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A GoFundMe Heartbreak

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — So many people offered their sympathy, their shoulders, their awkward attempts at trying to make some sense of how a 28-year-old man could just stop breathing, how five days after he collapsed at his mother’s Albuquerque home his heart could just stop beating.

Nothing made sense.

In those last days when Lauren Furey still grasped onto the hope that her husband of 21 months, her best friend of eight years, would survive what at first had sounded so easily survivable – an electrolyte imbalance, doctors told her – so much was a blur.

And when James Furey passed away Sept. 30, things were no more comprehensible.

James had touched a lot of people in his short, happy life, from his days as a soccer star at La Cueva High School to his 10 years as a waiter so popular at the Olive Garden on San Mateo NE that patrons waited longer to be seated in his section.

James Furey, 28, was a popular waiter at the Olive Garden on San Mateo NE. He had been in relatively good health but collapsed because of an electrolyte imbalance Sept. 25 and was pronounced dead Sept. 30. His organs were donated.

James Furey, 28, was a popular waiter at the Olive Garden on San Mateo NE. He had been in relatively good health but collapsed because of an electrolyte imbalance Sept. 25 and was pronounced dead Sept. 30. His organs were donated.

James, friends joked, often wore two athletic shirts just in case he met someone interested in kicking around the soccer ball who didn’t have appropriate sporty attire – which is to say he literally gave people the shirt off his back.

So many people went to his bedside at the University of New Mexico Hospital’s intensive care unit that it felt like the room needed a revolving door, said Lauren’s mother, Bernadette Jaramillo-Peck.

“It was a comfort to know so many people understood the devastation we felt,” said Jaramillo-Peck, who still cries when she speaks of James. “So many people loved him.”

Many showed such kindness to Lauren, a widow so soon after becoming a bride, that perhaps it was not surprising she was unaware of an online crowdfunding account set up by one of James’ Olive Garden co-workers the day he died.

The GoFundMe account featured a photo of Lauren and James, the same one posted on James’ Facebook page. It also included a short bio of James and called him a “loved friend, family member and coworker.”

The money raised, according to the account, was to help cover James’ medical and personal bills and funeral costs so that “our dearest James Furey can rest peacefully.”

The account was signed the “Olive Garden Crew.” The organizer listed was Sunnsett Torres, a member of that crew.

In one month, the account raised $3,491 from 52 donors and was shared on social media 205 times.

“It was such a wonderful thing to do in James’ honor,” Jaramillo-Peck said. “So many people who cared for James donated to that account.”

Lauren had never met Torres, could not recall James mentioning her. But if Torres was a member of the Olive Garden family, then she must be all right, Jaramillo-Peck said.

On Oct. 24, Lauren was finally ready to struggle on with her life without James. Bills were piling up. Savings were depleted. She reached out to Torres to thank her and to ask whether she might have the money.

Text messages indicate the conversations between the two women were always cordial and caring, with both on occasion referring to the other as “hon.”

Torres in her texts appeared willing to find out how to transfer the money to Lauren, but her texts often suggested that the account remain open to acquire more donations.

Finally on Nov. 11, Torres said she was going through a lot: Her father was hospitalized. She had been in a car crash. She was “trying not to break down.”

And she said she could not give Lauren the money because the account was set up to send the funds directly to the hospital.

According to the GoFundMe guidelines, all payments are funneled through the organizers’ own personal payment processing accounts, unless the account is set up to be paid directly to a certified charity.

TORRES: Started GoFundMe page for co-worker

TORRES: Started GoFundMe page for co-worker

Also, nothing on the James Furey page indicates the donations were to go to UNMH.

“I knew what she (Torres) was saying wasn’t true,” said Jaramillo-Peck, a UNM Provost Office administrator.

Jaramillo-Peck said she attempted to contact Torres on Nov. 11 but received no response.

“My heart sunk,” she said. “How could somebody be so low as to use someone’s tragic, tragic loss like that?”

Jaramillo-Peck said the family filed a fraud report with GoFundMe and the account was immediately removed. Many of the donors have received refunds from the GoFundMe site.

The family also called Albuquerque police but were told the case is a civil matter and that the true victims are those who donated.

I repeatedly attempted to reach Torres or her family by phone, Facebook and in person at her Northeast Heights apartment. Finally, Torres offered a comment in a text message Thursday:

“And all I’m going to say is when I get all proof of my innocence then I’m going to come out publicly and show everyone the truth.”

Torres is no longer employed by Olive Garden, according to a statement issued from the Florida-based Darden Restaurants, which operates several national chains, including Olive Garden.

“It’s important to note that Ms. Torres’ actions were her own and not affiliated with the company,” the statement reads.

We’ll reserve judgment until we hear more from Ms. Torres, but fraudulent GoFundMe accounts happen more often than we’d like to think.

But there will also be good, credible charitable causes and good, kind people doing good things. A good example is Darden Restaurants, which upon hearing of the GoFundMe debacle in Albuquerque has agreed to cover James’ funeral expenses.

Another good example is James Furey himself, a young man with a contagious smile and the brightest blue eyes whose generosity of spirit and humor still lives on in those he left behind far too soon.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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