Volunteers cry foul

Published 10:56 am Monday, March 21, 2011

AHOSKIE – Lies, deception, an outright scam – all are alleged to have played a role in the cancelation of what was hyped as a major fundraiser for the American Heart Association here March 11.

The person at the center of the bulls eye, Decembre Montague-Pierce, turned herself in one day later (March 12) at the Hertford County Sheriff’s Office after warrants were drawn for her arrest. The 33-year-old Murfreesboro woman stands charged with one felony count each of embezzlement and obtaining property by false pretense.

Now, more than one week later, a group of local individuals that admitted to helping Pierce with ticket sales and soliciting corporate donations for the gala have come forward to say their good names were tarnished…all believing they were scammed.

“Our integrity has been brought into question,” said Juanisha Vaughan-Hart, one of several local women to volunteer to help Pierce promote the gala. “I believe she preyed on a loving community that is known to support special causes. We have big hearts and I feel she took advantage of our kind and gentle spirit.”

While the group was aware that the gala was supposed to have featured a band and a guest speaker, their identity was unknown. There was also concern among the group of using their names in association with a news article, submitted by Pierce to the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, that was crafted to promote the gala.

“She printed in the paper that these were good people helping her out,” said another event volunteer, Betsy Pierce (no relation).

“She told me these women were members of her (Love Center) board,” said Quinton Turman, the owner of Quinton’s Restaurant in Ahoskie where the gala was scheduled to take place. “Whenever I talked to her about signing a service contract, she always dropped names. I saw the photo in the newspaper, I read the names in the article. I think it was all in an effort just to secure me (to host the gala).”

The women shown in the newspaper photo as well as those whose names were used as contact people for the event said they were all unaware that D. Pierce had turned that information over to the newspaper. They each believe their well-known status within the local community was used to drive ticket sales and to attract corporate sponsorships.

Shaleacca Vaughan, who operates Professional Family Health Services on Railroad Street in Ahoskie, said Pierce approached her about a corporate sponsorship.

“We donated money to the gala event,” Vaughan said, adding that she was not affiliated with the Love Center. “She did give me my money back. I didn’t collect any money for the Go Red Gala, but my concern is that my name was listed in the paper, and now all of this commotion about the gala not being held.”

“We didn’t have a contract signed when that photo was taken in front of my business,” Turman said. “I tried to tell her not to promote the event if there was no contract signed to put it on.”

“She asked me to sell tickets and to pass out flyers (promoting the gala),” said Betsy Pierce. “I used my lunch breaks (from work) to do so; I used the gas in my car to do so. I was under the impression it was going to benefit the Love Center, helping our local kids, and to help the American Heart Association. There were other names (on the list) I knew that were helping her so I jumped right in.”

“We’re the ones that have to face these people (after the gala was canceled),” said another volunteer, Keisha Vann. “Anyone that knows me knows that I’ll pitch in and help. I’ll give it one hundred and ten percent. That’s what I did here and I felt I was scammed.”

Turman said D. Pierce approached him a few months ago, telling him she wanted to hold the Go Red Gala.

“She sold it as her Love Center (an after-school teen mentoring program) and the American Heart Association joining forces,” he said. “I told her I required $200 to lock in a date (on his restaurant’s calendar). She paid that, but we never entered into a service contract (food, staff, linens, etc.). That’s the part that worried me.

“When we got about two weeks prior to the gala, I had not heard from her over the service contract,” Turman continued. “She called me, she said she had the money in full and was coming to pay me. Within that two-week time (before the gala), we were scheduled to meet eight to ten times, but it always fell through. I really didn’t have a problem with that because of the people she had raising money, they were all familiar to me. In my mind, she had me thinking these people were her board members. She told me they were all volunteers helping her and they were going to stay on as her (Love Center) board members.”

The week prior to the gala, Turman said he was in Greensboro at a conference. While there he received a phone call from Vann, saying she had some concerns. Turman said he recalled telling Vann he was scheduled to meet with Pierce as soon as he arrived back in Ahoskie on March 10 (one day before the gala). At that meeting, Turman said Pierce was supposed to pay him for the service contract.

“When I told Keisha that, she was stunned,” Turman said. “She said that Decembre had told her group that she had already paid for the contract. She had also provided the group with a list of things that she was paying down the line.”

