WALB Investigates, Part 4: Families want answers about donations, dogs involved with former service dog nonprofit

Updated: Jun. 25, 2020 at 6:26 PM EDT
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Editor’s Note: This is Part 4 of a four-part investigative series into The Barefoot K9 Project, a former nonprofit.

HOMERVILLE, Ga. (WALB) - Several families of children and adults with disabilities say a Homerville man took thousands of dollars in donations from them. The families told WALB that the man, Cecil Allen Brown, said his nonprofit, the Barefoot K9 Project (BFK9), would use the money to find and train service dogs for them.

Sheila Weaks’s son Sam, who lives in Alabama, and another client, Cynthia Walker who lived in North Carolina at the time, raised thousands of dollars for the nonprofit in 2016 and 2017, in exchange for a service dog.

Sam has been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, and Cynthia has CHARGE syndrome.

Sam’s mom said BFK9 was supposed to find him a dog and train it to act as Sam’s service dog.

Cynthia’s mom said they sent their own dog, Chipella, who was donated to them, to BFK9 to be trained.

According to their contracts with BFK9, everything would cost a total of $30,000 per client.

The contracts said the client had to raise $15,000 in donations that would be deposited directly into the online crowdfunding account, that only the Barefoot K9 Project, including Brown, could withdraw from. The other $15,000 would come from The Piper Brown Memorial Grant.

Cynthia’s mother, Theresa Buelman, and Weaks said Brown told them that grant fund was in memory of his three-year-old daughter who died.

Weaks said Sam was excited to learn he had been approved and was on his way to getting his own service dog.

“It’s been a while since I’ve seen my kid smile about anything,” Weaks said. “So, we started fundraising.”

Both families did fundraisers, and they put their own money in as well.

Sam's mom Sheila Weaks said that this photo was taken the day he found out he had been approved...
Sam's mom Sheila Weaks said that this photo was taken the day he found out he had been approved to get a service dog with BFK9. She said she had not seen him smile for a while prior to this.(Sheila Weaks)

Allen had actually talked to me into almost $2,000 being placed into my son’s account, promising matching funds. This was my son’s disability check, so he pretty much cleaned us out,

Weeks said.

Buelman said Cecil Allen Brown told her that if she could raise enough money, BFK9 would train...
Buelman said Cecil Allen Brown told her that if she could raise enough money, BFK9 would train Chipella as a service dog for Cynthia.(Theresa Buelman/WALB)

In less than a year we started having questions about things. We noticed that the people who started to question him, would get kicked out of the program,

Buelman said.

“Was it a scam from the beginning? Or was it something that he honestly truly set up to help kids and it just backfired and went the wrong way?” are questions Weaks said she wishes she could ask Brown.

Chipella has been missing since 2017, and Sam never got a dog from the nonprofit. To this day, neither have gotten a dime back from the thousands given to the non-profit on their behalf.

“It takes a very special person, you know, to do what he’s done and you know, take advantage of kids,” Weaks said. “Why our children? Why our special needs children?”

After complaints to the state, the Georgia Office of the Secretary of State’s Securities and Charities Division investigated the nonprofit and Cecil Allen Brown. That investigation found enough proof for the Secretary of State to issue a cease and desist order in 2018.

Read the full cease and desist below:

The document explained that six families either “never received their dog from Brown” or got one that was not properly trained. Several former clients

WALB talked with, along with the cease and desist mentioned, one disabled client who did get their dog. The document stated that the “dog was neither ‘highly trained’ or suitable for the individual and the medical condition for which it was to be trained.”

“He didn’t have any basic training,” Weaks said. “He just yanked this child out of their wheelchair.”

The cease and desist said the project received $60,000 dollars in donations between June 2016 and February 2017.

The document said that after one client passed away, BFK9 “continued soliciting charitable contributions” for them.

