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Almost a year after D.C. firefighter Louis Matthews died in the line of duty, his family can’t seem to agree on who should benefit from his sacrifice.
Louis Matthews had big plans for his son, Nicholas. Matthews, a D.C. firefighter, talked about sending him to private school, starting with Montessori. Just before Nicholas was born, Matthews took a second job at the Hecht’s in Prince George’s Plaza to help support him. Even after he and the boy’s mother, Angela Barrett, broke up, in the fall of 1998, Matthews talked to his son almost every day, saw him at least twice a week, and continued to support him financially.
Last summer, all the plans Matthews had for Nicholas came to an abrupt halt. Shortly after midnight on May 30, 1999, Matthews and his Engine Company 26 sped to 3146 Cherry Road NE, the home of Ezra and Laverne Norton. The elderly couple had waked to the sound of smoke detectors and quickly evacuated.
Matthews was less fortunate. As one of the first firefighters on the scene, he searched the house to see if anyone was trapped inside. While he and three comrades roamed the first floor, firefighters outside began putting out flames in the basement. Government investigators later concluded that as gases from the basement rose, the heat in the house intensified. The gases exploded, ripping through the first floor.
Matthews and fellow firefighter Anthony Phillips died later at Washington Hospital Center. Matthews was 29 years old. Nicholas was only 2.
As the child of a fallen firefighter, Nicholas should have little to worry about, at least financially. The D.C. government and the Department of Justice provide generous survivor benefits to the families of public safety officers who die in the line of duty. Matthews had also taken out a life-insurance policy. And the fire department helped set up a memorial fund, in which area residents deposited about $10,000. Between these three sources, Nicholas stood to receive about $200,000.
But instead of giving Nicholas and his mother some peace of mind, the money has touched off a bitter struggle over who gains from Matthews’ sacrifice. Barrett says Matthews’ mother, Cassandra Shields, is withholding money from a memorial fund set up for Nicholas. Meanwhile, Matthews’ ex-wife, Katie Matthews, has claimed a share of Louis Matthews’ death benefits for her daughter, LaChrisia Matthews, the dead firefighter’s former stepdaughter.
Walter Laake, an attorney who used to represent Shields and now represents Katie Matthews, says he can’t speak to what’s happening with the memorial fund. But he insists that Shields has both children’s interests at heart. “Cassandra felt that LaChrisia as well as Nicholas was entitled to any compensation that came as a result of their father’s death,” he says. As for Katie Matthews, Laake says she is only applying for benefits that her daughter is legally entitled to.
So far, no one seems to have gained much from the ongoing dispute.
“Prior to [Matthews’] death, we were like a family,” says Barrett of her relationship with Shields and Matthews’ sister, Catina Matthews. Now, Barrett doesn’t speak to Matthews’ other survivors—except through lawyers.
Capt. Michael Connors is leaning back in his chair in a small office inside the firehouse. Connors is captain of Ladder Company 15, which shares quarters with Matthews’ Engine Company 26. None of the other firefighters who worked with Matthews on the No. 3 shift feel like talking to a reporter. “It’s still too emotional for them,” he says.
“The guys looked up to him,” Connors continues. “They didn’t want to do a job that wasn’t up to his standards. Lou would tell you, ‘You’re not doing your job.’ He was in excellent shape. We’d all be sucking wind behind him. He wanted to be a hose man. He never hesitated to go into a fire.”
Many of the firefighters knew little Nicholas and Barrett, an accountant from Texas whom Matthews dated for a year and a half after meeting her in 1996 at a jazz club. He had brought them around the firehouse. But his co-workers didn’t necessarily know anything more about his life. “He kept to himself. He wasn’t a blowhard. He wasn’t a gossip,” says Connors. “His private life was his private life.”
And fire department officials did what they thought was right: They deferred to the wishes of his mother, who became custodian of the memorial fund. Fire department sources say that the Matthews memorial fund was originally set up only for Nicholas, but that Shields then added LaChrisia as a beneficiary.
When it comes to memorial funds, the public has no way of knowing whether the money it donates ever reaches the intended beneficiaries. Federal law requires custodians, or anyone who manages assets on behalf of a minor, to turn over those assets to the child once he or she turns 21. But there is no official oversight. And, once the surviving family takes charge of a memorial fund, fire department officials don’t keep an eye on whether the funds are properly spent.
“The department doesn’t do anything except distribute a memo telling firefighters that the fund is there,” says department spokesperson Gina Douglas.
Custodians are allowed to withdraw money to spend on beneficiaries. In June, Barrett says, Shields gave her several hundred dollars from the Matthews memorial fund to spend on Nicholas. A couple of months later, she says, Shields gave her several more hundred dollars for Nicholas. Barrett says Shields promised her she would invest the rest of the money on Nicholas’ behalf.
