Reported by Oil City News – Brendan LaChance
CASPER, Wyo. — The Casper Police Department is investigating circumstances surrounding donations intended to pay off some Natrona County School District student meal debt in the spring of 2019.
The school district said on Monday, Jan. 6 that the case is not connected to a fall 2019 donation from the Central Wyoming Chapter of the American Petroleum Institute, which wiped out all outstanding meal debt in across the district.
Rather, an affidavit to request a search warrant filed in October lists Brittny French as a person of interest to the Casper PD investigation.
The affidavit seeks to obtain records from GoFundMe.com “pertaining to the fundraising efforts for Feed Casper Students and/or Erase Student Lunch Debt created by, maintained by, or accessed by Brittny French.”
According to that affidavit, NCSD Executive Director of Business Services Steve Ellbogen notified the police department in April 2019 that he had a suspicious complaint regarding the “Feed Casper Students” fundraising effort.
In September of 2018, Ellbogen met with French and other NCSD employees to discuss the fundraising efforts.
In January 2019, the affidavit states that the school district received two anonymous letters stating that the “Feed Casper Students” GoFundMe page had raised money to pay student meal debt, but that such funds had never been distributed.
In February 2019, Ellbogen contacted French and asked her about the letters.
“French stated she had a serious illness which was the cause of lack of action and communication over the previous few months,” the affidavit states. “French stated she had close to $4,000 in donations and that NCSD should expect a donation from the fundraising efforts towards the end of March. French explained there were a few donors still considering donating but wanted to wait for final tax preparations before making that decision.”
On March 18, 2019, French provided Ellbogen with a check for $4,563.25, the affidavit continues.
“The funds were used to begin paying down debt starting at the elementary school level per French’s request,” the affidavit states.
French then contacted the district on March 19, asking them not to cash the check she had provided, saying that one donor’s check had insufficient funds and that GoFundMe had taken a fee out of the funds which she had previously been unaware of.
The affidavit claims that French delivered a new check that afternoon in the amount of $4,049.51.
“Both checks were written on a Hilltop National Bank account,” the affidavit states.
On March 21, French provided Ellbogen $3,500 in cash, the affidavit states.
In April, the NCSD Board of Trustees approved the acceptance of a donation in this amount. Oil City will ask for clarification from the school district and police department on Tuesday as to whether that $3,500 in cash which French provided is the same that the trustees accepted at their April 8 board meeting.
On April 4, “Ellbogen learned the check issued by French for $4,049.51 was returned unpaid due to insufficient funds,” the affidavit states. “Approximately 250 students had their student lunch debt already paid down by the monies in the check. NCSD opted to utilize district funds to cover the accounts instead of reversing each transaction.”
Ellbogen attempted to contact French on April 11 to notify her that the check had insufficient funds. The affidavit says that a female answered when he called, but when Ellbogen asked to speak with French, the connection was lost.
Ellbogen attempted to leave voicemail messages on at least two further calls, but these were not returned.
“To date, French has not returned calls to Ellbogen,” the affidavit claims.
On April 22, Detective Shannon Daley with the Casper PD received an anonymous letter stating that Feed Casper Children had raised about $10,000 but that these funds were never distributed.
Daley requested that Ellbogen send a certified letter to French stating she had five days to correct the check with insufficient funds.
The affidavit states that this letter was “received and signed for at the French residence” on May 17, but that French has not corrected the check.
The affidavit states that Daley was unable to locate a GoFundMe page called “Feed Casper Students,” but that she located a page called “Erase Student Lunch Debt” created by Brittny French on July 31, 2018.
The affidavit states that this account had received $1,213 toward a goal of raising $10,000 as of April 17, 2019.
On Oct. 24, 2019, Daley again checked the page and found it had been deactivated.
Daley also reviewed “Feed Casper Students” Hilltop Banking records on Oct. 24, which she obtained via a search warrant.
“Daley found between July 2018 and May 2019, a total of $19,253.89 was deposited into the account,” the affidavit for the search warrant for GoFundMe records states. “The same amount was removed from the account, primarily via cash withdrawals.”
“Of the $19,253.89 collected, only $573.10 was deposited via the GoFundMe platform. This was less than half the amount previously shown had been collected on the Erase Student Lunch Debt GoFundMe page.”
The affidavit which requests the search warrant to obtain GoFundMe.com records states that the purpose of the search warrant would be to “help determine how much money was collected via the GoFundMe platform that was not distributed to its intended recipient.”
The affidavit for the search warrant does not state any recommended charges against French or any other individuals pertinent to their investigation,
Spokespersons for both NCSD and the Casper PD said on Monday that they would be able to answer further questions on the case on Tuesday. Oil City will provide updates on the investigation as that information becomes available.