Officials in Stamford, Conn., are struggling with how to handle what appears to be a military hoax, after a mysterious woman phoned a local volunteer fire department announcing that her son had died while serving in Iraq.
The Glenbrook Volunteer Fire Department received the call on Nov. 29 from a tearful woman claiming to be the mother of a former volunteer, who said, "Gabe is dead."
The fire department unfurled its mourning bunting and identified the man as Gabriel Costello, making an announcement on its Internet system that the U.S. Ranger had died serving in Iraq. The news soon spread, first to an online scanner site, ScanCT.com, and then the media.
But there was one problem.
The U.S. Army had no record of a Gabriel Costello in its ranks, let alone in Iraq, and no one died on the date in question.
"What seemed odd about the whole thing is this: No one by that name was killed, and if a person or a service member is killed it is never a phone call," Lt. Col. John Whitford, a spokesman for the Connecticut National Guard said.
Whitford said that when servicemen die in action, their deaths are reported to a regional casualty assistance center that then contacts the local military installation, which is responsible for sending a uniformed soldier to notify the family.
After local media reported on the mystery, the fire department said they'd mixed up the last name with that of another former firefighter named Gabe.
The Army Human Resources Command was able to locate Spc. Gabriel Maldonado, 26, alive and well and serving in Iraq, with his Fort Stewart, Ga.-based unit.
And though that cleared up the mystery of the missing soldier, it did little to explain the tearful phone call the department received.
Maldonado's mother was contacted by the Army Human Resources Command and denied making the call.
"She had no idea," said Shari Lawrence, deputy public affairs officer for Army Human Resources Command. "She had not made that phone call."
It's up to the fire department to decide whether to launch an investigation, military officials said. Glenbrook Fire Chief Frank Passero did not return repeated phone calls for comment, but he did speak to local FOX affiliate WTIC-TV when "Gabriel Costello" was still unaccounted for.
"I could live with the mistake if the man's alive and doing fine," he said. "I'd be quite happy."
Military officials aren't smiling.
"In something like this, there is no room for mistake," Whitford said.
The Stamford Police Department is not investigating, according to public information officer Lt. Sean Cooney.
"We have received no complaint from anyone who feels they were victimized by any criminal action," he said.
In 2004, a Waterbury, Conn., man did falsely claim he received a phone call telling him his soldier wife had died in Iraq. He faced charges of filing a false report, Whitford said.
"It's really going to be up to the fire department on how they want to handle it and where they go from here," Lawrence said. "The good news is he's alive and well and serving in theater and he's right where he's supposed to be and he's OK, much to the relief of his family and us.
"It's horrific when people do things like this," Lawrence added. "Families are under enough stress and strain. They don't need this."