Where is your money going? 14 News investigates suspicious stoplight signs

Where is your money going? 14 News investigates suspicious stoplight signs
Published: Aug. 3, 2023 at 11:24 PM CDT
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EVANSVILLE, Ind. (WFIE) - Who is Jessica?

That’s the question we’re asking, following a recent surge in panhandlers holding the same sign.

It shows the picture of a bald girl named Jessica. The sign says she is 8-years-old with a brain tumor, and she needs surgery to save her life.

Each sign has a QR code that leads you to a GoFundMe. The page has raised nearly $14,000 for Jessica, but no donations have been made in four years. The last update from family is from March 2019.

Yet these identical signs have been seen around the country.

Courtney Carr has seen them in Charlotte, North Carolina. Others posting on social media claim the Jessica signs have been spotted in Tampa, Florida.

“These people were getting a ton of money every day,” said Carr.

Carr says she tried scanning the QR code on the sign for weeks, but the people holding them would turn away. Instead, they’d reach out their bucket asking for cash.

She became suspicious due to her career as a nurse. She saw the signs, but working with cancer patients, she knew Jessica wasn’t local. So she did more research, eventually messaging the organizer of her GoFundMe.

“I posted on the creator’s Facebook page and said hey people are using her and your go fund me to get donations here,” Carr said.

That organizer is Cliff Fontenot, who says he’s Jessica’s uncle. His last update on Facebook about Jessica was from May 2019.

But as recently as 2023, people have commented on his post, asking about Jessica. Cliff responded as recently as January, saying she is, “doing well” and he is, “not getting any donations for her.”

Medical records posted to the GoFundMe back this up, saying Jessica had surgery in February 2019. She was discharged six days later with her status marked, “surgically healed.”

With this information, we approached someone holding a Jessica sign at the intersection of the Lloyd Expressway and Red Bank Road.

Each time we drove by, the panhandlers would wave and smile. Each time we got out of the car to approach them and ask about Jessica, they would run.

Quickly after the first man ran out of sight, he returned with a friend showing us documentation and a peddler’s permit.

We had several conversations about the paperwork and who gave them the paperwork. There was a language barrier, but the two men understood the conversation, until we asked about Jessica.

Each time we asked, they stopped understanding out questions, telling us they only spoke Spanish and Italian.

Many of the people holding signs were wearing logos for the “Save a Heart Association” whose website has no mention of Jessica.

We came back the next day, to the same intersection, where we found the same people with the same signs. This time we brought 14′s Robinson Miles, who is fluent in Spanish.

We began approaching a woman holding a sign, before she ran across the Lloyd Expressway and hid her sign and face from the camera.

Robinson asked her in Spanish if she knew Jessica. The woman initially responded yes. When he asked her what her last name was, how she was doing and where she was living, the woman went silent, eventually walking into a store.

Then we came across another panhandler, who took off when we approached the first woman.

She became immediately aggressive, picking up a rock and threatening our camera operator and reporters with it.

She then took off towards the westside Walmart. Each time we approached people, they ran and then eventually were picked up in a car.

So we took our investigation to police. These people have permits to be panhandling on the road, but is what they’re doing legal?

“Once they’re actually advertising for something specific, basically making that promise that your money is going to this and then it’s not going there, that’s when it becomes a crime,” said Evansville Police Sgt. Anna Gray.

We asked Sgt. Gray if it’s a scam to claim you’re collecting donations for a girl with cancer, and then not spending that money to help the girl.

She responded yes.

All the evidence uncovered in our investigation points to Jessica being a real person, but it looks like she no longer needs help. Yet these people, who have been spotted in at least three cities, are holding signs with her face and GoFundMe page on them.

“When we have people that are scamming people to think that, people are a little hesitant to give their money and that’s a sad situation because there is really somebody who needs it or an organization that really needs that help,” said Sgt. Gray.

We submitted a records request to obtain a copy of the peddler’s permit shown to us by two of the panhandlers. Officials acknowledged our request, and we are waiting to obtain that document.

Evansville Police say if you have given money to these people, or any organization and you feel scammed or that your money is not going to the place it was promised, call them.

They say once they have victims come forward, they can launch an investigation.

Meanwhile, we will continue investigating on our end, looking to find who Jessica is, get in touch with her family and find out why her face has become a mainstay on posters across the country.