It was the feel-good story of the Christmas season about a feel-bad situation. It was so feel-good, in fact, that it may have been too good to check.
The Knoxville News Sentinel said Wednesday it could not verify a columnist’s account of a Tennessee man who plays Santa Claus and his encounter with a child as he died in his arms.
The sentimental story, published earlier this week, quickly went viral, turning a global spotlight on the man, Eric Schmitt-Matzen, who has played Santa Claus for nine years.
In interviews with The Washington Post, Schmitt-Matzen stuck by his story of being summoned to a nearby hospital to visit a terminally ill 5-year-old whose last wish was to see Santa. He described cradling the unnamed boy as he died last month, telling the child that he was Santa’s “number one elf.” He repeatedly declined to provide corroborating details of his story, in the interest, he said, of protecting medical personnel and the privacy of the child’s family.
In a story posted Wednesday afternoon by News Sentinel Editor Jack McElroy, the paper said it “has done additional investigation in an attempt to independently verify Schmitt-Matzen’s account. This has proven unsuccessful. Although facts about his background have checked out, his story of bringing a gift to a dying child remains unverified. The News Sentinel cannot establish that Schmitt-Matzen’s account is inaccurate, but more importantly, ongoing reporting cannot establish that it is accurate.”
“Therefore,” McElroy wrote, “because the story does not meet the newspaper’s standards of verification, we are no longer standing by the veracity of Schmitt-Matzen’s account.”
The Post also could not corroborate any details of the story, but its reporting also did not disprove what Schmitt-Matzen had told the newspaper in its original story, written by columnist Sam Venable.
Venable, a veteran writer who wrote the story based on an interview with Schmitt-Matzen, did not return multiple requests for comment.
The newspaper’s first story was republished by USA Today and picked up by multiple news outlets Tuesday, including CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and The Washington Post, none of which raised doubts about it. The Post has added an editor’s note to its original story about Schmitt-Matzen that notes that the Knoxville paper no longer stands by it. “As a result The Washington Post no longer stands by this story,” the note reads.
Schmitt-Matzen said he also received inquiries from news outlets around the world.
Venable learned of Schmitt-Matzen’s story through “friends of friends,” Schmitt-Matzen said in an interview with The Post.
One of those people was Ricky Joiner, who said that Schmitt-Matzen called him shortly after the events at the hospital. Joiner told another couple, who in turn contacted the News Sentinel columnist. Joiner said he still believes his friend’s account. “Southern people are pretty heartfelt people,” Joiner said in an interview. “Not all the thing you hear or see on the news is correct, but in this situation, I believe it to be true. Eric is not the type of person who would tell something like this if it wasn’t so.”
In Schmitt-Matzen’s interview with the The Post, he said that he would not disclose additional information about the incident, including the hospital at which he said it occurred and the name of the nurse who contacted him about the boy.
Hospitals near Schmitt-Matzen’s home and workplace in Jacksboro, in suburban Knoxville, said they had no record of the events described in the News Sentinel’s column and accompanying videos.
“We know for certain that it did not happen at our hospital,” said Erica Estep, public-relations manager at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital. She said the hospital checked its mortality data for the entirety of 2016 and had no records of a 5-year-old child.
Jim Ragonese, a public-relations manager at the University of Tennessee Medical Center, said, “I checked with the leaders in the particular intensive unit where we have children, and they confirmed that it did not happen at our facility.”
Jerry Askew, a spokesman for Tennova Healthcare, a network of local hospitals, replied to an inquiry by saying: “If you’re calling about the Santa story, I’m sorry, but it didn’t happen at our hospitals. We’ve received calls from all over the world, but Santa didn’t happen here.”
Schmitt-Matzen, a mechanical engineer who heads his own manufacturing company, was unfazed by skepticism about his tale. He remained emotional about the encounter that he said took place last month, saying in the Post interview that he most vividly remember the child’s “pleading eyes. . . . You know, the little guys, they have a hard time fathoming death. But they know Christmas. They know it’s a lot of fun. He was more upset about missing Christmas than he was about dying. . . . The whole concept of dying just doesn’t sink in, you know. And maybe that’s a good thing. All I could do was make him smile, [make him] happy, as best as I could. All he knew was that he was hurting.”
“If some people want to call me a liar . . . I can handle that better than I can handle a child in my arms dying,” he said. “It’s sticks and stones.”