ATTLEBORO — It was a simple gesture of friendship, respect and goodwill which somehow spun wildly out of control after entering the ever-dangerous zone of cyberspace where it crashed and burned.
It’s resulted in accusations of ethics law violations and one goodhearted person was viciously attacked online with allegations that she perpetrated a fraud and intended to keep money she raised for the cause.
There are ancient sayings that cover this.
One is, “No good deed goes unpunished.”
Another is, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”
Take your pick.
Here’s the story.
A group of students decided they wanted to buy a Christmas present for an Attleboro High School employee they liked and admired.
It wasn’t because he was poor or needy. It was a gift of appreciation.
The employee, a custodian named Tony Coelho, was presented with the gift — a pair of Timberland boots — on Jan. 2, the day students returned from Christmas vacation.
It’s not often students get together and buy a gift for a staff member, so it found its way into The Sun Chronicle last weekend.
But by the following Monday, Coelho decided to give the boots to a student who needed them more than he did.
At the same time, an unidentified person raised online allegations that the gift violated a state ethics rule concerning gifts to public employees, which it did not. But nonetheless, the accusation sparked an uproar, as online opinion is wont to do.
The coincidence made it appear Coelho gave the boots away because of the ethics accusation, but that was not the case, high school principal Bill Runey said.
“Over the weekend, Tony thought more of the situation and decided that the boots would be better-served in the hands of a student who is in need,” he said in statement to The Sun Chronicle on Thursday.
But after the perceived injustice of the situation, more than a few people stepped forward and offered to buy Coelho boots, believing he was forced to give them up because of the supposed ethics violation.
One of those people was an Attleboro High School graduate who now lives in California, but keeps up with happenings in his hometown.
A woman contacted The Sun Chronicle and said she started a GoFundMe page online and almost immediately raised $250 for Coelho.
And on Thursday, a representative from the Timberland boot company, headquartered in New Hampshire, contacted The Sun Chronicle and offered to donate a pair of boots to Coelho.
There were others, many others.
One was a woman named Rachael Lentz who also started a GoFundMe page and raised $230.
But Runey, speaking for Coelho, said the custodian, who’s worked at the school for about 25 years, won’t accept any boots or cash for boots.
That left people with money or boots and nowhere to put them.
One of those is Lentz, who called The Sun Chronicle to say she’s being harassed online by people who are accusing her of keeping the cash she raised.
She said it’s gotten so bad she filed a complaint against one woman and is taking her to court over the constant online attacks.
A harassment order was issued at Attleboro District Court, which prohibits the woman, who Lentz did not name, from commenting about her online or coming near her.
Lentz, a 2013 graduate of Attleboro High School, said she wants to make it clear to one and all — she’s not keeping the money.
But because of all the online uproar, anger and hostility she’s endured, she said she plans to donate it to a charitable group that targets cyber-bullying or champions mental health causes.
“My life has been turned upside down by this,” she said. “I want people to know I didn’t pocket the money.”
She said once she selects a charity, she will donate the money and send a copy of the receipt to The Sun Chronicle.
For others, there’s an alternative and perhaps a saving grace and silver lining for the whole sorry situation.
Runey said he’s very grateful to all the generous people who reached out to help and they can still help by donating to the high school’s Blue Pride Pantry in Coelho’s name.
The pantry accepts food, toiletries, school supplies and gently-used clothing which benefit students in need.
For more information about the pantry or to donate or to confidentially seek help from the pantry, send an email to email@example.com.