Family of slain Marine sues scholarship board in Harford

Mother of man killed in Iraq wants to dismantle foundation named for her son

March 14, 2006|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

The idea was as well-intentioned as they come: Friends of fallen Marine Lance Cpl. Patrick Ryan Adle helped establish a scholarship to honor him and benefit students at his Harford County high school.

But disputes arose over who should be eligible. In a nod to their son's military service, Adle's family wanted to include the children of Marine families. Adle's friends sought to focus eligibility on Fallston High students.

Acrimony grew, and the group, made up primarily of Adle's friends and their parents, voted his mother off the board of directors and assumed control of the program. Now the family has brought a lawsuit against the board in Harford County Circuit Court and wants the scholarship program dismantled.

Experts said the case illustrates the hazards that small, single-focus foundations can face when attempting to memorialize a loved one.

"Memorial funds can be a wonderful legacy, but most people are going to be better off if they take that idea to a community foundation that has experience with scholarship funds," said Janne Gallagher, vice president and general counsel at the Washington-based Council on Foundations.

Yesterday, emotions flared in the courthouse hallway. Michael Watts, Adle's stepfather, refused to shake the hand of one of the Marine's friends and called him a "disgrace."

"The way things have been handled, the fund needs to be shut down and the money disbursed," Watts said. "This is not what we wanted to do, but it's something that needs to be done."

In court filings, Adle's mother, Pamela Adle-Watts, is asking that the scholarship corporation cease using Adle's name and alleges that her removal as a trustee was wrong.

The two remaining board members - parents of three of Adle's friends - have filed a motion for dismissal. A hearing on the motion scheduled for yesterday was postponed until late next month.

"We went from us inviting her to present the first scholarship in April of last year to her wanting us to shut down," said Theresa Dabrowski, who is named as a defendant in the suit and whose daughter attended a Marine ball with Adle.

Adle, a star football and lacrosse player at Fallston High, joined the Marine Corps when he turned 18. He was on his second tour of duty in June 2004 when the Humvee he was riding in struck a roadside bomb.

In the days that followed, Adle-Watts said she received an outpouring of support, including from friends of her son. When a group of them suggested starting a scholarship fund at Fallston in his name, Adle-Watts embraced the idea and was among the five-member board of trustees for the Lance Corporal Patrick Ryan Adle Scholarship Fund.

During a trip to Folsom, Pa., where Adle's military engineering unit is based, the family became interested in the idea of directing funds toward families of Marines or to Marine service personnel.

"They made it clear that it had to be brought up to the board [of trustees], but it was pretty obvious that his mom and his stepdad were excited about it," said Capt. Kara Lecker, who served with Adle in Iraq.

The idea got a lukewarm reception from the foundation's members. They wouldn't rule it out but wanted to raise enough money to establish a self-perpetuating scholarship fund, which guarantees the program's continuation, some members said. The group's articles of incorporation included scholarships and gifts to Marines among its purposes, according to court filings, though the defense alleges that educational awards were the "primary purpose."

At a foundation meeting last September, Adle-Watts was handed a letter informing her that she had been voted out.

"I closed my book, put my coat on and said, `I guess we'll see you in court,'" Adle-Watts said.

Watts said his family is frustrated that the group has decided to use their son's name without their approval of its direction. Their suit claims that appropriation of the fund without the consent of his estate is an invasion of privacy.

"If Patrick were standing here today, he would find this disrespect of his family disgraceful," Watts said.

Ronald E. Cooper, the other defendant named in the suit, said Adle's friends are trying to honor their friend the way they intended when they set up the foundation. His daughter and son were close friends with Adle.

"[They] had a dream to immortalize their friend in the community by creating a scholarship in his name," Cooper said. "When the mother decided she wanted to go in another direction ... contrary to the wishes of 23 of the 25 members of the group, is when this dispute began."

Cooper said the fund has about $25,000, some of which is being used for legal fees.

"It's a shame that we are spending time in litigation over this instead of earning money to further the education for someone in Pat's name," he said.

In the courthouse hallway, Adle-Watts wept as she described the past two years.

"It's not been an easy year, and this has made it worse," she said. "They keep piling more on my plate, opening up more wounds. I've lost more than a son. I've lost my support group, and I feel like I'm being punished."

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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