Burning ambition

Brandon C. Jones-McGeer says that he received his burns as a child in a bathtub inside this housing unit on Ritner Street in South Philadelphia.
Brandon C. Jones-McGeer says that he received his burns as a child in a bathtub inside this housing unit on Ritner Street in South Philadelphia.
Posted: April 23, 2013

IT BEGAN AS a sad tale set in foster care and hospital rooms.

Burned as a 10-year-old in a boiling bathtub in South Philly, Brandon C. Jones-McGeer says his adoptive mother inspired him to transform the pain into something positive while growing up with her in Chestnut Hill.

Today, he goes by His Excellency Brandon C. Jones-McGeer, the Commissioner for Burns and Head of Delegation (at the United Nations, he says). He says he has come to the aid of fire departments, burn victims and impoverished nations. He issues official statements on hurricanes, on firefighters who died in the line of duty and, most recently, on the Boston Marathon bombings.

"The City of Boston Marathon is a time-honored tradition and for this to have happened makes us completely apprehensive about the future and the endurance of humanity," Jones-McGeer wrote, his official seal affixed, last Monday on the Office of the Commissioner for Burns' (OCB) website.

But official seal notwithstanding, an examination of his claims, titles and accolades shows that Jones-McGeer, 30, is not what he appears to be. The Daily News has learned that he was never employed by the United Nations. The UN Department of Public Information said he has been told to "cease and desist" from misrepresenting himself.

Jones-McGeer founded a nonprofit group called the United States Burn Support Organization. On its website, the organization accepts "tax deducible [sic]" donations via PayPal and at a Philadelphia post-office-box address. But the IRS says its nonprofit status expired in May 2010 for failure to file yearly reporting.

A $10.5 billion request

Jones-McGeer has strict policies about being respected, and boasted in an interview of being funded at the UN by the "Russians, the Chinese, the Israelis, the Germans and the Brits." Recently, he proposed a $10.5 billion budget for the coming year, the OCB website says. His official "state dress" includes a uniform made by the "Russian Federation," flags made by Romanians and an official ring given to him by the Vatican.

He said that in his UN capacity, he recently ordered 200 kerosene stoves to be delivered to Haiti.

"It's impossible for people to believe someone like me can have such a job," Jones-McGeer said during the interview at City Hall last month.

Perhaps that's because his story is part mystery, a work of both fiction and nonfiction that's still being written, in which he plays the victim, the hero and, for many, the antagonist.

"I really can't say anything about Brandon," said "Her Excellency, Princess Karen Cantrell," his former "Assistant Commissioner for Protocol & Public Information."

Jones-McGeer requested that he be interviewed at City Hall because his office is "off-limits" to visitors for security reasons, he said.

He displayed dozens of pictures of himself in private planes, in meetings at what appears to be the UN, and posing with dignitaries. He has a photo of himself alongside actor Danny Glover, but none capturing the "couple of times" he claims to have met President Obama and the first lady.

"It's not about being rich and famous, it's not about a status for me," he said. "It's about doing something my mother would have expected of me."

Since the interview, Jones-McGeer has stopped answering emails and returning phone calls from the Daily News.

Jones-McGeer said three people could discuss his work: a woman listed as the deputy commissioner of the OCB, a Philadelphia firefighter listed as chief of staff, and a former bakery owner listed as chairman of the board at U.S. Burn Support. None returned phone calls seeking comment.

Cantrell, who claims to be the seventh great-granddaughter of Benjamin Franklin, said she resigned from the OCB months ago. She declined to elaborate.

And those flags from Romania? Dee Marks of NorthStar Flag and Flag Pole Co. in North Carolina said Jones-McGeer ordered them from her in 2011.

"And I spent the next year bugging the crap out of him, trying to get $3,300," she said.

Marks said she still hasn't been paid. Spokesmen for a bus company and a limo service said they hadn't been paid for services rendered to Jones-McGeer either. And last October, a Georgia-based airline, FlightWorks, won an $88,000 judgment against Jones-McGeer in Philadelphia over four chartered flights he never paid for, the company's attorney said. The judgment was ordered by default because he didn't show up in court.

