After not hearing from Burks for months, Dubreuil paused the fundraiser on Nov. 30, 2017. Less than a month later, Burks was quoted in an interview with A&U magazine saying, “We’re raising money to make the cemetery into a beautiful garden, a place to meditate and contemplate.”
“It has become a pilgrimage site where people from all around the country go to pay their respects,” she added. “I had a landscape architect contact me and offer to design the renovation and make it something that the men would be proud of. Any other money raised will be used to buy plants, statues and benches to beautify it.”
As for the monument, she said she envisioned a “weeping angel” and added, “We will also have a plaque telling the story of what happened from my eyes and the story of my brave men who died, also listing their names.”
Still to this day, four years later, no such monument exists.
“Ms. Burks expresses her deep appreciation and gratitude for all those who contributed to the GoFundMe campaign …”
Burks’ attorney, Toni Long, told TODAY in an emailed statement, “Ms. Burks expresses her deep appreciation and gratitude for all those who contributed to the GoFundMe campaign, both to raise funds for this memorial and help with her own immediate medical expenses. The GoFundMe page was started by Travis Dubreuil with the clearly stated dual purpose.”
“Ms. Burks also expresses her deepest regrets that her health and medical needs contributed to the delay with the project,” the statement continued. “She and I hope the steps we’re announcing today will allay any concerns about her intentions or determination to get this project completed.”
Long said plans to erect a monument are still taking place, with $15,000 set aside in a bank account Long is managing to bring it to fruition. Other steps include consulting with the AIDS Monument in West Hollywood and working with Pacific Coast Monuments. Numerous attempts by TODAY to reach both organizations were unsuccessful.
After TODAY contacted GoFundMe on Oct. 6, 2021, the company took down the fundraiser for Burks that was still on the site and launched an investigation into the use of the money that was raised for her.
“As part of its investigation, our Trust & Safety team requested additional information on how funds raised were used to cover health bills and build a monument as intended,” Monica Corbett, senior communications manager at GoFundMe, told TODAY. “Until this information is provided and verified to our satisfaction, the fundraiser beneficiary will remain temporarily suspended from the GoFundMe platform.
Corbett said if the company determines “a misuse of funds takes place on GoFundMe,” the company “works with law enforcement to assist them with any investigation they deem necessary.”
This isn’t the first monetary controversy concerning Burks: In 1995, her uncle filed a complaint against her for allegedly mishandling his money when she was temporarily his power of attorney. According to court documents obtained by TODAY, Burks’ uncle William Jack Lawler alleged his niece refused to turn over his retirement funds, including his Social Security and Veterans Affairs checks. Lawler also filed a motion for a restraining order against Burks. Burks denied these allegations at the time, and a few months later, the matter was settled.
Long did not respond to questions from TODAY about the 1995 complaint filed against Burks.
Dubrueil said this latest controversy could have been avoided if Burks would have just bought a simple plaque from the corner store.
“All I ever wanted was what she wanted in the original article: a small plaque to commemorate the space,” he said. “Had that have happened, nobody would be questioning anything.”
‘A cemetery that doesn’t belong to anybody’
In a 2014 interview on the StoryCorps podcast, Burks said, “I’ve buried over 40 people in my family’s cemetery because their families didn’t want them.”
Then in 2019, when asked by CBS Sunday Morning if she inherited part of a cemetery, she answered, “I did.” And in June 2021, she told TODAY during an interview that her mother bought the remaining 262 plots at the cemetery. This same story is detailed in “All the Young Men,” the book she co-wrote with Kevin Carr O’Leary that was published by Grove Atlantic in 2020.
That’s a statement that raises a red flag for Paula Bruce, daughter of Mitzi Files Tucker, whose family the cemetery is named after.
“There is no owner, because you don’t own a cemetery that doesn’t belong to anybody,” Bruce, who had never heard of Burks until her story went viral, said of Files Cemetery. “I mean, it is my family’s cemetery … by default for the fact that it’s got our name on it, but it’s so astounding to me because nobody owns it.”
Title records obtained by TODAY appear to confirm Bruce’s position, as the property owner for the land where the cemetery sits is only listed as “Files Cemetery.” That same document says the cemetery is approximately .767 acres.
Bruce argues that the cemetery isn’t even big enough for 262 plots.
“It is less than an acre of land. There are not 262 spots total in that cemetery including everybody who’s already buried there since the 1800s,” she said. “It’s a little itty bitty tiny cemetery. There are probably not 30 spots left up there in this cemetery right now.”
According to Find a Grave, a community sourced website that tracks the location of memorials, there are approximately 193 memorials at Files Cemetery currently.
The only qualification for being buried at Files Cemetery is that someone of the deceased’s family is already buried there, according to Bruce. Burks’ family was allowed because her descendants were neighbors of the Files. Bruce stresses that plots have never been sold or bought by anyone. She said, “It’s not necessary to do.”
In a statement to TODAY, Burks’ attorney said, “We have reached out to Paula Bruce to determine how we can work with her and other members of the Files family on the memorial to be located within the Historic Files Cemetery.”
Bruce confirmed to TODAY that she heard from Burks’ attorney for the first time ever on Oct. 17, five days after TODAY contacted the attorney regarding this article. Bruce said she “did not give her permission” to erect a monument… yet.
