Leukemia story was a hoax
EAGLE COUNTY – 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, but the Vail Daily learned Saturday that the child was not.
Some local residents closely involved with the story took their suspicious to the Eagle Police Department Friday. 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. The Avon Police Department is assisting in the case. The Vail Daily could not reach Augustenborg Saturday for comment.
The incident began a couple of weeks ago when Augustenborg, a co-worker of Eagle Valley High School football mom Holly Sandoval, shared a story about a little boy she was close to who she said 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,” Sandoval said. “I just wanted this little boy to be happy if these were his final days.”
The team drew inspiration from the story and teammates starting talking about it 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,” Lyles said.
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 Eagle Valley High School parent Debby Beard.
After hearing about the story from school parents, I, the 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 also 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.
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 Eagle Valley High School community. That support reached a zenith on Oct. 26 during the Devils’ football game against 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 Eagle Valley High School 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 crisis prevented them from coming.
At the Palisade game, which was played one day after Alex’s supposed death, the students and parents at Eagle Valley High School 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 myself. After contact with the coroner failed to turn up a death certificate for the boy, we 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,” Beard said.
“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,” Sandoval said. “It shows the integrity of our coaches and the kids behind them and the caring of the community.”
“This story took my heart,” Lyles said. “We are all just good people, when it comes right down to it.”