Thousands of dollars raised at an Anchorage drag show and auction, held in August to benefit a disabled soldier, disappeared shortly after the event, according to the intended beneficiaries, who suspect the money was stolen by the fundraiser's organizer.
Police said Tuesday that Andrew Caleb Pritt -- at one time a campaign manager for the soldier's mother, former lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Diane Benson -- is a suspect in a theft case stemming from allegations reported to fraud detectives in September.
Benson's son Latseen, a sergeant in the Army, lost his legs in 2005 to a roadside bomb while on his second tour in Iraq. Later, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit, Homes for Our Troops, started building Latseen's family an adapted house in Elizabeth, Colo., that would allow him to get around easier. In July, Pritt told Benson, his old boss, that he could organize a fundraiser in Anchorage for Homes for Our Troops and Latseen, Benson said Tuesday.
"Having worked with him, I never thought of him as being a thief or malicious, but I did know if you didn't stay on top of things, he might not get the job done," Benson said.
The Aug. 13 benefit at Mad Myrna's was billed as a "fabulous night's entertainment," set to include female impersonators, comedy, singing and an auction, according to a Facebook page for the event.
But Homes For Our Troops was never notified beforehand and never received any money afterward, said the group's marketing director, Jennifer Fiorentino.
Pritt could not be located for comment. His father said Pritt was living in Arkansas and said he would pass on a message if they talked, but said that wasn't likely.
Fiorentino said the group found out about the fundraiser when a staff member received a news alert saying the nonprofit's name had been mentioned somewhere on the Internet.
"The reality is, if the Facebook page hadn't been brought to our attention, I don't know if we would have been made aware of it or not," Fiorentino said. "And this one was a drag show, I mean it was a little more unusual, just like, 'That's kind of neat, that's different. It's not a car wash.' "
Homes For Our Troops reached out to Pritt with information Fiorentino said the group provides in order to help any third-party fundraisers. They also asked that he fill out some paperwork before using their logo and name at the event, she said.
"He never responded to the request," Fiorentino said.
Benson said she didn't notice anything strange in the days leading up to the fundraiser. During the event, though, Pritt told her he'd gotten some money for expenses from the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post. When she asked how much money and what expenses it was for, Pritt seemed to get distracted and never answered her, Benson said.
"That was the red flag that night," she said. "Something I thought I needed to find out more about."
Then Benson had trouble getting Pritt to tell her exactly how much money had actually been raised, she said. He later said in a press release -- a copy of which is posted at BentAlaska.com, along with other details about Pritt's alleged theft -- saying they'd raised more than $3,000.
Benson later found out Pritt had convinced at least one person to write two fundraising checks directly to Pritt, and that he'd talked the Imperial Court of All Alaska -- the provider of a credit card reader for the auction -- to also write him a check for credit card proceeds.. Benson said she still isn't sure what happened to the cash taken at the door for the $10 per head cover charge.
"I don't really know what the path was that the money followed that night," Benson said. "It didn't cross my mind. I had bought into the idea that there were more people involved that had organized it, and there was nobody besides him."
Pritt was giving Benson confusing information about where the money had gone and who he'd paid for expenses, she said. So she and her ex-husband, Tony, told Pritt they would take whatever money he had and write the check to Homes for Our Troops themselves, Benson said.
"That's when he stopped talking to us," Benson said.
Fiorentino, the Homes for Our Troops marketing director, said one of the group's staff talked to Pritt at one point, and Pritt told them he'd sent a check in the mail. But there was no real explanation as to why the check never arrived, Fiorentino said.
"The bottom line was there was no money received by us," she said.
And Benson later found out, through the Imperial Court of All Alaska, that the charitable group's bank records showed Pritt cashed the check, Benson said, adding that she has a copy of the cashed check with Pritt's signature.
It now appears that Pritt relocated to his home state of Arkansas, according to his father, Troy Pritt. The elder Pritt said he had reason to believe his son was in Little Rock and said he would pass along a reporter's request to talk to his son. But Troy Pritt said he had no plans to reach out to his son and doesn't want to have anything to do with the allegations against him.
"I have no desire to go look for him," Troy Pritt said. "I'm a minister, I take the Bible pretty literally, and Andrew has gone into the gay lifestyle, female impersonations and all that stuff. We can't even have a conversation without getting in an argument. We just can't."
Benson said she's not sure how the fundraising case will be resolved, but her son, though angered, will still get the Colorado house. Fiorentino confirmed that the house-building is still in progress and does not hinge on any donations from the fundraiser.
"It's just personally insulting for me, because he also used my name and my son's name," Benson said. "I think using my son's name is what probably burns me more than anything."
Reach Casey Grove at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4589.