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Scam threatens our credibility

Sherwood man took in many of us, including the newspaper

We got duped.

A Sherwood man, Nick Scholten, was arrested this week, accused of bilking the community and his own family members out of more than $60,000 to pay for a phony lung transplant. In the April 28 issue of The Times and the May issue of the Sherwood Gazette, we wrote about the 27-year-old man who claimed his lungs had been badly damaged. With economic times what they are, we believed this man's tragic story - that he was between jobs and without insurance - and that he needed help from the community as he faced a dire situation.

The story turned out to be untrue. As journalists who always strive for accuracy, we don't take this lightly. It's left us wondering what happened and what we should have done differently.

The story began as many do, from a tip by a citizen who has been a trusted source for many stories in the past. From there, the Gazette's editor, Ray Pitz, interviewed Scholten and his mother. Looking back, Pitz said Scholten sounded believable when he explained that his lungs had been damaged by breathing muriatic acid while working for a spa company and that breathing in toxic mold at a former apartment exacerbated the situation.

Yet minutes before Scholten and his daughter were scheduled to be photographed by staff photographer Jaime Valdez, Scholten's mother called to say her son had been called away to a doctor's appointment and couldn't make the photo shoot. Valdez took photos of Scholten's mother and his then 19-month-old daughter instead.

Police say Scholten was knowledgeable enough about his alleged medical predicament that he had convinced many people he was truly sick, including his mother and wife.

We ran the two-source story believing it was true and were outraged Monday when we learned it wasn't. We're are truly sorry for the people who gave money to this man under false pretenses and we're sorry for lending credibility to his story.

And while Scholten will have to pay for his crime if he's guilty, the question remains, where do we go from here?

Going forward, we urge readers (and our own staff) to be wary of possible scammers out there who might try to take advantage of good-hearted people, especially during this economic downturn. Yet it's unfortunate that one person's actions may cause people to think twice before responding to legitimate needs in their community.

For our part, Scholten's actions force us to rethink how we deal with situations like this in the future. It puts us in the position of having to ask people - who are already under great distress - for additional information to prove that they really do need help. We pledge to talk to relatives, neighbors and friends to confirm the story and when possible we will check in with doctors or authorities to be sure that a person's claims are true.

Scholten's scam was all the more odious because he used our newspapers as a vehicle for his deception. The Times provides a voice for the community. In addition to stories about triumphs and successes, we write about the people in our community who need our help. For Scholten to use us in that manner is damaging to the trust that the community has in its newspaper and we take that personally.

Over the years, we've written hundreds of articles about local people in need and as a result have played a part in raising thousands of dollars for people who really were down on their luck. We take pride in rallying the community and sharing your stories. And we're not going to let one lie stop that.