Couple arrested for ‘cancer’ scam

Published 9:36 am Monday, April 11, 2011

The deception of a Molino couple has prompted the dissolution of a local non-profit agency established less than a year ago to assist in offsetting medical expenses incurred by cancer patients.

Ronnie and Jessica Cloud, owners of Alabama Wing House in Atmore, announced Thursday that they were going to dissolve the Kickin’ Cancer group after learning one of its board members, 42-year-old Sonja Marsell Luker, had been arrested Wednesday, along with her husband, Gerald Christopher Luker, 43, and charged with fraud and larceny.

According to the Escambia County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office, the Lukers financially benefited from numerous cancer fundraisers including one in Sonja Luker’s honor in 2009 at the Alabama Wing House that raised nearly $9,000 and included a nearly 100-mile Labor Day motorcycle ride. Red T-shirts were also sold with the words, “I helped Sonja Kick Cancer” printed on the front.

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The Clouds formed the non-profit group nearly a year later after witnessing the outpouring of support from the community and the desire to help other cancer patients in need.

“The outpouring was just so overwhelming and everyone wanted to help,” Jessica Cloud said. “We decided to do it once a year and help someone else. So we decided to hold an event once a year.”

However, prior to the Lukers’ arrest, law enforcement officials were unable to locate any evidence during their investigation that Sonja Luker had been battling “terminal cancer” like she claimed. The news of the deception was a shock to the Clouds.

“We were initially shocked because we truly thought we were helping someone who was gravely ill,” Jessica Cloud said. “I was hurt and angry, but I no longer have any hurt or anger. I know that my family, friends and myself helped her out of the goodness of our hearts and our consciences are clear. I do want them to be held accountable for their actions.”

The inaugural Kickin’ Cancer event was held in October 2010 at Tom Byrne Park in Atmore and raised $2,600. The money was later donated to Century, Fla. councilwoman Nadine McCaw in January after family provided medical bills for assistance.

“The event at Tom Byrne Park was never intended to help Sonja,” Jessica Cloud said.

Jessica Cloud added that Sonja Luker’s association with the non-profit prompted the group to disband.

“We just don’t think it can overcome being associated with her,” she said. “Perhaps over time, we can start another non-profit that is completely unassociated with Sonja Luker or her husband, Chris.”

According to the Sheriff’s Office, financial crime investigators opened a case on the Lukers after receiving tips several months ago that Sonja Luker did not find any evidence that indicated that she ever suffered from any type of cancer or that she had been treated at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas as she had claimed. The couple are the only suspects in the alleged fraud, which they are believed to have benefited thousands of dollars from numerous friends, family members, church organizations and co-workers. None of those involved in the fundraisers, including the Clouds are suspected of any wrongdoing.

According to the Lukers arrest reports, it is believed that $19,090.93 was received and was used to avoid foreclosure on their home in 2009 and used by Chris Luker to purchase a 1997 Harley motorcycle, among other things. There were 54 pieces of evidence collected including online stories regarding Sonja Luker’s illness, a “I helped Sonja Kick Cancer” T-shirt, Facebook pages, copies of checks paid to the couple and much more.

The couple was released later that day, both on $10,000 bonds.

The couple is scheduled to make their first court appearances on April 28 before Escambia County Circuit Judge Joel Boles.

Sonya Luker

Christopher Luker