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Doubts surround viral story of 'AIDS angel' who says she helped hundreds of dying men

The viral story of Ruth Coker Burks has won the hearts of many, but some locals in Hot Springs, Arkansas, say the story may be more fiction than fact.
/ Source: TODAY

In January 2015, the Arkansas Times profiled a local woman in a soaring portrait titled “Ruth Coker Burks, the cemetery angel.” The nearly 4,500-word cover story recounted how Burks “cared for hundreds of people whose families had abandoned them” at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, an epidemic that between the years of 1983 and 2019 killed about 3,900 people in the state of Arkansas, according to the Hot Springs AIDS Resource Center.

Burks detailed how she buried dozens of gay men in a cemetery where her family owned plots when they succumbed to the disease. The paper’s epic tale — a story of “courage, love and the 30-year secret of one little graveyard in Hot Springs” — draws on the heartstrings with anecdotes of fearless courage in the daunting face of stigma and discrimination.

That article inspired countless other media outlets, including TODAY (once in 2019 and then again earlier this year), to profile Burks over the past six years, but as her story spread, so have concerns over its veracity. In July 2021, the Arkansas Times revisited Burks in an article titled "Ruth Coker Burks and the missing monument," addressing concerns some people have raised with her story. After becoming aware of the Arkansas Times article, TODAY conducted more than a dozen interviews with Hot Springs locals and those with ties to the now 62-year-old. Many questioned her account of working “with over a thousand people” dying of AIDS, owning more than 200 plots in the local Files Cemetery and intending to build a monument to honor the men she says she buried with money raised from a GoFundMe campaign.

Burks declined an interview with TODAY through her lawyer, Toni Long.

When asked about these concerns, Burks’ attorney told TODAY in a statement that her client’s “health and medical needs contributed to the delay with the project” and that Burks fully intends “to get this project completed.”

A story ‘ripe’ for an online fundraiser

Travis Dubreuil, a photographer living in Brooklyn, New York, was so moved by that first article in 2015, he decided to start an online fundraiser for Burks.

“I was browsing Reddit, and I saw a story from the Arkansas Times about a woman who helped people with AIDS when they were dying,” Dubreuil, 42, told TODAY. “I read the whole article and was incredibly moved.”

He said he immediately looked to see if a GoFundMe campaign existed for Burks and the monument she said she wanted to build in the same spot where she told CBS Sunday Morning she buried “over 40” men who died from AIDS-related complications.

“Before she’s gone, she said, she’d like to see a memorial erected in the cemetery,” David Koon wrote in the 2015 Arkansas Times piece. “Something to tell people the story. A plaque. A stone. A listing of the names of the unremembered dead who lie there.”

The article quoted Burks as saying, “Someday, I’d love to get a monument that says: This is what happened. In 1984, it started. They just kept coming and coming. And they knew they would be remembered, loved and taken care of, and that someone would say a kind word over them when they died.”

“It just didn’t seem to square with how she painted herself as a Southern woman.”

Travis Dubreuil

Dubreuil didn’t find a GoFundMe campaign for Burks. Thinking her story “seemed ripe” for an online fundraiser, he started one himself.

“She just wants to put a little plaque there,” he said. “It should be fairly easy, we get her a grant and she is good to go.”

Initially created for the sole purpose of raising money for the cemetery monument, the GoFundMe campaign later served a dual purpose: At the request of Burks’ friend in November 2015 it was also used to raise funds for Burks’ medical expenses.

“She is very afraid,” the friend’s email sent on Nov. 23, 2015, which Dubreuil shared with TODAY, stated. “Afraid that she might die, and worse that she might die without first having the memorial, and without telling her story and the stories of those young men that she helped.”

Burks declined an interview with TODAY through her lawyer, Toni Long.TODAY

At first, the fundraiser gained little traction, but as Burks’ story continued to go viral, “tons of donations” started pouring in, Dubreuil said. The campaign received an especially big boost after the national LGBTQ media outlet Out magazine published a syndicated version of Koon’s Arkansas Times article in December 2016.

By mid-2017, Dubreuil’s GoFundMe campaign had raised approximately $75,000 for Burks. After fees, she was to receive $65,514.52. She received the money over the course of many months and then abruptly stopped all communication with Dubreuil in July 2017, he said.

