FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – It’s a very public way to collect money for an organization surrounded by questions and concerns from the community. The Sandbox Veterans ask Fort Wayne drivers for generous donations from medians and near intersections. They walk up to drivers at stoplights in what some call an aggressive way. The group’s method has rubbed many, including the police, the wrong way.
What drivers may not know: Leaders with the city of Fort Wayne say their tactics are illegal.
According to its state non-profit filing, the Sandbox Veterans of America started in 2011. The group is not federally recognized as a 501(c)(3).
The group says it helps Iraq and Afghanistan vets with PTSD. While many question where donations are really going, 15 Finds Out begins its investigative series “Patriots or Panhandlers” by looking into the illegal way the group collects money.
The Sandbox Veterans irritated Sam Phenicie recently when he drove past them.
“I’m just kind of looking at the traffic,” Phenicie said. “Kind of looking around and then I see this gentleman standing here probably about six inches away from my window. And I look over and he was just kind of giving me the eye like you need to give me money…uh, is this guy legitimate?”
His concerns may be a little higher than the average driver. Phenicie, 26, served in the U.S. Marine Corps until January of 2012. He spent most of his time in Japan and the United States.
“It kind of made me wonder, you know, where is this money going?” asked Phenicie. “Are they really making any efforts to help out with our service members.”
Phenicie isn’t the only one who feels this way. Since 15 Finds Out investigated area panhandlers in “Who’s Behind the Sign” February of 2013, dozens of people have sent emails and calls urging the station to look into the Sandbox Veterans.
One of those callers was Jody West. She lives in the Dupont Lakes Apartments and has seen the Sandbox Veterans standing near her complex’s exit a lot lately.
“They’re there seven days a week,” West said. “They run out in front of you, behind you, they will run right up to your car and hold their can out…they have a lot of money.”
West continued, “I don’t think most people would have that much time to spend on an organization to collect money. And just the two same guys in the same location continuously. Something doesn’t feel right about it.”
15 Finds Out sat down with John Perlich on the issue. Perlich is a spokesman for the city of Fort Wayne and explained how the Sandbox Veterans’ actions are illegal.
“If the person trying to solicit is in the street, in the sidewalk, along the parkstrip, in a median, those are areas that would not be allowed to try to solicit money from motorists trying to get from point A to point B,” Perlich said. “Our police department certainly has every right to look at the safety component. If they feel a situation needs to be looked at, they certainly will. They also will have the opportunity to issue a citation if they feel that it’s necessary.”
The Fort Wayne Police Department has done just that. 15 Finds Out spotted a Fort Wayne officer confront the Sandbox Veterans when they were panhandling around a median near Coldwater and Dupont Roads.
That wasn’t the group’s first run-in with the cops either.
Adam Silvani is one of the volunteers 15 Finds Out has seen collecting money several times this past year. He has received two citations in the past six months. One was for panhandling in August that was later dismissed. The other was for unlawfully stopping or standing on a sidewalk in December. He has a court date on that citation scheduled for the week of Valentine’s Day.
The Sandbox Veterans have posted a YouTube video of what they call police harassment. In it, an officer said the group is not allowed to solicit donations from drivers on public roads. But Silvani argued with the officer, showing him a letter from a city official he claimed gave him permission.
City leaders have seen the video as well, but say Silvani misrepresented what they told him. Perlich said Silvani didn’t have permission to collect donations illegally.
“An email was communicated to them that indicated that they would not need a permit to solicit funds. But it did not say they had the right to solicit funds in an area that’s prohibited by city code,” Perlich said.
Sometimes the Sandbox Veterans stand on private property like the median in the Chapel Ridge Shopping center. That median is owned by Mike’s Carwash. But since the end of December, the group doesn’t collect donations there anymore.
A manager at Mike’s said he was hearing so many complaints, he worried the Sandbox Veterans were hurting his business. So he called the cops on the group, they were kicked off his property, and haven’t been back since.
Still, the incident at Chapel Ridge and confrontations with the cops haven’t stopped the Sandbox Veterans. 15 Finds Out has spotted them along East Dupont Road a lot lately, which has left people like West wishing they would move their aggressive tactics away from her complex.
“I really hope that somebody can move them to either another location or assure us that the money is going to the Sandbox Veterans,” West said.
Roger Locke the head of the Sandbox Veterans. In an email, Locke said he believes the city has violated his right to freedom of speech and cites corruption in the city. Locke used as an example the Fort Wayne Fire Department, which collects money from drivers in the same way during its annual Boot Drive for Muscular Dystrophy.
Mostly, 15 Finds Out wanted to hear from Locke’s organization and see who it has helped. Find out how the Sandbox Veterans responded to our request for an interview later this week as 15 Finds Out continues our series of investigations: “Patriots or Panhandlers?”