It was just a few days shy of Thanksgiving last year and Merced County Rescue Mission CEO Bruce Metcalf stood in front of an empty freezer.
Local television and newspaper reporters would soon photograph the freezer and broadcast Metcalf’s dire plea to the public, the same message from previous Thanksgivings: The mission desperately needed turkey donations to feed the needy.
But while people reached in their wallets to help Metcalf and the mission come up with enough food for the annual dinner, the organization’s volunteers said they were asked to hide hundreds of turkeys and thousands of cans of food from the public.
One staff member, who said he was dismissed after confronting Metcalf, detailed concerns in a complaint filed with the California Attorney General’s office earlier this year.
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As donations poured in, the volunteers claim, Metcalf directed them to “sell” turkeys to an Atwater church for $5 apiece.
In interviews with the Merced Sun-Star, nearly half a dozen of these volunteers, called disciples of the mission, shared corroborating stories and claims of deceit at the hands of Metcalf and his administrative staff.
“I was used in a scam,” said Frank Scripps, 37, a former disciple in the program. “Bruce told us to take out all the turkeys so we can show them an empty freezer. In all actuality, we had turkeys in the back.”
Scripps said he and four other disciples moved more than 50 turkeys to another freezer in the mission, out of sight of the news media scheduled to arrive that day.
“I was there to do what I was told,” said Scripps, who stayed at the mission for 13 months. The disciples followed orders out of fear of being kicked out of the program, he said, which for some meant being homeless or going back to jail for others.
Cedric Johnson, 55, another former disciple, said the mission harbored close to 2,000 turkeys from Thanksgiving 2012 as Metcalf pleaded with the public for more.
“They told us we were going to have a turkey drive, but they already had turkeys in the warehouse from last year,” Johnson said. “You’ve got a guy standing in front of an empty freezer asking for turkeys when we already had them. We just emptied one freezer into another one.”
When the freezers at the mission began to overflow with turkeys, Johnson said, the disciples were instructed to move them to a warehouse off site.
The rescue mission has also stored turkeys at Richwood Meat Co. on North Santa Fe Drive in Merced for the past five years, according to company staff.
“They ask us to store them and we let them. We do it because we have the room back there,” said retail employee Kurt Peterson. “We don’t know what they do with them when they leave. They usually take them all.”
Peterson said donations have been good the past three years, estimating the mission stored eight pallets of turkeys during Thanksgiving 2012 and five and a half pallets for Thanksgiving last year.
One pallet holds four barrels filled with about 20 turkeys each. That’s roughly 640 turkeys in 2012 and 440 in 2013 stored at Richwood.
Hundreds more were kept inside the mission’s freezers and another off-site warehouse, the disciples said.
But as Nov. 12, 2013, rolled around, Metcalf, who has served as the mission’s CEO since 2011, told a Sun-Star reporter that the mission had just seven turkeys and needed 1,200 to feed needy families.
On Nov. 28, Pastor Prapai Wanlarbkam, the mission’s director of Christian services, said the mission got “everything it needed” in time for the Thanksgiving feast.
Wanlarbkam no longer works at the mission and did not return calls for comment.
Similarly, Wanlarbkam told the Sun-Star on Nov. 12, 2012, the mission had just 30 turkeys. The number jumped to 186 turkeys by Nov. 17, but he said the mission needed 250 more to feed 3,000 people on Thanksgiving.
Four days later, on Nov. 21, the pastor said the mission received more than 1,200 turkeys.
In an interview with the Sun-Star, Metcalf acknowledged the mission had hundreds of turkeys in storage from previous years when he told the media there were none.
Metcalf explained that the numbers he gave were for this year’s count only, not previous years, because the old turkeys would be given to five nonprofits to fill food baskets before Thanksgiving.
He estimated there were 200 to 300 turkeys in the freezer from previous years before the mission began asking for more in mid-October last year.
“I’m not trying to hide those turkeys, but those 300 turkeys from last year will probably be gone before we have the Thanksgiving dinner,” Metcalf said. “We start the count at zero and go forward for what we have that year. If I count those turkeys, what will happen is they will be gone by Thanksgiving and we’ll be short for the year.”
When asked if not disclosing the turkeys from previous years could have exaggerated the Rescue Mission’s need, he said it could be interpreted that way.
“I guess people could interpret it as lying, but that was not the intention,” Metcalf said. “The intention was to accurately show what we have for this year, but I think we will have to be very clear to people about what we have in the freezer before the season begins.”
Exchanging money for turkeys
Shortly before Thanksgiving 2013, Johnson said he and another disciple, Tracey Dillard, were instructed to load 100 turkeys inside a van. They were accompanied by two members of the mission’s management staff: Elden McDaniel and Armando Saenz.
The group drove miles out of town to the United Methodist Church in Atwater where they unloaded the turkeys and gave them to an unidentified woman.
Before leaving the church, both disciples reported receiving a $500 check for the turkeys.
“When we found out they were actually paying for the turkeys, we were shocked,” Johnson said. “What really gets me, how can you share with me about serving God when you’re doing the very thing that God doesn’t like? It was just a business.”
Dillard submitted a written statement to the Sun-Star about the experience.
“I asked why are they paying for them. I was told for storing and handling them,” Dillard wrote in the statement. “I don’t like the fact of receiving money for them when we ask for them to be donated to us and we profit from them.”
