The well-known Keenan family of Rockland County saw their world crumble after husband and father Billy Keenan was paralyzed following an accident in 2013. The situation went from bad to worse after a series of fundraisers in the Irish American community led to charges of financial wrongdoing, and a nasty divorce. Debbie McGoldrick reports.
A bitter dispute over hundreds of thousands of dollars raised through a series of fundraisers for Billy Keenan, a popular Irish American musician, teacher and U.S. Army veteran who became disabled after a freak surfing accident in 2013, has shattered his 18-year marriage and prompted accusations of theft and deceit on both sides.
Keenan, a resident of Rockland County, NY and a well-known musician who supplemented his high school teacher’s salary with Irish music gigs for many years, was catastrophically injured in a surfing accident on the Jersey Shore in September of 2013. The accident severed Keenan's spinal cord and left him unable to use his hands or legs. The Irish music community quickly rallied around him and his family, including his wife Noreen Martin Keenan, and their two sons, Patrick and Kieran.
A support network called KeenanStrong was launched by family members and friends eager to help with Billy’s massive medical costs, and three fundraisers were organized in May of 2014 featuring entertainment from a host of Irish bands.
Raffles and silent auction prizes up for grabs included a stay at a golf resort in Nicaragua, a trip to Ireland, concert tickets and sports memorabilia.
However, the exact amount of money raised from the KeenanStrong efforts, who exactly was/is in charge of disbursements, and why KeenanStrong never convened a committee meeting after the events to inform members of how much was raised and how it would be spent, has caused deep friction between Billy and Noreen Keenan and their respective families in the two years since the fundraisers took place, and shock among supporters of the fundraising efforts.
Now in the middle of an acrimonious divorce, Billy and Noreen Keenan communicate these days only in relation to their two teenage sons. Billy Keenan, in a lengthy interview with the Irish Voice, alleges that he has never been given a proper accounting of the funds raised on his behalf in 2014 – he believes the total hovers around the $1 million mark – and that his wife’s family conspired to use the money for purposes other than his care.
“Here’s what I’m saying – 99 cents out of every dollar contributed was cash, so it’s hard to account for. I have asked my wife to tell me. I have asked why no committee meeting was called after the fundraisers so a proper accounting could be provided,” Keenan, 49, told the Irish Voice.
“All I want is for the money that was raised on my behalf, specifically for my medical care, to be made available to me. And it hasn’t been. And I desperately need it.”
Keenan’s sister-in-law Geraldine Geoghegan, Noreen’s sister and one of the organizers of the fundraising efforts, flatly denies that Keenan has been kept out of the loop, and says that he’s had full access to the funds raised via the three May, 2014 events – $245,347 after expenses, and a further net of $44,525 from a PayPal account on the KeenanStrong website.
“Billy’s name was on all of the accounts and he cleared them out,” Geoghegan told the Irish Voice.
“We are completely stunned and horrified by Billy’s continued attacks on my sister and my family. At no time did we ever, ever take a dime, and he knows this.
“How could we possibly do that and think we could get away with it? I have no idea what is motivating him to act the way he is.”
Billy Keenan is a proud Irish American who lived a life centered around his family, his love of Irish music and his job as a history teacher at North Rockland High School, not far from the home that he and Noreen created with their two sons in the town of New City.
Born in the Bronx with roots in Co. Leitrim, Keenan is a graduate of Fordham University. After he left college he served as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
He has been an avid Irish musician since childhood. He played guitar, tin whistle and also sang and composed music; he was the lead vocalist with the well-known Prime Time Showband for many years and the lead musician with the Summerwind Band.
September 14, 2013 changed everything. Keenan, a physical fitness buff, attended the Jersey Shore Irish Festival in Sea Girt and decided to take to the ocean with his surfboard. The rest of the story is chilling.
“I was going down the Jersey Shore for the perfect late summer day to surf and then see my good friends in Celtic Cross, who were playing the Irish festival down there,” Keenan told Irish Voice music columnist Mike Farragher in April of 2014.
“My wife Noreen took the kids and went on the boardwalk and I took to the waves. Then this happened, and everything faded to black. I have no recollection, which is a tender mercy.
“I woke up 16 days later to this most grim reality. My arms and legs were useless to me and I was breathing on a ventilator. It’s hard to tell you what that was like; it was just pure and utter devastation.”
Rehab at a facility in Liberty, NY 75 miles from the Keenan home followed, until he was able to move to the Helen Hayes Hospital in West Haverstraw closer to his residence. The mental anguish was just as daunting to cope with as the physical.
“There are days where I count my losses, and those days are hard. Now, I choose to count the blessings that I am alive,” Keenan told Farragher.
