In the same week the girls came forward, Ebola claimed its first victims in Monrovia. By August 2014, the graph of cases was rising exponentially. West Point became a hot zone with a strict military quarantine.
Meyler flew in with a pile of suitcases filled with medical supplies.
While glacial international organizations were limited by bureaucracy, MTM could jump in and do what seemed necessary. Soap? Rain boots? Funding for hundreds of community workers? Within two weeks of Meyler’s arrival, the school was a coordination hub, and West Point had a working ambulance.
Meyler shared each step of her Ebola journey on Instagram, posting graphic pictures of the dead and the dying, and of herself bearing witness. In an Ebola holding center filled with listless patients, she sang gospel songs, handed out toy guns and promised a dying boy a bicycle.
“I won’t get sick,” she messaged her sister. “If I did, though, it would be worth it. No one else here is doing this. Showing love n dignity in death.”
Warren, now on an MTM contract, followed her with his video camera.
They found a 3-year-old girl in a pink dress crying alone in an ambulance. She had just watched her mother die, seen the corpse slung into a body bag. Meyler took the “sweet pumpkin,” who she believed was called Pearlina, to stay at MTM’s empty guesthouse.
The girl’s image and story soon appeared on MTM’s website and Meyler’s social media. Then Warren sold footage to CBS, but according to an email exchange, the nature of the planned story upset Meyler and her board.
“They are making it a story about the girl Not Mtm,” Warren wrote.
“I think Katie is very upset at how this has been managed,” wrote Skip Borghese. It was a “must” that they include MTM. It was, he wrote, “an MTM act of kindness, and on MTM premises.”
The homepage tab leading to the press release on Johnson’s arrest was replaced by another: “Meet Pearlina.”
Meyler took a handful of other children into MTM’s care. She courted journalists who arrived to cover the epidemic, saying MTM had opened an interim care facility called Hope 21. Meyler and her charity began to appear in stories across the world: Vice, the Independent, Marie Claire, Time, The Washington Post, France 24, CBS, NBC, Vogue, NPR, BBC, PBS, The Wall Street Journal, International Business Times, The New York Times, CNN. Meyler became a face of the outbreak, the crusading American who ran toward danger to save the children.
Representatives from Liberian government departments asked each other: Did anyone sign off on MTM having a care facility?
No one had.
In a heated meeting in late September, Liberian officials grilled Meyler about allegations of widespread rape in the MTM school, about whether her school was accredited and about what steps she had taken to protect children in her care, according to an attendee’s notes. Meyler said that the school “blew the whistle” on the abuse and that some of the girls involved were “sex workers.”
“I just could not get anything correct from what she was saying,” recalled Deddeh Kwekwe, gender-based violence director at the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection.
“I am deeply concerned about the things I see happening and the pattern that is developing,” said a Ministry of Health official, according to the meeting notes. “Don’t employ predators… I have no doubt you want to do good humanitarian services. Maybe this is not your line of business.”
Citing what she described as a “pattern of disregard for laws” and behavior that had “caused mistrust,” the official told Meyler, “If you have any children, they need to be moved today.”
Social media pictures show Meyler crying as the Ministry of Health took away an orphan, who Meyler would say called her “mom.”
“I thought she might get thrown out of the country,” recalled Janessa Wells, an MTM manager at the time.
MTM provided documents showing that in the weeks following the meeting, they gained Ministry of Health clearance to operate in the health sector, and that they were registered as an educational charity when the school opened. The school would be fully accredited the following year. “The Liberian accreditation process is a mess. It is complicated. And we went to great lengths,” Garlick said, noting that the charity had government permission to use the school building. “This notion that we sort of flout the whole need to have legal standing is frankly untrue.”
The Liberian government never accredited the care facility, and MTM attempted to allay its concerns by partnering with a larger international organization. But then, Meyler posted the photo of an Ebola orphan on social media and hashtagged it with the larger charity’s name, according to Wells. They said, “‘That’s a no for us.’ They pulled out. The whole thing collapsed at the end of November.”
While the facility was referenced in MTM’s 2015 annual report, Garlick now says “all communication around Hope 21 in October of 2014 was based on the idea of launching Hope 21,” not that it was “formalized” or “fully functional.”
In a 2017 presentation at her old church in Bedminster, N.J., Meyler described a Liberian government official who “hated me because she was jealous we were doing more.” The official had told her: “Over my dead body, you’re not going to have this house. We’re closing you down.”
Meyler told the congregation, “The team starts, like, praying and fasting that she would get Ebola.” She said, “I’m like, ‘I don’t think that’s right; do what you need to do.’” Meyler’s story concluded: “Unfortunately, she’s not around anymore. We don’t know what — she’s not around anymore. I mean, not to say that the prayer for her to get Ebola was a good thing. I don’t think that was a good thing. But God took care of that.”
ProPublica could not find evidence that any government officials involved had died of Ebola. The charity gave ProPublica an email from an MTM board member, Amanda Kelso, who works at Instagram as global director of community programs and editorial. Kelso noted that Meyler said in the speech she didn’t endorse the prayers. “You can tell from the recording that the audience is laughing,” Kelso wrote, adding that this was “part of her storytelling to the audience.”
In the course of the outbreak, Liberians on MTM’s payroll would transport 262 suspected Ebola patients to get treatment and visit almost 3,000 homes to check on residents’ welfare. Leaving the country in December 2014 with Ebola on the wane, Meyler posted videos of Liberians dancing and singing in the street, holding signs congratulating her for her work.
In America, the press and donors did the same.
That month, Time magazine named Meyler among other Ebola fighters as a Person of the Year. MTM’s funding more than tripled, to $2.9 million that fiscal year, a fifth of it coming from the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development.
In the background, prosecutors were preparing their case against Johnson, but troubling news was filtering through about two key witnesses.
A U.S. legal adviser to the sex crimes prosecution unit recalled meeting with Spada and Meyler. Spada, the complainant in the case, was to be witness No. 1, according to prosecution documents. But she told the adviser she was leaving the organization and Liberia for good. She promised she would return to testify — she would use her own money if necessary.
The adviser told ProPublica he confronted Meyler about something he had heard from his colleagues at the prosecution unit, that Meyler remained in phone contact with Johnson, had visited him in prison and was giving him money and food. The adviser asked: Why was she doing this with the man they were trying to prosecute for raping her students?
“She didn’t want him to die of hunger in jail,” Garlick told ProPublica. “She wanted him to go through the full justice process. And so she was in touch with him. And then, it reached staff and the feedback from staff was, ‘That’s totally inappropriate, you have to stop.’” MTM says Meyler broke off contact with Johnson a couple of weeks after his arrest.
But the meeting with the U.S. adviser took place months later. “I wouldn’t have confronted her if it wasn’t still going on,” the adviser told ProPublica. He remembers telling Meyler she had to break off contact, immediately.