Authorities arrested five Tennesseans who allegedly defrauded Dolly Parton’s charity fund. Parton created the My People Fund to help those affected by the brutal wildfires that swept through East Tennessee last year.
A Grand Jury in Sevier County, which suffered most of the fire damage, charged five people in the scheme. They face serious penalties, too. The charges include money laundering, criminal conspiracy and felony theft.
Apparently, Debra Kay Catlett and her son Chad Alan Chambers pretended to need the money. Rocco Boscalia, Annie Lyons and Esther Pridemore also took money they weren’t supposed to. Those five apparently took about $12,000 in money meant for actual victims before being caught.
Chambers apparently led the whole scheme. He allegedly used his mother’s access to a database of real estate properties. Once in the database, Chambers identified rental cabins that burned to the ground. The group created fake leases and forged the signatures of the owners.
After that, they created fake driver licenses. They then presented the fake licenses and leases to the My People Fund to collect money. But the forged licenses also gave the scammers away. Two of the real people used didn’t even live in Sevier County. A third was in jail at the time.
Parton’s foundation originally allowed temporary licenses to make it easier for victims who lost everything. But the foundation stopped once it realized people could use them improperly.
Fortunately, the My People Fund is still reaching those who really need it. So far, the money helped about 900 families since the fires. Even more impressive, those 900 families have so far received $9 million in aid.
Last year’s fires ravaged the tiny tourist communities of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge in East Tennessee. Fourteen people died and thousands lost their homes and businesses. Officials originally accused two juveniles of starting the fire. But they eventually dropped those charges, saying they couldn’t prove the horseplay of the two caused the fire.
Officials now believe embers from an allowed burn in the Chimney Tops region blew into the Gatlinburg region and sparked the unprecedented fire.