Harry Timmons, whose Florida company builds emergency-communications systems, said that he haggled over an order with Jones-McGeer for months and that the two had a last-ditch attempt to hash things out at a Penn's Landing hotel last year. Timmons got his equipment back, although he said he inadvertently paid for Jones-McGeer's dry cleaning and never heard from him again.

"I don't think anything he ever told me was true," Timmons said. "He put me on hold one time, because he said he had a call coming in from Hillary Clinton."

Jones-McGeer said he knew nothing about the alleged debts but admitted he's been called a "scam," and said that some people think he burned himself.

"That's the greatest insult you can actually call a burn victim - besides being called a 'crispy critter,' " he said.

A scalding bathtub

In his bio on the U.S. Burn Support website, Jones-McGeer says that an aunt and her boyfriend placed him in a scalding bathtub inside her home on Ritner Street in December 1992, after deliberately turning up the hot-water heater.

"I remember blacking out after the first 6 mins," he writes.

Court records show that the aunt, Emma Oliver, was arrested on charges including aggravated assault, kidnapping and child endangerment.

Unable to become a firefighter because of the burns, Jones-McGeer volunteered in other ways with fire companies in Whitemarsh, Montgomery County.

But he left those departments on bad terms, filing complaints with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission alleging racial discrimination and retaliation. Those departments declined to comment.

In Chester, firefighters said Jones-McGeer showed up last year and ingratiated himself with Fire Commissioner James Johnson. An article in the Chester Spirit weekly newspaper said Jones-McGeer was using an office at the fire department headquarters to do "charitable work."

Firefighters there said that Jones-McGeer obtained thousands of dollars worth of smoke detectors and carbon-monoxide detectors for Chester, but that they had not been paid for and were returned.

"I really don't know what his motives were and what he wanted to accomplish," said Chester fireman John Barbato. "It was all really, really strange."

On July 30, Chester police arrested him for receiving stolen property and possession of a controlled substance for a rental SUV that been reported stolen and painkillers he had in his possession. According to court records, he spent several days in prison.

The charges were dismissed after he produced prescriptions and settled with the car-rental company, a spokeswoman for the Delaware County District Attorney's Office said.

Johnson, whom Jones-McGeer said he considers a "best friend," didn't return phone calls and emails seeking comment.

'Some good things'

The Daily News last spoke with Jones-McGeer on April 3, while he was in a Delaware County hospital under treatment for recurring infections from his scars. He said he'd be hospitalized for two weeks, but an OCB schedule said he was departing for Kenya on April 9.

Jones-McGeer claims to live in Chestnut Hill, where he was raised by his adoptive mother, Jacqueline McGeer. But court records show his current address as a Pennsylvania Corporation for the Aging apartment tower in West Philly, and his name is on the tenant directory in the lobby.

The Overbrook Farms home he has used as a mailing address for the OCB belongs to Marcia Levinson, a professor at Thomas Jefferson University who met him when he was a boy attending Camp Susquehanna, a special camp for burn victims.

Levinson said that she saw Jones-McGeer "do some good things" but that they no longer speak. She declined to say why.

She said she told Jones-McGeer to stop using her address and said his organizations have no affiliation with the camp.

Oddly, Emma Oliver - the aunt who went to jail after he was burned in her bathtub - was more than happy to talk about him.

Oliver said Jones-McGeer was placed in her care by the Department of Human Services because her sister couldn't care for him. She said she wasn't prepared to care for him either, but was responsible for his well-being.

"I do understand that there was some level of mistake made on my part," she said.

But Oliver, 44, said she never put her nephew in the scalding bathtub that day and never heard him call out in pain. He got into the tub on his own, she said. Once she saw what happened to him, Oliver said, she contacted police and was given bad advice. Instead of taking him to the hospital, she said, she naively tried to treat the burns herself.

Oliver pleaded not guilty but was convicted of endangerment and sentenced to five years in prison. She said that her nephew's story is sad, and that his scars run deeper than the flesh.

"I'm glad you're doing a story on him," she said. "He knows what he did."

On Twitter: @JasonNark

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