'I want to be buried with them': Dad of 6 kids lost in house fire criticizes memorial fund

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SOUTH BEND — The purpose of the Smith Family Memorial Fund, created three days after a deadly house fire on South Bend’s west side that ultimately killed six children, seemed straightforward.

But more than two months later, the children’s father says he’s received very little money from the fund bearing his family’s surname.

David Smith, the 67-year-old single dad who survived the Jan. 21 blaze at 222 N. LaPorte Ave., told The Tribune he cannot directly access the private fund. He doesn’t know how much money it holds. He isn’t sure who’s on a committee authorizing payments from the account.

At a somber event announcing the fund three days after the fire, Lynn Coleman, a trusted community elder who holds influence with the city’s top officials, said he’d gathered with “the core group” he often deals with to come up with a plan to support the Smith family.

Standing in the Charles Martin Youth Center, Coleman was flanked by South Bend city councilors, South Bend Mayor James Mueller and South Bend Fire Department Chief Carl Buchanon as he announced the Smith Family Memorial Fund.

The fund would open that day, Jan. 24, and close Feb. 29. Anyone could donate at any 1st Source Bank, said Solomon Anderson, the bank’s assistant vice president. People could also send checks to a South Bend post office box.

“We wanted to do it the old traditional way,” Coleman said to a quiet room, “where if people wanted to support this family, they could go to a local bank and make a donation, a contribution of any size, and we would have someone to manage that so we can help this family.”

Coleman spoke broadly about how the money would be used: “That money will go into that account and be used to provide services, support, assistance and help to that family.”

Coleman says that anytime Smith provides him with legitimate invoices and expenses related to his recovery, the committee is eager to help.

But Smith said he’s been living at his eldest daughter’s South Bend apartment for the past two months after the flames scorched his rental home. He would like to buy a house, but the committee won’t allow it. Finding his own rental has been complicated because he can’t withdraw from the fund without permission and earns little income beyond his monthly Social Security payments.

It seems wrong to Smith that a group of strangers who raised an unknown sum in his family’s name aren’t allowing anyone in his family the final say in choosing how to spend the money.

“They can touch it and do what they want with it,” Smith said of the committee in a recent interview, “but I can’t do anything with it? That means that money is for them, not for me and my family.”

What’s more, some of his priorities seem to differ from the vague criteria shared by the fund’s managers.

David Smith tears up as he talks of the deaths of his six children in front of the mausoleum at Chapel Hill Memorial Gardens Tuesday, March 26, 2024, in Osceola where the children are interred.

He wanted, for instance, to be buried alongside the cremains of his six children, which rest at Chapel Hill Memorial Gardens, a small cemetery near a bend in the St. Joseph River in Osceola. A local Catholic charity paid for two spots for his six kids, and Chapel Hill reserved a third, nestled in between them, for their father.

He was understanding when told he would have to pay for his own plot, but he couldn’t afford the roughly $15,000 cost. He says he sent paperwork to Coleman to see whether the fund would cover the expense.

According to Smith, the committee seems unlikely to pay for his burial alongside his late children. Instead, he’s started paying for it in monthly installments of about $280 drawn from his Social Security checks, he said. Those checks are worth only about $440 a month.

If the fund is for the Smith family, the father said, “Why can’t I buy my own burial plot right there with my babies?”

A family service counselor at Chapel Hill provided receipts, with Smith’s consent, that confirm his account of his payments.

As a Christian, Smith said he’s deeply unnerved by the idea of his children — 11-year-old Angel Smith, 10-year-old Demetris Smith, 9-year-old Davida Smith, 5-year-old Deontay Smith, 4-year-old D’Angelo Smith and 17-month-old Faith Smith — being buried alone in a state they’d moved to only months before.

He brought the children to South Bend from Iowa late last year so they could spend more time around his eldest daughter and other family, he said.

The Indiana Fire Marshal’s Office, the agency overseeing the investigation into the fire, said investigators have so far found “no indication of foul play” in the cause of the deadly blaze. Investigators are aware of prior electrical issues at the home, which were first reported by The Tribune, but have not determined whether the landlord had resolved those problems.

“I want to be buried in a family plot,” Smith said. “I don’t want to be buried in another state and my kids are buried here in this state.

“If they’re gonna be here, I want to be buried with them in the afterlife.”

Smith Family Memorial Fund committee responds to father’s criticism

Lynn Coleman speaks Monday, Feb. 5, 2024, at a memorial service at Century Center in South Bend for the six Smith family children killed as a result of the Jan. 21, 2024, fatal house fire on North LaPorte Avenue.

