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Texas Man Said He Was A Survivor Of The Santa Fe High School Shooting, He Was Lying

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Back in May of last year, a gunman opened fire at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas. He killed 10 people; he wounded 13 more. It was soon all over the media.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: We are at Santa Fe High School about 30 miles southeast of Houston, the scene of the latest mass shooting...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Coverage of this dark day in Santa Fe, that school shooting...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Before we go tonight, we remember the victims of the school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

One survivor who was quoted widely was a man named David Briscoe, who identified himself as a substitute teacher at the school. He said on the day of the shooting, he told his students to get down, that he protected them until police came. Briscoe told a harrowing story, and none of it, not a word, was true. Reporter Alex Samuels uncovered the hoax. She published her story this week in The Texas Tribune, and she joins me now.

ALEX SAMUELS: Yes. Thank you for having me.

KELLY: So I said David Briscoe's account of what happened had been picked up by major news organizations. Which ones? Where was he quoted?

SAMUELS: We saw him quoted in Time, CNN, The Wall Street Journal and the Austin American-Statesman.

KELLY: And I've read some of those accounts. I mean, it was very specific. How did you first come into contact with him?

SAMUELS: I was looking to do an anniversary feature, and he actually reached out to me first.

KELLY: He reached out to you first.

SAMUELS: Yes.

KELLY: What made you curious about it and start digging around?

SAMUELS: There were a couple red flags when we first talked on the phone. The first was that a lot of the stuff that he was telling me in our interview was very similar, if not identical, to his account that he gave Time magazine. So that was my first red flag. The second that I had was I was talking to a couple other survivors, and no one had heard of this man. I kind of chalk that up initially to him telling me that he was a substitute and that he had only been at the school for about two or three months prior to the shooting. But the final nail in the coffin for me was obviously I talked to the superintendent of the school and I asked her, have you heard of a man named David Briscoe? She immediately said no.

KELLY: How very strange. And just to be clear, you fact-checked this up, down everywhere you could.

SAMUELS: Yes. The school district confirmed not only did they have no substitutes by that name but no tutors, no students, no vendors. No one by the name of David Briscoe has ever been employed by Santa Fe ISD in any capacity.

KELLY: Wow. So you confronted him. How did that come about, and what did he say?

SAMUELS: He initially claimed that he had no idea who I was. He said he never talked to me on the phone. When I told him, you know, hey, we did this 31-minute interview, I have your phone number, I have your email, he told me that he had his identity stolen about a year prior and that he thought the same person who had allegedly stolen his identity was giving these stories to various media outlets including the Texas Tribune. And I asked him eventually if he wanted to give a statement for this story, and after that, I found that he had blocked me on Twitter, and all my phone calls went to voicemail.

KELLY: Why do you think this didn't come to light before? I mean, congratulations on your reporting and figuring this out. But why didn't people from the school who are presumably reading these big news accounts not say, hang on, we've never heard of this man?

SAMUELS: That's a good question. I talked to a couple survivors because a lot of the stories that came out, they were all published in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. If not that next day, it was within that week. And so I think in that immediate aftermath, people weren't really checking the news to see what was out there. I think the memory of the shooting was just so painful, a lot of folks weren't looking at it. After the fact, the story kind of died down until the anniversary came about.

KELLY: You've reached out to those big news outlets that published his account and told them what you discovered. What did they say?

SAMUELS: I was told that they all reached out to the district. The district sent them same statement that we included in our story, and they've all removed any reference of David Briscoe from any of their stories.

KELLY: They've issued corrections.

SAMUELS: Yes, that's correct.

KELLY: So what's the takeaway here for journalists? This feels like a hugely cautionary tale.

SAMUELS: I think this speaks a lot to what happens in the aftermath of breaking news, just wanting to be the first one to get a story out or wanting to have that first, you know, compelling feature when we have these horrific tragedies. But, I mean, there's a lot of fact-checking that goes into it. This was definitely a cautionary tale not only for other journalists but for me as well. I'm not immune to these type of incidences. And I would just want to do everything I can in my reporting to make sure that this doesn't happen to me.

KELLY: That is reporter Alex Samuels with The Texas Tribune. Alex Samuels, thank you very much.

SAMUELS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.