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"My pastor wants to send flowers to family," the Facebook message, sent over three years ago to Trinice Sampson, reads. "Can you connect me to someone in the family?"
Sampson was in the Los Angeles area with her cousin, Tamiko Loyd, whose son, Michael Myvett, had died three days earlier when a FedEx tractor-trailer rammed their charter bus on a Northern California freeway, killing 10 and injuring dozens more. Since the April 2014 accident, Sampson had fielded phone calls, Facebook messages, and countless solicitations from people who wanted to offer assistance, send flowers and more.
This message, from a man named Taylor Greene, seemed earnest. Sampson knew the family would need money for funeral arrangements and had already created a GoFundMe account. She wrote back with Myvett's grandmother's address and told Greene to send her a friend request if he wanted day-to-day updates on the family.
But after numerous letters to law enforcement agencies, state bars and mega churches, three years later Sampson believes that a Texas law firm accused of improperly soliciting Woodmore Elementary crash victims in Chattanooga created that Facebook account to contact her family members and induce them into signing up with their employees.
She said Nuru Witherspoon and Alphonso McClendon, of the personal-injury Witherspoon Law Group in Dallas, Texas, introduced themselves as representatives from a mega church, lavished her family with gifts, promised them a house, personal vehicles and $100,000, tried to get Loyd to sign legal documents that were missing key details and contained high interest rates, and then convinced Loyd to travel to Texas so she could sign on with the firm for a wrongful death lawsuit against FedEx, against other family members' advice.
It's unclear if that information impacts the lawsuit state attorneys filed earlier this year in Hamilton County Chancery Court against Witherspoon, McClendon and a third associate, Glenn Smith. The Tennessee State Attorney General's Office is seeking a court order that would prevent the men from practicing in the state. But it's bringing that civil action under Tennessee laws, and that incident happened in California. Both state attorneys declined to comment Thursday.
In that case, Witherspoon already denied that McClendon impersonated an attorney and tried to enlist Woodmore family members for a lawsuit inside a local funeral home shortly after the Nov. 21 wreck. McClendon, who is not a lawyer, but an ordained pastor and spiritual advisor, was at the funeral home, Witherspoon wrote in a court document earlier this year, but not in violation of an ethics rule that says attorneys must wait 30 days to contact victims involved in serious automotive accidents.
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In the California case, Witherspoon said nothing improper happened.
His attorney, Chris Bellamy in Nashville, said Witherspoon continues to represent Tamiko Loyd in her ongoing wrongful death case in the Superior Court of Los Angeles. Sampson and a California attorney, Dermot Givens, have a history of filing complaints against Witherspoon, Bellamy said, and Givens shared this information with the Tennessee Attorney General's Office to interfere with Loyd's case. Those bar complaints have been dismissed, he added.
"Givens also instigated a lawsuit against Nuru Witherspoon relying on the same information provided to the Tennessee Attorney General," Bellamy said, "and that lawsuit was dismissed on a no-evidence motion for summary judgment over a year ago."
Givens does represent Loyd's mother, Debra Loyd, in a legal contest for her 29-year-old grandson's estate. Givens believes Witherspoon should be disqualified from that case for a few reasons: He's not licensed to practice in the state of California, and he's being sued in Chattanooga.
But Givens and Sampson say they've filed bar complaints in California, Texas and Illinois because Witherspoon will continue to deceive people unless he's punished.
They're not alone in their criticism. The Texas State Bar publicly reprimanded Witherspoon in 2009 for not responding to his client's request for case information. And in 2014, a Texas evidentiary panel placed Witherspoon on a year's probation after determining he never returned papers and property to a client.
"They've gotten used to doing this kind of nonsense," Sampson said. "And they've got away with it for so many years. And the more they do, they feel confident in getting away with it."
Given the volume of people reaching out after the accident three years ago, Sampson said Greene's Facebook message about flowers never struck her as odd. Greene told Sampson his cousin McClendon wanted to speak to her, she said. And knowing the family couldn't afford the funeral, Sampson said she called.
The news seemed too good to be true.
She said McClendon told her he belonged to the Potter's House, a mega church in Dallas, Texas, founded by pastor T.D. Jakes. He had been sent to California to help with the burial and wanted to know if he and another church representative could meet the family, Sampson said. (Witherspoon denied any association in 2015, court records show, but Sampson took a photo of McClendon's business card that identifies him as a pastor with a "social justice ministry" for T.D. Jakes. It's one of the pieces of information Givens sent to Tennessee attorneys.)
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Sampson, who follows Jakes' Facebook page and his sermons, said McClendon and Witherspoon visited her home the next day on April 14, 2014, offering to pay the funeral costs. When she realized he was an attorney, Sampson told Witherspoon the family wasn't interested in legal representation yet. But Sampson said she did accept direct deposits, allowing the men to spend nearly $30,000 on hotel and airline fees.
Sampson said she accepted the help because she believed the men were church representatives. She started asking questions about two weeks later when she said McClendon told her Loyd would have to sign a document making Witherspoon her attorney if they wanted the hotel rooms paid. That document had blank spots where the men hadn't written in the full terms of the legal agreement, she said.
The men also produced a letter saying they were from T.D. Jakes, Sampson said, but she didn't believe it. There were grammatical errors in the letter, the font was crooked, and the letterhead appeared to be pulled from a website, she said. That letter is also in the hands of Tennessee's state attorneys now.
A few weeks later, she said, the Potter's House told her Witherspoon and McClendon weren't associated with the church. By that time, however, the men already convinced Loyd to travel to Texas and sign an agreement for a wrongful death suit, she said.
Witherspoon said he'd done nothing wrong in a 2015 bar complaint that resulted in no discipline. Sampson reached out to them, he wrote, accepted their money and only filed a grievance "after exhausting her efforts to settle for $75,000 or more" with Sampson's attorney at the time.
Bellamy also shared a sworn affidavit in which Loyd said she had voluntarily signed up with Witherspoon and a third-party finance company. Teaming up with a finance company is pretty common for people who can't afford a civil lawsuit on the front end; the person, however, bears the interest rate and costs on the back end, not the attorney.
Givens and Sampson also say attorneys are involved in that process, particularly if the case involve thousands of dollars, and that Loyd probably didn't understand the agreement when she signed it, isolated from family members who were skeptical of Witherspoon's practices.
In Witherspoon's Chattanooga case, the next court date isn't scheduled yet. The attorneys are going through the discovery process now, where they exchange documents and witness lists and other pieces of potential evidence.
"Typically what follows is depositions," Bellamy said. "We're still pretty early in the game."
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@times freepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.