Dorothy Bizzini, an adviser at the Atwater Rotary Club and a member of the church, acknowledged paying $500 for the turkeys, but said it was her organization’s decision. “I told them we needed them and what they were for, and he said we can make a donation,” she said. “That was my choice. He (Metcalf) didn’t quote me a price. I just wanted to help them because he was helping us.”
Metcalf said two other organizations, United Way and Catholic Charities, pay the mission about $5 apiece for turkeys. Metcalf said he isn’t sure why those two groups pay for turkeys but other nonprofits get them for free.
He said United Way got about 300 turkeys last year; Catholic Charities received 100.
Metcalf said the practice was in place before he took over three years ago, but recent allegations about “selling” turkeys have made him reconsider the policy. He wants to stop accepting money for turkeys.
“Now that I’m seeing what the perception is, I don’t want people to think we are selling turkeys,” Metcalf said. “So I will give turkeys to every organization who needs them for food baskets without any expectation of any money.”
Not just turkeys
The volunteers said Metcalf also misrepresented the amount of canned goods the mission received during the holidays.
Minutes before a local television crew came to the mission last Thanksgiving, a disciple described how he and several others were asked to move almost 400 cans out of the pantry and hiding them in their bedrooms.
“Some disciples grabbed cans with their hands and others used their shirts as a bag,” said former disciple John Grenawalt, 25.
The men frantically stuffed the food underneath their beds, Grenawalt said, and covered the area with blankets. After several frenzied minutes, only a few cans were left on the shelf.
“They basically put on a show for the reporter and once she left it went back to the same old mission when there are no cameras around,” Grenawalt said. “After she left, we were told to put the food back to where it belongs.”
Andy Weenink worked as the mission’s maintenance man for 16 months and recalled a room on the second floor caving in because it could no longer support the overflow of accumulated cans.
That’s when Metcalf got a warehouse to store the cans, Weenink said, many of which reached their expiration date. He estimated the organization stored 40 barrels of food, each holding about 200 cans.
“There had to have been thousands of pounds of canned goods,” recalled Weenink, 46. “A lot of that food went to waste because they took it out to the warehouse. That’s when I started questioning things, and I felt like things were wrong.”
Weenink said donations skyrocketed after newspaper and television reports painted a harrowing picture at the mission.
“It was a sham. There was an article put in the paper saying they were in dire need, but they lied,” he said. “When the article is written and they see that picture of no food in the pantry people would go out of their way to drop off food. I felt bad for the donators.”
Metcalf acknowledged asking the volunteers to remove cans of food from the pantry.
He explained the staff was trying to show an empty shelf to illustrate they didn’t receive any canned goods for Thanksgiving dinner. He said the cans they moved were for year-round use, not for the annual dinner.
One donor, who asked to remain anonymous, reported donating hundreds of dollars to the mission each year for the past 10 years. After reading about the mission’s need for canned goods and turkeys in the Sun-Star last year, the donor said he headed to the mission to find out how he could help.
But when he got there, he discovered 700 turkeys had appeared in a matter of two days.
“When I went down to donate turkeys they said they all showed up,” he said. “At the time I was wondering how in the world they could get that many turkeys in two days.”
The longtime donor said the allegations made by the disciples stir doubts about the mission and leave him wondering if he should continue to donate.
Complaint to Attorney General’s office
A handful of disciples contacted the mission’s program director, Martin Rose, after they were told to empty freezers and move turkeys. Rose said many of them reported feeling “sick to their stomachs” for what they had done.
Shortly after, Rose said, Metcalf asked him during a phone conversation to remove turkeys from the freezer before a reporter was scheduled to arrive.
“I refused to comply saying, ‘I cannot do that,’ ” Rose said in a written statement. “Dr. Metcalf again instructed me, ‘Martin, move the turkeys.’ I replied, ‘Bruce, I am not going to do that.’ ”
Rose said Metcalf hung up the telephone and instructed disciples to remove the turkeys.
In late November, Rose said he tried initiating meetings with Metcalf to discuss the issue, but it never happened. “I told him that some of the disciples had questions that needed answers,” Rose wrote in the statement. “At that point, Dr. Metcalf became elusive and repeatedly told me he could not find the time to speak with me.”
Rose said Metcalf agreed to meet more than a month later, on Jan. 10, but instead of discussing his concerns about hiding turkeys, he was fired for “not being a team player.”
In an interview with the Sun-Star, Rose said he had never received disciplinary action prior to his dismissal. He said he was offered a “severance package” of nearly $8,000 that included a confidentiality agreement.
The document, obtained by the Sun-Star, prohibited Rose from discussing the severance package and included an agreement to not “disparage” the employer’s personal or professional reputation.
Rose said he declined the severance package and refused to sign the document, calling it a bribe to keep quiet. He also claims Metcalf told staff at the mission they were forbidden to speak with him.
On Feb. 28, Rose filed a complaint against the Merced County Rescue Mission with the Attorney General’s Office, outlining the problems at the organization. A response letter from the agency referred the matter to local law enforcement agencies and the District Attorney’s Office for investigation.
Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II said allegations about the Rescue Mission were mentioned to someone at his office earlier this year, but no formal complaints were filed.
“We don’t really have any articulated allegations that would cause us to leap into action,” Morse said. “We’re generally not the first responding organization. A Merced police report would need to be filed first.”
Rose said he had not filed a police report.
Metcalf chalks it up to Rose being disgruntled after being let go from his position.
“Martin was not happy in the change I made,” Metcalf said. “Because of that, he did everything he could to cast me and the rescue mission in a bad light and I’m very sorry for that. I pray for him every day.”