13 Investigates Uvalde families' claims of 'betrayal' by Houston man

Monday, February 20, 2023
Uvalde massacre victims' families claim they've been betrayed again
13 Investigates the "betrayal" Uvalde families say they felt after a Houston man went to Uvalde after the shooting and pitched a now-canceled fundraiser.

UVALDE, Texas (KTRK) -- Berlina Arreola still remembers when tragedy struck the 15,000-person community of Uvalde, in the South Texas Hill Country on May 24, 2022.

"It was nonstop, nonstop, day and night constant. We've had a very huge outpour of people from all over the world," said Arreola, whose step-granddaughter, Amerie Jo Garza, died in the Robb Elementary School shooting.

Across Uvalde, artists painted large murals of the 21 victims in a show of support for the community. But in the weeks following the shooting, families were still grieving and the mayor was dealing with fallout from police response time.

It was then that Uvalde families tell 13 Investigates they met Nathan Kouamou, who is also known as Nathan Baller.

"He was very sincere. He was not pushy," Arreola said.

Jesse Rizo, whose niece Jackie Cazares died in the school shooting, said Baller "made us feel special."

"We were pretty vulnerable," Rizo said.

Baller has ties to the city of Houston. During a 2019 city council meeting, he claimed to be a former Houston Dynamo player. The Dynamo tells 13 Investigates Baller never had a contract with the team, but said Baller could have played with a reserve team.

When we asked for the Dynamo to confirm if Baller played on a reserve team, a Dynamo spokesperson replied in an email saying the team "asked the league and they do not have those records on hand."

Baller is also the founder and CEO of Baller Foundation, which he refers to as Baller Academy. It's an organization that says it uses soccer to mentor youth.

Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin says Baller arrived in the city less than a week after the shooting and immediately began engaging with city officials and the victims' families.

"I was at the First State Bank. The president of the bank said, 'Hey, I've got an ex-professional soccer player here that saw the news and wants to come into Uvalde and do something,'" McLaughlin recalled in an interview with 13 Investigates.

Shortly after that, the idea for Balling for Uvalde was born.

During a meeting with families on Oct. 13, 2022, Baller announced a multi-day fundraising event, which he said he expected would bring thousands of people to the town. The Balling for Uvalde event was scheduled for February 4th and 5th of this year.

Media was invited to the Oct. 13, 2022 meeting announcing the event and ABC News interviewed Baller that day.

"I think the crazy part is those children who passed away, I think they called me. They really did. You know, I had that moment with them," Baller told ABC News in October.

In that same interview with ABC News, Baller boasted the possibility of big names for the headlining event, a charity concert.

"We are in contact with Drake. We talking, you know, Justin Bieber. We are talking to Bad Bunny," Baller told ABC News.

During that October event, Baller told grieving families in his pitch that there would be a $13 million economic impact for the small community. Baller also said he thought the event would raise a minimum of $50 million.

Tickets would be sold and there were plans for an auction, according to the pitch.

"LeBron James, I'm calling you out. What are we gonna do, right? Drake, can we get a recording session with Drake? Can we auction it off," he told the families during the October pitch.

The families of the Uvalde victims said they were under the impression they would get 100% of the proceeds.

Baller also said the money would go toward building a new youth recreation center, something Rizo said families were happy about.

"You just been through hell and so you think, man, how can I go back and change a kid so that they don't create like the shooter, right? So that maybe you can change this direction," Rizo said.

The families were on board with the Balling for Uvalde event.

Mayor McLaughlin even wrote a letter of support for Baller.

Rizo says Baller befriended the families, hosting regular dinners and meetings about the fundraising event.

"He would show up to birthday parties, he would show up to barbecues, and we often wondered how does he know where we're gonna be at or who invited him," Rizo said.

As the planning continued, Mayor McLaughlin says he was approached by Baller, who asked the city to set up a bank account for Baller Academy where funds for the event would go, but that he wanted it to be an account Baller would have access to.

"If we're gonna collect a dime from anybody, we're gonna have control of it. We have to be accountable to the public on that money, and you know, that was a problem for Nathan," McLaughlin said.

When the mayor said no, Baller went to the volunteer fire department with the same request.

"I told him no, and he pushed for that to happen, and I told him no again, that we're not doing that. That was a red flag," said Patrick Williams, former president of the Uvalde Volunteer Fire Department.

Families told 13 Investigates they saw red flags pop up when plans for Balling for Uvalde didn't seem to materialize.

"In the beginning, everybody was willing to help, but was asking for, you know, for blueprints, outlines, dates, you know, confirmations and so he wasn't giving them," Arreola said.

Mayor McLaughlin said he started reaching out to representatives for the alleged headliners of the concert. He said none of them even knew who Baller was.

Then came the contract, presented to the families, with terms city officials described as "horrible."

The contract would give Baller the use of the victims' "image, likeness, signature, voice, photographs, names ... in perpetuity and royalty-free for any purpose."

Arreola said they ran it by lawyers and were cautioned not to sign it.

"You're gonna put yourself into a situation that he's gonna walk away with millions and y'all are gonna walk away owing and paying everything outta your pocket, basically," she said.

It was at that point, in November 2022, that a cease and desist letter was sent to Baller, signed by 20 families saying they were terminating any agreements made with him, and demanding he stop fundraising.

Rizo says Baller continued to try to meet with the families who demanded answers about the event, but Baller never would answer them.

A few weeks later, Rizo said, "he just vanished."

Rizo says they never saw a penny of the money. Although no one knows exactly how much was raised, Mayor McLaughlin says at one point Baller told him he sold 4,500 tickets. But then the event was cancelled.

A spokesperson for the Uvalde County Fairplex, where Baller planned to hold the event, told 13 Investigates they never received full payment for use of the space and canceled the event.

13 Investigates asked families of Uvalde victims if they think it was just a misunderstanding.

"No, because if there was such a thing, then he would've, he would've came back. He would've reached out to at least one family member," Rizo said.

13 Investigates wanted to know why he hasn't reached out to Rizo and other families, so we went to five locations where he's lived and worked trying to track him down. He wasn't there.

We called multiple phone numbers, but couldn't reach him. We made contact with him on Instagram and he gave us an email address to reach him. We emailed him several times, but he still has not responded to our multiple requests for comment.

Back in Uvalde, we asked everyone we spoke with what they made of the situation now looking back.

"I believe that he had good intentions and his thoughts were good. But again, he didn't fully think this through before he opened up the can of worms that he opened up," Arreola said.

Mayor McLaughlin told us, "As I look back now, I think his intent was to do something for this community, but it was also to build his name. I think he had a beer budget with champagne taste."

Rizzo says this feels like yet another form of betrayal.

"We've been betrayed by law enforcement, some of them, been betrayed by the lack of honesty, the lack of transparency from the school district. Betrayal after betrayal after betrayal, and then you have Mr. Baller coming in with a little bit more betrayal at a different level because now it compounds to the emotional state," Rizo said. "And so yeah, it's tough."

ABC News producer Megan Streete contributed to this report.