The touching story about a man who says he dressed up like Santa to comfort a terminally ill little boy who died in his arms has gone viral in recent days, though media outlets have started to intensely question the veracity of his claims.
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But as some have called Eric Schmitt-Matzen’s heartbreaking story into question, citing a dearth of details, numerous friends and supporters have come to his defense, taking to his Facebook page to stand by the beloved part-time Santa.
Additionally, at least one outlet has claimed to verify key details in the tragic story. Before diving deeper into those elements, though, let’s briefly recap what unfolded. Schmitt-Matzen’s story made international headlines after he told the Knoxville News Sentinel about the recent experience he had with the sick little boy — one that shook him to his core.
The 60-year-old said he received a phone call weeks ago from a nurse at a local hospital, asking if he would quickly rush to see a terminally-ill 5-year-old little boy who wouldn’t make it to Christmas, yet really wanted to see Santa one last time.
Schmitt-Matzen, who has been dressing up like Santa during Christmastime for the past six years, described an incredibly emotional experience in which he comforted the boy in his hospital room before the child died in his arms.
After the story made its way across the Internet, Schmitt-Matzen was praised by nationally and internationally for granting the boy his final wish, but the Knoxville News Sentinel published a follow-up statement on Dec. 14, saying the facts of the story couldn’t be independently verified.
That's Santa's story and he's sticking to it. After verifying some crucial details, we're sticking by him, too: https://t.co/ZQMIY7GS3C pic.twitter.com/GPzXJRTpu3
— Becca Habegger (@BeccaWBIR) December 15, 2016
“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,” the outlet concluded.
That sparked a barrage of stories pondering whether Schmitt-Matzen’s beloved and heartwarming story — one that had millions of people in tears — was fabricated or all-out fake. In the process, though, friends came to his defense.
“All of us beardsman and whiskerinas know him and know how great of a man he is.”
“There has been fake news reports floating around about our friend Eric,” a man named Aaron Johnston wrote. “All of us beardsman and whiskerinas know him and know how great of a man he is.”
Another individual named Kurtis Stache Lawrence added, “I WILL ALWAYS HAVE YOUR BACK MY BROTHER!!!!!” There’s also an image — a meme of sorts — floating around Facebook that someone created in support of Schmitt-Matzen; it features a cartoon photo of the man in Santa gear along with the words “We Support Santa.”
In an interview with Faithwire on Thursday morning, Johnston, who said he has known Schmitt-Matzen since February and has competed with him in beard competitions for charity, said he stands by the man, whom he calls a friend.
“He’s just a good, solid guy and there’s no reason to lie about something like that,” he said. “I have a little bit of faith that there is good news in the world … just because it’s nice doesn’t mean it’s fake.”
“I have a little bit of faith that there is good news in the world … just because it’s nice doesn’t mean it’s fake.”
Johnston described seeing Schmitt-Matzen interact with children and adults and said he’s “always nice and jolly.” He added, “I just don’t see him coming up with a story like this out of the blue. … It’s not within his character at all.”
He also described Schmitt-Matzen as a person of faith, and mentioned a recent time in which Schmitt-Matzen purportedly reached out to him to comfort him following a difficult personal event.
“My mom passed away in October and he was one of the very first people to reach out,” Johnston said.
While speculation about the details of the story continues, NBC affiliate WBIR-TV also reported on Thursday that it has been able to verify “several critical details of this story, but has agreed not to publish those for the sake of privacy.”
The outlet spoke with Sharon, Schmitt-Matzen’s wife of 38 years, who said his initial timeframe in which he said he comforted the little boy about six weeks ago was incorrect, as the encounter with the child reportedly unfolded in mid-October; he told the outlet his wife is better than he is at remembering such things.
“I know how he reacted that next morning, and this is something that weighed so heavy on him,” Sharon Schmitt-Matzen told the outlet. “I just know that he just needed time by himself to accept what happened because he obviously wasn’t prepared for a child to die in his arms.”
Schmitt-Matzen has maintained that he will release the names of neither the family nor the nurse involved, with his wife saying the nurse is reportedly nervous that she could lose her job for bringing a non-family member into the ICU without getting the proper permission from the hospital, according to WBIR-TV.
At least two friends told the outlet that they spoke with Schmitt-Matzen a week after his encounter with the boy, and that he was visibly shaken. The 60-year-old Santa also showed WBIR-TV written messages on his phone that were sent to two different friends; both matched the mid-October timeline that his wife outlined.
Still, some will question the story until they have firmer details, but unless someone else involved comes forward, Schmitt-Matzen said he won’t be releasing that sensitive information.
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