In recent years, accused cancer fakers such as Tausha Marsh and Ann Crall have allegedly collected thousands by pretending to have a terminal illness. All of which makes the case of Briana Augustenborg that much more bizarre. She's said to have hyped up a case of leukemia for a nonexistent child -- but while she garnered plenty of attention, she wound up with no cash, suggesting that she may not have actually committed a crime.
According to the Eagle Valley Enterprise's Pam Boyd, Augustenborg, a 22-year-old Avon resident, told a co-worker who was friendly with the mother of an Eagle Valley High School football player about Alex Jordan, a nine-year-old boy suffering from terminal leukemia. The boy, with whom she claimed to be close, was a big football fan, she said, and followed the EVHS team closely.
Augustenborg's friend offered to speak to the mom and get a signed football for little Alex. The request prompted outreach on the part of the players, who began posting good wishes on Facebook that only accelerated after Augustenborg told Alex's story on a local radio station and shared it with Boyd for a front-page story in the Enterprise.
Little Alex's most fervent desire was to attend the October 26 EVHS football game, Augustenborg said, and with that in mind, players and cheerleaders donned orange apparel in his honor, and the dance team spelled out "Alex" with their pompoms.
The boy didn't see this display, though, being imaginary and all. But Augustenborg explained his absence by announcing via Facebook that he'd died the day before the game.
Shortly thereafter, Augustenborg wrote an obituary for Alex that was published in the Vail Daily. The obit has now been removed, but a link lingers at Funeral.com. Here's a screen capture of what remains:
By the way, the photo reportedly pictures Connor Gerber, a South African cancer sufferer featured on a Kids Cancer Crusade website. He's still alive.
How did the scheme fall apart? Reports say some local residents began getting suspicious after the game. So they shared their concerns with law enforcement reps, who quickly determined that there was no death certificate for an Alex Jordan.
That doesn't mean Augustenborg was immediately fitted with a new set of bracelets and escorted to the hoosgow. As stressed by the Enterprise's Boyd, she never asked for money, insisting that Alex's parents were well-fixed; they just wanted to get his story out. For that reason, charges haven't been filed against her at this writing, and none may be.
Look below to see a 9News report on the controversy, followed by a fascinating section of the Enterprise story linked above. In it, Boyd expresses regret for her part in propagating the fictional Alex story, but encourages community members to be proud of their compassion, as opposed to feeling embarrassed about their gullibility.
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I have let this community down and I am so very sorry.
Here's the basic premise -- you should be able to trust what you read in the Eagle Valley Enterprise and the Vail Daily. When we ran the story titled "Littlest Devil has the biggest heart" people read it and believed it. It was a fake and I owe everyone who was duped a personal apology.
I am going to lay out how I helped to perpetuate this whole hoax, but I want to make it clear that I am not offering excuses. The bottom line is I acted from the heart and that's not what you need from a newspaper reporter. You need a reporter to act professionally. Obviously I failed.
A couple of weeks ago I got a message from a good friend who told me an amazing story of how the EVHS football team had adopted a little boy who had cancer. She talked about how the players were standing up to support this little boy and how heartwarming it was to watch them as they took this suffering terminally ill child into their fold.
I live in this community and I know those EVHS boys. I have literally known some of them all of their lives. They are a great group and the story warmed my heart. I agreed to meet with Briana Augustenborg for an interview about "Alex."
I met a composed and articulate Augustenborg at a coffehouse in Eagle where she laid out the story of a suffering Denver family who had moved to Cordillera so their son could spend his final days in the mountains. She talked at length about how Alex loved the EVHS Devils and how he was inspired by them to keep fighting. I had no trouble believing the team could inspire someone. Considering the remarkable turnaround they accomplished this year, I was inspired by them.
Augustenborg's story was heart wrenching, but I did see a couple of red flags. First, she wasn't the child's parent. But I have, in the past, dealt with scenarios when a family is so devastated by a loss or a crisis that a liaison speaks for them. The idea that parents could be consumed with their dying 9-year-old's needs seemed plausible.
My second red flag was money. But Augustenborg was clear that she didn't want any. She said the family just wanted to share the story and that they found so much comfort in the support they were receiving. Looking back, that was the moment the hook set. I came into the interview with concerns that this story could be a financial fraud. I was prepared to protect people's money, but not their hearts.
(As an aside, if anyone has given Augustenborg money, call the Eagle Police at 970-328-6351 to report it. There are criminal implications they would like to explore in this case.)
There was also an element of urgency associated with the tale. The child was supposedly dying and everyone wanted to do what they could for him before it was too late. So I went with the story and thus gave it credibility. People read it and believed it. As the days progressed I got more and more uneasy. There was no way that a 9-year-old could have written the Facebook posts attributed to him and after the "death," Augustenborg seemed to be determined to keep the story alive.
As I look back, I keep coming back to the question I asked myself from the beginning. "They don't want any money, and who would make up a story like this?"
I have a name but not an answer.
Again, I am so very sorry to everyone in the community who trusted me to tell them the truth. I know better and I should have been more responsible. To quote the late Ronald Reagan, the standard is to "trust but verify."
And while I am very ashamed of myself for the part I played in this deception, I am very proud of everyone who stood up for a little boy who they believed needed them. It was an example of all that is best in our community.
This week, a friend sent me this message and it's what I want to say in closing to everyone in the community and particularly to the kids at EVHS:
"How people treat you is their karma; how you react is yours."
A lot of great karma was generated by a bunch of very big-hearted people this week. Be proud of that.
More from our Colorado Crimes archive circa 2010: "Tausha Marsh, cancer faker: MySpace donation page still online even as she heads to jail."