Tennessee’s Smokey Mountains are near and dear to native Dolly Parton’s heart. So much so that she stepped up to help out when deadly wildfires ravaged the mountain town of Gatlinburg and its surrounding areas in 2016.
Fans may remember that the legendary country singer used her Dollywood Foundation to establish the My People’s Fund to raise money for displaced victims who lost their homes and, in some cases, even family members in the blaze, which took 14 lives.
Now, five people have now been charged with crimes including money laundering, criminal conspiracy and felony theft after they concocted and carried out an elaborate scheme to defraud the fund.
According to USA Today, Debra Kay Catlett, her son, Chad Alan Chambers, and three others — Rocco Boscalia, Ammie Lyons and Esther Pridemore — have all been charged in a conspiracy to defraud Dolly’s organization. The indictments were handed up by a Sevier County grand jury.
Chad Chambers is allegedly the one who led the scam, using his mother’s database that listed cabin owners’ names and addresses. She used the database in her work as a photographer for local real estate publications.
The scammers apparently collected at least $12,000 after they pinpointed which cabins had been burned, then used property tax records to draw up fake leases and forge the cabin owners’ signatures. The forged leases allowed the scammers to obtain fake temporary drivers licenses through the Tennessee Department of Safety, which they then used as “proof” that they had been displaced by the fire. In reality, none of the five people indicted had been affected by the fires, according to USA Today. Two did not even live in the affected county.
“It’s unfortunate but when something good happens, there’s always a handful who want to exploit things,” David Dotson, president of the Dollywood Foundation, told USA Today. “They went through extremely elaborate means.”
Dolly’s My People Fund has since discontinued acceptance of temporary licenses as proof of displacement by the fires. Meanwhile, the organization’s good work continues. Dotson says the organization has helped 900 families and handed out $9 million since the fires.