BETHEL ACRES — A stranger came to town.
Tonia Allen told Oklahoma residents left homeless by the May 19, 2013, tornado near Shawnee that she was there to help. She said she had traveled from Texas on a mission to build homes that was rooted in a calling from God.
Allen asked for donations to carry out her calling, and she got them.
Gaylord Sanders, 86, was among those promised a home in exchange for a donation. He said he gave Allen $10,000 in insurance money, with the understanding that the money would be used to build him a home and help his neighbors rebuild their homes and lives, too, he said. The home never materialized, and now his money, and Allen, are gone.
“I feel I was scammed,” said Sanders, giving his schnauzer, Patches, a pat on the head from the armchair in his trailer. A faith-based organization eventually got Sanders a new mobile home, without asking for money up front. Sanders, a widower and retired Korean War veteran, lives with Patches and takes care of his mentally impaired sister, Evelyn, 72.
Residents of the mobile home community aren’t the only people who feel taken advantage of. The leader of America’s Disaster Relief, Jan France, said her charity is missing more than $75,000 in funds, as well as receipts and contracts that would account for the missing cash. Following complaints from residents and the nonprofit, Pottawatomie County District Attorney Richard Smothermon said his office is investigating Allen, including a complaint that she stole a pickup and sold it in another state.
“That’s one of many allegations we have received and are investigating,” Smothermon said, declining to discuss the investigation further.
The state attorney general’s office is encouraging residents who gave money in exchange for homes, and never got them, to file complaints, said Julie Bays, the agency’s public protection chief.
And Tonia Allen, according to criminal records, is not who she says she is. Her photos, birth date and Social Security number link her to multiple aliases and a criminal history spanning two states.
On May 19, 2013, the twister ground over a pasture hill and hit the Steelman Estates mobile home community near Shawnee head-on. The natural disaster happened so fast, one resident with a tornado shelter steps away in the yard had time only to duck under his kitchen table and pray. Shelters saved lives that day, but two men in the tornado’s path were killed and at least 80 homes were destroyed. Disaster continued a relentless assault in Oklahoma. Deadly tornadoes on May 20 and 31 siphoned help elsewhere. Residents at Steelman Estates felt abandoned and forgotten.
Faith-based groups like the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma and the Oilfield Christian Fellowship of Oklahoma stepped in to help residents in the community find new mobile homes. A coalition of bikers called the U.S. Defenders were among the most dedicated helpers, riding into town right after the tornado and staying for months to serve meals and rebuild lives in the largely poor community.
Tonia Allen arrived amid the clamor in a blue pickup to lend a helping hand. She promised something better than new trailers. She promised new homes. She was always ready with a smile and a friendly “Hello,” residents said. Touting her charity, “God’s Hands Ups,” she said she was driven by a higher power from her home in Texas to help Oklahomans. It’s a message that appealed to the deeply religious residents who had just lost homes.
Early on, a few complaints made their way to the state attorney general’s office, Bays said. It’s common after any Oklahoma disaster for people to try to set up charities to help, some with good intentions, some not. Social media makes it a nightmare to control.
“For us, it’s a rush to contact all these people,” Bays said.
One of those people was Allen. She was told to drop her work with “God’s Hands Ups” and become affiliated with an existing charity.
She followed those orders, Bays said.
In August, Allen signed on as a volunteer director for Oklahoma for America’s Disaster Relief, France said. Allen underwent a background check that turned up no criminal history. The charity gave Allen full access to its Oklahoma account, meaning she had at her disposal thousands of dollars of donations streaming in to help Oklahomans. Allen’s job in Oklahoma was to build homes with that money, France said.
Allen’s bubbly demeanor took a turn after she hooked up with the charity, said Clayton Cook, who signed a contract with Allen for a new home, but never received one. She no longer stopped her blue pickup to chat or say hello. She became more serious and more aggressive in her “mission” to build homes, Cook said.
The tornado left Steelman Estates resident Kristina Miller’s nerves shot and laid to waste the mobile home she shared with her son. Miller, 41, and her son Monty, 12, lived in a tent for at least a month after the tornado, she said. It took weeks for workers to restore electricity and running water to the area.
Allen found Miller and her son a camper trailer to live in. She then told Miller, 41, she would build her a home, Miller said.
