Traces of the EF-4 tornado that leveled most of Steelman Estates Mobile Home Park are still visible five years later.
Piles of twisted metal and broken fence posts still sit in the field just behind the last dirt and gravel road of the mobile home park in rural Pottawatomie County.
Residents still talk about the charismatic dark-haired woman from Texas with seven different last names who arrived on a mission from God to help the mobile home park rebuilt.
There were people still living in tents for months after the May 19, 2013, storm destroyed most of the mobile home park and killed one man.
Tonia Allen – or was her name Toni Gilliland, Tonia Camacho or Tonia Sanchez — arrived in a pickup truck and moved into one of the storm-damaged trailers. Working with the volunteer nonprofit, America’s Disaster Relief, Allen promised to help.
Allen — a woman with an arrest record but no construction experience — did build several homes for the tornado victims in Oklahoma with the help of volunteers.
But she didn’t build all the homes she had promised. Some Steelman Estates residents claim they gave her thousands of dollars of their disaster relief money and were left with nothing to show for it. After five years, some of the people of Steelman Estates never got their money back or their houses built. Allen and Jan France, founder of America’s Disaster Relief, have never been criminally charged.
The Oklahoma Attorney General’s office says there was insufficient evidence to file any charges in the Steelman Estates case.
America’s Disaster Relief continues to solicit donations for victims of natural disasters all over the country, although the IRS has revoked its nonprofit status.
France and Allen’s accounts about what happened in the aftermath of the 2013 tornado differ.
But each woman describes the other as “the devil.”
The tornado that mowed down much of Steelman Estates hit just one day before another, larger tornado struck 30 miles to the west in Moore on May 20, 2013, destroying two elementary schools and killing 24 people.
The people of the mobile home park in rural Pottawatomie County felt forgotten as most of the media attention and charitable aid shifted to Moore.
“I don’t feel greedy to say I didn’t get enough help at the time,” said Steelman Estates resident Kristina Miller, whose home was knocked off its foundation by the tornado. She now lives in a donated trailer.
“Five years later, we’re still struggling.”
Trae Luschen said he gave Allen and America’s Disaster Relief several thousand dollars to help build a new home on land he owned near Bethel Acres after his mobile home in Steelman Estates sustained severe damage in the 2013 storm.
Today, Luschen lives with his grandmother. Allen never built the home and Luschen never got his money back.
“She kept saying she was going to, and saying she was going to and then one day she disappeared,” Luschen said. “She talks a good line and makes you believe.”
Steelman Estates resident Gaylord “Sandy” Sanders, 89, died in November without getting any of his money back. Sanders gave Allen $10,000 after the 2013 storm.
Several of Sanders’ family members and neighbors said that Sanders gave Allen the money to build a new home, but never got anything in return.
“I feel I was scammed,” Sanders told The Oklahoman in 2014.
Sanders had to move in with relatives for several months before another nonprofit gave him a donated trailer. Allen said Sanders told her he considered the $10,000 he gave to America’s Disaster Relief a charitable donation and that she should use it to rebuild other people’s houses.
Jerry Breedlove, president of the Steelman Estates Homeowners Association, said most of the people in Steelman Estates are still angry at Allen.
“She was telling people she’d build them new homes if they turned over all their FEMA money to her,” Breedlove said. “I didn’t get any FEMA money, so she didn’t want anything to do with me.”
Breedlove and many of the residents of Steelman Estates eventually moved into used mobile homes that previously housed oilfield workers on jobs sites. The mobile homes were donated by two other nonprofits with no affiliation to America’s Disaster Relief.
It’s hard not to like Allen. She’s witty and talks in a warm East Texas drawl. She has a convincing answer to any question thrown at her.
France seems pretty likable, too.
With her white hair and wire-rimmed glasses, she gives off grandmotherly vibes. France travels all over the United States in an RV strung with Christmas lights that doubles as a food truck, selling tamales. She says all of of the profits go to benefit survivors of fires, tornadoes and floods. France also oversees a loose network of volunteers across the country that do things like set up emergency shelters and accept donations after natural disasters. She’s been doing disaster relief work across the United States for nearly 20 years and says she does not take a salary from America’s Disaster Relief.
But in Allen’s telling, France is an “old goat” who kept tornado victims’ money and blamed her — a hapless volunteer with a big heart.
France claims as much as $70,000 from America’s Disaster Relief was unaccounted for after Allen took over as state manager for the nonprofit. She also claims Allen took donated RVs and pickup trucks and put them in her own name before the vehicles disappeared. France provided screenshots of posts Allen put on Facebook in 2014 to sell two RVs, promising the proceeds would go to help storm victims.
As soon as France found out money was missing from ADR’s bank account, she said she reported Allen to law enforcement and sent out a public announcement about what had happened.
She said she is as frustrated as anybody that the Attorney General’s office has never prosecuted anybody over the matter — and by anybody she means Allen.
“It just got swept under the rug, put at the bottom of the pile,” France said.