Noreen Keenan’s family, the Martins – her father Jimmy owned a motel and bar in upstate East Durham where many Irish bands played – were rocks who were ready to help given the scope of the tragedy. Noreen’s parents moved into her home to care for the children while she spent her days supporting her husband in rehab.
Noreen, a registered nurse who put her career on hold to care for her husband, described the family’s vast support network as an “army of angels” when she spoke to Farragher in 2014.
In the months after his injury Keenan wasn’t sure if he would be able to return to North Rockland High School to resume his career as a history teacher, but his colleagues at the school banded together to contribute their vacation/sick days on his behalf which allowed him to receive full pay and benefits for a year after the accident.
Miraculously, Keenan returned to his classroom for the 2015-’16 school year. His triumph was featured on LoHud.com and the local News 12 station, and his colleagues were thrilled to have him back.
"When we would visit him, see him on a breathing tube and hear him say, 'I'm coming back,' we weren't so sure. But then it started to become a reality," North Rockland schools superintendent Ileana Eckert told LoHud in June. "The whole community was just so happy upon his return. He's like our miracle baby."
But as things were returning to normal with Keenan’s professional life, his personal life was unraveling, with money at the root of the festering problem.
Keenan is unable to care for himself and requires 24-hour assistance. The medical bills and other expenses – some covered by insurance; others not – quickly piled up.
His Irish music friends, together with members of the Keenan and Martin families, were more than happy to spring into action, given the pressing nature of Billy and Noreen’s predicament. A number of efforts were coordinated on the Keenan family’s behalf, including the recording of a CD, "Believe," featuring nine old tracks with Keenan and two from his wide array of musician friends – a who’s who among the local Irish community including Padraig Allen and the McLean Avenue Band, Celtic Cross, Andy Cooney, Walter Ensor, the Narrowbacks, Jameson’s Revenge and Shilelagh Law. The CD remains for sale on KeenanStrong.org for $25.
The centerpiece of the fundraising activities was set for the first weekend of May 2014, when three separate events were scheduled at the Irish American Center in Mineola on Long Island, Rory Dolan’s in Yonkers, NY and the German Masonic Park in Tappan, NY.
A committee was assembled, with Mike Garvey, an executive at the Greater Hudson Bank and a close friend of Billy and Noreen Keenan, assigned as the leader.
From this point on, the Keenan and Martin families offer drastically different versions of events. Billy Keenan, with the backing of his brothers Jimmy and John, alleges that the Martin family commandeered the financial aspects of the events, nudged Garvey out of the way, and withheld funds from Billy that were raised in his name from the thousands of people who turned out to show support.
When going through the accounting (from his perspective) with the Irish Voice on Monday, Keenan says he was able to access roughly $100,000 from a Greater Hudson account, most of the PayPal funds (approximately $50,000), and a further $64,000 which paid for a wheelchair, handicap vehicle and the modification of his home to accommodate his disability.
“The money raised should have gone into a special needs trust for me. That didn’t happen. I don’t know where the money went after it left the German Masonic Park. There have never been proper accounting procedures in place,” Keenan said.
Keenan alleges that his wife eventually “stepped away” from his care once he became insistent on learning more about where the fundraising proceeds wound up. He acknowledges that his life-changing injury was difficult for the family to deal with – “absolutely, I’m sure that it was,” he said – but the “cruelty” he had to deal with on top of his injury was inhumane.
“Noreen said the money raised was for our children, and that she’d burn it before giving it to me for my care,” Keenan alleges.
He says that one of the reasons why he made it his mission to return to work was his hope that his renewed employment might ease tensions at home. That proved not to be the case.
“She said she wanted the deed to the two houses we own in case I needed to be put into a nursing home. I said no. Her family wrote me off as being a financial drain. They thought I’d never work again,” Keenan says.
The marital discord and the lack of an explanation over the fundraising efforts prompted Keenan to file for divorce last year, he says. Included among his filing are affidavits from two supporters, musicians Ken Vesey and Pat Dineen, both of which allege that Geraldine Geoghegan told them that more than $700,000 “and counting” was raised from the May 2014 events.
“Where is that money?” Keenan asks. “This week I found out that my insurance will not cover part of my 24 hour care. The money would sure come in handy for me to survive.”
Geraldine Martin Geoghegan, Noreen Martin Keenan’s sister and one of the KeenanStrong organizers, spoke at length with the Irish Voice on Monday afternoon. She said her family is “horrified” by the ongoing campaign against them waged by Billy Keenan and his family.
And “most importantly,” she added, Keenan was informed at all stages about the funds raised on his behalf. She says that contrary to Keenan’s belief, she was never the point person in charge of coordinating the KeenanStrong accounts.
