Las Vegas Sun

November 18, 2018

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It’s not fair’: Some victims worry they’ll be excluded from Oct. 1 shooting payouts

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John Locher / AP

In this Monday, Oct. 16, 2017, photo, people visit a makeshift memorial for victims of the Oct. 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas.

Gia Iantuono believes her life was spared the night of the Route 91 Harvest Festival because her boyfriend, 30-year-old Brennan Stewart, gave his life shielding her from the bullets that rained down on the crowd of 22,000 concertgoers and festival workers.

Although protected from the gunfire, Iantuono’s leg sustained serious damage during the tragedy, including a torn meniscus and hamstring that required outpatient surgery.

Iantuono hasn’t been able to stand or walk unaided since. Returning to work at the country bar where she was employed before the shooting, or attending her surgical technician classes at the College of Southern Nevada, have been out of the question. Her doctors estimate it will be seven more months before she can walk again, said Karen Iantuono, her mother.

That is just the physical trauma. The mental anguish of losing her boyfriend in the worst mass shooting in this country is unquantifiable.

Yet the 25-year-old student may not receive a penny of the approximately $16 million donated to the Las Vegas Victims Fund and other accounts set up after the shooting.

The first draft of the distribution plan lays out a protocol for giving money to families or estates of the 58 people who died in the shooting, as well as to any of the hundreds of living survivors who spent at least one night in the hospital getting treated for injuries related to the shooting.

For Iantuono, that number is zero.

“It’s not fair,” Karen Iantuono said. “You’re saying she’s less of a victim? Less deserving? Because she lived? She was holding her boyfriend as he died.”

Karen Iantuono on Tuesday attended one of two town hall meetings held by the victim fund committee to gather public input regarding the first draft of the fund distribution plan. She asked the committee to broaden the eligibility pool to include people like her daughter who did not stay overnight at a hospital but still sustained serious injuries that have required ongoing medical attention.

Local hospitals across the valley received more than 600 patients after the Oct. 1 mass shooting. It is unclear how many of those patients stayed at least overnight as a result of their injuries. The last patient was released on Nov. 11.

Karen Iantuono noted she did not set up an independent GoFundMe account for her daughter, as many others did in the days after the shooting. When people asked how they could assist her daughter, she directed them to the official fund being promoted by Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo and Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak.

“Now they are asking me, ‘Why did we give to that? We would have just given directly to you.’”

The Iantuonos aren’t alone in feeling that the victim fund committee has overlooked people in need. Several others spoke during the town hall about the physical and mental injuries they have endured without needing overnight care at a hospital.

One woman went to the hospital after being shot in the cheek but because it was overloaded she did not undergo surgery that night. She had it five days later as an outpatient. “That night it was more important for me to go home to my family,” she said.

Another victim, Michelle Leonard, spoke of being trampled by the panicked crowd and the ongoing medical treatment she is receiving since for blood clots, soft tissue damage and worsening orthopedic issues. Like Iantuono, she never stayed overnight at a hospital but is expected to be off her feet for the next four to six months.

“My life is forever changed,” said Leonard, a vendor at the music festival. “I feel like a bullet has been put in my head, my heart, and my soul.”

The 17-person committee includes representatives from Metro Police, major donors to the fund, victim advocates, mental health professionals, lawyers, the resort industry and charitable organizations. In addition to holding two town hall meetings on Tuesday, the committee is accepting written comments until Dec. 8.

The committee is expected to release a final draft of the distribution plan on Dec. 15.

“I hope they listen, that this wasn’t just for show,” says Laura Puglia, who was working as a bartender at the festival when the shooting began.

Puglia told the committee she didn’t envy the difficult decision before them, but implored them to take psychological damage like post-traumatic stress disorder seriously and to consider that many have undergone a financial burden that nobody is compensating.

“Some people lost jobs,” she said, adding that she missed several weeks of work, in part because when she ran from the festival she left behind her purse containing the identification cards she needs to get hired for independent gigs as a bartender. “Not every employer practices empathy. … I’m here to suggest everyone be included. That would show a true sense of community and a genuine way of healing.”

Kenneth Feinberg, a national expert on victim compensation who assisted county officials in setting up the structure of distributing funds, has previously described using overnight stays as a proxy for severity of injuries as a form of “rough justice” that allows fund distributors to get the money out as quickly and efficiently as possible. Requiring extensive medical records and ranking pain and suffering on a case-by-case basis would be time intensive.

Feinberg, the committee members and the National Compassion Fund, which is assisting the victims fund, are all working pro bono.

After the Pulse Nightclub shooting and the Boston Marathon bombings, the distribution plan for victim compensation funds included payouts for victims who received outpatient medical treatment. In the former tragedy, people who were present but did not receive physical injuries were also compensated. However, both of those victim funds had significantly more money to distribute than the Vegas equivalent – approximately $29.5 million in Orlando and $61 million in Boston.

There is approximately $16 million in the Las Vegas Victims Fund, which includes the GoFundMe account and several others, officials say. Donations are still being accepted.