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An Open Letter to the Pelotonia Community from Doug Ulman

The Rider

An Open Letter to the Pelotonia Community from Doug Ulman

Dear Friends,

As we head into our 11th Ride Weekend, I want to take a moment to address a really difficult situation involving one of our former riders. As some of you may know, this week the Ohio Attorney General announced a settlement in the case of John Looker. We referred this situation to the Attorney General’s office in 2018 and now that this case is closed, we can say the things we haven’t been able to until now.

John was at one time a beloved member of the Pelotonia community. In Pelotonia’s earliest days, he told people he was fighting brain cancer and this new organization had absolutely no reason to disbelieve him then. He invested fully in an elaborate persona that fooled all of us for years, including his friends, medical professionals, the media and those closest to him. He would get sick on training rides and attribute it to side effects of chemotherapy. He would ask friends to drive him to treatment appointments. When someone was newly diagnosed, he would reach out to them and share his story. And through it all, he appeared to have a positive outlook which inspired those around him. Doctors at The James were moved by his story. The Columbus Dispatch wrote about him several times. He even worked for an unrelated cancer nonprofit in Columbus. And in 2011, Pelotonia featured John in a video that was shown at the opening ceremony, as we often do with members of our community who are willing to share their stories.

In fact, in 2015, a few months after moving to Columbus, my wife told me about a video that she had seen during her employee orientation at The James. She mentioned how powerful the message was as it highlighted an individual who had a brain tumor. It was the video of John and it caused me to go watch the video myself soon after.

Several weeks later, my colleagues and I were notified about a few comments related to John that were posted on Facebook. The posts referred to situations of individuals faking illnesses, linked to articles on this topic, and they were made by members of our community. During that same time period, two community members approached Pelotonia and shared with then-COO Kelley Griesmer that they did not believe John’s claims regarding his most recent cancer diagnosis and related treatments. Though they did not present any factual evidence, they had strong suspicions.

Our team was bewildered by the possibility that John had lied about his cancer diagnosis. For anyone who has had cancer or watched a loved one battle it, the idea that any person would lie about having this awful disease seemed outrageous. So, with nothing but rumors, we turned to our Board of Directors and legal counsel for guidance on how to proceed in this unusual situation.

We weighed all the factors in consultation with legal counsel and our Board, including the potential for legal action or a community reaction against Pelotonia if we confronted an actual cancer patient with a rumor that proved to be false. Due to HIPAA laws, there was no way to independently verify that he was not telling the truth. Out of an abundance of caution, however, we discontinued the use of the video featuring John and we removed it from our website.

In 2018 the situation changed dramatically. A few people closest to John shared with Pelotonia that they had suspected for some time that he was lying. They also believed he had kept funds intended for Pelotonia, about $1,000 in cash raised in a garage sale in 2016. They shared with us their plans to confront him and then reported back that John admitted his cancer story was a sham. They expressed their shock and betrayal, feelings that were mutual with ours.

We got in touch with the Ohio Attorney General’s office right away and made them aware of the alleged theft and deception. They pursued the complaint and thoroughly investigated the matter over the past year.

Under the terms of the settlement with the state, John has to repay the money he kept, as well as a $2,000 civil fine. He cannot hold a position or fundraise with any charities in Ohio. No charges are being filed against him, but we now know definitively that he practiced a deception so thorough he deceived an entire community for years.

There are still feelings of deep disappointment and a sense of betrayal over John’s deception. And a few members of our community believe we should have done more, something that pains the organization and me personally. As a leader, I always strive to ensure that everything we do is transparent, driven by integrity and in the best interest of our community. I truly believe that we did the best we could with the information available to us at the time.

Fraudulent behavior is sickening and we can never stand for it. We want to reassure the community we will do everything we can to prevent something like this from happening again. Now, before survivors are featured in any way by Pelotonia, they sign a release guaranteeing that their statements are true. We also continue to work closely with our partners at The James, who – with patients’ permission – will refer them to us as potential stories to highlight. And we’re evaluating additional steps to take that are respectful and appropriate but enhance our confidence we’re being told the truth.

As we prepare for thousands of people to come together in Columbus this weekend to celebrate the Pelotonia community’s collective efforts, we have so much to be grateful for. And so very much to look forward to. Including the newly announced creation of The Pelotonia Institute for Immuno-Oncology – through a pledge of $102,265,000 – which will significantly advance one of the most promising areas of cancer research while providing hope to so many individuals and families.

Personally, as I prepare to celebrate 23 years of cancer survivorship this August, I am humbled to ride alongside you and so many fearless advocates in our community who continue to inspire our daily work.

I look forward to thanking you in person this weekend for all that you do as we celebrate our next decade of impact together.

One Goal,

Doug