Ricardo Contreras dressed as Santa Claus hugs children as he visits the San Juan de Dios hospital in Guatemala City, in Guatemala City, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016. Contreras is a volunteer who, along with other hospital's workers, gives out Christmas gifts to sick children every year. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)
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The Knoxville News Sentinel first reported the tear-jerking story that quickly went viral: a man who played Santa Claus granted the final wish of a terminally ill boy who later died in his arms. But the News Sentinel now says they cannot confirm the story was accurate, and although they have attempted to verify key details of the man's account, they have been unable to do so.
Santa Claus actor Eric Schmitt-Matzen emotionally told and retold the same basic story to various cable news outlets this week, explaining that a nurse he knew who worked at a local hospital called him one evening and asked him to drive to the hospital and visit a very sick little boy who was terminally ill. Schmitt-Matzen said he met the boy's mother outside the hospital room, where she gave him a toy and asked him to give the toy to the young boy as a Christmas present. He told news outlets that after a brief, heartwarming conversation, the boy passed away in his arms.
But in an update published Wednesday, the newspaper said after further digging, they discovered they could not establish accuracy of Schmitt-Matzen's account. The News Sentinel explained that while Schmitt-Matzen said since the beginning that he would protect the names and personal information of the boy's family and the nurse who called him to the hospital, the newspaper itself had attempted to independently establish accuracy.
The update read, "The News Sentinel cannot establish that Schmitt-Matzen's account is inaccurate, but more importantly, ongoing reporting cannot establish that it is accurate." It continued, "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."
CNN also contacted all the major hospitals in the Knoxville area that treat children, and found no hospital that could verify the story. And although he did not respond to CNN's request for comment, Schmitt-Matzen did tell the Washington Post he was standing by his original story.
"If some people want to call me a liar ... I can handle that better than I can handle a child in my arms dying," he stated. "It's sticks and stones."
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Sara Gonzales is the host of “The News & Why It Matters.”