Would-be war memorial’s founder is ousted

11/01/2013 6:40 PM

11/01/2013 8:23 PM

The sputtering crusade to erect a Kansas City, Kan., war memorial to those lost in Iraq and Afghanistan has suffered a major setback — the firing of Tonya Evans, its hard-charging but controversial co-founder and CEO.

The board of the American Fallen Warrior Memorial Foundation last month removed the Lawrence woman, who has a mixed record in what one board member called the “hero business.”

Based on interviews and foundation records, Evans’ separation was highly personal and followed a two-week, anger-filled fundraising tour. Instead of raising millions as Evans promised, the minutes show, the cross-country event lost more than $61,000, despite significant donations from close supporters.

Minutes of the meeting, however, indicate more outrage over Evans’ “unnecessary drama” and conduct, including “inappropriate pictures” that members of the board told The Star they had seen.

Evans did not respond to the newspaper’s requests for comment, but she called the board’s move a hostile takeover in an Oct. 19 Facebook posting: “The failure of the board to follow the ‘rule of law’ makes a mockery of the foundation that I started for those persons who gave their lives upholding the rule of law in the country.”

Her posting mentions “threats with personal and private information” from the board.

Aware of the board’s intentions, Evans submitted her resignation Oct. 4. The board voted not to accept it, however, choosing to terminate her Oct. 13 with no dissenting votes.

Those close to the board’s actions said Evans claims she is owed $87,000 for expenses.

Despite the turmoil, board members said the drive to establish the elaborate 20-acre, $30 million-plus national memorial will proceed. Their second-quarter financial records showed about $59,000 in assets.

“It’s all just so ugly,” said board president Jack Barnes of the events leading to the firing. “But we are still moving forward and working toward building a tribute to our fallen warriors in the heart of America.”

“We had no choice,” said Kat Taylor, co-founder of the not-for-profit foundation with Evans and vice president of its board.

Taylor, reached at her Springfield home, said she no longer considers Evans her friend. The two women have known each other since childhood in Utah.

“I should have listened. I just couldn’t see it,” she said about The Star’s look early last year into Evans’ grandiose promotions for “the nation’s largest memorial.”

Documenting a pattern of exaggerations, the story also noted Evans’ personal financial troubles. That story reported as well on how many patriotically themed groups fail to deliver or become moneymaking schemes behind their nonprofit faces.

Evans and Taylor were involved in a Texas group called United States Fallen Heroes Foundation but split away — leading to cross-accusations of stolen intellectual property that were eventually resolved. Evans also once tried to make a go of it with a home business called American Hero Hugs, which featured photos of service members displayed on night lights, pillowcases and teddy bears.

Buying into the idea of building a memorial to remember men and women who gave their lives in the recent wars, supporters wrote checks for memorial bricks, challenge coins and T-shirts. Volunteers gave time, skills and professional services. Hitting all the right notes of patriotism, Evans promised people a heartwarming vision. Her video presentation won a $30,000 award from Eagle Rare, a whiskey company, which she turned over to the foundation.

Taylor said her involvement with Evans cost her perhaps $250,000 from picking up the expenses racked up by her former friend and the foundation.

Taylor joins a growing line of people who walked away disillusioned.

“Tonya preys on people’s emotions,” said Jodi Steinfeldt of Grantsville, Utah. “So many of us need to hear and really believe that our loved ones will be remembered.”

Her family has started a scholarship in the name of her nephew, Jordan Byrd, who was just 19 when he was killed in an ambush in Afghanistan, she said.

“It’s been a long, hard life lesson. … We’ve learned that we’re the only ones who can honor them the way they deserve.”

Christopher Gartner, a Texas engineer who formerly gave his time as the memorial’s project manager, said Evans got a lot done on a shoestring but “lives in a reality distortion field.”

“I’m agitated that everything she touches turns into a mess. What a waste of money.”

A local believer and volunteer in the Fallen Warrior project has been left embarrassed and so far short $60,000 in fronted cash for a motorcycle customized by reality show stars at Orange County Choppers for a money-raising raffle.

And then there is Florida artist Sandra Priest. Early this year, Evans put $10,000 down on a large 9/11-theme artwork called “Star11” and organized with Priest a fundraising truck tour of it and a second piece sold to a Utah buyer.

When on the road, Priest said, the Fallen Warrior foundation told her no more payments would be made on the piece, which was contracted for $225,000, and Evans began saying it should just be donated. In September, Evans said: “All of my board members agree that she was charging too much. … Having that artifact, though, was important enough that we felt we should rescue it.”

Evans became very possessive of “Star11,” Priest said, even repeatedly calling police to intervene when Priest would try to talk to gatherings about her work. Considering her contract with the foundation voided, Priest directed the truck moving her pieces on to Utah, leaving Evans with an art installation ceremony in Topeka with nothing to install.

An even more damaging scene occurred in an Atlanta hotel lobby, where Evans fired Bert Lynch, a Las Vegas singer she had hired as the tour’s entertainment manager. In the shouted exchange, which three board members recounted to The Star, Lynch referred to sexually explicit photos that he alleged Evans had emailed him.

“She stalked me online,” Lynch said from his Las Vegas home.

He said he was just one more person who fell for Evans’ promotional skills.

“She told me she was going to take my career to the next level. I believed that she could.

“But I never touched her, not even once, and I never used sex to get or keep my job.”

Lynch and others agree that the foundation owes him money for the tour, on which he spent weeks preparing the music and sound equipment for the crowds Evans said would show. The first day, his family and friends made up a majority of the audience, he said, adding: “I played to pigeons.”

Today, one of the most tangible things from Evans’ tenure is a chopper tricked out to the tune of $60,000 sitting in a popcorn shop in Amarillo, Texas. Over the next months, it will be displayed at various sites in Texas.

The machine, heavily customized with military insignia, will be featured in a Nov. 16 cable episode of “Orange County Choppers” and will be raffled off in May.

David Goodwin, owner of a Goody’s World Famous Popcorn store in Amarillo, had once teamed with Fallen Warrior in the project. Now, he told The Star, the raffle proceeds will go to several military charity organizations — but not a cent to the Kansas memorial group.

“I saw red flags on them, so I got away from them as fast as I could.”

With, by the way, the $60,000 bike, for which Evans, not Goodwin, wrote the check to the New York customizing outfit. But the funds behind the check did not come from her or the foundation, but from a Kansas City freelance copywriter who had been volunteering public relations services.

Evans had reached out to Jim Potoski of Lee’s Summit back in June, saying she was short the funds to pay for the motorcycle. The top board members were on vacation, so Evans couldn’t reach them. She was desperate.

“When Tonya called me and told me about the two artifacts (Priest’s art) and the chopper, I thought it sounded like it would be a trifecta, that the donations would fly in,” remembered Potoski, who ponied up the funds so Evans could get the bike. “My gut told me it was the right thing to do. My gut said to go for it.”

Now the foundation wants the bike or the money back, while Goodwin says he signed nothing and doesn’t have to pay. But the Texan told The Star he will reimburse Potoski once the raffling proceeds reach $60,000.

“Jim Potoski saved this mission by helping to make this bike happen. I will only pay him, not the foundation. I don’t trust any of them after all of this.”

“He thanked me profusely,” Potoski said. “I blame myself. This is my fault. I wanted to help. Now I have some serious skin in the game.

“Tonya had an unbelievable work ethic. She ate and breathed this project,” said Potoski, who still believes the memorial can be built with the right leadership. That’s why he originally got involved.

“Because, well, who doesn’t want to help a fallen warrior?”


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