In one family photo, the pretty girl in a pink dress sits on the shoulders of her father, Matthew Harkenrider.
In another photo, the girl is in a high chair waiting for her father to feed her.
Natalie Harkenrider was always part of her father’s life until his untimely death in Fresno last summer when a motorist high on drugs plowed into his car.
Harkenrider’s death at age 26 has put his 8-year-old daughter in the middle of an ugly family fight that has spawned two court battles and pits her mother, Brittany McCracken, against Matthew Harkenrider’s pregnant widow, Megan Harkenrider.
In a small-claims lawsuit, Brittany McCracken contends Megan Harkenrider has never shared any money from a memorial fund in Matthew Harkenrider’s honor, even though the fund says it was meant for his family. The fund has received more than $20,000, but Natalie hasn’t received a penny, McCracken said.
“This isn’t about me. It’s about my daughter,” McCracken said. “Matt was a big part of her life. He would have wanted her to have the money for her college.”
Megan Harkenrider’s attorney, Terri Lynn McCracken (no relation to Brittany), says her client is committed to establishing a trust fund for Natalie, but not just yet. “At this time, Megan’s main priority and focus is healing and delivering her unborn child,” McCracken said.
Matthew’s life cut short
Matthew Harkenrider grew up in Oakhurst and was a star baseball catcher and football quarterback at Yosemite High School, graduating in 2007. He married in March 2013 and recently moved his family into a new home in Clovis.
Police say he was on his way to work at Community Regional Medical Center in downtown Fresno, where he was a radiology technologist, when Roberta Soto, driving a stolen car, ran a red light and plowed into his car at Herndon Avenue and Fresno Street on Aug. 14. He died at the scene. Six people, including Soto, were injured in the crash after the two vehicles careened into three others at the intersection, police said.
In December, Soto, 46, pleaded no contest to felony gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, driving under the influence while causing injury, auto theft, drug possession and driving without a license. Thursday, she was sentenced in Fresno County Superior Court to 13 years in prison.
Brittany McCracken said she and Harkenrider began dating in her sophomore year at Yosemite High. They were together when their daughter was born in January 2007. But two years later they broke up.
Court records say Megan Harkenrider, whose maiden name is Little, began dating Matthew Harkenrider in October 2010. She moved in with him in 2012 and they married in March 2013.
Both McCracken, 25, and Megan Harkenrider, 26, work in the medical field. Court records indicate Megan Harkenrider is due to deliver her baby in April.
When Matthew Harkenrider was alive, Natalie split her time between her parents. But after his death, the uneasy peace between McCracken and Megan Harkenrider ended, and their mutual dislike intensified. Megan Harkenrider served McCracken with court papers just two weeks after Matthew Harkenrider’s death, seeking visitation rights to Natalie.
“It came out of the blue,” McCracken said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
McCracken said she was left in the dark at other times. She said she learned of a candlelight vigil for Matthew Harkenrider while watching television news of his death, and that Megan Harkenrider never included the girl in funeral arrangements or invited them to the private burial.
“This was her father. She wanted to be there,” McCracken said.
The girl, however, did attend her father’s memorial service at Hope Lutheran Church in Fresno; McCracken said she learned of it through social media.
McCracken said Matthew Harkenrider was a good father to his daughter, sharing custody and providing financial support. He also would take her to school and to school events, and help pay for her medical insurance, she said. A family photograph shows Natalie smiling at her father’s wedding.
But relations between McCracken and Megan Harkenrider remained chilly. McCracken recalled that on the day Matthew Harkenrider died, his wife demanded that Natalie be brought over to the house. When McCracken took her over, she was told to wait outside, she said.
Community pitches in
After Harkenrider’s death, McCracken said it was heartwarming to see the community come together to donate money to help his family. A story in The Bee said Capo’s restaurant at Park Place shopping center in north Fresno promised to donate 20% of its sales on Aug. 26 to Harkenrider’s daughter and pregnant widow.
But McCracken said Natalie never received any money from the event.
Another fundraiser, called Mamas for Megan and Matthew, through gofundme.com, also is in dispute. That fundraiser raised over $19,000.
“Matthew leaves behind a beautiful 7-year-old daughter and his wife Megan who is expecting the newly married couple’s first child together,” the gofundme.com website says. “Megan sadly has lost the love of her life, so today we ask that you join us in lifting this family up in prayer and love and to please donate even a small amount to help Matthew’s family heal from their loss.”
Court records say Megan Harkenrider had asked for Natalie’s Social Security number so she could set up a trust fund for the child, but McCracken declined to give it to her, saying she already has a trust account set up for her daughter.
The legal fight
When Megan Harkenrider refused to give Natalie her share of the donated funds, McCracken sued Harkenrider in small-claims court.
According to McCracken, Megan Harkenrider allegedly told the judge that she was more concerned with paying her mortgage and bills than immediately contributing to Natalie’s college fund. “She told the judge Natalie could wait since she was 10 years from going to college,” McCracken said.
According to court documents, Jo Bloom set up the gofundme.com account and wrote a declaration on Megan Harkenrider’s behalf. “The funds I collected through said account were not meant for any individual other than Megan Harkenrider and her unborn child,” her declaration says.
On Jan. 15, Clovis attorney Judy Wise, who was acting as judge pro tem in the small claims case, ruled against McCracken. But the hard feelings between the two women continued, mainly because of Megan Harkenrider’s motion to seek visitation rights to the girl.
In court documents, Megan Harkenrider said she had a close relationship with the child, who spent 2 ½ days each week and every other weekend with her father. Megan Harkenrider contends she helped the girl with her homework and taught her how to prepare meals and bake. Natalie also has her own bedroom at the Harkenrider household, and Megan Harkenrider’s parents, Terri and Eric Little, as well as other family members, had become emotionally attached to the girl, she said.
“Our home life revolved around Natalie,” Megan Harkenrider said in court documents. “Termination of said relationship will be detrimental to (her) emotional well-being.”
In court papers, Megan Harkenrider accused McCracken of taking “a harsh and unreasonable position by writing off all contact with myself and my family.” She said, “Matthew would never condone the actions that have occurred after his passing” and he would want his daughter to have a relationship with her stepmother and family.
But McCracken said that once Matthew Harkenrider died, his daughter no longer wanted to spend time with her stepmother. She also said Matthew Harkenrider also would not approve of his wife shortchanging his daughter. “Matt wanted Natalie to go to college,” she said.
In late February, Megan Harkenrider gave up her quest to get visitation rights, court records say.
But the disagreement over money remains.
Megan Harkenrider’s attorney, Terri McCracken, said that she “continues to be concerned about the long-term emotional and financial security of her stepdaughter.”
However, Natalie won’t be receiving any of the donations, the attorney said, because the funds are for Megan Harkenrider to help her “deal with the loss of her husband and half of their household income and an undetermined leave of absence from work.”
Brittany McCracken bristled at thought that her daughter was left out of the donations. She said her legal fight with Megan Harkenrider was a matter of principle. She’s now pursuing donations on her daughter’s behalf through her own gofundme.com account.