“They hadn’t been paid,” said Vann, revealing a typed list of items given to the group by Pierce. “We went over the list on Wednesday (March 9).”

Upon returning to Ahoskie on March 10, Turman said he received a call from Vann and Vaughan-Hart. They all met and called Pierce to join them.

“I told her (Pierce) that we’ve only got one day to put something together, let’s make this happen so everybody can save face,” Turman said. “She (Pierce) said she was trying to borrow money to get money for the gala when she supposed to have raised, from what she told me, over $5,000. Everybody started asking questions and she was making statements and we were catching her in lie after lie after lie. It dawned on everybody at the end of the day that pretty much she was scamming.”

Turman said Pierce told him she had an account at RBC Centura for the Love Center and it was a non-profit 501 C3 account. He alleged Pierce informed him that she opened the account on March 7 and it would be March 14 before any funds from that account could be released.

“She didn’t have an account, that’s another lie we caught her in,” Turman said. “She promised that after the meeting she would meet us at the bank with a check. I sat at the bank for two hours and she didn’t show up. At that time everyone was trying to reach her and she wasn’t returning any of those calls.”

“She doesn’t have any documentation or records of the any of the money she received,” Turman added.

A list produced by the group contained the names of those who had purchased tickets…141 in number. Turman said Pierce told him there were 152 tickets pre-sold, at $20 each. He added that he knew of several local businesses that had given donations to help stage the gala.

“By no means am I a part of the Love Center,” said Vaughan-Hart. “I’m not a board member. We were just trying to help her (Pierce) to raise money for a good cause by selling tickets. The unethical acts that we witnessed during our meeting with her made me back away from it. Every person that bought a ticket from me I gave them their money back.”

Vaughan-Hart said one-half of the money she refunded was from ticket sales she had yet to turn in to Pierce. The other came from Pierce…“She came up with $900 in cash,” Vaughan-Hart stated.

“Once we found out, number one, that Quinton had not been paid the $2,800 for the service contract, even though she told us on Tuesday (March 8 ) that she had paid him in full that same day; and number two, she was saying we were going to be board members, there was a lot of untruthfulness to what she was saying,” Vaughan-Hart said. “I knew then I wasn’t going to be a part of this.”

Vaughan-Hart stressed that Turman went out of his way in an effort to make the gala work.

“There were so many people involved, people giving money (donations; ticket sales); the community was involved for this formal affair,” she noted. “Quinton was trying to work with her; he reduced the cost. He even told her to post-date him a check (to cover his expenses). He asked her to just show him that she had a bank account. She did not produce that information. She had us on a goose chase. By the time we heard from her that Thursday (March 10), the bank was already closed.”

“I’m not saying she stole anybody’s money, what I am saying is that she didn’t have the money to produce to pay Quinton, he was the event holder,” Vaughan-Hart stressed. “If there was a bank account, just show us the balance.”

“I’ve had people to lie to me before, but never have I seen something like this, one where a series of lies went on for three months,” Turman said.

Even when things looked their bleakest (with no money in an alleged bank account), Turman said Pierce told him she had another financial avenue to tap.

“At our meeting that Thursday, she said she was going to Virginia to see Mr. Rob Jones, saying he was one of her major sponsors,” Turman recalled. “I told her that Rob Jones was a personal friend of mine for years. I had his (cell) number; I called him and put it on the loudspeaker so all could hear; he didn’t have a clue of who I was talking about.”

“Even after all the stories had been revealed, when we met with her I asked her to come clean, to lay it all on the table,” Vaughan-Hart said. “We’ve got people expecting this event to be held, we need to work it out so this can still happen. Her response was that she had the money. But why couldn’t she just prove that?”

“I sent her a text, saying please, please tell me there is money in the account,” Vann recalled. “She texted me back and said there was.”

“If there was no money, then she lied to a lot of people,” Vaughan-Hart said. “This had nothing to do with Quinton not being able to hold this event; he went out of his way to try to make this happen…this is just about her not being able to produce the money Right now she’s telling the public that the gala is going to be rescheduled at another location, but I’m afraid it will not be rescheduled. What happens if it’s not rescheduled? What will happen with the money?”

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

email author More by Cal