(MOBILE, Ala.) - Local 15 News is investigating a so-called charity that claims to help sick kids. Caring Now For Kids With Cystic Fibrosis promises to pay for lung transplants. But according to the group's tax statements, it raised nearly $200,000 in four years; the founder kept most of it as a salary. Begging the question: is Caring Now For Kids with Cystic Fibrosis a charity for sick children or a charity for Ron Werstler?
Werstler has placed thousands of donation jars throughout the region, but his main source of money comes from his kung-fu approach. Werstler karate chops 2x4's in half for cash. This entertaining approach has proved to be profitable, but has it helped any children?
"No," said Ron Werstler.
That's what he told us when we caught up with him last September. Two months later, his story dramatically changed.
"Your foundation has not helped a child so far, since 2005?" asked Local 15's Andrea Ramey.
"Just one," Werstler replied.
"Who?" Ramey asked.
"Miranda," said Werstler.
"What did you do for Miranda?" Ramey asked.
"We went to Chicago trying to get on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and with the governor's help and my help and a few other people's help. We helped her get a double lung transplant. And I'm proud that I went to help save her life," Werstler said.
"That's a flat lie. We never received a dime from him," said Miranda's father, J.J. Sheppard.
We tracked down Miranda Sheppard's father in the small community of Ariton, just southeast of Montgomery. J.J. Sheppard says the foundation never helped him. Quite the opposite. He says he's the one who forked out some cash.
"It ain't been much. But when we found him, introduced that first day, we gave him $300 to break a board," said Sheppard.
Sheppard says he met Werstler one time, several years ago outside a restaurant in Montgomery. He says Werstler was breaking 2x4's for donations. Sheppard says he approached Werstler and told him he wanted to help because his daughter Miranda suffered from cystic fibrosis and at the time needed a lung transplant.
"He told us, he was trying to get on the Oprah Winfrey Show. He said he wanted to pay for one kid's transplant," said Sheppard. "If that's what he was doing, I thought it was a good thing."
We played our interview with Werstler for Sheppard and showed him a news article featured on the foundation's website that claims the organization helped his family. It even quotes Sheppard, allegedly from his daughters bedside in the hospital as saying Werstler "is doing a great thing."
"You didn't talk to any reporters?" asked Ramey.
"No ma'am. This is words that he's put out. I've never talked to a reporter. You're the first reporter that I've ever talked to," said Sheppard.
Werstler's been breaking boards and collecting cash across the country for years now, telling his story about his sick son who needs a lung transplant to anyone who'll listen. He's been interviewed by T.V. stations in Chicago, St. Louis, and Southern Utah. Local 15 News even featured Werstler in a report in 2007 after someone was caught stealing his donation jars.
Werstler's son Brandon does suffer from cystic fibrosis, an inherited disorder that affects the lungs and pancreas. The little boy frozen in time on the foundation's website and donation jars, seemingly in desperate need of a lung transplant is now 14-years-old. But according court documents, including a letter written by Brandon's current doctor, Brandon "is neither now nor in the foreseeable future a candidate" for a lung transplant.
"I just felt like he had his own agenda," said Tonya Gomien who worked as the Executive Director for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation Alabama chapter for five years.
Gomien says she first met Werstler in 2005 and talked to him then about combining fundraising efforts.
"He was very adamant and energetic about his own cause," Gomien said.
Gomien says when she was with the CF Foundation, the group prided itself for putting 90% of donations toward life-saving research, keeping only 10% for administrative costs. She says she's never heard of a charity where the founder keeps most of the money.
"It's difficult to look at the tax returns where he raises money and every last dime goes to him personally," said Gomien.
According to tax returns from 2007 to 2010, Caring Now for Kids with Cystic Fibrosis raised $186,407, $167,686 went to Werstler. And that's just the money he's told the IRS about. His group failed to file a return from 2004 through 2006, as a result the IRS revoked the foundation's tax exempt status earlier this year. Not to mention, Werstler admittedly carries tens of thousands in uncashed checks.
"Here's $75, 500 dollars worth of checks that the foundation has written me that I haven't cashed," said Werstler as he pulled a stack of checks out of his front pocket. "These checks prove everything"
"What do they prove?" asked Ramey.
"That I've worked," said Werstler.
When he first started soliciting money in 2004, Werstler said he needed to raise $250,000 to pay for a lung transplant. Last November, his story changed once again. He told us, now he needs one million dollars.
"Listen to what I got say, it takes a million dollars for a double lung transplant. We haven't raised a million dollars yet. Our job is to save kids' lives," said Werstler.
"How much does it cost to get a lung transplant?" asked Ramey.
"Somewhere in the area of $100,000," replied Dr. Lawrence Sindel.
Sindel is the Director of the Cystic Fibrosis Center in Mobile and treats most people with the disorder in our area. He says when you include the cost of medicine required afterwards, a transplant winds up costing more like $200,000, not one million as Werstler claims.
J.J. Sheppard says in his daughter's case, insurance covered most of it.
"Roughly, we probably paid out $12 to $13,000," replied Werstler.
Dr. Sindel also says most patients look to new medicine on the market for a cure, and only a small number of patients actually receive a transplant.
"There's logistics to it. There's not a lot of lungs to go around," said Dr. Sindel. "And there's a great deal of discomfort. And there's a huge change in life style that accompanies getting a lung transplant. So not everybody elects to go through that much discomfort and that much therapy."
Especially since the procedure only extends a person's life for just a few years. Miranda Sheppard lived two years after her transplant. The last three months of her life, she spent at Children's Hospital in St. Louis.
"For three months, me and her had those two hours, that were mine and her two hours. I would read a book, read the Bible. Me and her would play, do something. You know, I cherish those moments, the rest of my life," said Sheppard.
Sheppard says he'll never get over the loss of his daughter. Her memory is all he has left. Knowing someone is trying to capitalize on his loss is beyond angering.
"It's people like him that stops people from donating. They read a story on somebody like him, and then they quit donating money,because they see people pocketing the money instead of going to the kids it needs to go to. That needs the help," said Sheppard. "To me, this man, he's a fraud."
"You're saying you've done nothing wrong?" asked Ramey
"No," replied Werstler. "Tell me that I'm not a good person and a good dad."
In a follow-up phone interview last month, Werstler now says he may has misspoke when he claimed to have helped Miranda and may be misinformed about how much it costs for a lung transplant.
He declined to go on camera again, but says this summer, he's going to New York City to try and get on the Today Show and karate chop boards there.
Local 15 News has contacted the U.S. Attorney's Office, which has asked the FBI to get involved.