U.S. News

06.25.14

Colonel of Truth: The KFC Hoax and the Idiocy of Crowdfunding for Bullying Victims

A young girl is mauled by vicious dogs. On her way home from hospital treatment the family stops at a KFC, which asks them to leave as her facial injuries are upsetting customers. Terrible? Yes, and a terrible lie—designed to gull money from a generous, unsuspecting public.

It was a story that was cooked up with 11 herbs and spices.

Victoria Wilcher, a blond, bright-eyed 3-year-old from Jackson, Mississippi, was horrifically mauled by three of her grandfather’s 10 pit bulls. She was bitten all over her body, but the greatest damage was to her face: According to her aunt, “She had a broken upper and lower jaw, broken nose, cheek bones and right eye socket.” She lost her right eye, as well as the ability to move the right side of her face. Her lips and cheeks are a patchwork of stiches and scars.

As she returned from the hospital with her grandmother, Victoria said that she was hungry, so her grandmother, Kelly Mullins, made a stop at a local KFC franchise. She ordered a sweet tea and mashed potatoes—Victoria was on a feeding tube, but her grandmother reasoned that the mashed potatoes were soft enough for her to swallow. Before Victoria could try, however, the family was asked to leave because the girl’s facial scars were putting the rest of the clientele off their food.

“They just told us, they said, ‘We have to ask you to leave because her face is disrupting our customers,’” Mullins told a local news affiliate. Victoria cried the entire way home.

It was, as commenters on “Victoria’s Victories,” the now-defunct Facebook page set up to support the mauling victim, “the saddest story ever.”

It was also, almost certainly, bullshit.

Victoria was indeed attacked by her grandfather’s pit bulls—both her grandfather, Donald Mullins, and his girlfriend, Rita Tompkins, were charged with child endangerment following the near-deadly mauling—but the tale of corporate cruelty is a complete fabrication, a ruse calculated to tug at a credulous public’s heartstrings and part them with their cash.

According to the Laurel Leader-Call, citing sources deep within KFC’s investigation into the alleged incident, there’s not a single piece of evidence that Victoria was ever even in a KFC. Surveillance videos both KFC locations in Jackson show no customers matching either Victoria or Mullins’ descriptions. The chain’s computers show no record of any orders that included mashed potatoes and sweet tea in the same transaction, or even the two items as part of a larger order. The KFC location originally accused of kicking Victoria out hasn’t been in business in years.

In short, the entire affair appears to be the work of a family of grifters too lazy to even order a 560-calorie sweet tea and mashed potatoes with 24 percent of your daily allowance of sodium. Even Anna Alaya, the infamous hoaxer who claimed that Wendy’s had served her chili containing an amputated human finger, actually procured the digit in question.

Victoria’s family is doing more than just defrauding the public—they are turning Victoria into a professional victim, paid for her suffering by people both horrified and titillated by it.

But the results of the most rudimentary fact checking couldn’t outrun the speed of the Internet Rage Monster. After a June 17 Facebook post went viral, a crowdfunding page created by Victoria’s aunt on GoFundMe.com raised more than $135,000, ostensibly for Victoria’s medical care. The Facebook page gained 190,000 likes. The family’s story appeared on network newscasts and websites around the world. A Las Vegas plastic surgeon flew to Jackson, personally pledging to cover the cost of reconstructive surgery. KFC, responding to death threats against its employees and calls for a boycott, donated $30,000 to the family and issued an apology.

Welcome to the Internet crowdfunding, where the cutest, blondest, and most adorable victims of unverifiable woe seek to fund their health care via the largesse of outraged strangers. Think The Hunger Games, only instead of faking relationships, you fake victimhood. The Internet is a strange, contradictory place: It’s both a universe where skepticism rules and the first comment on every photo is “FAKE!,” and one where common sense has been trampled in the rush to appear the most upset about bullying—just ask Ikea, accused of calling a breastfeeding mother “disgusting,” or a waitress who insisted she was denied a tip because she’s gay (both of these cases turned out to be complete fabrications).

