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."

A transplant was no guarantee for Oscar Hernandez. Nor were all the good intentions and best wishes directed his way.

The Hernandezes' phone is now disconnected. Children's Hospital referred questions about Oscar to their lawyer, Ralph Torres. He did not return calls.

"Please keep the Hernandez family in your thoughts and prayers," concluded principal Wiemer.

And hold a special spot for Oscar.


Strip Search

Things must really be tough over at the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau if the hunt for qualified conventions has the organization soliticiting...journalists!

Early this week, the Washington, D.C., office of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (of which Westword is a member) received an e-mail from a bureau sales rep who'd learned that AAN was having its annual conference in San Antonio next year (I can already taste those frozen margaritas!) and wanted to ask, "Have you ever considered Denver or Colorado for this meeting?

"I would very much like to learn how I could present Denver to you while still accomplishing your objectives for your Annual Meeting," she continued. "We represent over 36,000 hotel rooms in Denver and Colorado, from the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs to the Hyatt in Beaver Creek, to the many different areas in Denver including our new 1,100-room Hyatt Hotel and Convention Center. We even have golf resorts and spas located within a few miles of Downtown Denver."

Spas -- now there's a selling point for a bunch of alternative journalists. And don't even get me started on the city-subsidized Hyatt, which is a good two years away from opening the door to any one of those 1,100 rooms. But here's the deal: AAN already held a convention in Denver, back in 1990, before Denver International Airport, before the new Colorado Convention Center, before even the last new Colorado Convention Center. The meeting was at the Brown Palace, where we managed to drink the Ship Tavern dry every night, necessitating many trips to Duffy's.

If only the Diamond Cabaret had been open back then.

Has the bureau no shame when it comes to soliciting? "We never bid for the strippers' convention," points out spokesman Rich Grant, happy to talk about conventions of strippers rather than convention-bureau employees going to strip clubs -- even though all the stories about the bureau's after-hours event at the Diamond Cabaret and the subsequent resignation of bureau CEO Eugene Dilbeck ("The Bare Necessities," November 6) netted this city about $1 million in publicity (none of it good). "The wildest convention of all, though, is the funeral directors."

Neither group is involved in the 79 conventions booked as a result of the meeting of meeting planners that Denver hosted last year. Just 22 of those meetings will bring the city $133 million, Grant notes, "so we don't need any more steenkin'journalists in this town."

The sort, for example, who snickered when the Fall 2003 edition of Colorado Meetings & Events magazine appeared in local mailboxes around town a couple of weeks ago -- with the by-then deposed Dilbeck's photo front and center on the cover (and an interview with him inside). But those journalists can stop their snickering. The publication wasn't produced, commissioned or connected with the bureau; it's the work of an independent outfit out of Minnesota, one with a very bad sense of timing.

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