Story of 5-year-old boy dying in arms of Santa Claus actor can’t be verified

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The story of a terminally ill 5-year-old boy dying in the arms of a Tennessee Santa Claus actor that went viral this week cannot be verified, the Knoxville News Sentinel, which published the original story, said Wednesday.

The story of 60-year-old Eric Schmitt-Matzen quickly picked up steam. He told the News Sentinel that he received a phone call from a nurse at a local hospital who said the child wanted to see Santa Claus for the last time.

Schmitt-Matzen happily agreed. When he got to the intensive care unit, Schmitt-Matzen told writer Sam Venable that the boy was lying down in his bed, frail and sick.

“I sat down on his bed and asked, ‘Say, what’s this I hear about you’re gonna miss Christmas? There’s no way you can miss Christmas! Why, you’re my No. 1 elf!” Schmitt-Matzen wrote.

The boy hugged Schmitt-Matzen and asked him several quick questions.

“They say I’m going to die. How can I tell when I get to where I’m going?” the boy asked.

Schmitt-Matzen then told the boy that when he got there to say he was Santa’s No. 1 elf and he’d be let in.

Near the end of the visit, the boy asked one last question: “Santa, can you help me?” according to the News Sentinel article.

“I wrapped my arms around him. Before I could say anything, he died right there. I let him stay, just kept hugging and holding on to him.”

On Wednesday, News Sentinel editor Jack McElroy and Venable wrote that after the story went viral, follow-up interviews with other outlets showed Schmitt-Matzen describing the story the same way he did originally.

But Schmitt-Matzen said he promised to protect the identities of the child’s family and the nurse who called him. He has continued that stance.

“Since publication, the News Sentinel has done additional investigation in an attempt to independently verify Schmitt-Matzen’s account. This has proven unsuccessful,” McElroy and Venable wrote.

“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, 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.”

Fact-checking website Snopes also dug into the story to try to verify it but has been unable to do so.

“We contacted several hospitals in Knoxville for comment,” Snopes wrote on its website. “Both the East Tennessee Children’s Hospital and the University of Tennessee Medical Center confirmed that a visit like the one Schmitt-Matzen described did not occur at their respective facilities.

“It is unclear whether a scenario like the one Schmitt-Matzen described constitutes privacy violations for the patient and his family under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. We contacted both the Tennessee Department of Health and the federal Department of Health and Human Services seeking comment.

“Since Schmitt-Matzen has reiterated his account of the visit, we cannot say with absolute certainty that it didn’t happen — nor do we want to have to say it. But it’s also impossible to say that it did, because of an apparent lack of vetting of his claims by the multiple media outlets that ran with the story without following up on Venable’s initial reporting or finding a second source for the claim.”

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