Bullying has become the latest moral crisis to warrant the Pavlovian response of righteous indignation coupled with an outpouring of money. For decades, gas station customers have warily eyed “collection jars” decorated with the photos of alleged victims of cancer or AIDS or other fashionable ailments, lest they be taken in by a heroin junkie faking terminal illness to score some smack money. Now, when crowdfunding online, it’s not enough to be stricken with a deadly disease—you’ve got to be kicked while you’re down.

Consider the tale of Karen Klein, a 68-year-old bus monitor from Greece, New York, who was verbally harassed by the middle school boys in her charge. When a 10-minute video of the exchange was uploaded to YouTube, it was viewed more than 9 million times, and an Indiegogo account was created to send pay for “a vacation of a lifetime!” for Klein. Why? Well, because people were mean to her, and more people felt bad about it. When Anderson Cooper asked Klein about the outpouring of support, even she seemed surprised: “I mean, I don’t feel like I’ve done anything, you know?” In the end, 32,251 people donated a total of $703,168.

Yes, Klein was an actual victim of documented abuse, whereas the only crime against Victoria was familial negligence.

The rush to out-empathize Facebook friends in reacting to sad stories is partly to blame. “This makes you sad? Well, it makes me sadder! So sad, in fact, that I will send her twenty dollars to alleviate her suffering. That sad.” Who in their right mind, with all of the underfunded causes in desperate need of financing, would look at a list of online donations totaling more than $130,000 and think to themselves, “Well, clearly this is a cause that needs another twenty bucks”?

Not that there’s much recourse for those who have second thoughts. There’s no obvious mechanism for a refund of most crowdfunding sites, and Dick West, the owner of the KFC franchises in question, has proclaimed that the $30,000 gift to Victoria is going to her, regardless of the veracity of her grandmother’s claims: “When the allegation was first made, KFC pledged $30,000 to go to medical expenses and started an investigation to find the truth. They have pledged the money even if it is proven that the incident never happened. At this point their story is full of holes. Any thinking person who follows their timeline can see it. The event at KFC never happened.” Admittedly, the fast-food chain has no other real option from a public relations standpoint—it seems churlish to deny a disfigured child the money she legitimately needs, even if her family has come by it through a poorly crafted lie.

It’s tempting to dust our hands and say, “All’s well that ends well.” A young girl gravely wounded by pit bulls has her surgeries paid for, a company gets its name cleared, and the public can eat its Double Downs without worrying about the proceeds subsidizing the abuse of toddlers. But the damage of thinking that we can crowdsource away our guilt can’t be fixed as easily as a facial scar or a franchise’s reputation. The lie will outlive the truth for years to come.

It is admirable for people who looked at Victoria’s scarred face and felt the urge to do something. That this “something” was to fork over a credit card number in exchange for peace of mind commodifies her suffering, and cheapens real action done on behalf of the victims of bullying. By accepting the money, Victoria’s family is doing more than just defrauding the public—they are turning Victoria into a professional victim, paid for her suffering by a public both horrified and titillated by it.

Of the thousands who donated to Victoria’s GoFundMe page, the percentage of donors who will likely never bother following up on the veracity of Kelly Mullins’ allegations is vanishingly small. Every angry anti-corporatist who shared the story on Facebook, every incensed grandmother who chain e-mailed it to her entire address book, is just as guilty as the members of the Mullins family who told the lie.

Before shutting down the Facebook group in the face of fraud accusations, Victoria’s aunt insisted that the family hadn’t done what KFC and many, many others think it had done:

“I promise its not a hoax, I never thought any of this would blow up the way it has. The article circling the web calling this a hoax is untrue […] I have personally watched this family go without to provide for Victoria. They have not and would not do anything to hurt Victoria in any way.”

No—they left that up to the pit bulls and the public desperate for another pornographic story of graphic woe.