The Sounds of Silence

Last December, Oscar Hernandez became the town's biggest story. It's over for him now.

The bad news came not in a front-page story or on a TV broadcast. It arrived in a letter from the principal of Denver's Fairview Elementary School.

"I am very sad and regret to inform you of the death of one of our Fairview students," Kathy Wiemer wrote to Fairview families on November 24. "First grader Oscar Hernandez died this weekend from complications of leukemia....You may remember Oscar from last year when the Fairview community rallied and conducted a fundraiser to help the family with expenses for a bone marrow transplant for Oscar."

Fairview wasn't the only community to rally to the aid of the stricken five-year-old, whose parents, Pedro and Susana Hernandez, needed to raise more than $300,000 before they could arrange for such an operation at Children's Hospital. While Pedro made wooden collection boxes that he placed at local bars and businesses, Susana contacted the media and finally found a sympathetic ear in Univision's Nancy Leal. On November 25, 2002, the Spanish-language station ran Leal's story on Oscar's plight -- and it was quickly followed by pieces on Channel 4 and in the Denver Post, the latter under the heart-wrenching headline "Family Risks Deportation for Life of Son."

When Oscar was just a baby, Pedro left Mexico, seeking a better life for his family. Arriving in Denver after a disappointing stint in Texas, he got a job as a carpenter. Susana and their two boys joined him here in late 1998; the Hernandezes soon added two baby girls to their brood. But then Oscar got sick. Pedro didn't have health insurance -- and each story requesting donations for the family made his illegal-immigrant status in this country more precarious, more public.

Then KHOW talk-show host Peter Boyles got into the act, enlisting Congressman Tom Tancredo to help with a fundraiser for Oscar. Tancredo had made headlines all that fall with his hard-line stand on immigration -- but for a cause like this, he said, people could put politics aside and just think of the five-year-old boy. Boyles, wary after the beneficiary of an earlier fundraiser used donations to buy her boyfriend a car rather than to help her kids, wanted no such loopholes in this deal. So he quizzed Children's Hospital and BankOne, which was setting up the Oscar Hernandez Fund, until he was confident that all of the money would go directly to Oscar's operation, and only Oscar's operation.

Soon, though, the Hernandez family was collecting not just cash, but critical pieces from the same media that had served up sob stories just days before. A piece about how the parents had received an offer of a free transplant operation at Children's Hospital and Research Center in Oakland and turned it down. A piece describing how Children's in Denver hadn't made that free offer public, even as people continued to donate to Oscar's cause. Pieces questioning the tightness of the trust restrictions and whether there was a trust at all -- or just a simple savings account. Pieces suggesting that if the Hernandezes didn't have to pay for the operation, or if there was money left in the fund after the transplant procedure, there was no guarantee that the money would then go to other children in need. "I live by a principle," Tancredo told Westword. "And it's that no good deed goes unpunished."

In fact, by the end of January, the Denver District Attorney's Office was looking into complaints regarding the fund.

That case is still open today. "It's with the Economic Crime Unit," says Lynn Kimbrough, spokeswoman for the DA's office. The two investigators assigned to it have been examining allegations of possible charitable fraud and theft by receiving. And even though Oscar is dead, the investigation will continue.

Kimbrough, a former radio reporter, knows what happens when media publicity over one particular case, one particular cause, catches a community's attention. "People trusted us," she says simply. And as an employee of the DA's office, she knows all too well what happens when such trust is misplaced. "We always advise people at the beginning of the year to take a realistic look at how much money they can donate to charitable causes," she notes. "Sit there ahead of time, choose the kinds of organizations you want to give money to, and then seek them out."

By early 2003, people had donated well over $300,000 to the Hernandez family; estimates went as high as $480,000. But by then, no one was talking specifics. Most players weren't talking at all. The Hernandez family, which had been granted temporary legal status by the INS while Oscar received treatment, was silent, referring all queries to their attorney. Children's Hospital kept quiet. So did the bank. And last February 20, when Oscar finally got a bone-marrow transplant from his seven-year-old brother, Jonathan, at Children's, it merited just a few inches of copy.

Jonathan is still a student at Fairview, where last week his classmates were coming to terms with Oscar's death. Oscar was never well enough to return to Fairview as a first-grader this fall. While bone-marrow transplants work well in many cases of leukemia, they do not work in all of them. "A transplant is not a guaranteed cure," says a physician at the International Bone Marrow Transplant Registry. "It depends on a lot of things. Even if you have the best-matched donor, it is not always successful."

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