Hopes, doubts surround story of homeless student

BARNESVILLE - In the past two weeks, Fred Barley has captured the hearts of people across the country, and a little bit of their wallets. He has Casey Blaney to thank for much of that.

Fred is the young black man who said he was homeless when he bicycled six hours to register at a college here in Middle Georgia, intent on becoming a doctor. Casey is the white housewife who started a GoFundMe campaign for him, which exploded across the internet and raised $184,000.

Their story — his determination in the face of homelessness, her offering a hand up, not a hand out — became a widely beloved feel-good yarn in this summer of cynicism, racial tension and worry.

But with whiplash speed, this heart-warming tale has devolved into an internet-fueled soap opera. Doubts emerged about Fred’s story. Fred and Casey clashed over who should control the money. Finally, on Wednesday evening, everything abruptly came to a halt when Casey publicly challenged the veracity of his story.

At that, GoFundMe froze the money before Fred saw a dime, until the differences between the parties are resolved. If that doesn’t happen, then donors will get their money back.

There’s some indication that a resolution is in the works and the money will flow, but no one really knows at this point.

Neither side is making any criminal accusations, and it’s unclear whether anyone did anything wrong. Clearly, these are two people, strangers really, who quickly got in over their heads. They were hit by a swarm of Facebook posts, scads of news stories and a crush of digital donations that left a mountain of cash between them.

It’s enough to overwhelm anyone. She said she wanted the 19-year-old to spend the money wisely; he asserted he was a responsible adult who deserved to have more say in how the money was handled.

Beyond that, their story speaks to the challenges of donating in a digital age, when you often don’t know the people who organize the fundraising effort or the person who will benefit from it. Often, you’re not donating to some time-tested organization, but rather an online fund hastily organized by a person moved to do so. And it all transpires with the speed of a mouse click.

GoFundMe is among the more popular online fundraising sites, having raised over $2 billion since it began six years ago. Officials there say fraud is found in less than 1 percent of their funds.

Will we remember the case of Fred and Casey as a cautionary tale of being a Good Samaritan? Or will it, in the end, illuminate the wondrous ability of the internet to connect people for a good cause?

Seeking answers, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spoke to Fred and Casey and their attorneys. The AJC also reached out to relatives of Fred and visited this little city of 6,500 people about 60 miles south of Atlanta in Lamar County.

‘He always said he wanted to be somebody’

When Fred pulled his bike onto the college campus in Barnesville earlier this month, he gave people a story they were hungering for.

His positive interaction with police on the campus of Gordon State College was a welcome balm after the tensions of Baltimore, Dallas, Baton Rouge and other places where people, particularly blacks, have clashed with cops.

Officer Dicky Carreker was among the officers who found him at 8:30 p.m. July 9, living inside a tent by the sports complex, according to the campus police report obtained by the AJC. Fred told them he had been living in Conyers with his folks until three days before, when they got into a fight. He said he gathered some belongings and left.

Fred told the AJC that he spent some time at the homes of friends but always moved on. The Heritage High School graduate didn’t want them to know he was homeless.

His grandmother, Patricia Tolbert, 63, told the AJC that Fred had been born in New Jersey and had been a “sweet kid. He always loved school. He always said he wanted to be somebody.” Tolbert said it was her understanding that Fred had not been living with his family recently.

Fred’s uncle, Jimmy Tolbert, said that Fred’s biological parents did not stay together and that Fred had moved with his mother to Georgia several years ago. He said Fred had called him a few weeks ago, saying he was homeless and needed a place to stay. The two, who share a love of football, talked about him coming to live with his uncle in South Carolina but it didn’t work out.

Fred, speaking to the AJC by phone Wednesday, said that when he began his big bike ride to the college, he had hoped to get there before the start of the fall semester. He wanted to find a job before the other students came in.

Gordon College officials confirmed he has enrolled; this is his second semester.

When the police officers found Fred inside his blue-and-gray tent, “I was kind of nervous and scared,” he said. “A lot of things have been happening with the police.”

He came out with his hands up. The officers listened to his story and gave him a courtesy ride to the nearby Sun Inn, where they paid for a two-night stay. The wife of Officer Carreker posted the story on Facebook, and news reporters soon began writing it all down.

Casey Blaney spotted the story and had a big reaction. She came into town and met Fred, and was immediately taken by his story. Intent on helping, Casey posted her own endorsement of him on Facebook and started the GoFundMe site.

“Please pray for him. Please share some life with him,” she posted on Facebook on July 11. “If you want to help him with clothes, shoes, food, gift-cards, anything on your heart. Please let me know and I’ll get it to him. He’s worth it. I promise.”

