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Feud over donation funds colors hero's death

Mike Patterson died after trying to rescue a drowning child in Georgia, but a donations fund set up by strangers online soon roused hard feelings among family members.

August 09, 2013|By David Zucchino
  • Mike Patterson and his son, Cole. Patterson died 20 days after diving into a creek to save a drowning girl.
Mike Patterson and his son, Cole. Patterson died 20 days after diving into… (Patterson family photo )

ROCKMART, Ga. — Mike Patterson was known around this small town in the north Georgia hill country as a helpful and accommodating fellow. This spring, he climbed into a burning tractor-trailer and helped rescue the driver after a local highway accident.

So Patterson's response after he spotted a 4-year-old girl drowning in rain-swollen Euharlee Creek on June 8 came as no surprise to anyone here.

The burly drywaller dived in. But he slammed his head on the creek bottom, breaking his neck in three places. Javea Jones was rescued unharmed by others, but Patterson, at 43, wound up in a hospital isolation ward, paralyzed from the neck down. He had no health insurance.

News reports about the tragedy rocketed across the Internet, touching people around the globe. A "Friends of Mike Patterson" fund was set up and raised tens of thousands of dollars. His hospital ward in nearby Rome, Ga., overflowed with flowers, cards and prayers from China, South Africa, Australia, Brazil and across the U.S.

Mike Patterson T-shirts sold briskly. His mother says entertainer Tyler Perry donated $50,000 to her. Actor Chuck Norris praised Patterson in his online column.

But, as often happens when strangers and large amounts of money collide, the heartwarming tale of spontaneous generosity soured. What began with the kindness of strangers in cyberspace roused suspicions and hard feelings in this rural slice of the South.

The worst was to come: Patterson, fighting a high fever and bacterial infection caused by polluted creek water, died 20 days after the accident, on June 28. His death complicated a feud that had already taken root.

Patterson's mother, Vickie Jones, a retired school lunch lady, and his sister had kept a 24-hour-a day vigil for him after the accident. But they also had complained that the three trustees of Friends of Mike Patterson were cutting them off from the fund and refusing to provide an account.

"They're exploiting my son for money, and we're fed up," Jones said.

"It started out really good, but now it's turned into a power and control thing," said Patterson's sister, Tiffany Jones, 38.

In fact, the fund trustees had never met Patterson. They said they had responded to pleas from his mother in a local TV interview for help setting up a fund for her son, and suddenly they were being vilified.

One of them, David Griffeth, a crime analyst at the Athens-Clarke County Police Department in Athens, Ga., said he stepped forward because he'd set up similar supplemental needs trusts for injured police officers. Griffeth teamed up with two women he had never met, Laura Bledsoe and Tonya M. Davis, who work at a consulting firm in Rome and had also responded to the mother's plea.

Bledsoe took dinner to Patterson's mother in the hospital and, at the mother's request, helped set up the Facebook page and trust fund.

The Floyd County Police Department in Rome says it has received no complaints about the trust.

Griffeth said the trust was intended to benefit only Patterson "and not his sister or his mother or us, or anyone else." He said the trustees "have not and will not realize any financial benefit."

But the trustees soon found themselves in the middle of another feud — between Patterson's wife on one side and his mother and sister on the other.

Before the accident, Patterson had consulted a lawyer about divorcing Renee Daniel Patterson, according to his mother and sister. Renee tried to visit her husband in the hospital, but when his mother and sister refused to let her, she got into an argument and was escorted out by security.

Renee Patterson has accused her in-laws of trying to seize the money designated for the couple's 9-year-old son, Cole, who witnessed his father's accident. She says they also forced her to leave the funeral home viewing for her husband.

She has praised the trust's efforts. "Y'all are amazing people. Truly God's angels," she said of the trustees in an email.

Patterson left a will, which left his estate to his son, with his mother as executor, according to Vickie Jones and her lawyer. But the fund was not part of the estate, and the trustees decided to use the money they had raised to set up a separate trust for Cole, with no role for Patterson's mother or sister.

Patterson was close to his son, his family said, and they often spent weekends playing together at Euharlee Creek. He was a fun-loving, irrepressible man who often chatted up strangers. When he was a boy, his mother said, she worried he would wander home with strangers. Even while intubated in a hospital bed, Patterson flirted with nurses and cracked jokes, she said.

Patterson spent most of his adult life installing drywall. In fact, his mother said, one of his jobs was the River City Bank building in Rome, where the trust is held.

After Patterson was paralyzed, churches and townspeople peppered the local weekly newspaper for information on how to donate money, and the Rockmart Journal referred them to the trust.

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