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Frank Gray

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Founder of memorial for AIDS in bankruptcy

Vincent
Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Otis Vincent stands near a pedestal in 2008 that was part of the Northeast Indiana AIDS Memorial.

In 2004, Fort Wayne resident Otis Vincent announced bold plans to build a memorial in Fort Wayne in memory of people who had died of AIDS.

Seven years later, the memorial, built under the name of a non-profit called the Northeast Indiana AIDS Memorial, has been completed.

Vincent, however, who has declared bankruptcy twice before, is back in bankruptcy court a third time, nearly $230,000 in the red to scores of debtors, including several landscaping companies and nurseries that helped build the memorial but say they were never paid for their work.

In the past several years, Vincent has sought publicity by taking part in various AIDS-related events, including marches, fundraisers and memorial events at the AIDS Memorial. He was the subject of several news articles, including one in which he claimed to have raised $50,000 for the memorial.

At a hearing in bankruptcy court last week, creditors got to ask questions. Did the AIDS Memorial non-profit have a bank account? How much did the organization receive in donations? Where did the money go?

During the hearing, Vincent’s answers were vague. In the end, it wasn’t firmly established where the non-profit might have opened a bank account, or when, or when it was closed.

Vincent could offer no accounting for donations made to the Northeast Indiana AIDS Memorial and no clear estimate of the amount of donations made to the memorial, other than a guess about how much people paid to have personalized bricks included in the memorial.

At one point during the hearing, Vincent said that before the AIDS Memorial received its non-profit status, it used the Fort Wayne Community Foundation as an umbrella organization.

We contacted the Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne and asked about that. No, said Dave Bennett, the executive director, his organization never handled money for the AIDS Memorial. But it did give a $25,000 grant to the memorial that was handled through what was then known as the Fort Wayne Community Education Center.

Tom Pehlke, who runs Lindenwood Cemetery, which donated the land where the memorial is located, said that grant came from a cemetery endowment that had been turned over to the Community Foundation. That $25,000 grant did pay for the monument, some benches and other construction.

Lawns Plus, which did landscaping work for the memorial, performed several thousand dollars’ worth of work. Owner Jamie Jones, who was represented by a lawyer during last week’s hearing, says his records show he never received any payment for his work, though he says he recalls getting a payment of about $1,100 several years ago. Lawns Plus has a $17,763 claim in Vincent’s bankruptcy.

Other nurseries and landscaping companies that returned our calls also said they had never been paid for their work or materials they had supplied for the memorial.

Meanwhile, other creditors that lent Vincent money confronted him about claims that he was the heir to land in Kentucky that contained coal and that he would get millions of dollars from its sale and repay them.

Vincent had made that claim in 2006 when Indiana Equality, an organization that represents gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities, launched a fundraising effort. Vincent, who had earlier pledged $200,000 to the group, announced at that rally that he was increasing his pledge to $275,000.

When asked whether Vincent had ever given the organization any money, the organization’s answer was, “Not a nickel.”

Mark St, John, an administrative agent for Indiana Equality, said that Vincent told them he would be getting money from a coal mine.

“It was a logical story,” St. John said. “It hung together. It all seemed to make sense.”

When the organization had questions, though, Vincent offered little information, St. John said.

“Sometime that summer we quietly backed away,” realizing there was no money coming, St. John said.

Vincent apparently is an heir to some land in Kentucky that contains coal, but in the court hearing he said several people share a claim. The land was listed in documents as having a value of $1,763, though Vincent testified it was worth $17,630, according to tax records.

Another creditor who confronted Vincent was Shannon Williams, who volunteered with the AIDS Memorial for a year before he says Vincent offered to hire him at $50,000 a year to run the Northeast Indiana AIDS Memorial. Vincent said he would endow it with money from the sale of his coal mine.

Williams, who owned three pizza restaurants, said he sold the restaurants to accept the job with the non-profit. On the job, though, Williams said he was never paid. Instead, he said Vincent borrowed money from him, ostensibly to pay lawyers to finalize the sale of his coal mine.

In the end, Williams said he ended up broke and lost his home.

In the hearing, Williams asked Vincent whether he had taken several people to Owensboro, Ky., telling them the mine had been sold and the money was in his account. Vincent acknowledged he had. Vincent also said that he had never sold the mine or tried to sell it and never had any money.

But the bankruptcy hearing ended somewhat abruptly. When a question was posed to Vincent about signatures on certain documents, he declined to answer, extending his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. This led the hearing officer to end the hearing; another will be scheduled.

For now, there appears to be no endowment to maintain the memorial. Lindenwood’s Pehlke said contractors have done maintenance on the memorial, but it’s a different one every year, and indications are – based on the bankruptcy claims – they haven’t been paid.

Frank Gray has held positions as reporter and editor at The Journal Gazette since 1982 and has been writing a column on local topics since 1998. His column is published on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by e-mail at fgray@jg.net.

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