In August, Barrett got a call from Capt. Donald Drury from Engine Company 26. Drury, who had been given the job of department liaison to the family, told her he had yet to receive an application for government survivor benefits for Nicholas. According to both Drury and Barrett, Shields was supposed to have provided the necessary paperwork to Drury, who then should have turned it in to the D.C. Office of Personnel and the Department of Justice.
“All summer, I thought she was working with the fire department to apply for benefits for Nicholas,” Barrett says. “All summer long, nothing had been done.”
After she confronted Shields about neglecting to apply for benefits for Nicholas, Barrett says, Shields stopped giving her any money from the memorial fund. “I asked her for an accounting of the [memorial] funds, but I never received one,” she says. “People who gave to the fund assumed that the money was going to help his child, but it isn’t.”
Shields could not be reached for comment.
Engine Company 26 makes its home next to a vacant lot, across the street from a strip mall on Rhode Island Avenue NE. The firefighters of Engine Company 26 call themselves the “Brentwood Bandits.” Their motto is “Lead, follow, or get out of the way!”
A couple of weeks ago, the Brentwood Bandits put up a memorial to their fallen comrade inside the firehouse. It takes up a wall in a corner of the television room, behind two long brown tables where the firefighters eat. The memorial consists of a plaque, a photograph, and a red call box mounted on a piece of finished wood.
In the photo, Matthews smiles, dressed in full firefighting uniform, standing at the scene of one of the many fires from which he returned safely over the course of his seven years with the D.C. Fire Department.
The call box next to it is the kind you used to see on street corners. The D.C. Fire Department hasn’t used call boxes since the ’70s, but the number on the box still corresponds to a part of town. Since the earliest days of local firefighting, the box closest to where a firefighter died has become an instant grave marker of sorts. Even in this age of 911, Matthews received a memorial plaque, which reads: “In the Memory of Private Louis Matthews, E-26, Last Alarm Box #6128, May 31, 1999, Gone but not forgotten.”
Above the memorial hangs another photo of Matthews, this time in casual clothes. He’s smiling, and in his arms he holds Nicholas.
Unfortunately for Nicholas and his mother, government benefits to survivors of a fallen firefighter aren’t allocated on the basis of whose picture graces the officer’s memorial. If the fight between Barrett and Shields over the memorial fund is ugly, the turbulence between Barrett and Katie Matthews over the much bigger survivor benefits could be even uglier. At stake is upward of $140,000 in District and federal funds.
After Capt. Drury called to ask for Nicholas’ paperwork, Barrett sent in the necessary forms. Government administrators say that they were all in order. But the city and the feds held off on mailing out any of the checks because of an unexpected hitch: Katie Matthews had also applied for benefits for her daughter, who she claimed on the application is Matthews’ biological child. Government officials say the only way her daughter could be eligible for survivor benefits is if Matthews was her natural father, or, if he was not, if he had adopted her or had been supporting her at the time of his death.
Whether LaChrisia Matthews is Louis Matthews’ natural daughter hinges on a pair of birth certificates that officials say don’t entirely match up. If LaChrisia is not his child, then her prospects for claiming Matthews’ benefits don’t look too good. According to government administrators, there’s no evidence that Matthews ever paid child support to his ex-wife; nor are there any documents to show that he adopted LaChrisia. According to fire department sources, the only dependent Matthews ever claimed on his health insurance was Nicholas.
Laake argues that even if LaChrisia is not Louis Matthews’ biological child, she could still qualify as Louis’ daughter under Maryland law; he was a Maryland resident.
“My client’s position is, legally speaking, Louis Jefferson Matthews is the father of the child, and the child has always looked up to Matthews as her father,” Laake says. “He acknowledged the child as his. Under Maryland law, if the child is acknowledged, it’s yours.”
As a policy, fire department officials steer clear of fights over their fallen members’ death benefits. “We don’t get into who is whose dependent,” says department spokesperson Capt. Brian Lee.
But Shields’ foot-dragging disturbed Capt. Drury enough that he sent a note to the D.C. Office of Personnel, laying out what he knew about the competing claims.
Last week, Office of Personnel officials told Barrett that they will review the claims on Louis Matthews’ benefits at an upcoming hearing. Justice Department administrators are still reviewing Katie Matthews’ application and supporting documents. But in order not to hold up payments to Nicholas any longer, they decided last week to go ahead and award him an undisclosed portion of the $140,000 total, according to department spokesperson Sheila Jerusalem.
Of course, the fight won’t necessarily end when the city and the Justice Department make up their minds about who’s entitled to what. If the city or the Justice Department denies LaChrisia benefits, Laake says, he will contest the decision in court.
Barrett says it isn’t the money that rankles her most. “It doesn’t matter to me who gets what. It’s the principle of what they’re doing to their own flesh and blood,” she says. “[Nicholas] doesn’t understand why he doesn’t see his grandmother or his aunt anymore. He thinks his aunt is in heaven, too.” CP