At least $350,000 raised so far for Lafayette’s Grand 16 Theatre shooting victims; groups researching how to distribute the funds _lowres

Advocate staff photo by LESLIE WESTBROOK -- A "Lafayette Strong" yard sign stands near weeks-old flowers, stuffed animals, candles and other memorial offerings that remain near the base of the marquee sign at the Grand 16 Theatre, where a gunman opened fire July 23 killing three, including himself, and injuring nine others, Tuesday, August 25, 2015, in Lafayette, La.

Area businesses have raised at least $350,000 for the 11 people shot, two fatally, in a Lafayette movie theater last month, and the donations continue to grow as those groups discuss how best to distribute the money among the victims.

A handful of people representing those businesses and other nonprofits involved in the effort met Tuesday at the United Way of Acadiana office for the organization’s third meeting to talk logistics on fundraising.

“Accuracy, speed, accountability and transparency. That’s what we’re looking for,” United Way of Acadiana President and CEO Margaret Trahan said of the joint effort.

Through a survey distributed to each of the 11 shooting victims or their families, the group found eight of them estimated needs of $5,000 to $10,000 in medical and other expenses, said Jason Huffman, strategies director with United Way of Acadiana.

A Lafayette woman who stayed in the hospital for 23 days after the shooting faces medical bills in the tens of thousands. Two of those shot that night declined aid and asked for their share to be distributed among the rest of the injured victims.

Eleven businesses on Tuesday agreed to pool a growing fundraising total of approximately $77,000 with United Way of Acadiana. The nonprofit organization is working with those businesses and law enforcement officials to iron out details on the best possible way to disburse the money, with goals to begin that distribution soon.

“People are starting to receive medical bills,” said Amy Daigle, claims investigator for the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office.

Pixus Digital Printing, a Lafayette company that’s sold more than $250,000 worth of apparel and “Lafayette Strong” signs, withdrew from the United Way collaboration with its own plans to distribute funds directly to the nine victims who agreed to accept it, Huffman said.

It’s unclear how Pixus will distribute the money. The company’s CEO, Todd Landry, did not attend the Tuesday meeting and was unavailable by phone thereafter.

Meanwhile, United Way — as did Boston after the 2013 marathon bombings — is looking at a distribution model pioneered in 2011 by Tucson, Arizona, after six were killed and 13 injured during a campaign event for former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords at a grocery store parking lot.

Groups there raised about $500,000, which was distributed by one entity over a two-year period through both fixed payments and an reimbursement application process, said Valerie Bowles, of United Way. When the Tucson shooter went to trial two years later, the remaining funds were distributed among the families.

But what’s still uncertain is how the other 18 people in The Grand 16 Theatre’s auditorium on July 23 will be helped for their trauma after witnessing the slaying of two people, the shooting of nine and the gunman’s suicide.

“Some of them, if you look at the seating chart, had every single person around them shot. You had people hiding behind seats and watching people all around them get shot to the floor,” Daigle said.

Although the fundraising group on Tuesday agreed the cash funds will go toward only the 11 direct victims, United Way reiterated its commitment to a second-phase effort to help provide mental health care to the other 18 in the auditorium. Those 18 people also are eligible to apply for state reparation funds for crime victims, but Daigle said the option is urged only as a “last resort.”

Anyone who requests the assistance — up to $2,500 in reimbursements for mental health care — could encounter a roadblock should they receive additional donations, as the state could legally request the initial compensation dollars be repaid, Daigle said.

The fundraising group has also been researching what sort of federal aid is available to provide additional assistance in the shooting’s aftermath. Tucson and Aurora, Colorado — where a gunman in 2012 killed 12 and injured 70 inside a sold-out movie theater — received $1.7 million and $2.9 million in federal grants following those events.

The money comes from the Antiterrorism and Emergency Assistance Program through the U.S. Department of Justice and can be used for medical and mental health care.

Although Daigle said the The Grand 16 Theatre’s employees’ lost wages and mental health care are covered through the theater’s operator, Southern Theatres LLC, no one with the company has spoken with the media since the shooting. And company spokesmen repeatedly have declined to release information about if and when the still-shuttered theater would reopen.

Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825.