnel. Literally shot down when her best life was just beginning. I miss her so much!”
As the funds were distributed, though, Bartkowiak said she began to feel anger about the process. She declined to say how much she has received so far — the Colorado Healing Fund says all travel and funeral costs were covered for the deceased victims’ families. But, to Bartkowiak, the dollar amounts given out weren’t the point. It was the way the Colorado Healing Fund was making decisions about distributions without formally consulting with all the families.
“The money wasn’t donated to them,” she said of the Colorado Healing Fund. “It was donated to victims’ families.”
The donation to the #Boulderstrong Resource Center was particularly upsetting to her because it represents, in her mind, a decision by the Colorado Healing Fund to spend money in ways that donors didn’t envision.
“I don’t think people donated thinking, ‘Oh gee, I hope this nonprofit will be happy with this money,’” Bartkowiak said in an interview.
Similarly, comments made by Colorado Healing Fund leaders have felt insensitive to her. On several occasions, Siegel, the board member, has talked publicly about the victims impacted in tragedies like “concentric circles” rippling outward when a rock is dropped into a lake. His point is that it is not just people closest to the tragedy who are affected.
To Bartkowiak, this metaphor misses the point about who is most affected and feels like it diminishes the enormity of the suffering experienced by people like herself who lost close loved ones. She and Mackenzie both say the large majority of the money should go to the deceased victims’ families. But she also worries that people will view her as greedy by speaking up against how the fund is distributing dollars.
“It won’t bring back my daughter,” she said of the money. “Nothing will.”
The Colorado Healing Fund’s intricate, long-term approach to distributing dollars clashes with the advice of the nation’s foremost expert on victim-compensation funds.
Washington, D.C., lawyer Kenneth Feinberg was once dubbed “Mr. Fairness,” by a Wall Street Journal columnist. He’s helped manage funds to support the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, the Boston bombing, the BP oil spill and just about every other major American tragedy of the last two decades.
When victim families in the Aurora movie theater shooting began questioning how money from that fund was being distributed, then-Gov. John Hickenlooper tapped Feinberg to take command.
His method can be summed up simply: Feinberg works quickly, and he works decisively.
After each tragedy, Feinberg looks at how much money is available in the fund. Then he devises a formula for distributing it, which he makes public. Each victim receives the same amount as another victim in similar circumstances, and he doesn’t request copies of a victims’ bills for documentation.
“There’s a certainty to it, which is very important because victims have recognized all this uncertainty now in their lives,” Feinberg said in an interview with The Colorado Sun.
After the Boston bombing, for instance, Feinberg’s formula dictated that about $2.2 million go to the families of each person killed in the bombing. Survivors received amounts based on the severity of their injuries and the amount of time spent in the hospital. Within about two months, the fund had distributed more than $60 million.
Feinberg said he did not hold money back to cover potential future claims, though the fund did make some donations to help organizations care for victims’ long-term needs after it had distributed the bulk of its money directly to individuals. Feinberg didn’t allocate any more to people who suffered emotional wounds but not physical injuries. He also didn’t distinguish between victims based on their individual needs — saying it is unwise “to make distinctions among the dead.”
“In all of my programs, need is irrelevant,” Feinberg said. “It also slows things down. It undercuts all of the other variables. Well-intentioned, but in my experience, a mistake.”
After mass tragedies, Feinberg said he works pro bono and said it is best if everyone involved in raising and distributing the money does the same. He also said the funds he works with all undergo an independent audit, which is released publicly.
Millions of dollars, unclear methods
While victims like John Mackenzie have spoken with Feinberg and called publicly for him to be appointed to take over the Boulder funds, Feinberg said he has not looked closely enough at the situation to offer a specific opinion.
But even the leaders of the Colorado Healing Fund agree that they are doing things differently from the Feinberg method.
“He is the master of definitive and quick,” Siegel said. “I see these events as anything but definitive and quick.”
It could take months or years before victims fully understand the severity of physical injuries, Siegel said, and he believes it is also important to think about mental health, as well.
Feinberg disagrees with trying to allocate funds for emotional trauma: “You don’t have enough money, and how are you going to prove it?”
But this isn’t the only place where the Colorado Healing Fund’s approach differs.
Fund leadership say they intend to have an independent audit conducted of the fund at some point. But they argue it is too soon to say when that audit will take place or who will conduct it.
The fund does intend to publish quarterly reports on collections and distributions. As a nonprofit, it is also required to file publicly available tax documents with the Internal Revenue Service — though the document for 2021 will not be available for more than a year.
The fund has not made public its distribution formula or the rationale behind it. And, while fund leaders say they are consulting with Boulder community members and officials about how to distribute the money, there is no formal local committee with input and oversight on the decisions.
Mackenzie said victims haven’t been adequately consulted on how the money should be spent, either — something that contrasts not only with Feinberg’s approach but also with recommendations from a national center on mass violence.
The National Mass Violence Victimization Resource Center, which was established in partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice, publishes a tip sheet for community leaders trying to manage donations following a mass tragedy. Among its recommendations: “No matter how much your raise, there won’t be enough to cover everyone and all they need. Focus on the survivors and the families of the victims and let them decide what to do with the money.” (emphasis theirs).
But Siegel said the reality is more complicated. Distributions to deceased victims’ families can get tied up in family squabbles and probate disputes. Sometimes the greatest needs are those that emerge years later. Victims who initially appear to be in similar circumstances may not be.
“It’s a very fluid process to try to cover needs,” Siegel said.
“They have no idea what’s going on here”
As with Starr Bartkowiak, this debate goes well beyond money for John Mackenzie.
By his count, he has received about $40,000 so far from the Colorado Healing Fund. He’s received an additional $74,000 from the Elevations Credit Union fund.
To him, this is about principle — about the ways in which people tried to honor his wife and the ways in which those tributes have been handled.
“It’s not their money,” he said of the Colorado Healing Fund and others managing money donated in the shooting’s aftermath. “It’s not their donations. They collected them in our dead loved one’s names and are pretending that it’s theirs.”
Siegel vowed that, minus administrative expenses, every dollar that was donated in connection with the Boulder shooting will be spent supporting Boulder victims. Donations specifically earmarked to go to the families of the deceased will be honored, he said. Most donations related to the Boulder shooting had no such designation.
Without an independent audit, though, Mackenzie said the public can’t know whether the fund’s leaders are telling the truth when they say how much they have collected and distributed. He and other victim’s families have started a group called Stand Up Bolder — no “U” — to call for an audit of the fund.
He has also spoken several times with the fund’s leaders, asking for answers, all while feeling a crushing depression over the death of his wife.
“It just immobilizes you,” he said. “You are not able to function.”
He described a trip to the grocery store to pick up milk and coffee. Two items. In and out.
It took him two hours.
“I was in tears the entire time at the grocery store with people staring at me wondering what’s wrong with me,” he said.
Other victims’ families are going through similar ordeals, he said. They can’t work. They can’t sleep. Their lives are mired in grief-laden muck.
Fighting over money intended to help them is the last thing they want to do.
“These people, they don’t understand the damage they’re doing,” he said. “They just don’t. They have no idea what’s going on here. The victim’s families just want them to distribute the money and then go away.”