“She dug up my yard,” Miller said. “But she kept skipping over me.”
Allen would dig in another yard, and another, Miller said, always too busy to finish what she started.
“Finally, I realized she’s not building a home,” Miller said. “I had just believed her.”
The bikers hooked Miller up with a faith-based charity that eventually gave Miller and her son a new mobile home.
The broken promise added insult to injury, Miller said.
“I felt like the second tornado hit me when I realized that I was not going to get my new house,” she told The Oklahoman in a July 2013 article.
Miller didn’t give Allen money, but other residents, like Sanders and Cook’s brother, Darryn Cook, did.
“She promised a lot of things that never happened,” Clayton Cook said.
A trailer next to Clayton Cook’s new mobile home is chock-full of Allen’s building supplies, he said. Wasps and bees zip around new sliding doors, a bathtub, wooden pallet and other materials stacked around an unkempt lawn outside. Cook said Allen stashed her building material at the unoccupied trailer. He hasn’t seen her for weeks.
Allen built two homes for America’s Disaster Relief, France said. She was given access to disaster relief accounts in Texas after expressing an interest in helping in her home state. Money went missing and France and her organization cut ties with Allen on July 10. Now, the stranger from Texas is nowhere to be found.
A criminal past, history of media attention
Allen passed an initial background check from America’s Disaster Relief, France said.
What the charity didn’t know about are the multiple aliases linked to Allen’s date of birth and Social Security number.
A deeper criminal background check revealed a lengthy criminal history in Texas and Georgia under different names.
Names matching Allen’s birth date and Social Security number include Tonia Ola Camacho, Tonia Olamae Camacho, Tonia Ola Flores and Tonia Olamae Gilliand.
Under those identities, criminal charges listed include driving while intoxicated, criminal battery and numerous theft and theft by check charges.
News media reports show that a woman named Tonia Camacho accused the Tatum, Texas, police chief of forcing her to drive drunk after he responded to a domestic call at her residence.
Camacho demanded at a public meeting in the small town that the city council not let the police chief resign with honor.
“Because there was nothing honorable about his actions,” Camacho told a Longview, Texas, newspaper. “All he had to do was apologize for what he did, because people make mistakes. He made a crucial mistake and instead of fixing it, he just kept covering it up.”
The police chief denied wrongdoing but resigned in January 2012, along with an officer, in the wake of the scandal.
A news story prominently pictures Camacho speaking at the Tatum public meeting. She is the spitting image of Tonia Allen, whose image was peppered across Oklahoma media following the May 19, 2013, tornado.
While residents awaited their promised new homes, Allen sought out media attention in Bethel Acres to talk up the “vision” she received from God.
“I had a vision from God and I said, ‘I really think these families should have houses,’” Allen told The Oklahoman for a July 2013 article. “They’ve lost so much and most of them didn’t have insurance, so I don’t think they should have mortgages.”
Today in Steelman Estates, residents have moved on with their lives.
Sanders, the man who said he gave Allen $10,000, hasn’t bothered to file a criminal complaint, he said. He feels embarrassed that he believed Allen.
“She puts on a good front,” he said. “You think she’s a nice little lady, but she’s got a bad side, too.”
Sanders’ daughter tracked down Allen on Facebook to ask if her dad could have his money back.
Allen claimed in an exchange that Sanders told her to keep the money, the Facebook exchange shows.
Allen’s Facebook page appeared to show at least one other charity effort she took up in Texas, in which she appeared to offer help to a family in a car wreck.
One Oklahoma woman left messages about a promised home on Allen’s Facebook news feed.
A screen shot taken by Sanders’ daughter shows Allen had a message for those who doubted her.
In rambling prose strewn with exclamation points, she wrote “Let’s see the lies you make to save face. Guess what I have more!! I have enough to keep yall reading and trolling for days!! By the way. Eff you!!”
Attempts to reach Allen were not successful.
In his armchair and new mobile home, Sanders pats Patches on the head. He doesn’t get Facebook. He doesn’t understand people like Allen, he said, though he understands now the cloth she was cut from.
“Her character wasn’t what it was supposed to be,” he said. “All scam artists are that way.”
He offered Allen, or Camacho, or Gilliand, or Flores, or whoever she is, a bit of advice:
“I think she ought to give the money back,” he said.
That includes his money, he said.