Miami-Dade County

Families of slain Overtown kids say city liaison solicited money

Marlon Eason
Marlon Eason Miami Herald

A community liaison for an Overtown anti-poverty agency is accused of soliciting money from the families of two children killed on the same day in high-profile shootings. But her employers say she has done nothing wrong.

Martha Whisby was sent by the Southeast Overtown Park West Community Redevelopment Agency to offer condolences to the family of Marlon Eason on March 25, the day after the 10-year-old was shot dead in the street outside his house in a killing that shook Overtown. Whisby brought ice, chairs and tables to the funeral of the young boy, who prosecutors say was shot as a bystander when friends of teenager Richard Hallman tried to retaliate for his killing during a shootout earlier in the day.

But ultimately, Eason’s grandmother says Whisby cultivated a financial relationship with her family and solicited payments to her son’s film company, which shot and produced videos of Marlon’s funeral and events in the child’s name. Dorothy Ruffin says Whisby, who earns a $43,000 salary from the redevelopment agency, also took $75 to help pay a phone bill. Hallman’s mother reportedly says she loaned Whisby $1,000 to help pay a delinquent mortgage.

“This lady used me,” Ruffin said during an interview on the family’s front porch. “I’m not going to keep my mouth closed because she’s going to do it to someone else.”

The allegations, first reported by WPLG news, are problematic for the Overtown redevelopment agency, which aims to reinvest property taxes from new development back into the existing, impoverished community. Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon, the chairman of the agency, has also performed in a play written by Whisby’s son and worked with him to produce a short film about his work as a public official.

But the agency’s executives are supporting Whisby. They believe she got herself into a murky ethical situation while trying to help the families on personal time.

“She’s getting killed out there when her motives were benevolent,” said Cornelius Shiver, the agency’s assistant director .

Whisby did not respond to an interview request. Hardemon was dismissive when approached outside City Hall this month.

“That’s not a story,” he said, walking away from a reporter.

Shiver and executive director Clarence Woods III say they first became aware of complaints about Whisby months ago when Tranell Harris, Hallman’s mother, complained that she’d lent Whisby money that hadn’t been returned in full. Shiver said Harris, who did not respond to interview requests, told them she’d offered the money to Whisby, who has since repaid the money.

Later, Shiver and Woods learned that Ruffin, too, was upset with Whisby about the quality of films produced for the Marlon Eason Jr. Violence and Awareness Prevention Foundation. Ruffin says she is also angry about what she feels is a broken promise to get the basketball Marlon was chasing into the street at the time he was killed signed by his idol, Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade.

Whisby helped the foundation get a new basketball signed by Wade, which was delivered in September by Wade’s father to an event near the family’s home just after what would have been Marlon’s 11th birthday. But Ruffin says the family was told Wade would be at the event and wanted Marlon’s basketball signed by the star as a memento.

“I’m hurt about it,” she said.

Wade’s father, however, told a reporter he offered to personally take Ruffin to a game to get Marlon’s basketball signed when his ongoing duties as a youth basketball coach slowed down. And redevelopment agency executives say they looked into the issue and don’t believe Whisby set out to prey on the families or use them for money. Shiver said Whisby denied accepting money for the funeral video and told him it was Ruffin who wanted her son to film events for Marlon’s foundation, not the other way around.

“We didn’t dismiss this,” said Shiver. “I had a motivation to discipline. We were looking to set an example. But the facts didn’t play out that way.”

Still, Shiver and Woods say they have since held ethics courses to help their employees avoid similar situations. They also tweaked Whisby’s duties and placed her under the agency’s marketing department.

But beyond that, Woods said, the issue is settled.

“We don’t want this to be a divisive issue in the community,” he said.