By Shereen Siewert
WAUSAU — Two Wausau women who organized fundraising efforts for a man injured while riding his bike in Wausau say they are is devastated after learning the man allegedly misrepresented his living situation.
Courtney Cox said her heart went out to Antone “Tony” Lenz and his dog, Yogi, after the man was struck by a vehicle on Grand Avenue Friday afternoon in Wausau. After seeing comments on Facebook stating the man is homeless and had lost his only means of transportation in the crash, Cox knew she wanted to help. When she spotted the man Sunday on a west-side street corner, she immediately recognized him and didn’t hesitate to approach him.
“He told me he was homeless and lost his only means of transportation,” said Cox, who struggling financially herself after an injury sidelined her from work. “I gave him all the change in my car which was around $10-15. I still felt bad because that wasn’t much.”
Cox posted a plea on Facebook asking for help for the man. Friends and strangers responded instantly, and within five minutes more than 100 offers of help poured in. Nikki Huettl saw the post and created a GoFundMe page to gather donations for Lenz. By Monday afternoon, Huettl had raised more than $1,000 for Tony and Yogi, and Cox was flooded with dog supplies and other donations to deliver.
“People were stopping giving him cash, food, dog supplies and much more,” Cox said. “I had people messaging me and calling me to reach him. I drove around town all day meeting people that donated items for him.”
But soon, people started contacting Cox telling her she might have been duped.
“People started messaging me, saying he isn’t homeless, someone else posted that he was in key west Florida last year on a corner asking for money,” Cox said. “Last week he was in Stevens point on a corner. A man in a mini van drives him to different locations, drops him off in a secluded place, and he rode his bike to busy street corners. This is what he does for a living.”
Cox said she then called the cell phone number the man left for her so she could deliver donations to him as they came in. When she called, the man’s wife answered and confirmed to Cox that the two lived together but didn’t report their living situation because of income restrictions for government programs.
Cox and Huettl have been communicating since they both learned about what they now see as a scam. On Monday, Cox tracked the man down on the same west-side corner he had been standing on when they first talked. In a recorded conversation, which Wausau Pilot and Review has viewed, “Tony” asks about how to get the money from the GoFundMe effort and is seen offering Cox money while asking Cox to “cool it on social media” because “if Social Security finds out, I’m done.”
The GoFundMe campaign, which “Tony” shared on his own Facebook page, is no longer accepting donations, and Huettl is left wondering what to do with the funds she raised for a cause she now knows was misrepresented. Huettl is working with GoFundMe to determine the best next steps in refunding individual donations.
Both women say they are outraged and will be contacting police with their discoveries including the recording and screen shots of conversations.
“I am beyond upset,” Huettl said. “We acted with the right intentions and were attempting to help someone who was in a less than fortunate situation. But his job appears to be panhandling others for their hard earned money and misrepresenting his situation for his own benefit.”
Cox said she thought she, too, was doing the right thing.
“This is not okay at all. And people need to be aware of this,” Cox said. “He’s scamming people out of a lot of money when there are people that actually need the help.”