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The Erskine Fire: All for Who?

Updated: Mar 11, 2023

Chapter 4

Who did we actually help?

Where did all the money go?

I'll do my best to answer those questions in this post. Roll the devastating picture now...

The Erskine Fire - June 2016

Previous Chapters


Our Family Trauma


Family Dinner. That's what we called it. Every Thursday night Stacy and I would open our home to the entire church, everyone was welcome. We would regularly host 15 to 60 people. Stacy would cook enough for all to eat, relax, and enjoy each other's company for hours. It was the best night of the week.


Picture it. Thursday, June 23rd, 2016 and BBQ chicken sandwiches were on the menu. A small fire had ignited on Erskine Creek Road, approximately 15 miles away. It grew quickly and jumped a hill heading east. By late afternoon, I needed to call Alex; a friend and single mother of two who lived in a neighboring community, Yankee Canyon. "Are you ok?" A delayed response, "I don't know." The fire was nearing her home. I grabbed the keys to our minivan and my eldest daughter Faith. We jammed over to her house, the fire was cresting the nearest peak. I remember asking, "Do you have rental insurance?" No was the answer. I franticly started grabbing electronics: TV, computers, tablets, save the most important things to me! I was in full panic mode. Alex calmly loaded clothing, pictures, and family valuables into her car and our van. We drove to my house, safely guarded by two hills/mountains in between.


The wind. It was relentlessly pushing the fire faster than we could drive. By the time we reached our home, only ten minutes by car, my family was evacuating along with everyone else already in attendance for family dinner. Chaos. And our van was already full. Everything we thought we needed (and didn't) was thrown into our SUV. The smoke was thick, the sky was dark red, horses, goats, and woodland creatures (not joking) were running down the streets, away from the blaze. Over a loudspeaker we could hear a cruising patrol car telling everyone to leave immediately. This was not a drill. Even now, as I'm writing this, my hands are sweaty and my smartwatch just told me I need to breathe. All other families and neighbors were gone. We literally threw our kids in the car and started to take off...but as I reached in my pocket for the SUV keys...they were missing. Lost among the frantic. Minutes seemed like hours but finally I found them amongst the clutter of clothing, toys, and pictures in the back of the vehicle. As we sped away from the fire we didn't have a lot of hope our home would survive. Flames were racing down the hillside only yards from our house as we turned onto the highway, navigating our way to the safe side of the lake.


This episode is brought to you by AllState. It's not, but it probably could be after that last paragraph. We spent over a week in evacuation and years in therapy. But our house survived, with flames creeping within feet of our backyard.



Many of our friends and neighbors lost their homes. Hundreds of them. Within a day, Stacy began recovery efforts by handing out clothes to families left with nothing. She ran a clothing ministry at the church and sprang into action. It's what she does. Others came alongside to help. I was inundated with phone calls from friends across the nation asking how they could help financially. We set up an Erskine Fire Fund account through the church: donations designated for fire relief efforts. They came pouring in. Most churches and non-profit organizations, valley wide, were on alert and helping the victims. Some offered food and water. Others offered shelter. The community was coming together, each in their own way. It was a symphony of togetherness during a time of tragedy.


But then...enter All For One. An absolute cluster funk (family friendly filter applied).



Definition from Urban Dictionary: Cluster (you know what)

Traditionally/originally of military origin.

Today, however, it is commonly used to descriptively generalize any

situation with a large scale of disarray.


Nothing could describe what happened next more clearly than disarray.


The question that could never be answered:


Why did everything have to be a "movement"?

I usually have notes on all things, however, these first few days are blank. It was evacuation time for our family. After speaking with many people this week, all they can remember is this: within the first day or two of the fire, Neal and Amie were absent for some reason. I don't remember why and I'm not blaming them for anything. All I can say is this, when Neal found out I had set up a donation fund through the church...he was furious. Livid. He came down on me hard. He believed all donations should be funneled through his (at the time still existent) non profit called Enforum (no definition exists on Urban Dictionary). I had to get OJ Atchison on the phone to explain to Neal WHY it was "ok" and even "correct" to have donations sent through the church and not Enforum. It should have been an easy conversation, but it wasn't. Try explaining something logical to a narcissist. His main point: there were so many restrictions on how donations could be spent when going through the church. Hmmmm......

Non-Profit finance lesson time.

(Cheesy music now playing in the background)


501c3 Non Profit Donations

Let's talk 501c3 designated funds. Everyone's favorite topic. When someone donates money and "designates it" to a certain thing, it must be noted, designated, and spent only on that thing. Simple enough. Straightforward even. We can spell it out: L-e-g-a-l. Wofford Heights Foursquare Church (DBA) Faith Community was legally obligated to spend those designated funds on fire victims and fire related relief efforts. With a church council (board overseeing all finances) that voted and approved spending. And we had church members that at any time (in theory) could ask to see records of P&Ls (profit and loss statements), Account Balance Reports, Expense Reports, etc. More on that soon. The same is true for Enforum as a 501c3. However, who was on their non-profit board? Family. Only family.