In two phone interviews with The Tribune, Coleman refused to say how much money was raised in the Smith family’s name. He would not name any of the fund’s other managers.

Coleman also refused to say how much has been spent to date. Asked to cite criteria for spending, he wasn’t any more specific than when he announced the fund.

“The fund was never designed just to put money into anybody’s pocket,” Coleman said, “but to make sure that we have resources to pay for anything that was needed for that family in dealing with that situation.”

Coleman allowed only that some money was spent on a Feb. 5 memorial service for the six children at Century Center — a public venue that the city of South Bend made available at no cost. The city confirmed that the fund covered some setup costs ahead of the service.

Smith said some family members who came to the ceremony were reimbursed for their travel expenses. The fund also paid for a repast dinner at Golden Corral following the service, he said.

Palmer Funeral Home waived the cremation services, co-owner Kerry Palmer confirmed to The Tribune, which would have been about $2,500 a person. But the fund did cover the separate costs of six urns Smith selected for his children’s remains. The urns cost about $3,500, Smith said.

Asked to respond to Smith’s contention that, as the children’s father, he should have the final say on how to spend the money, Coleman disagreed. He said the father would be notified of proposed uses for the fund, but the members of the committee have the ultimate authority to decide how it’s spent.

To let the father spend the money however he chooses, Coleman said, would be disrespectful to everyone who donated to the fund. He said the committee’s primary responsibility is to honor the six children who died.

“It wasn’t raised in his name,” Coleman said of their father. “It was raised in his children’s name, the Smith family. Had those children not died in that fire, the money wouldn’t have been raised.”

Asked to share why the committee decided not to pay for Smith’s cemetery plot, Coleman retorted by asking a reporter to explain why that expense should be covered. Told that the children’s father believed it should, Coleman said Smith is entitled to that opinion but signaled his disagreement.

The committee wouldn’t buy Smith a home because he wasn’t a homeowner before the fire, Coleman said. The fund didn’t raise enough to afford a home anyway, Coleman claims.

Coleman said the committee is willing to pay for Smith to rent an apartment — not “forever,” but for “an amount of time.”

Smith told The Tribune that, after a reporter first questioned Coleman on March 20, Coleman called Smith later that day to say the committee would allow him to rent a unit for no more than $1,200 a month for up to a year. Coleman didn’t confirm or deny this account during a follow-up interview.

“It’s not about the money,” Coleman told The Tribune. “It’s about respecting those children who lost their lives in the fire. And we asked this community to help us do that, and they did, and I will be respectful of the money that they gave us.

“We don’t have a problem with helping Mr. Smith,” he added. “We can’t help him indefinitely. And I will not turn over the coffers to him.”

Hannah Nichols, a spokeswoman for 1st Source Bank, said the bank has no control over how the fund is spent and cannot answer questions about a private account. She directed The Tribune to speak with Coleman.

Coleman said there will eventually be an independent audit to track how the money was spent. He did not, however, say whether its results would be made public.

City officials endorse private fund, thwarting other fundraising efforts

While the Smith Family Memorial Fund is a private fund, South Bend’s mayor and fire chief both spoke at the press conference in support of the effort. Coleman publicly thanked community leader Gladys Muhammad, longtime South Bend Common Council member Karen White and school social worker Jessie Whitaker.

White confirmed she’s working with Coleman but didn’t explicitly say she’s on the committee. She said Coleman is the spokesman for the fund and directed questions about how the money might be used to him.

South Bend Common Council At-Large member Karen White speaks to supporters Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, at the Democratic gathering at Corby’s in South Bend.

Muhammad declined to answer questions about the fund, saying Coleman is the designated spokesperson. Whitaker did not respond to an email requesting an interview.

“We have the public’s funds,” Muhammad said, “and they need to be spent in a responsible way.”

Gladys Muhammad poses for a portrait Friday, Sept. 11, 2020, inside the Charles Martin Youth Center in South Bend.

Speaking at the press conference, Mueller endorsed the fund as a trustworthy place for community members to send money.

Chief Buchanon went further, casting shame on other private attempts to raise money for the children — despite the fact that a leading GoFundMe was started by Elijah Luciano, Smith’s neighbor, pastor and friend, who stood by his side in the morgue to identify the remains of his five children the night of the fire. Both Luciano and Smith attended the press conference.

“We all know there’s scams and stealers out there, and people want to take advantage of situations. Shame on them,” Buchanon said. “But that’s for another day. But I’m glad this is an honest way for people to contribute and donate to show how much they care, and to show how much this community can come together when adversity faces us.”