“That’s when the weirdness began,” he said. “She stopped contacting me. She wouldn't talk to me and then she blocked me on Facebook and blocked my husband, which I thought was bizarre.”

“It just didn’t seem to square with how she painted herself as a Southern woman,” he added. “It doesn’t make sense. Why would you block people and your phone's not working anymore after a total stranger just raised $75,000 for you? I was hurt by it, and I didn’t understand it.”

Burks’ attorney declined to answer a question from TODAY on why her client stopped communicating with Dubreuil.

Burks and the Gotham Knights Rugby Football Club attend the 6th Annual Broadway Sings For Pride Concert in New York City on June 20, 2016.Santiago Felipe / Getty Images

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 ..."

TONI LONG

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.”

“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," Burks' laywer said in a statement shared with TODAY. TODAY

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.”

“There is no owner, because you don't own a cemetery that doesn't belong to anybody," Paula Bruce said.TODAY

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.”

Tim Looper and Ruth Coker Burks in 2019.Tim Looper

“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.”

Tim looper

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.

Some residents of Hot Springs (pictured here) feel that the controversy surrounding Ruth Coker Burks has hurt the reputation of their town.peeterv / Getty Images

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.”

Hot Springs is the 11th largest city in the state of Arkansas, according to data from 2020.Sean Pavone / Getty Images

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.

“It's not my story. It's a story of Hot Springs."

DAYMON JONES

Jones said Burks attempted to get close to him after she learned he was living with HIV, something he and his boyfriend at the time were wary of.

“What really got me riled up (was) how she does it,” he said. “She said, ‘Well you know I can bury you, too, when you die.’ Well Ruth, I have no intention of dying right now, and even if I do, I have a family cemetery. ‘They won't let you in, you know that.’ Oh yes they will. We discussed this already. She tried to use fear to make herself look like she was somebody that was going to help.”

For 22 years Jones worked at the Hot Springs AIDS Resource Center Tuggle Clinic, also serving on the board there for a number of years as well.

“We had people that stepped up,” Jones said. “We had pharmacists in town that were letting people have drugs for nothing. They let them go on credit, just to make sure that somebody had drugs.”

Jones gets emotional when talking about this. He said what hurts him most is not the painful experiences he endured so many years ago, but to see the way the stories have evolved to paint Hot Springs as a place of bigotry and rife with homophobia.

“It's not my story. It's a story of Hot Springs,” he said. “The nuns, the Pentecostal ladies that fed us, took care of us. That's the story that's being missed. It's not my story. I'm a nobody. The people who are not being given any herald because of Ruth Burks are those people, the doctors that volunteered to save us.”

“But my town is not this f------ dump hole she's trying to make it look like,” he said. “Without my town, I would have died.”

‘I wanted Billy to be remembered in a good way’

Much of Burks’ story that has been shared with the media and in her book revolves around two specific anecdotes: The first time she ever encountered a man living with AIDS and a drag queen named Billy Collins, with whom she became best friends.

Paul Wineland was the boyfriend of Collins, who died in 1993 due to AIDS-related complications.

“She was a big help to me, and she was a big help to Billy,” Wineland told TODAY. “And that's how I met her. She did a lot of nice things that are reflected in the book.”

Wineland said Burks returned to his life in 2014, following years of silence, when she started needing help with media appearances and writing her book.

“She had a lot of interviews and a lot of things that she wanted me to do, and newspaper people to talk to, and I'm generally a pretty private person,” Wineland, who today works at a thrift store, said. “I don't want to drag up this past from 30 years ago. It's a very painful time, and I have a new life now, and I really wasn't wanting to do it at all, but my partner encouraged me and told me he thought it would be good.”

Paul Wineland and Ruth Coker Burks.Robert Klintworth

So Wineland, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1999, helped Burks, sitting for interviews with Carr O’Leary and contributing many of the photographs included in the book. In fact, of all the names and stories, the book only features photos of Wineland, Collins and a few other drag queens.

“Suddenly, I realized when I got into all this, that the last half of the book is me and Billy, and all these things, and I didn't realize that it was going to be that way,” he said. “I didn't realize that, you know 75% to 80% of the pictures were going to be pictures that I gave her.”