Dee Brown said she took this photo of Cecil Allen Brown when he picked up dogs that she donated...
Dee Brown said she took this photo of Cecil Allen Brown when he picked up dogs that she donated to BFK9 to become service dogs.(Dee Brown)

Out of that $60,000, the cease and desist said that less than $1,000, or “virtually no expenses” were spent on dog training or care, and that “a significant portion of the charitable funds received by BFK9 were used to pay the personal expenses of Brown, and perhaps his girlfriend Colleen Miller, including: restaurant and grocery charges, car and related insurance payments, utility payments, doctors’ bills, and cable, streaming television, and cinema entertainment costs.”

The cease and desist contains a further breakdown of where the money was spent.

Brown no longer owns the Shiloh Highway property in Homerville where he ran the nonprofit.

WALB found his new house in Waycross and attempted to get answers. He answered the door, but when he was asked about The Barefoot K9 Project, he said he had no comment.

The cease and desist stated that BFK9 “engaged in fraudulent activity,” misrepresenting that the money raised would be used for charity. The Secretary of State’s Office said in the cease and desist that BFK9 violated Georgia’s Official Code by not registering as a charitable organization in Georgia. The cease and desist said the nonprofit and Brown also violated the code because charitable funds were misappropriated for Brown and Colleen Miller’s personal use. Brown left out important facts when he talked to the Secretary of State’s investigators, according to the document. He told them he was only involved in founding the project and was a volunteer. However, the investigation found he wrote several checks from the nonprofit to himself and marked them “reimbursement” or “labor.”

The Secretary of State’s office dissolved BFK9 in 2017.

Buelman said she has tried to contact Brown to find out what happened to the money and the dog.

I’ve sent him multiple messages, (saying), ‘look, I don’t even care about the money. We just want Chipella, we will leave you alone. Just give us our dog back,’

Buelman said.

In early 2017, several different families reported what happened with BFK9 to the law enforcement agencies where they lived.

Most got pointed toward the Clinch County Sheriff’s Office.

According to an incident report, Clinch County Sheriff’s Office deputies turned the case over to the FBI. An FBI spokesperson told WALB he could not confirm or deny any investigation involving Brown. No criminal charges have been filed in connection to this.

Sam still has not been able to get a service dog. Someone has offered to help Cynthia get a service dog once the opportunity comes up, but Chipella is still missing. Both their mothers said they do not plan to stop fighting for answers and justice.

“She tells them the bad man took Chipella,” Buelman said of Cynthia speaking with others about her missing dog. “It’s hard, and I have to, you know, fear the worst with what has happened. But it breaks my heart.”

Several former Barefoot K9 Project clients told WALB that Brown claimed to have had 23 years of service in law enforcement, including time as a K9 officer.

The cease and desist mentions those claims by Brown as well.

WALB found his law enforcement records with the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council. Those records show Brown has had a total of a little over seven years in law enforcement service in Georgia since 1992. The record showed that he voluntarily resigned from each position he held, including positions at the Homerville Police Department, the Clinch County Sheriff’s Office and the Adel Police Department.

WALB also found multiple prior lawsuits involving Brown and businesses connected to him.

A Florida man filed a lawsuit in Clinch County in early 2013, several years before the Barefoot K9 Project was incorporated. The man claimed he invested in a GPS Offender Monitoring Business that Brown was coordinating. The Florida man claimed in his lawsuit that Brown intentionally defrauded him by misrepresenting the company’s qualifications.

A Pennsylvania company sued Brown in 2014.

The company claimed that it lent Brown money to start a new business named “Exotic Reptiles & Pets, LLC.” According to the suit, the company claimed that Brown never sent payments from the business’s customers to the company in Pennsylvania as outlined in their agreement. According to court records, a Pennsylvania court ordered that Brown pay $16,796.33 to the company.

The case was transferred to Clinch County Superior Court, where a judge eventually ordered that the case be dismissed because the plaintiff failed to appear for a civil jury trial calendar call.

In 2011, a Clinch County magistrate court judge also ordered that Brown pay another Florida man $2,903.50 in a civil suit. The plaintiff in that case claimed Brown sold him a fraudulent online business. There have been several other monetary judgments ordered against Brown in Clinch County Magistrate Court as well.

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