Money for baby’s funeral disappears, but help comes

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Mechelle Prowell has seen mankind at its best and worst since the Christmas Day death of her 5-month-old daughter.

DETROIT - JANUARY 8: Mechelle Prowell, 23, poses for a photo Friday, January 8, 2016 at her home in Detroit. Prowell's 5-month-old daughter Emily died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome on Christmas Day. Two women who were family friends set up a gofundme page to help pay for the baby's funeral -- and then they took the money locking Prowell out of the account. (Photo by Bryan Mitchell/Special to The Detroit News)

As Prowell grieved for Emily, who she says died of sudden infant death syndrome, a friend offered to set up a page to help pay for a memorial service.

Days later, when the fund reached more than $2,500, Prowell says the woman scammed the donations, leaving her unable to pay for her daughter’s cremation and funeral.

While police investigate the complaint, cops not involved in the case were outraged over the alleged fraud. They worked to ensure Emily will have a memorial service Tuesday.

Word spread, bringing more offers to help from churches, a hospital and through social media.

“Perfect strangers have reached out to me during my time of need,” said Prowell, 23. “They helped me in ways I didn’t know I could be helped, after something terrible like this happened.”

A Christmas tree is still lit in the living room of Prowell’s home on Archdale on Detroit’s northwest side. Photos of Emily are tucked in its branches.

“It’s staying up until my baby is laid to rest,” she said.

It was a sparse Christmas for Emily, her 2-year-old brother Ethan, and the rest of the family. “We had a hard year,” grandmother Oleatha Hatcher said. “There wasn’t a lot of money for presents; Emily got a doll and a couple of outfits. We did the best we could.”

Just before the women of the family started making their traditional batch of eggnog, Prowell checked in on Emily, who earlier had been put in her crib.

“I went into the room and found my daughter face down,” Prowell said. “I turned her over; she looked a little purplish.”

The holiday gathering spun into mayhem. “My dad gave CPR, and he would not stop until the ambulance came,” Prowell said. “I couldn’t think straight.”

Emily was rushed to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead at about 8 p.m. Police came to the house and took a report. The cause of death had not yet been determined Friday, according to the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office.

DETROIT - JANUARY 8: A family photo of Emily who died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome on Christmas Day. Two women who were family friends set up a gofundme page to help pay for the baby's funeral -- and then they took the money locking Prowell out of the account.. (Photo by Bryan Mitchell/Special to The Detroit News)

‘She locked us out’

The day after Emily died, her family held a candlelight vigil outside the home. “I was in my room crying the whole day leading up to the vigil,” Prowell said.

During the ceremony, a friend offered to set up the account. “She knew we didn’t have a lot of money, and we thought she was trying to help,” Prowell said.

Prowell said the woman used her computer to set up the account, posting pictures of Emily and a message seeking help.

“That night, I was lost in my own world, crying all the time,” she said. “So I didn’t think to ask her for the password, or any other information about the account.”

Donations from friends and family reached $2,528.28 in four days. But when Prowell called her friend to ask for the account password to access the money, she says the woman didn’t answer the phone.

“She locked us out. Then we found out she had made her sister the beneficiary. I kept calling her, but she wouldn’t answer.”

Prowell complained to gofundme. A company representative wrote back, confirming the woman had withdrawn the money.

“If the beneficiary is not being cooperative when you ask her to remit the funds to you, we strongly recommend you contact law enforcement as withholding donations is considered a crime,” the representative wrote.

Prowell said she phoned Detroit Police Capt. Kyra Hope, who had responded to the scene the night Emily died, and had told the grieving mother to call if she needed anything. Hope relayed the fraud allegations to other officers at the 7th Precinct — a conversation overheard by Sgt. Raytheon Martin.

“I was just walking by and heard her talking about it, and I’m thinking, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ ” he said.

“My own daughter was born premature, and they told us at the hospital she might not make it. So hearing about this really made me mad. Then I started thinking what I could do to help this mom out. It’s up to people like us to show we’re better than people like them.”

Martin called retired Detroit police Officer Bryan Ede, an insurance company owner who donates to police causes. Ede agreed to pay for a memorial service, which turned out to cost $380.

The state is picking up an additional $600 for the cremation and service, scheduled for 3 p.m. Tuesday at the O.H. Pye Funeral Home on Plymouth.

Martin also contacted Sacred Heart Church, which agreed to open its cafeteria for a post-memorial gathering.

“It’s not a huge ceremony, but it’s a little something for a woman who doesn’t have a lot of money,” Martin said.

‘It’s a blessing’

Thursday night, Martin posted to Facebook: “Just when I thought I have seen it all. People steal money from a GoFund me account of a deceased infant. Now the mother has no money to bury her child. Unbelievable!!!”

That brought more offers to help. Officers called Martin asking what they could do. Little Rock Baptist Church agreed to pay for thank-you cards, printed obituaries and five plants to adorn the service.

Prowell set up a Facebook page, Justice for Emily Prowell, which had more than 100 likes the first day it was up. She wrote: “Thanks to some amazing people at the Detroit Police Department Emily’s funeral expenses have been paid.”

“It’s a blessing there are good people out there,” Prowell said. “I’m telling everyone the service is already paid for, but people are still giving.” She said she’ll use the extra money to buy flowers for the service and more presents for her son.

“He’s too young to really know what happened, but he knows his sister is gone, and he asks where she is.”

Prowell said she chose cremation, “so I can always have her with me.”

‘I kept breaking down’

A few days after Emily died, Prowell said she tried to go back to her job laundering hospital linen. “I kept breaking down. My boss sent me home. They said take as long as you want; we’ll keep your job open for you.”

As she sat in her dining room Friday recounting her daughter’s death and the events that followed, Prowell repeatedly expressed forgiveness for the woman she says scammed her.

“It makes me sad more than anything. I wonder what’s going through her mind. I hope the Lord forgives her, and I hope she feels remorse for what she did.”

Hatcher said she taught her daughter the importance of forgiveness. “It’s more for yourself than the other person. Otherwise, you can’t move on with your life.

“It’s hard to process what happened. I watch the news; I read the newspapers. I’ve seen some terrible things. But stealing money from a baby’s funeral? All I can do is shake my head in shame.”

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