Thursday, May 3, 2007

Heroin Charity Scandal

Here's a pretty interesting story from a Dallas/Ft. Worth WFAA Television station. Be forewarned, however, it ends with a teaser, encouraging you to watch the broadcast this evening. Pretty annoying!

Her mission to help heroin-addicted teens to get sober and even stay alive.

Using her son as inspiration, Belita Nelson of Plano raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for her Starfish Foundation.

But was Nelson's organization providing hope to troubled teens or fuel for a lavish lifestyle?

Charismatic, dynamic, passionate.

Just a few words acquaintances used to describe Nelson, the Plano mom who turned a parental nightmare into a personal quest.

But in recent years, the Starfish Foundation was spending less money on drug prevention and more and more on ski trips, tans, booze and even drugs.

How could things go so wrong?

It was the tough love story that 10 years ago captivated north Texans.

Nelson turning her heroin addicted son over to police and then turning her life over to a cause.

Nelson started the Starfish Foundation, a non profit organization providing counseling to teens stricken by the Plano heroin craze in the 90s.

"We want to serve to help other people go through this kind of thing," she said.

After he was released from prison, Nelson's son, Jason Vranek, became a key component to the foundation, taking his story to local schools.

For years, the foundation was a success.

Deborah Driskill served on the board of directors and thought everything was fine until late 2004.

"She was very charismatic, very dynamic. People followed her. People got caught up in her spell."

She says in 2004 Nelson's behavior became more erratic.

"Belita, when pressed, would go into hysteria or threaten to quit and I think that was real dysfunctional."

Board Member, Don Fielding, says he also noticed problems surfacing in 2004.

"I was sort of concerned about alcohol and her consumption of that."

Then suddenly in July 2006, a bookkeeper, Ericka Mast, is arrested for stealing more than $10,000 from the foundation.

A few weeks later, Nelson blamed Mast for causing Starfish to fold.

No other charges were filed and no other blame assessed.

But Starfish Foundation bank records obtained by New Eight tell a dramatically different story of a spending spree by Nelson herself.

Eight trips in two years to Colorado which include: $450 for ski lift tickets at Breckenridge and Vail, $360 for ski lessons, nearly $1,600 to stay at a Condo on the slopes.

And this check for $2,400 made out to Sheraton Mountain Vista - that's a time share condominium that News Eight has confirmed is still owned by Nelson.

Here's a check for $5,600 made out to the Dallas Cowboys for season tickets and parking.

Nearly $600 in foundation money went to tanning salons and $200 was spent at liquor stores.

More than $8,000 was paid to Amazon Herb.

It turns out that Nelson was a distributor of herbal remedies in her spare time.

Former board members say they had no idea.

"I bought some from her, gave her a check. The organization, the foundation paid for the herbs," said Fielding.

The foundation picked up the tab for her son's extravagances as well.

Among them, $1,000 for an eating and drinking excursion in New Orleans, $100 for a rock concert, $100 spent at the website,, $200 dollars spent at a condom store and $60 spent at a web site called Gypsy Nirvana, a business that sells exotic marijuana seeds. This was money that was supposed to be spent on avoiding drugs not supporting them.

"This is wrong and I'm shocked and very disappointed to learn that an organization that had so much potential to help so many people is now shut down largely in part to these kinds of actions," Driskill said.

By February 2005, the Secretary of State had pulled the Starfish Charter for non-payment of state taxes.

Yet Nelson kept raising and spending money.

By November 2005, only $700 were left.

Starfish was dead in the water.

On the night of June 8th, the once inspiring story of addiction and redemption came to an ironic end.

Nelson was arrested at her home for deadly conduct shooting a pistol at her son, Jason.

Jason was also arrested for possession of heroin.

Charges against Nelson were later dropped but the story continues.

Nelson is now trying to cultivate a relationship with retired professional football players.

It's a relationship that began with former Dallas Cowboys, one in particular who became a large beneficiary of Starfish Foundation cash.

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