Luciano’s GoFundMe, started the day after the fire, raised more than $19,000 until, he says, he was convinced to shut it down by leaders of the Smith Family Memorial Fund.

Luciano transferred every penny to the grieving father, Smith confirmed. Luciano suggested to Smith that he should buy a new truck, after his was destroyed by the fire. Smith honored that request.

Ultimately, Luciano said, donors decided when they sent their money that it was no longer up to them how Smith spends it. People wanted to help, and their donation is an act of faith that Smith will help himself.

The Smith Family Memorial Fund “was not created to raise money for South Bend,” Luciano said. “If you weren’t going to help (Smith) specifically, then you shouldn’t have raised the money in the first place.”

John Winston Jr., a South Bend native, met Smith in the harrowing days after the fire. Winston drove Smith down to an Indianapolis hospital while there was still a chance his daughter Angel could survive.

Winston donated to the Smith Family Memorial Fund, he said, but he soon felt suspicious of who was managing the money and how it would be used. Given that all three local TV stations, the public radio station and The Tribune mentioned the fund in coverage of the fire’s aftermath, Winston worries about all of the other donors whom he believes were misled.

“Who could look at that press conference for that bank fund being set up … and come out of there thinking, OK, I’m donating money to this fund,” Winston said, “and there’s going to be this committee, some unknown committee, deciding where the money’s gonna go, and if it’s even gonna go to his family?”

Mueller was not made available for an interview last week to comment on the city’s role in promoting the fund. A statement from the mayor’s spokeswoman said he believed it was clear from the beginning that a committee would approve all expenditures from the fund and pay “only for expenses related to the Smith children and their legacy.”

“Mayor Mueller trusts Lynn Coleman and the well-respected committee members,” the statement reads, “and thanks them for honoring the Smith children and managing these funds responsibly.”

The mayor declined to share the names of the committee members or to confirm that he knows exactly who they are.

Children’s father feels slighted by public funeral

David Smith, left, walks to his seat Monday, Feb. 5, 2024, at a memorial service at Century Center in South Bend for his six children who died as a result of the Jan. 21, 2024, fatal house fire on North LaPorte Avenue.

Smith said he also felt slighted by the public funeral proceedings and the press conference announcing the fund.

He wanted Luciano, one of the family’s pastors, to speak. That wasn’t allowed.

He said city leaders who spoke — Mueller, Buchanon, Coleman, Common Council President Sharon McBride, and leading schools officials — seemed more interested in marking a community tragedy than allowing Smith to mourn his staggering personal losses.

He said he hardly remembers hearing his children’s names spoken. An uncle who read an obituary was the only family member to speak.

In a final barb, Smith said, Coleman told listeners gathered at the memorial service that he chose to rename the “Smith Six” as the “Phenomenal Six.”

What bothers Smith is not that he doesn’t appreciate the name. His babies were phenomenal, he said.

It’s that Coleman’s attempt to define their legacy in South Bend didn’t include their father’s input.

“I now call them the ‘Phenomenal Six,'” Coleman explained, “and will always remember them as being such. We can all draw from this and be taught that we can all do something to give, to share, to offer.”

Coleman finished: “Don’t be so stingy and hold onto it.”

After Winston and Smith made an initial trip to Indianapolis to visit Angel, they said, the two men were summoned back to South Bend in the middle of the week for a Jan. 24 press conference. Coleman wanted Smith to be there for the announcement of the Smith Family Memorial Fund.

Though the father was stunned by grief, his face wet with tears as he sat slumped at a table, he had wanted to speak that day, he told The Tribune. He had hoped to express his gratitude and to implore anyone listening to pray for his daughter Angel.

Angel was pronounced dead the morning of Jan. 26, with her father by her side.

Two days before, at the press conference, Coleman invited Smith to stand up and join him. But Coleman, holding a microphone, said Smith would join him “not to make any comments, not to say anything, but to stand with us.”

As Smith stood before Coleman — with Luciano at his left, hands clasped over a Bible — Coleman told him: “You are not alone.”

“There’s people that are going to be here with you, supporting you,” Coleman told the grieving father, “whether you see them, know them, or deal with them or not.”

Lynn Coleman, left, addresses David Smith, the father of six children who died in a Jan. 21 house fire on South Bend’s west side, as Smith’s spiritual adviser, Elijah Luciano, stands to his left.

Email South Bend Tribune city reporter Jordan Smith at JTsmith@gannett.com. Follow him on X: @jordantsmith09

This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: Dad of 6 kids lost in South Bend house fire criticizes memorial fund