“That’s news to me,” she said when asked if she was in charge of handling the finances. “Billy and my sister are going through a nasty divorce. He is pointing a finger in my direction, but we have been nothing but supportive of him.”
Geoghegan provided the Irish Voice with a number of financial documents related to the fundraisers, including a summary of accounts which she says shows Keenan’s withdrawals from numerous bank accounts in his name, and a PowerPoint presentation providing detail on all the funds raised – $22,670 from the event at the Irish American Center in Mineola on May 3, $30,000 from Rory Dolan’s in Yonkers on the same date, and $181,323 for the concert at the German Masonic in Tappan on May 4.
As for Keenan and his supporters’ claims that close to $1 million was raised, and that Geoghegan told them so?
“There’s just no way, no way at all,” she says. “Billy and his family know exactly what was raised. They’ve had access to the accounts.”
Mike Garvey, the Greater Hudson Bank executive, was the true chairman of KeenanStrong, Geoghegan says, and as such had the responsibility of calling the committee members together after the fundraisers for a round-up. She provided the Irish Voice with an email sent by Garvey on May 3, 2014 to the volunteers and some of the musicians in which he said he was “looking forward to hosting a ‘volunteer gathering’ at my home in the near future with Billy in attendance of course!” Such a gathering has never taken place.
Geoghegan acknowledges that the Keenan and Martin families were not close, a tension that existed before the fundraisers. She also says that for the German Masonic event, the largest by far with $181,323 raised, there were 16 counters handling the money and cross-referencing the accounting.
“Some of these people were Billy’s friends,” Geoghegan said. “So how on earth would I or my family be able to take money? It defies belief.
“I work full time. I have kids. Our family did everything we could to help Noreen and Billy. What he’s saying and doing now is just shocking to us.”
Billy, Geoghegan said, is “a great dad,” but her sister Noreen was equally vital to the family equation.
“My sister drove the 75 miles each way, every day when Billy was rehabbing in Liberty. Maybe she missed one day. Everything has taken a toll on her. Her weight dropped. She’s done everything. The allegations Billy has made of neglect on her part are also totally unfounded,” Geoghegan said.
“I have no clue what’s going on in Billy’s mind. He’s going after Noreen and our entire family. But in his [divorce] depositions he says he knew exactly what was going on with the finances.”
Noreen’s response to the divorce action also includes several affidavits from friends of both Billy and her who worked on the fundraisers, swearing that no money was ever diverted, and that Billy was “extremely frustrated” with one of his brothers.
The bad blood shows no sign of abating. Without elaborating, Keenan told the Irish Voice that “investigators” are “looking into the fundraisers.”
A website posting by the Keenan brothers in December of last year, together with a YouTube video that’s garnered nearly 8,000 views, stated, “Unfortunately, while Billy has made unbelievable progress, there has been a terrible situation developing in another area. This will come as a shock and sickening blow to many of you, but incredibly, Billy has been denied access to the funds that were raised for him by people close to him. These individuals have completely monopolized the funds raised, and repeated inquiries by Billy as to the location of the funds and amounts raised have been met with stonewalling, and in some cases outright hostility and threats.”
Geoghegan says her family is sick and tired of being vilified by the Keenans, “and we’re not going to tolerate it any more.”
Billy and Noreen’s boys are being cared for as best as possible. Patrick, 16, is autistic and lives with his mom; Kieran, 14, resides with his father.
The only public response from Noreen Keenan about the rift that has split her family apart came via her brother Stephen’s Facebook page. She posted a note last December which said in part, “Please know that Billy’s claim that the money you all donated so generously has not been kept from him. He has never been abused or threatened … I know he feels helpless, and that he is frustrated with his predicament. We all feel terribly saddened that this vibrant man has suffered such a devastating injury.
“It is true that he initiated divorce proceedings, but that is the only true thing in his video statement. I fear that Billy is being poorly advised by his brothers and his counsel, as he has chosen to make this as unnecessarily nasty and underhanded as possible in order to gain an advantage in litigation. It only saddens me more to think that he could believe I and my family would ever treat him in the way he accuses.
“Billy has been my husband for 18 years, and I have loved him the entire time. Our children are the real victims here, as they have unfortunately become privy to these baseless lies.
“Billy is currently in possession and control of all of the funds that were in the donation bank accounts. Rest assured that I am fully cooperating with all requests to ‘account’ for all funds raised, including cash, to the extent possible. No funds were stolen – I cannot stress this enough. This claim is a delusion, fueled, I believe, by third parties with selfish motives.”
Multiple sources involved in the many fundraising/benefit efforts that occur in New York’s Irish community have told the Irish Voice that they are shocked at the turn of events and deeply saddened for the Keenan and Martin families – and will think twice about getting involved in future fundraisers unless precise, verifiable accounting safeguards are firmly in place.