It's easier to spend designated money without accountability.

That is just a statement, not an accusation.


PAUSE (this is the second pause in the blog...it's important)


There will be a separate post about money. And now...I'm guessing...you can't wait for that one...it will ask a lot of questions but...it will also contain zero accusations (my defamation lawyer reads these posts before you do) however it will contain the questions I believe SHOULD be asked by anyone who donated to Enforum, Faith Community, Triplefect, or any other name they currently use (depending on when you read this blog). So I won't dive into the money weeds in this post. But it also won't stop me from poking around them. Continue the regularly scheduled program...


All For One, One For All


A few days went by. Stacy and I had a Mexico birthday trip with friends planned months in advance of the Erskine Fire. Perfect opportunity (while still evacuated) to get out of town for 4 days and allow our traumatized kids the chance to hang out with their friends in LA (where we previously lived for 11 years). Upon our return, a movement had begun. All for One. A phrase Amie Preston kept saying she heard her dad utter when she was a child (credit Alexandre Dumas). A t-shirt was made, my fault, and the movement was now "official".


No movement exists without a t-shirt.

And there were plenty of shirts over the years. Dollar bills spent. Followed by daily meetings, task forces, protocols, procedures, forms, an org chart, and of course...at the top...a Public Information Officer? PIO. Neal crowned himself the leader of the movement and made it his job to tell other organizations how and what they should do. It sounds really extreme. Please don't take my word for it. Ask the other organizations in town if that's how they felt. It is. I talked to them this week.


Why is this the most cynical post yet?

Because I have a bone to pick and I'm not ashamed to admit it. Throughout All for One we were bullied, harassed, and shamed for any relief efforts that didn't align with the Preston family led plan. And, at the core of it, the Prestons tried to shut my wife out of this recovery effort. But Stacy didn't care. She never cared about titles, cameras, shaking politician's hands, or recognition. She cared about the victims. And she helped them. In direct opposition to All For One's very strict and newly formed protocols. They dictated who got what and when and by whom. But she, along with many others, helped organize the donations. And there was a GYM FULL. Don't believe me? Watch this video.



She didn't fill out the new form before helping a family. She didn't get permission to visit people sheltered at the Red Cross or Rivernook Campground. She didn't ask for approval from the PIO to give away items to families in need. She showed up and helped them. And she was chewed out for it. As an equal leader. Over and over. But she didn't stop. And she still has relationship with the people she helped. Where was I? Assigned to keep the church running so PIO could hold hands and shake babies...reverse that. I told you this was cynical. But while the news cameras were in town, PIO was in front of them.


Neighborhood Dinner Stacy organized after returning from evacuation.

Don't get me wrong. There was a lot of good that came from those who donated their time, money, and energy to those in need during the Erskine Fire. But there was also a lot of hidden donation sh*t that went down.


Because...Enforum still collected donations and resources. And only they knew where those assets went, and how they were distributed. Why? Because anything donated through Enforum was only allowed to be seen by Neal and his assistant. Multiple RV trailers, equipment, chairs, BBQ's, tools, and financial donations...never disclosed to the public.


If this was VH1 I'd be asking, "Where are they now?"

I'd also be asking to see proof that the RV trailers actually went to victims and aren't (to this day) being used by the Prestons and their extended family.


Here's one interesting document. Every 501c3 non profit is required by the IRS to publicly make available a 990-EZ form each year (if they collect over a certain dollar amount). It shows an overview of what income/expenses and assets flowed through the organization during a calendar year and how they were distributed. Here is Enforum's 990 from 2016, the year of the fire.


990-EZ-Enforum-2016
.pdf
Download PDF • 690KB

Now let's point out some interesting pieces to the document. This is the top of it...nothing great to show here...other than it's Enforum's form...moving on...


Below you'll see a picture with their total income for the year 2016. $83,812. Including the highlighted line "Occupancy, rent, utilities, and maintenance". Quick backstory for context. This is for Enforum the non-profit. At this time Enforum was "renting" a building from Neal & Amie's separate for-profit company Asha Faith James LLC. Asha Faith James owned a building in Lake Isabella. A building that went unoccupied and unused in 2016 due to the fact that the county banned occupancy back in 2013 because it didn't have bathrooms. Question: Was there a rental agreement between Enforum and Asha Faith James? And who would have voted on the fair rental value of a building shut down by the county years prior? Probably their board...also known as their family.


Does it sound interesting yet? We're just getting started.

This paragraph is sponsored by Advil...or it should be.