Wineland and his current partner, Robert Klintworth, said that Burks promised them things in return for helping her with the book. Promises they said were never fulfilled.

“She was like, 'Oh, when this book comes out, we're going to be millionaires,'” Wineland said. “And she had a big condo for these interviews to take place. 'We'll get you one of these when the book comes out, and we need to get a new car, because you need a new car, too.'”

"I wanted people to know what it was like then and what we went through, and I wanted to share my part of her story.”

PAUL WINELAND

In Facebook direct messages to Klintworth reviewed by TODAY, Burks wrote, “I’ll even take him on book tours with me if he wants,” referring to Wineland.

“After the book comes out I want to hire him and pay him for the rest of his life,” she said in another message, referring to Wineland. “I always want Paul to not want for anything and he won’t have to do a thing...he has already dont (sic) that will Billy. He has earned it.”

In another message, she told Klintworth, “I’ll even pay you a commission to get me speaking engagements,” quoting her engagements as worth $5,000. In another, she said she will get “Paul a job on the movie set if he wants.”

Burks was referring to the “Book of Ruth,” a film in the works based on her life that is slated to star Ruth Wilson and Matt Bomer. Burks told Klintworth, “I think he needs to be the one who says, ‘It happened this way not that way.’”

Robert Klintworth and Ruth Coker Burks.Robert Klintworth

After Burks began complaining about money to Klintworth, he sent her a link to the GoFundMe inquiring about it. “Did you know about this? I did a search,” he told her in Facebook direct messages reviewed by TODAY. Burks told him ”very little of the money appeared.”

“People pledged but I guess they didn’t have the money in their account,” she continued, adding, “so it never appeared.”(GoFundMe confirmed to TODAY that $65,514.32 was “delivered directly to the fundraiser beneficiary.”)

In a subsequent message, she said, “I have enough to get the monument …”

Klintworth said he didn’t believe Burks’ claims about the GoFundMe money, so he started raising questions about the online fundraiser publicly on social media. Subsequently, he and Wineland had a falling out with Burks, and their relationship was severed from there, according to the couple.

“After the book came out and it started getting really big in this movie talk and all this stuff, I haven't heard from her since then,” Wineland said. “I have not heard one peep, not one word.”

Burks’ attorney declined to answer questions regarding her client’s relationship with Klintworth and Wineland.

“I just feel real left out,” Wineland said. “I can't say I was used, because to me, I did the things that I did out of the goodness of my heart, and I wanted to help her. I didn't do it for a new condo. I didn't do it for money or for fame or a movie. I wanted the story to be told. I wanted Billy to be remembered in a good way. I wanted people to know what it was like then and what we went through, and I wanted to share my part of her story.”

“It turned into a lot more than I thought it was when I read the book,” he added. “I realized that this book wouldn't have happened without me.”

Ruth Coker Burks poses with the Attitude Hero Award at the Attitude Awards on Oct. 9, 2019 in London, England.Dave J Hogan / Getty Images

Questioning the ‘AIDS angel’

Almost all of the people TODAY spoke with acknowledged that Burks may have done some good at some point, but that over the years they believe that either she or the media have sensationalized the story for some sort of gain.

“My family and I think what this woman did with the AIDS patients was exceptional,” Bruce said. “I don't know that I could have done it. … She did a wonderful service for these gentlemen, being there with them during their trying times.”

“The only problem I have with the woman is the fact that she doesn't own Files Cemetery, and my family is tired of her telling people that,” she added. “I have had death threats from people because I have challenged her. Nobody wants to be the person who calls out the AIDS angel.”

While Burks declined to be interviewed by TODAY about her own stories of helping men dying of AIDS and the allegations of those who do not believe her, she did not shy away from questioning the truthfulness and motivation of another woman who claimed to have bared witness to similar tragedies during the early days of the crisis.

In chapter 19 of her book, Burks describes a woman who would go into churches with “sob stories about what she’d ‘seen’” regarding the tragedy and trauma of AIDS. “Then she’d pass the collection plate.”

“There was money in AIDS patients now, or at least saying you did something for people with AIDS,” Burks writes in her book. “I knew a con artist when I saw one.”

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