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Monday, August 04, 2003  

Reporter was schooled by hoax

As far as I know, I've never been played for a fool during many years as a journalist. Maybe that is because I am naturally skeptical of what people tell me. The mere fact that someone says something authoritatively does not make it true -- a lesson that a lot of people in the blogosphere and elsewhere have yet to learn.

Bryan Denson, a reporter for the Oregonian, has not been so fortunate. He recently discovered a source he relied on in the past is at best psychologically impaired and at worst, a heartless criminal. Donna L. Walker is currently in custody in Kansas, charged with falsely claiming to be the abducted daughter of a couple who last saw their six-year-old child in 1986.

Walker entered my life in late January 2002 as I reported on a strange missing-child case in Oregon. Emergency dispatchers in Portland and in Baker County had gotten calls from a little girl who claimed to have been kidnapped. The girl used the name of a bona fide kidnap victim, a 13-year-old from the Ypsilanti, Mich., area whose identification was posted on an Internet list of missing children. Search teams in both jurisdictions fanned out. Reporters like me wrote stories.

But the 13-year-old girl -- along with her missing big sister -- soon surfaced alive in West Virginia and, we would later learn, had never been in Oregon. Someone had committed a hoax.

About this time, I started getting calls from a little girl. She phoned to say a man was holding her against her will, driving her around the Portland metropolitan area.

Only much later would I learn that the little girl in the local hoax, and the little girl who kept calling me on my cell phone, were not little girls at all. They were, in fact, Donna Walker, the FBI now thinks.

Denson's experiences with Walker did not end there. Someone wanted to link the family murders of Christian Longo, who is now on Death Row in Oregon, to a child pornography case. Denison received phone calls from a person variously identifying him or herself as Brian, Stephanie and Michelle. Each claimed Longo was involved in child pornography. Since Longo was the father of three small children and desperate for money, such a linkage may have seemed credible to a reporter.

The informant arranged for a CD-ROM featuring child pornography to get into the hands of the journalist and his editor. After passing it along to the FBI, he learned the package and various persons he had talked to on the phone all seemed to be the product of Donna Walker. No connection between Longo and child porn was ever established.

Walker claims to have multiple personality disorder. However, there is no substantiation from medical professionals. Information from her has been used to convict several people and another man, Elmer Ray Nimeth, 50, is awaiting trial on child pornography charges for which Walker is an informant.

The legal issue of her reliability could have significant ramifications. If she was the only source of compelling evidence in the earlier cases that could be grounds for overturning the convictions. If she is the key source of evidence against Nimeth, he may never go to trial.

Denson's last likely contact with Walker was with someone who claimed to be a friend of the woman's.

I don't remember if days or weeks passed before one of Walker's friends called to say she disappeared owing her money. The woman, bless her, was worried about Walker. She said it appeared her friend had been abducted from a fast-food joint in the Portland area, leaving behind a purse and cell phone. She wanted me to write a story about this.

I believe Denson has done all he can to set things straight as a reporter by telling us about his experiences with Donna Walker. Though the Oregonian and other media, as well as law enforcement, fell for her story about the girls from Michigan being in Oregon, they have now learned or relearned a valuable lesson: People do very strange things. Be skeptical.

Since I've had a similar experience with some people like Walker in Bloggersville, Denson has my sympathy. I know his patience has been sorely tried.

4:31 PM