“I will have to pass it around to other family members, because I don’t have the say so on this by myself,” Bruce said. “I want them all to get together, and then I’m sure we’ll have some questions for them all, before we can say yay or nay that we would approve or disapprove.”
Bruce said her family is apprehensive about working with Burks only because of their track record, or lack thereof, with her up until now.
“I just don’t want to drive up there and see a big banner that says, ‘The Ruth Coker Burks AIDS Memorial Cemetery,’” Bruce said. “If she puts it up there, you know it’s going to have her name on it.”
The most important detail
Tim Looper said he has known Burks for a few decades, a relationship verified by others TODAY spoke with. This includes the time when Burks says she worked closely with AIDS and HIV patients in Hot Springs. Starting in about 2015, Looper tended to the cemetery for approximately five years.
“I watched a handful of ceremonies and burials. I was there during that time,” Looper said, referring to the time when the AIDS epidemic was at its worst. “The book could have been a blessing for the community, for the state and the whole world.”
“Now with that being said, I’ve read the book,” Looper continued. “I have known her. I’ve encountered the people throughout the book, and I can tell you that 80% of the book is not true.”
Looper challenged multiple sections of the book, with allegations ranging from geographical discrepancies to Burks misrepresenting her involvement in certain events. He also accused Burks of grossly overestimating the number of men living with AIDS she helped over the years, as well as the number of men she buried. Burks has been quoted over the years saying she has helped anywhere from hundreds to over 1,000 men living with AIDS, and she says to have buried “about two dozen” to “over 40” men in her family’s cemetery.
“As for the angel monument or the names on the plaque and certifying all these people, the reason that there never could be anything done (is) because there really was not 40 people,” Looper said. “I personally was at six (burials) … I know no one else that can come up with more than those six names.”
To the Arkansas Times this year, Burks said, “I never said we would have all of the names. I don’t remember all of the names.”
Looper questioned why Burks is able to remember so many details pertaining to her story but not the names of the men whom she says to have buried on her land. Shouldn’t that be the most important detail?
Looper offers five names: Tim Gentry, 31; Jim Kelley, 38; Joe Ross; Angel Mestizo, 42; and Ricky Dean Norton, 33 (also known as drag performer “Misty Bacall”). All five of those men have placards at Files Cemetery.
“It’s got to the point now, it’s almost opened up the stigma of HIV and AIDS in Hot Springs back up.”
When asked by TODAY to provide the exact number and names of men that are buried at Files Cemetery, Burks’ attorney declined to answer.
“Many of the men Ruth helped and eventually buried approached her asking for anonymity due to not wanting to be outed,” Deb Seager, director of communications for Grove Atlantic, told TODAY via email when asked to provide the names of the “two dozen men” Burks said she buried in her book. “She stands by her statement in the book and continues to grant them the anonymity they requested.”
“Basic research into standard industry practices would confirm that publishers rarely fact check entire books especially when it comes to memoir,” Seager continued. “This book is Ruth’s memory of her life story and not a work of investigative journalism.”
TODAY also made several unsuccessful attempts to reach Carr O’Leary, who co-wrote the book for Grove Atlantic with Burks.
Looper said his friendship with Burks lasted through 2020. When pointed to a 2019 statement she made to TODAY that she was still working with AIDS survivors, Looper said that is ”absolutely not true.”
“Yes, it was a wonderful thing at the time, but where did she go?” Looper asked.
When asked by TODAY to detail or explain some of this more recent work and provide organizations Burks has worked with, as well as the dates of this work, her attorney declined to answer.
Mike Melancon is the director and founder of the Hot Springs AIDS Resource Center, a nonprofit organization assisting people living with HIV/AIDS in south and southwest Arkansas.
When asked about Burks’ advocacy work, he said via email, “I have not seen her in over 25 years and the only dealings with her that I had were from individuals from the community that approached me with negative information back in the ‘90s.”
Melancon said that in the South HIV and AIDS “continues to have a stigma and stereotype attached to it” and “when something like this happens, it not only gives us a bad name but sets us back again.”
Looper echoed this sentiment as well, saying he is “so adamant about the truth on this” because “there’s a lot of people that were used and there’s a lot of people that are victims now.”
“It’s got to the point now, it’s almost opened up the stigma of HIV and AIDS in Hot Springs back up.”
‘Without my town, I would have died’
Both Looper and Melancon said they hope this story is recentered around the community at large.
“I’ve been wanting to try to patch this up so that we could turn this back into the heroic state of mind that everybody in the community participated,” Looper said. “This was not about one person. This was about a group of people, and (let’s) celebrate those who survived the tragedy and went on because of those who had to pay the price.”
One of the survivors of the AIDS epidemic is Daymon Jones, who in 1986 was diagnosed with HIV. According to Melancon, Jones is the longest documented survivor of the virus in Hot Springs.
“I have contempt for her,” Jones said of Burks, who was once his neighbor. “She makes it look like my town was hostile to people with HIV. It’s the fact that she has used that stereotype to portray my town and my community as something horrible and that was not the story.”
When asked for an example of how Burks negatively portrayed the town, he cited her story about having crosses burned on her lawn on multiple occasions — something she shared with TODAY in June and mentions in her book.