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Family dispute snags Bayflite donations

When a Bayflite helicopter crashed into a radio transmission tower two years ago, killing its three-person crew en route from a rescue mission, the public responded with an outpouring of help for the grieving families.

Companies took up collections. Schoolchildren held lemonade sales and sent envelopes full of change. People on fixed incomes wrote $1 and $5 checks. In all, some $80,000 was raised for a memorial fund for pilot Mark Wallace, flight nurse Alicia Betita-Collins and paramedic Erik Hangartner.

Betita-Collins' and Hangartner's families each received a third of the money within months of the crash. It went for groceries and clothes, unpaid bills and unexpected expenses, like the reliable van Hangartner's widow bought to ferry around their four children when her car broke down.

But money earmarked for the family of Wallace, the Bayflite 3 pilot, estimated at $27,000 to $30,000, remains unclaimed two years later.

Jan Baskin, president of the St. Joseph's Hospital Foundation, which controls the fund, said she cannot release the money until the family submits paperwork showing an agreement on how it should be divided among family members. Because of divisions within Wallace's family, the paperwork has not been submitted.

"We would dearly love to release the funds, because they were raised by the community to help the family, and we are not able to do that," Baskin said.

Rifts have widened within Wallace's family since the April 25, 2000, crash.

Wallace was married to Tampa lawyer Ellen Ware. After the crash, however, his three children, Mark Jr., Cameron and Lauren, moved in with their biological mother, Wallace's first wife. Later, Wallace's brother Bruce became Mark Jr.'s legal guardian.

Everyone agrees half the money should go to Ware, and half to the three children. But some family members say Ware has held up the disbursement.

"Every time we try to make something happen with this, she steps in and stops it," said Lauren Wallace, now 19 and in her first year at Florida State University. She says she needs her share of the memorial fund for college expenses.

Ware, a 42-year-old lawyer who ran unsuccessfully for a Hillsborough circuit judge seat in 2000, said a number of factors have held up the fund. Numb and distracted by grief, she said, she waited until mid 2001 to contact a lawyer to establish an estate that could disburse the fund.

"I know it may seem odd that it took me so long to get back to real life, but the year after my husband's death was probably the worst year of my life," Ware said. "I didn't do anything about (getting a lawyer) for the longest time. There was no rush. I was just trying to survive."

Part of the delay, Ware said, stemmed from uncertainty over whether there were grounds for a wrongful-death claim that "might make the rest of this pale in comparison" financially, she said.

Fifteen months after the crash, federal investigators decided pilot error was to blame, a baffling decision to those who knew Wallace as a precise, safety conscious pilot. There was no wrongful-death suit.

Ware expects the memorial money to be disbursed shortly. "All this money is going to go where it's supposed to go," she said.

The disbursement was further complicated, Ware said, when her dead husband's brother attempted to establish himself as representative of Mark Wallace's estate.

Bruce Wallace said he was frustrated by Ware's slow pace. He said his nephew Mark Jr., now a 17-year-old Plant High student, intends to join his sister Lauren at Florida State but needs the memorial money to do so.

"We're scrambling to come up with tuition," said Wallace, a real estate appraiser. "We're not wealthy people."

Both the families of Betita-Collins, 51, and Hangartner, 29, have received lists of all those who have donated so that they could send their thanks.

"This was really a blessing," Hangartner's mother, Jeri, said of the public outpouring.

But because they don't yet have their share of the money, the Wallace family doesn't have the donor list.

They want people to know how grateful they are. "I'd love to see that list," Bruce Wallace said.

_ Christopher Goffard can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or