On March 23, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran an uplifting story about "Virginia Gillis," who had lost her perfect life when her husband started using methamphetamines, burned down their house, and attacked her with a straight razor, cutting her throat "almost all the way through." After a stint of homelessness, she slowly rebuilt her life, and now works as a chef at a homeless program, feeding hundreds of people a week who are stuck in the position that she once was. The paper compares her story to the resurrection of Jesus Christ—this was an Easter-themed feature. But further investigation revealed that, like Jesus, Virginia Gillis' story had a bit of mythology in it. Such as: her name, her age, her location, her outstanding warrants, and everything else about her story! It might have been easier if they just told us what was true in the original, rather than false. The entire, and truly epic, editor's note from page one of yesterday's paper [via Romenesko], after the jump.
On the front page of last Sunday's St. Louis Post-Dispatch, we published the story of a woman identified as Virginia Gillis. She was featured in an Easter story in which she described in detail a past of victimization, homelessness and despair followed by recovery and repair.
We have since learned that a number of the details in that story were inaccurate. Further, our verification procedures were not followed during the reporting and editing process. In short, this story did not meet our standards for publication.
We apologize for this journalistic breakdown. We value the trust you place in us every time you pick up the Post-Dispatch or log onto STLtoday.com, and we understand that incidents such as this put that trust at risk.
Last Monday morning, we were contacted by someone who told us that information provided by the woman in the story was inaccurate. We immediately began a review of our reporting. We conducted extensive records searches and interviewed sources to check the details provided by the woman. We have learned:
* The woman's name is Pamala Brown, according to police, her mother and other people who know her. She also has used the spelling Pamela.
* Law enforcement officials in Crawford, Gasconade and Franklin counties have active warrants for Brown for violating probation on felony bad check and forgery charges. Crystal City has a warrant for Brown for failure to appear on DWI and other traffic charges.
* The Missouri Department of Revenue has no record of the drivers license number that appears on the license the woman provided us during this review.
* Law enforcement and fire officials in Jefferson County have no records of the violence the woman described in the story. She said her husband burned down her house in 2005 and a few weeks later slashed her throat. She said the attack left the long scar across her neck.
"I think we would have recognized the offense even under a different name," said Jefferson County Circuit Judge Robert Wilkins, who was the county prosecutor at the time. Wilkins said authorities checked the name the woman provided the newspaper for her ex-husband, as well as variations.
* Pamala Brown is 51 years old, not 42, according to public documents.
* Pamala Brown attended Parkway West High School but did not graduate, according to school officials.
* Other information in the story about the woman's marriage and children conflicts with information we have since obtained from public documents and family members.
We have spoken with the woman twice since the article ran, and she insists that everything she told us was accurate and that she is not Pamala Brown. Pastors at Centenary United Methodist Church, who had obtained identification documents from her shortly after they hired her in March 2007 to work in the church's homeless program, said they had had no reason to question her identity. They said she has been a model employee.
Our review showed that Pamala Brown was mentioned and pictured in a May 2000 story. We have been unable to verify some of the details about the woman that were included in that story, which was about the Mark Twain Hotel.
The Post-Dispatch has strict standards for gathering and verifying information. As a story is reported and prepared for publication, a number of journalists scrutinize it. As part of our internal review of how this story was handled, we have learned that during that process some questions were raised about the woman's account that should have been pursued more aggressively. We take this lapse very seriously, and we are taking steps to reinforce the standards to which we normally adhere. In our profession there is nothing more important than our credibility, and that is why we have tried to address this situation with you as fully and directly as possible. We hope you will accept our apology.
Arnie Robbins, Editor
Pam Maples, Managing Editor
[pic via STLToday.com; "Gillis" on the right]