I got a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past recently. The ghost came in the form of an email: “Remember Mike Kerr from Snowball Express? You won’t believe what he’s up to now.”
If you are a writer, stumbling over stories is fairly common place: People you meet. Conversations you overhear. Things you observe. Research you do. All of it can lead to the most entertaining of stories. One of my favorites was a conversation I overheard while drinking coffee one morning at a restaurant at Cumberland State Park. It was all about who killed Jon Benet Ramsey.
But this is not that.
This is one of those stories that went sideways almost from the get go. Back in 2006, a friend I adored and trusted contacted me. She had met this man who was setting up a foundation aimed at making Christmas special for Gold Star children of Iraq & Afghanistan. Would I help? she wanted to know.
Most of my blogging at the time was about the politics behind the war in Iraq and the impact on young children, many of whom I had met. I also had a broad readership among the veteran community because of my memoir – After the Flag has been Folded (Wm. Morrow). I was the perfect person to help propel this man and his foundation.
The idea was to get sponsors to fly children out to California for a weekend at Disneyland, all expenses paid. Given that my father left for Vietnam during the Christmas season of 1965, I was more than willing to use my voice to help this man.
He wanted me to use my voice to establish his credibility and gain him national media attention, which I did. I reached out to Howard Berkes at NPR, who agreed to do a story. Then TAPS founder Bonnie Carroll reached out. She wanted to be involved. Once NPR got involved other media did as well. Veterans throughout Southern California got involved. Over a million dollars of in-kind donations rolled in. Tens of thousands in cash, too. It felt good to be part of something helping Gold Star kids connect with each other in an environment that was joyful and not sorrowful.
But when you invite national media to participate in a story, you have to expect that they are going to do their job. Berkes uncovered Mike Kerr’s troubling past. He called to see if I knew anything about it. I did not. Of course now the story wouldn’t be about a fun-filled weekend for kids of the fallen. Now it would be about the “founder” of Snowball Express and his troubling past. Kerr called me and asked me to “call of the media dogs.” I informed Kerr that media doesn’t work that way. You can’t call it off because you don’t like what they are reporting, especially when what you’ve done is wrong.
Bonnie Carroll asked me to not participate in any of the events connected with Snowball because she wanted to keep a lid on the negative press. I explained to Bonnie that Kerr’s history was far more troubling than any of us knew, but I agreed to step aside and not participate in Snowball Express, a decision I came to regret.
What NPR revealed was just the tip of the iceberg. Kerr is a charlatan. A user. An exploiter. He was using this opportunity with Gold Star families to make contact and build a foundation. He also hoped to become a “financial advisor” for the unsuspecting and unaware, bilking them of their survivor’s benefits. He lied about the tax-exempt status of Snowball Express. He had never applied for it. He lied about his work history. He lied about the licensures he held. He owed his ex over $50,000 in child support. He hadn’t seen his own kids in years. There was a warrant for his arrest in Arizona. He had drug problems. He had alcohol problems.
Mike Kerr and his new wife were arrested in 2007 for obstructing a police officer and a DUI charge. He stepped down from Snowball Express after that arrest. Snowball Express was taken over by Gary Sinise and good people who really are concerned about doing good things for the children of the fallen.
A year later, Kerr thought up another money-making scheme involving veterans, called Gratitude in Motion. That went haywire when Kerr’s involvement was made public:
Mamie Yong Maywhort of San Juan Capistrano sits on the board of directors for Homefront America Inc., a nonprofit that assists military families while their sons and daughters are away on combat. She was an early supporter of the Snowball Express and processed donations for Kerr. He ignored her advice about properly filing with the IRS; Maywhort quit in frustration. “Knowing the Mike Kerr that I know,” says Maywhort, “I would not engage in any activity with him. And I would caution anybody that works with him that they need to do their research.”
Then again in 2010 when he tried to claim he was the founder of another veteran organization, Honor the Run, designed as a cross-country motorcycle trip to raise funds for a host of troop charities for which Michael claimed to be executive director. That move drew rebuke from Roy White, one of the board members of Snowball Express who warned people:
“The Kerr’s need to find some other means to contribute to society and earn a living; doing it on the backs of veterans will no longer be tolerated and we all need to take a firm stand against it. The fear of public humiliation has not thwarted their continued string of failures and distortions but those of us who know the truth must not sit still and not shine the light of truth to others.”
Kerr seems to have finally figured out he has no hope of bilking folks in Southern California any longer, so he’s up and moved to Idaho, where the water is pure and the people are even less wise to charlatans and always eager to trust others.
He’s got a new trick. Using GoFundMe to start “Hear the Watchmen” ministries, because if there is one group more vulnerable than veterans it’s Believers. So Kerr has found Jesus and a way to bilk new people: https://www.gofundme.com/f/HELP-HEAR-THE-WATCHMEN and https://www.gofundme.com/f/hear-the-watchmen-need-your-help-please
He and his wife live in Salmon, Idaho, now. A town of about 3,000 folks. Someone in that town reached out to me after researching Kerr online. They are worried that Kerr has come into their little community and is pretending to be a man of God in order to take advantage of the good people of Salmon.
Kerr is using an alias now, too. Mike Whitestone. Perhaps passing himself off as part Native American, you think? He’s got a website where you can donate to his Jesus mission. A Facebook profile and a YouTube channel.
Yes, that’s the thing about folks like Mike. They just keep reinventing themselves everywhere they go. One step ahead of the scam.
Anything to avoid actually working for a living.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Karen Spears Zacharias is a Gold Star daughter, an author and journalist.