A sense of betrayal

The people of Barnesville took Fred under wing. Debbie Adamson gave him a job at her pizzeria on Main Street. People started showing up with cash, gift cards and clothing.

“This town is one of the most giving places around,” Adamson said.

She talked about the way people here came together after a tornado in 2011 killed two people as it tore through home after home.

On Wednesday of this past week, Main Street, with its historic buildings, was waking up. The gentle sound of pealing bells rang out from the clock tower on City Hall. Judy Kendall swept outside the front door of B&T Bargaintown, where you can buy a bagful of clothes for five bucks.

Across the street, Taylor Stone manned the counter at Jo and Sammies, a coffee place that, with its oversized Coca-Cola sign, has the feel of an old soda shop.

“I’d say we’re stuck in time,” said Stone, who’s lived all of her 24 years in Barnesville.

There are no bars on this stretch of Main Street, though you can buy a beer at the pizza place. The downtown thrives even when the college students head home for the summer, and there are parades for everything, Stone said.

“A man turned 102,” she said. “We had a parade for him.”

In many ways, Barnesville is the small town we all keep in our imagination. And when Fred’s story went viral on the Internet, the whole country, in a way, became Barnesville. People from all over wanted to help this industrious young man.

Before the internet was here, Fred’s story would be much different. Somebody may have put out a coffee can in the local gas station and perhaps raised a few hundred dollars for him.

“With the internet, it’s not geographically isolated, so a broader range of people can give,” said Cody Switzer, assistant managing editor for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Moreover, “people don’t know the people they are helping. It’s not like it’s someone in church.”

Indeed, when Casey Blaney started up the GoFundMe campaign, she hardly knew Fred. She was still coming to know him when the story was picked up by People magazine, Reddit and other sites. The fund drew 5,700 donations from across the country over 12 days, reaching $184,000 before Casey put the lid on the coffee can.

The first signs of trouble emerged after Adamson, the woman who employed Fred at the pizza shop, posted on Facebook that Fred was leaving town to go to another college. People started getting angry, she said, acting like “he was just somebody who conned everybody and ran.”

Other people took up his side. Some raised suspicions that Casey herself would take the money and run. The gossip and bickering became so bad that comments were stopped and deleted on an online community discussion page.

Judy Kendall, over at the bargain shop, acknowledged she had some hard feelings about the money he received. She felt they gave the young man too much money, far more than he needed, and it might well spoil him. It made her reflect on her own financial struggles. She said she has three prescriptions that she can’t afford to get filled.

Possible happy ending

Tempers in town seemed calmer Wednesday morning. The headline on the cover of the local Herald-Gazette told the happy story: “Fred likely to attend Gordon.”

Fred’s plan to go elsewhere to college fell through, and he said he would attend Gordon in the fall. Many people felt appeased.

Wednesday night, however, the small-town gossip turned into something far more disturbing. Casey Blaney let it be known that her trust in Fred had been shaken. She posted the following on the Facebook page Success for Fred:

“Unfortunately, multiple questions have been raised about Fred’s story,” she wrote. “We’ve received conflicting information about his initial story. … We’ve asked for the campaign to be reviewed.”

She has not said what those questions are exactly.

Beyond that, Fred and Casey had been clashing over the management of the money. Casey wanted to set up a trust overseen by a professional. Fred was OK with a trust, but he wanted more say over who managed it.

“He felt she was dictating all the terms to him,” his attorney, Christopher Chapman, told the AJC.

Her attorney, Wright Gammon, had said of Fred, “He just wants to be handed the money.”

By the end of this past week, Fred was no longer living in Barnesville; he was staying with a friend in Stockbridge.

As for any question about Fred’s credibility, Chapman, said, “He was homeless living in a tent in Barnesville waiting for school to start. … Did he ride the bike the entire 50 miles? Did he get a ride part of the way? I don’t know.”

Still, a recent development has been encouraging. Chapman, the attorney for Fred, said that he and Casey’s attorney spoke Thursday morning. The two are working together to create a trust for Fred overseen by a professional. Fred is fine with that, Chapman said.

“We are not dictating terms to them, and they are not dictating terms to us,” Chapman said.

He said GoFundMe wants the two sides to resolve their issues by early August, and he is confident that will happen.

On Saturday, in another hopeful sign, Adamson of the pizzeria said that Fred is apparently back in town in an apartment and getting ready for the start of school.

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Staff writer Jennifer Peebles contributed to this report.

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