The community's emotional response surrounding the story of a cancer stricken child who loved the Eagle Valley High School Devils football team was real. The child was not.
Friday some local residents closely involved with the story took their suspicious to the Eagle Police Department. A subsequent investigation showed that claims involving the child were false. The Eagle County Coroner's office has verified there is no death certificate in Colorado associated with the child. The photo of "Alex" has been traced back to a Kids Cancer Crusade website and is identified as Connor Gerber, a South African boy who is still alive.
Briana Augustenborg, 22, of Avon is the focus of the investigation. Eagle Police were able to contact her Saturday but Chief Rodger McLaughlin said the investigation is ongoing and he cannot comment further regarding the case at this time. The Avon Police Department is assisting in the case.
The incident began a couple of weeks ago when Augustenborg, a co-worker of EVHS football mom Holly Sandoval, shared a story about a little boy she was close to who was terminally ill with leukemia. Augustenborg told Sandoval that "Alex" was a huge football fan and he was closely following the Devils as they rolled up victories this fall. Sandoval offered to share the story with her son, who is a member of the team, and get a signed football for the little fan.
"I dragged my son into this and I feel terrible about it," said Sandoval. "I just wanted this little boy to be happy if these were his final days."
The team drew inspiration from the story and members starting talking about to other kids. Facebook messages began popping up on the team's page and parents learned about Alex and his heartbreaking story.
At the recent Fall Festival in Gypsum, KSKE radio was doing a live remote and Augustenborg approached D.J. Jordon Lyles. He was aware of the Alex story because of the Facebook posts and after speaking with Augustenborg, he dedicated songs to Alex during the event.
"It just took my heart," said Lyles.
During the next week, Augustenborg and others continued to make song requests for Alex and the story started spread.
"I fed the story to the media and I feel really guilty about it," said EVHS parent Debby Beard.
After hearing about the story from EVHS parents, Pam Boyd, editor of the Eagle Valley Enterprise, met with Augustenborg on Oct. 23 for an interview. That conversation resulted in an Oct. 25 front-page story about Alex which appeared in the Vail Daily the same day. During the interview, Augustenborg asked that Alex's last name be omitted at the request of his parents. She also requested her own last name be omitted.
What she did not ask for was money.
When asked if she was collecting contributions for the family, Augustenborg said the family did not need money, but they did want people to know Alex's story and they were overwhelmed and comforted by all the support they were receiving from the EVHS community. That support reached a zenith on Oct. 26 during the EVHS football game versus Palisade. Augustenborg said it was Alex's final wish to attend that game, but on Oct. 25 she announced via Facebook that Alex had died.
In retrospect, that was the pattern with the Alex story. He was supposed to be at the EVHS vs. Battle Mountain High School game but Augustenborg canceled at the last minute when he "suffered a seizure." She scheduled meetings with local people and Alex's parents, but at the last minute a medical crisises prevented them from coming.
At the Palisade game, which was played one day after Alex's "death" the students and parents at EVHS wore orange in memory of the boy. The football team sported specially purchased orange socks. The cheerleaders had orange shirts on and at half-time, the dance team spelled out "Alex" with their pompoms.
Last week, Augustenborg submitted an obituary for "Alexander Jordon" and kept up Facebook postings on his page. As of Saturday morning her Alexander Jordon page had nearly 1,000 likes. But her obsessive behavior became a concern for staff at KSKE and they brought those concerns to Sandoval, Beard and Boyd. After contact with the coroner failed to turn up a death certificate for the boy, the group contacted police.
As the people most closely involved in the story look back on the events surrounding the Alex hoax, they all spoke about how guilty they feel for their roles in perpetuating the falsehood. They also speak about how proud they feel about the way the community rose up to support a child in an effort to make his final days happy ones.
"This story just shows the best of human nature and the worst of human nature," said Holli Synder, general manager of NRC Broadcasting, parent company of KSKE.
"I want to tell the kids and the community we are really proud of the way they stepped up and responded," said Beard.
"I does show the caring of the kids and community. I went to the kids and asked them to sign a football and all of this happened," said Sandoval. "It shows the integrity of our coaches and the kids behind them and the caring of the community."
"This story took my heart," said Lyles. "We are all just good people, when it comes right down to it."
I have let this community down and I am so very sorry.
Here's the basic premise - you should be able to trust what you read in the Eagle Valley Enterprise and the Vail Daily. When we ran the story titled "Littlest Devil has the biggest heart" people read it and believed it. It was a fake and I owe everyone who was duped a personal apology.
I am going to lay out how I helped to perpetuate this whole hoax, but I want to make it clear that I am not offering excuses. The bottom line is I acted from the heart and that's not what you need from a newspaper reporter. You need a reporter to act professionally. Obviously I failed.
A couple of weeks ago I got a message from a good friend who told me an amazing story of how the EVHS football team had adopted a little boy who had cancer. She talked about how the players were standing up to support this little boy and how heartwarming it was to watch them as they took this suffering terminally ill child into their fold.
I live in this community and I know those EVHS boys. I have literally known some of them all of their lives. They are a great group and the story warmed my heart. I agreed to meet with Briana Augustenborg for an interview about "Alex."
I met a composed and articulate Augustenborg at a coffehouse in Eagle where she laid out the story of a suffering Denver family who had moved to Cordillera so their son could spend his final days in the mountains. She talked at length about how Alex loved the EVHS Devils and how he was inspired by them to keep fighting. I had no trouble believing the team could inspire someone. Considering the remarkable turnaround they accomplished this year, I was inspired by them.
Augustenborg's story was heart wrenching, but I did see a couple of red flags. First, she wasn't the child's parent. But I have, in the past, dealt with scenarios when a family is so devastated by a loss or a crisis that a liaison speaks for them. The idea that parents could be consumed with their dying 9-year-old's needs seemed plausible.
My second red flag was money. But Augustenborg was clear that she didn't want any. She said the family just wanted to share the story and that they found so much comfort in the support they were receiving. Looking back, that was the moment the hook set. I came into the interview with concerns that this story could be a financial fraud. I was prepared to protect people's money, but not their hearts.
(As an aside, if anyone has given Augustenborg money, call the Eagle Police at 970-328-6351 to report it. There are criminal implications they would like to explore in this case.)
There was also an element of urgency associated with the tale. The child was supposedly dying and everyone wanted to do what they could for him before it was too late. So I went with the story and thus gave it credibility. People read it and believed it. As the days progressed I got more and more uneasy. There was no way that a 9-year-old could have written the Facebook posts attributed to him and after the "death," Augustenborg seemed to be determined to keep the story alive.
As I look back, I keep coming back to the question I asked myself from the beginning. "They don't want any money, and who would make up a story like this?"
I have a name but not an answer.
Again, I am so very sorry to everyone in the community who trusted me to tell them the truth. I know better and I should have been more responsible. To quote the late Ronald Reagan, the standard is to "trust but verify."
And while I am very ashamed of myself for the part I played in this deception, I am very proud of everyone who stood up for a little boy who they believed needed them. It was an example of all that is best in our community.
This week, a friend sent me this message and it's what I want to say in closing to everyone in the community and particularly to the kids at EVHS:
"How people treat you is their karma; how you react is yours."
A lot of great karma was generated by a bunch of very big-hearted people this week. Be proud of that.
- Pam Boyd