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The murder of nine members of Charleston's historic Emanuel A. M. E. Church -"Mother Emanuel" to many - on June 17, 2015, brought shock, horror, and grief to the city, the state, and the country. That time also marked the beginning of a journey for many Charlestonians.A year out they' continue that journey, down the road to healing, and away from hatred and division toward understanding and unity.

Families Still Question Mother Emanuel Donations Despite State Inquiry

Mother Emanuel AME Church on Calhoun Street in downtown Charleston
Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio
Mother Emanuel AME Church on Calhoun Street in downtown Charleston

Felicia Sanders held her granddaughter so tight, she feared she might suffocate the child on the church floor, as a racist gunman they had welcomed to bible study executed nine fellow parishioners one by one.

Bullet casings scorched her legs.  She watched helplessly as her son Tywanza, just feet away in a pool of blood, took his final breath. 

Sanders and her granddaughter survived the massacred that claimed nine lives that night by playing dead.

"This is the child who was underneath her grandmother as those 77 shots rang out," says attorney Andy Savage.  "This is the child who heard those shots coming closer, and closer, and closer."

Savage says Sanders and her granddaughter, now 16 years-old, suffer psychological trauma from the massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church nearly five years ago.  The teenager, he says, is in continuing psychiatric care and  has a quarter million dollars in medical bills. 

Yet, Savage says, neither has received any of the millions of dollars in donation money that poured into the church from around the world.

“Something I didn’t want to do is complain about a church,” says Savage.

But Savage isn't the first to raise questions about how Mother Emanuel handled donation money in the wake of the tragedy.

There have been lawsuits calling for more transparency, families of victims outraged the church kept more donation money than it gave, and complaints that some like Sanders and her granddaughter, are still struggling financially.

Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston has been the focus of a SLED inquiry
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio
Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston has been the focus of a SLED inquiry

So, Savage asked police to investigate what he believes was breach of trust; money entrusted to the church and intended for victims, was kept by the church.

Authorities with the State Law Enforcement Division opened a preliminary inquiry late last year.  But they closed it a couple of weeks later, saying they found no evidence of a crime. Their report was made available to the media in early January through Freedom of Information Act requests.

Here’s what the report shows.

The church had approximately $3.5 million in its Moving Forward Fund when it divided $1.5 million between the families of the nine victims and one of three survivors.  Each received $153,380. The church kept nearly 2 million dollars for repairs, added security and legal fees.

Investigators examined an audit of the Moving Forward Fund but did not cite reviews of any other church accounts

Police interviewed several people including the church’s former secretary Althea Latham.  She reported seeing large amounts of money being counted without oversight.  There were envelopes with family names, as well as cash and checks inside.  But she was told by church leaders what was addressed to the church belonged to the church and was fired when she advised them to hire a professional accounting firm.

Church historian Liz Alston also told investigators church leaders did not want to bring in an accountant.  She found a $10,000 check for the shooting victims in a stack of books in a building adjacent to the church, a month or two later.

Survivor Felicia Sanders said the church delivered cards and letters to her home following the shootings.  But there was no money and the word “empty” was written on the envelopes.

Survivor Polly Sheppard reported finding a large bag containing $10,000 in a classroom.  She gave it to church leaders and was told she was no longer allowed to count donation money.

Several potential witnesses were named.  But there is no indication they were interviewed.  The report also does not include conversations with the interim pastor at the time, or the church treasurer.  We reached out to both without reply.

"When you get that much mail or that many items, you need help." - Daniel Simmons Jr.

"When you get that much mail or that many items, you need help," says Daniel Simmons Jr.

Simmons lost his father to the tragedy.  He remembers how he felt receiving mail specifically for his family that had been forwarded by the church and was already opened.  There was no money.

“It was like a dagger.  It was like a big dagger."

Simmons says the backbone of the church was lost that night.  New people were brought in, including Reverend Eric Manning.  He was the church's third pastor in the year following the shootings.

“It’s easy for anyone to play Monday morning quarterback,” says Manning.  “It’s easy for anyone to second guess.  It’s easy for anyone to say I would have done that differently.”

Manning says he can’t explain why only one of the three survivors was financially compensated or how the church determined what it gave and what it kept.  He became pastor one month after the donations were dispersed in 2016.  He says he doesn’t know what happened and doesn’t want to speculate.

He does say that now when money comes in specified for someone other than the church, he tries to verify the donor’s intent.

Former solicitor and South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon says perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned.  This was one of the first mass shootings at a place of worship, but unfortunately not the last.

Condon says the SLED report shows a need for transparency, but no fraudulent intent; proof someone intentionally pocketed money meant for victims.

“You don’t have that,” he says.  “What you do have and this I think is hence the rub, lots of questions that are unanswered about how these funds were allocated.”

Condon says the case is likely civil.  SLED insists it will reopen its inquiry if it gets more evidence.  As for Savage, he won’t give up.

“Why do we have to go to the criminal courts?  Why do we have to go to the civil courts?  Isn’t this just basic decency?”

Savage doesn’t say if he’ll pursue a civil case.  But he does have time.