KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Five people have been charged in an elaborate scheme to defraud a fund set up by singer Dolly Parton to aid Gatlinburg wildfire victims.
Parton, a Sevier County native, established the Dollywood Foundation's My People Fund soon after last year's wildfires, which claimed 14 lives and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses.
The scammers made off with roughly $12,000 before the alleged plot was unmasked, records show.
"It's unfortunate but when something good happens, there's always a handful who want to exploit things," said David Dotson, president of the Dollywood Foundation. "They went through extremely elaborate means."
Debra Kay Catlett, her son, Chad Alan Chambers, and three associates — Rocco Boscalia, Ammie Lyons and Esther Pridemore — are charged in a sealed presentment handed up by a Sevier County grand jury earlier this year with a conspiracy to defraud the My People Fund.
Chambers is alleged in the indictments to be the chief architect of the scam, although it was his mother's database of rental properties that made it possible, according to records reviewed by USA TODAY Network-Tennessee.
Those records show Catlett had worked as a photographer for real estate publications in Sevier County and as a result had a database of rental cabins complete with addresses and owners' names.
Using that database, the alleged scammers identified cabins that had burned and, using property tax records, drew up fake leases and forged the owners' signatures.
The scammers then allegedly used the forged leases to obtain temporary driver's licenses with those corresponding addresses via a service the Tennessee Department of Safety had established to help wildfire victims whose licenses had been lost in the fires.
The indictments allege the scammers presented the temporary driver's licenses and leases to the My People Fund as proof they had been displaced by the wildfires when, in fact, none of the five were impacted by the fires. Two of them didn't even live in Sevier County, and a third was in jail at the time, records show.
Dotson said the Dollywood Foundation quickly realized the temporary driver's licenses could be used with ill intent, so the foundation stopped accepting those as proof of displacement by the fires.
"No one had to prove anything to get the temporary driver's licenses," Dotson said. "We started having suspicions."
The suspects face charges including money laundering, criminal conspiracy and felony theft. An arraignment date in Sevier County Criiminal Court had not been set Wednesday.
Dotson said Wednesday that the My People Fund had aided 900 families to the tune of $9 million in the first six months after the fires.
Dotson said each family legitimately displaced by the fire was given $1,000 per month for five months after the deadly blaze and then $5,000 in the sixth month. Funds left over after that initial six-month commitment made by Parton and the foundation were then turned over to another wildfire relief organization, Mountain Tough, he said.