Allen and the mess in Oklahoma have permanently marred America’s Disaster Relief reputation, she said.
“We’re finally digging ourselves out of this, but people don’t want to donate to us until we get some kind of resolution,” she said.
But America’s Disaster Relief has other problems besides Allen.
The IRS revoked America’s Disaster Relief nonprofit status in October 2016 for failure to file tax returns for three consecutive years, according to tax records.
The Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office said it has received complaints about both Allen and America’s Disaster Relief. The Texas Attorney General’s Office has also received at least one complaint about America’s Disaster Relief in the past — The Frontier has filed an open records request in Texas to find out more.
And yet, America’s Disaster Relief continues to solicit charitable donations online and represents its as a 501c3 nonprofit organization. ADR still asks for donations in Oklahoma on Facebook to purchase children Christmas presents in Moore through the Moore’s Secret Santa program, which gives donated toys to needy children and the families of tornado survivors. The program was soliciting donations of cash, toys,and gift wrap for next Christmas as recently as April on Facebook, promising that all gifts were tax deductible.
ADR’s registration as a nonprofit in Oklahoma expired in 2014. Nonprofits are required to register with the state to solicit donations from the public.
France refused to answer questions about America’s Disaster Relief nonprofit status in Oklahoma.
She also did not respond to requests to see the organization’s most recent tax return or provide its tax identification number. According to IRS rules, nonprofit organizations like ADR are required to make their last three tax returns available for public inspection.
“Please do not contact me and or anyone from my organization any further,” France said in a text message after repeated follow-up questions about ADR’s legal status.
Allen has an arrest record from her early 20s for things like writing bad checks and a DUI. She was trying to reinvent herself as a disaster relief worker in 2013.
Initially, Allen told people in Steelman Estates that she worked for a nonprofit called God’s Hand Ups, sponsored by a church group in Winnsboro, Texas, called International Guiding Light Ministries.
The Winnsboro group cut ties with Allen when it found out she was also working for America’s Disaster Relief, said the Rev. George Dickens.
“I can’t say she did anything wrong or if she didn’t — we don’t know,” Dickens said. “I do think she went up there with good intentions.”
Allen ended up staying in Oklahoma for more than a year, because she wanted to help people, she said.
France has referred to Allen “Teflon Tonia” in the past — nothing ever sticks to her. She ran a background check on Allen before making her the Oklahoma director for America’s Disaster Relief, but said her arrest record came up clean, because all of her criminal charges were under different names.
“This old woman — she just flies in out of nowhere and mommies me,” Allen said. “She takes the girl who has been stranded out there and and nurtures me. I come from the streets, from foster care and this woman says ‘I want you to be the director of my organization.’”
Allen has photographs of herself climbing through piles of tornado rubble and laying rebar for new concrete foundations.
“I did not leave those people. I stayed for 14 months. After the Red Cross whipped in and out, did their big meda blitz and raised millions, I stayed,” Allen said.
One tornado victim, Paul Allison, sued Allen and America’s Disaster Relief in 2014, claiming Allen sold him a lot in Steelman Estates for $3,500. The lawsuit claims Allen pocketed the money and then turned around and sold the land to someone else.
As part of the litigation, Allen is cross-suing America’s Disaster Relief for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress among other claims.
The lawsuit is still open, but Allison’s attorneys quit and nothing much has happened with the case in the past year.
Allen claims in her lawsuit that ADR set out to frame her for misspent funds.
Attorney Corey Stone, who represents Allen in the lawsuit, said he believes his client intended to help storm victims.
“Whatever anyone did, Tonya was actually here on the ground making things work,” Stone said. “There were actually houses built.”
Allen attempted to get some of the people she built homes for to consent to an interview, but none of the homeowners responded to The Frontier.
Allen left Oklahoma in 2014 as abruptly as she had arrived, leaving a mobile home park full of angry people in her wake.
Back home in Texas, she has reinvented herself once again.
Today, Allen goes the name “Tee.” Nobody calls her Tonia anymore, she said.
“Don’t call me that — nobody calls me that,” she said.
She lost some weight and posts lots of pictures of herself on Facebook riding motorcycles, wearing cut-off shorts and tank tops that show off her tattoo-covered arms—also part of the transformation.
She looks good.
In one photo, Allen wears a pink and black patch on her leather biker vest in one photo embroidered with the words “She Devil.”
Allen owns a cake shop and catering business in the small town of White Oak, Texas, about 120 miles east of Dallas. She caters crawfish boils and makes elaborate wedding cakes encrusted with rhinestones.
And she’s married again.
Allen said she’s been married seven — “no, wait, five or six times,” and that’s the reason she’s had so many different last names in the past.
No one has ever been charged with taking the residents of Steelman Estate’s money.
Gaylord Sanders died the day after spending Thanksgiving with his family last year. He never got any of his money back.
“That’s pretty much what everyone did — write it off,” his daughter-in law, Debra Sanders said.