Did a Tennessee Boy Die in the Arms of a Local Santa Claus?

A Tennesseee newspaper columnist’s account of a five-year-old boy’s death in 2016 was re-circulated by national news outlets until a lack of identifying details led to the story being, if not quite debunked, then walked back.

Sam Venable’s December 11 2016 column for the Knoxville News Sentinel focused on Eric Schmitt-Matzen, who worked around the area making appearances as Santa Claus.

According to Venable’s column, Scmitt-Matzen claimed that a local nurse asked him to come to her hospital to visit a young boy who was terminally ill and nearing death. Upon arriving, Schmitt-Matzen said, the boy’s mother asked him to give the boy a toy she had bought for him. Schmitt-Matzen said that he asked her and other family members not to be in the room with him if they thought they would cry.

“If I see you crying, I’ll break down and can’t do my job,” he was quoted as saying.

Venable then wrote out what he said was a transcription of Schmitt-Matzen’s description of the boy’s death verbatim:

“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.

“Everyone outside the room realized what happened. His mother ran in. She was screaming, ‘No, no, not yet!’ I handed her son back and left as fast as I could.

“I spent four years in the Army with the 75th Rangers, and I’ve seen my share of (stuff). 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.'”

The column was published without any information to corroborate Schmitt-Matzen’s account, either from the bereaved family or from the nurse who purportedly asked Schmitt-Matzen to come to the hospital.

The News Sentinel also posted a video of Venable recounting his encounter with Schmitt-Matzen and describing him as the “embodiment” of Santa Claus:

Shortly after the column’s publication, USA Today — which, like Venable’s newspaper, is owned by the Gannett corporation — republished the story without noting that it was a column, as opposed to a regular news story.

The story spread further when both local and national news outlets around the U.S. aggregated the column — citing Venable’s work but not conducting any further reporting to find a separate source to confirm the story in full.

Reached by fact-checkers, Venable said that Schmitt-Matzen had refused to identify the family of the purportedly deceased child, the nurse who called him, or the hospital where the encounter allegedly took place.

On December 14 2016, the News Sentinel added a note to Venable’s column:

Since publication of this story, the News Sentinel has done additional investigation in an attempt to independently verify Schmitt-Matzen’s account. This has proven unsuccessful. 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.

As other news outlets reported on the column being cast into doubt, the Washington Post noted that several healthcare providers around Schmitt-Matzen’s area denied that the events Venable described took place within their hospitals:

“We know for certain that it did not happen at our hospital,” said Erica Estep, public-relations manager at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital. She said the hospital checked its mortality data for the entirety of 2016 and had no records of a 5-year-old child.

Jim Ragonese, a public-relations manager at the University of Tennessee Medical Center, said, “I checked with the leaders in the particular intensive unit where we have children, and they confirmed that it did not happen at our facility.”

Jerry Askew, a spokesman for Tennova Healthcare, a network of local hospitals, replied to an inquiry by saying: “If you’re calling about the Santa story, I’m sorry, but it didn’t happen at our hospitals. We’ve received calls from all over the world, but Santa didn’t happen here.”

But one Knoxville TV station, KBIR-TV, claimed that it had “independently verified several critical details” in the story. However, the only on-air sources were Schmitt-Matzen and his wife, and a family friend who said that Schmitt-Matzen had told him about the encounter. Neither the station nor Schmitt-Matzen provided any information as to who allegedly called him to meet with the boy.

“If I talk now, Santa folded. And I ain’t doing it,” he told the station. “I’m not doing it.”

Update 12/21/2021, 4:42p.m. PST: This article has been revamped and updated. You can review the original here.