The story of a 5-year-old boy dying in the arms of Santa Claus in a Tennessee hospital may have broken millions of hearts this week — but was it all made up?
The newspaper that first reported the story is now backing off the account. The Knoxville News Sentinel, which first reported the story, shared a statement on Wednesday with the headline: "Story of Santa Claus with dying child can't be verified."
In its original story, which was published on December 11, Eric Schmitt-Matzen had described being called to the hospital room of a little boy suffering from cancer.
According to Schmitt-Matzen, the child passed away in his arms.
"I had a hold of him and just kind of looked up at me and he said, 'Santa can you help me?'" Schmitt-Matzen said. "That's when he passed. I just felt him go limp."
The heart-wrenching story went viral after it was published. It was picked up by news outlets across the country, even leaving some anchors in tears. But now, the headlines are going in a different direction.
Doubts have been cast on Schmitt-Matzen's account after he said he will not reveal the name of the boy or the hospital. Every hospital in the Knoxville region has said no 5-year-old patients passed away at the time Schmitt-Matzen claimed it happened, and there are no local obituaries that match his account.
In its statement on Wednesday, the News Sentinel said it was "no longer standing by the veracity of Schmitt-Matzen’s account."
"Since publication, the News Sentinel has done additional investigation in an attempt to independently verify Schmitt-Matzen’s account," it read. "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."
When Inside Edition spoke to the Santa earlier this week, he insisted his story was true and stood by his decision to stay quiet about the boy's identity.
"I think we're losing track of what the story is about," he said. "It's the love of a boy and his concern about missing Christmas. And that's all there is to it. I’m not going to identify where it happened, exactly when, what hospital. I'm protective as much as I can of those people's identity.”
"I'm not going to identify where it happened, exactly when, what hospital," he said. "I'm protective as much as I can of those people's identity."
But he admitted that he didn't like that his account was being called into question.
"Nobody likes to be called a liar," he said.