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Aurora shooting: What happened to $5 million donated to victims?

AURORA, Colo. — They gathered in unity on Tuesday for the first time, 18 victims or family members of those killed or wounded in the July 20 movie massacre asking what happened to the $5 million raised in the name of their loved ones.

“We’ve come to speak in one voice,” began Tom Teves, who took the role of informal leader of the group crammed onto a tiny stage Tuesday. His son, 24-year-old Alex Teves, was one of the 12 killed when a gunman opened fire in a packed Aurora theater showing “The Dark Knight Rises.” Fifty-eight others were wounded.

His voice rising in anger and then breaking in grief, Teves said at the news conference that the families wanted to know why they — those touched by the tragedy the most — were not included in the process of deciding how the millions of dollars raised would be distributed. “The victims have no voice at all,” he said, accusing those calculating need of being slow and disorganized at best, unresponsive and callous at worst. 

PHOTOS: Colorado movie theater shooting

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“Put the politics aside and stand on the side of good,” Teves he pleaded, noting that his son’s picture and story, along with those of other victims, were used in fundraising efforts.

“We’re humbled by the generosity of the American public. I am certain that the public intended 100% go to the families of victims,” he said. “Nobody’s trying to get rich. There’s not enough money in the federal government to pay for what we lost.”

“I’m sorry for their pain, and I’m sorry this has to contribute to it,” said Cheryl Haggstrom, executive director of a Denver-area foundation called Community First, which is holding the donations. “We’re working as hard as we can.”

Haggstrom said that, until last week, family members of victims had not asked her foundation about becoming involved with the efforts of the 7/20 Recovery Committee. She said the committee was trying to find a way to get them involved.

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The committee comprises about 30 different entities, including Aurora city officials, the district attorney’s office, school officials, mental health representatives, and a victims advocacy group. It meets regularly to decide how best to split up the money.

Feeling shut out of committee decisions has infuriated some families. “Don’t handle us. Let us be involved,” demanded Deidra Brooks, whose stepson, 18-year-old Jarell Scott, was shot and wounded.

Brooks said no one but victims and their families could  fully understand what their needs are. She said her stepson cannot work, and cannot be left alone. He will not sleep with his back to a window or door. He panics at the sound of a car backfiring and she must be careful not to approach him from behind if she wants to give him a hug.

Teves also wondered about all of those who were in the theater that night but not wounded. Aren’t they victims, too? He said his son’s girlfriend escaped injury but was nonetheless “broken inside.”

Haggstrom explained that immediately after the shooting, her foundation was flooded with calls from people wanting to help, as was Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office. On July 21, the governor’s office and Community First  co-founded the Aurora Victims Relief Fund. Donations could be made through the online arm of her foundation, called GivingFirst.org. As of last week, the fund had grown to more than $5 million, she said.

So far, each of the 70 families of those killed or wounded received a $5,000 check last week for immediate needs, totaling $350,000, Haggstrom said. An additional $100,000 was taken from the fund and divided between 10 community nonprofits to help victims, she said. The remainder is being held until the 7/20 Recovery Committee can best decide how it should used. The first disbursements were made through a group called Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance.

Haggstrom says each check came with a letter explaining that the $5,000 was just the beginning.

At the news conference Chantel Blunk, whose husband, Jonathan, was killed, said she was turned down when she asked the organization for additional money to bring her two young children with her when she flew to Colorado from her home in Reno, Nev., to attend a court hearing for James E. Holmes, the man charged in the mass shooting. She said her 4-year-old daughter has nightmares if separated from her, but the organization said there was no money for the extra plane tickets.

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Officials with the organization could not be reached for comment.

Joshua Nowlan, shot in the left calf and right arm, came to the news conference with a crutch and his arm in a cast. “I may be injured but I’m still alive,” he said.

Still, there is one thing he needs to do. He wants to go back to the theater where he was shot and watch a movie. “I won’t be fully healed until I do.”

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