The building in Lake Isabella was mainly used as a storage facility for Enforum and Preston related items until the time the Prestons defaulted on their loan (years later) and the building returned to it's previous owner. Also note that people in 2016 were donating what they believed was their "church tithe" to Enforum. Neal asked them to do so. Conflict of interest? Based on this form it looks like Enforum then used part of those donations as "rent" to pay the mortgage on their own (Asha Faith James) commercial building. Wait, what? Ok...continuing on...


This part of the form shows that Neal and Amie each spent 40 hours a week working for Enforum. Yet Neal was paid $82,000 a year as a full time employee of Faith Community. It also shows their "board" is really just their family. In addition to the dollar amounts, something else isn't adding up here.


You'll see expenses for "Search and Rescue" and (what we all can assume is) Joe's House recovery meeting expenses below. Joe's House expenses totaled a whopping $57,193. Joe's House was a weekly recovery meeting held at Faith Community church and was never charged for rent or anything else. Additionally *Kern Valley Search and Rescue (if that is what they are referring to) had no joint operations with Enforum nor did they receive any donations from Enforum in 2016. Now, if Enforum was talking about some other independent Search and Rescue operations program they ran, I'm sure there would have at least been a t-shirt? We never heard of anything close to that. Maybe that is Erskine relief efforts? But...read the asterisk below.


*Separately in Enforum's 2014 990-EZ they also used the same Search and Rescue verbiage (word for word) and claimed over 20K in expenses. KV Search and Rescue has no record of donations or joint operations with Enforum in 2014 either.


All this to say: While you are now distracted with other questions in that inquisitive brain of yours, think about something. What is missing from this entire form?


Anything to do with Erskine Fire donations or Erskine Fire expenses of any kind. And it's 2016.

Where did they go? I believe there needs to be accountability and transparency but it won't happen until people start asking questions.


Well, Jon, why didn't you ask questions about this? Why wait until now?

I did ask. I turned this information in to government officials years ago. Never heard back but maybe I didn't send it to the right place, I'll own that. I also contacted The Foursquare Church's top corporate administrator back in February of 2017. He was great. He got back to me ASAP and we set up a phone conversation. His conclusion: This looks really bad, have your co-pastor (Neal) get out of this immediately. I brought all this info to Neal, to help him. His response, "Don't tell Amie, she'll get really mad". Don't tell Amie? This isn't middle school. This looks like you're taking tax deductible donations from people and funneling it through your non-profit to pay the mortgage on your for profit business. This looks like money laundering or fraud.


You can read the email I sent to the Foursquare Administrator below. I redacted any text in the email that referenced my friend who recommended me to the administrator.


Really Could Use Your Advice (this isn't spam)
.pdf
Download PDF • 217KB

Ok, it's getting weird, but...Jon...if you were in charge of the church during this time, where did all those Erskine Fire donations go? Great question!


What about all the church donations? $65,000


At this point Faith Community had an offsite bookkeeper who was amazing. Below you can download the last Statement of Activity report I was emailed in March of 2018, my last month at the church. Again, not hiding anything. However, the big question I still have is in reference to all the Petty Cash withdrawals. I do know that a lot of it was spent on day to day operations or "boots on the ground" work during fire cleanup. A lot of that work was good, and many families were helped. I just don't have access to the petty cash records, or they would be here as well. When I left the church in March of 2018, there was still: $21,190.79 in the designated Erskine Fire Fund account. I don't know where those funds went. But it's a great question to ask.


Faith Community Fire Fund P&L and Bal Sheet
.xlsx
Download XLSX • 28KB

By May of 2018, over two years after the fire, most valley wide recovery efforts had been consolidated into the Kern Valley Long Term Recovery Group. Neal and Amie had nothing to do with this new community led recovery group. I created this fundraising video for them. In the film you'll see Kyle and his children. Their story comes next.



Kyle & Victoria


This story hurts to tell. I'm writing it after getting off the phone with Kyle and Victoria a few minutes ago. It was both a beautiful and painful conversation. I had a lot to apologize for. Let me start by saying this couple is amazing. They've come through so much as a family and are stronger than ever. I respect them for it. Stacy and I have laughed, cried, and worked through difficult times with them. They were our neighbors. And they lost their home in the Erskine Fire. This story isn't long, but it is tragic. They were promised financial help from Neal and it never came. Thousands of dollars were offered. Little was given. Victoria posted about it on Facebook this past February 10th (she also references another recent local event that will be covered in a later post).



When the news cameras were gone, Kyle and Victoria unfortunately were forgotten. I left them as well, not for the same reason. Kyle looked to me as a mentor, and at a time when he needed me most, in late 2017, I was not there for him. I stopped returning his texts and calls. And I feel awful for it. Only this week did I hear how deeply it hurt him. Only this week did he hear my sincere apology. I have no excuse, regardless of the timeline. You'll hear about that time in a later chapter. Regardless, he was hurt and I take ownership.


