It's the one story everyone wants to be a hoax.
A Tennessee newspaper that reported a boy died on Santa's lap -- complete with a heart-wrenching account of his final words -- said Wednesday it could no longer vouch for the veracity of the depressingly Dickensian Christmas story.
The News Sentinel published a story Sunday about a Campbell County Santa Claus actor, Eric Schmitt-Matzen, who said a terminally ill child had died in his arms. The story quickly went viral, with dozens of local and national news outlets interviewing Schmitt-Matzen about his emotional encounter with the unnamed 5-year-old boy.
But the paper said it cannot verify the account by Schmitt-Matzen, a 60-year-old mechanical engineer from Jacksboro, Tenn., who spends time volunteering as Santa Claus at a local hospital.
Still, Knoxville TV station WBIR reported that it did independently confirm many critical details of the story -- but would not go into further detail, citing privacy concerns.
“I spent four years in the Army with the 75th Rangers, and I’ve seen my share of [stuff],” Schmitt-Matzen told the newspaper. “But I ran by the nurses’ station bawling my head off. I know nurses and doctors see things like that every day, but I don’t know how they can take it.”
Schmitt-Matzen, a mechanical engineer and president of Packing Seals & Engineering in Jacksboro, Tenn., told news outlets he arrived at the unidentified hospital and met the boy’s mother and family members, who were also unidentified. A nurse had called with the special request and given him a toy to offer the child during his visit, the paper reported.
"When I walked in, he was laying there so weak, it looked like he was ready to fall asleep,” Schmitt-Matzen told the news outlet. “I sat down on his bed and asked, ‘Say, what’s this I hear about you’re going to miss Christmas? There’s no way you can miss Christmas! You’re my No. 1 elf!’”
“He looked up and said, ‘I am?’ I said ‘Sure.’”
Schmitt-Matzen told the News Sentinel that he watched him open the present and smile before he lay back down.
“’They say I’m going to die,’ he told me. ‘How can I tell when I get to where I’m going?’ I said, ‘Can you do me a big favor?’ He said ‘Sure!’ 'When you get there, you tell them you’re Santa’s No. 1 elf and I know they’ll let you in.’ He said, ‘They will?’ I said, ‘Sure.’”
“He kind of sat up, and gave me a big hug and asked one more question: ‘Santa can you help me?’ 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,” Schmitt-Matzen told the paper.
In a report Wednesday, the newspaper said: "Since publication, the News Sentinel has done additional investigation in an attempt to independently verify Schmitt-Matzen’s account."
"This has proven unsuccessful," the paper added. "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."