There is still hurt. Even after all this time. Their former neighborhood hasn't been rebuilt. I walked it tonight with a heavy heart. Almost 7 years later. The positive news is that Kyle and Victoria are doing well. Their family is thriving; they are well connected to their community in Ridgecrest, CA. But 2016 will alway be a time of unfulfilled promises that could have been honored. They weren't alone. This is just one of many stories that keeps our community asking the same questions over and over: Where did it all go? Why wasn't more done? I'll take ownership over not pressing harder, not following up.


Meanwhile...

This was tearing our family apart. I was constantly putting out fires in the relationship between Stacy and Neal and Amie. My wife was labeled as insubordinate for not following All For One rules, I was trying to play peacemaker. I failed miserably. For those of you who don't know my wife Stacy, two things to note. One, she will always tell you exactly what she thinks, no filter. Two, when she wants to help someone, get the hell out of her way, she won't stop until she's finished. That attitude isn't tolerated by authoritarian leaders. There was constant conflict. I'll get more into those details in a later post. But I have to own the hardest thing yet. I failed my wife. I didn't stand up for her as much as I should have. I chose trying to keep the peace at the church over my own family. And even a public confession won't make it better. It is something we are still recovering from today.


This story is about recovering from emotional and spiritual abuse. It might be hard to pick out in this post. But it can be found; sitting comfortably between the lines. Those who abuse power and authority often have secrets that involve money as well. You've seen those documentaries and read those stories. But during the Erskine Fire it was definitely Stacy who suffered the most. I wasn't fully aware of how bad she was treated until years later, when I finally was open to listening to her stories. 2016 was a turning point in our relationship. And it wasn't a good one.


Fall 2016

Just three months after the fire ripped through our valley, we are at another shift in the story. It's September. Neal and Amie, at the direction of Foursquare, are appointed as Area Superintendents. What does that mean? They now oversee 17 Foursquare churches. Not a high paying gig, but a "promotion" none the less. What happens next? They decide they no longer need to be a part of day to day operations or ministry at the church. Instead, they shall rule and reign over these churches and spend their time building their On Track Discipleship Program empire. I went along with it. Neal would still speak every other Sunday and lead music, but was noticeably absent during the week. No accountability for his time. His time that Faith Community church was paying him $82,000 a year for. I shouldered most operations and ministry during this season and through the summer of 2017. I'm not complaining. It was actually very freeing to be able to lead and love people without constraint and criticism. Below is the updated ORG chart (Winter 2016-2017) with our "equally" split responsibilities.

(click on the arrow to expand the list)

Faith Community Organizational Chart - Senior Pastor Responsibilities

Things were actually moving along quite well. Until the summer of 2017. A cataclysmic shift occurred. I'm not exactly sure what spurred it on. But, when Neal returned from his annual summer vacation, all hell broke loose. He demanded a meeting. Just the two of us. He said something close to, "This isn't working for me anymore. If things don't change, I'm leaving and half this church will go with me." We were at a crossroads. This is what led me into one of the greatest regrets of my life.


It had been four years of trying to work things out with Neal and Amie. Four years of frustrations, sleepless nights, and bad decisions that left dozens of leaders damaged or dropped. Four years of getting pushed down further and further until I began to actually believe I was less of a leader, that I wasn't in the right leadership position, that my talents and gifts weren't the right fit. Four years of not standing up for myself. Four years of trying to co-pastor a church together, "side by side".


In this meeting he went in for the kill shot.

But there was a secret no one knew. A secret that, to this day, most of you still don't know. A secret I'm ashamed to admit: I actually had the power to stop all of this with just two simple words. The whole time. And I didn't use them....



Long Footnote: I wish there was a positive ending to this Erskine Fire post. This is still my community, Southlake. And it is still in disarray. People are either recovering or they have moved on. I am happy to answer questions you have after looking over any attached document, although I can't guarantee I'll have the answer you're looking for.


Also, many of you have been asking this very important question because you care: Jon, are you afraid you'll be sued? Great question! Slander (verbal) and Libel (written) are serious civil offenses in California. I do have these posts read by a lawyer who specializes in California civil defamation lawsuits. And he advises me on the risks. They are extremely low. Of course anyone can sue anyone for anything. However, in California the burden of proof is on the plaintiff not the defendant. In other words, the person suing me has to prove that something I wrote as fact is false. It's hard to do. And, since I'm sharing my perspective, my story, and stating questions and opinions with actual documents, emails, videos, and witness testimonies to back them up, it would be a very difficult case to win. But, if I am sued, you'll be the first to know, since lawsuits are public. And I'll probably need your help.










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