Hoodwinked, fooled, deceived, misled, bamboozled.
Those are just a few words to describe what a teenager allegedly did to a community journalist with 40 years of experience.
In the small town of Eldridge, Iowa, just north of the Quad Cities, lives a young woman named Madison Russo. Scott Campbell, the longtime editor of the North Scott Press heard that the 19-year-old received a $500 grant from a local group that helped people with pancreatic cancer.
Campbell decided to write a feature story.
“I just texted her cold and I said, ‘Hey, Maddie, this is Scott Campbell. I heard about your diagnosis. Would you be interested in telling your story?’ And she sent me a text back within two minutes: ‘You betcha. No problem at all.’ So, we set up an interview for the next morning. … She had set up a GoFundMe page. I saw a couple social media postings that she’d posted.”
She claimed to have Stage II pancreatic cancer and acute lymphoblastic leukemia, Campbell said.
“She said she had gone through 15 rounds of chemo and 90 rounds of radiation,” Campbell said. “I asked for some pictures and she texted some photos. In none of them did she look sick at all. I didn’t have any reason to doubt her. I thought maybe they were older pictures. She just told me she’d been through hell. And then right at the end of the conversation she dropped this bombshell: ‘By the way, I just found out today that I’ve got a football size tumor in my lower back.’ And I said, ‘Oh, crap. That’s crazy.’”
Crazy. Yeah, that’s one word for it.
Despite her year of “hell” she said she was able to finish her first year of college at St. Ambrose University and maintain a 4.0 grade point average, land a plum internship at Deere & Co., continue to play golf – and run six miles a day.
My mother died of breast cancer, my brother succumbed to liver cancer and my father beat the odds and survived Stage III esophageal cancer. None of them was going for runs – and none of them ever had a tumor the size of a football.
The photos I have of their withered forms are so painful to look at, some family members have asked that I never share them – the memories they conjure are just too painful.
But in the photo Russo sent the North Scott Press she looks pretty as a prom queen. Her skin has a healthy glow, and she has a full head of hair.
Campbell said he chatted with Russo over the phone – but never met with her in person. No news happens in the newsroom. You have to leave your desk and talk to people. Please note, I said “people” as in the plural of person.
Campbell’s story quoted one person: Russo. He said he reached out to her mother, but she never got back to him. He didn’t try to interview the physicians that Russo said were treating her. He also didn’t seek out her professors or co-workers.
When I was in journalism school, turning in a one-source story constituted a failing grade. As an editor, I angered reporters when I refused to publish stories with a single source. But Campbell was the newspaper’s editor. Who was there to tell him “no?”
Well, there was his wife.
“I came home and told my wife about it. She was kind of skeptical. She goes, ‘Really? I’m really connected in the community and I haven’t heard about this cancer story – that she [said] she’d been through for the last eight months.’”
But Campbell proceeded to publish a tear-jerker and donations poured in. Russo raised $37,300 from 439 donors on GoFundMe and went to Chicago for a pancreatic-cancer gala.
A couple months later, folks with medical experience started calling the newspaper – and the police. They said the story didn’t add up.
Russo’s medical records, obtained by subpoena, show that none of the medical facilities in the Quad City region has diagnosed Russo with any kind of tumor or cancer.
She was arrested on theft charges Jan. 23 while in class at St. Ambrose. And police said they seized her 2023 Kia Sportage, a paper bag with medical supplies, bank records, an IV pole with a feeding pump filled with cotton balls, two boxes of dressing, a wig, cash and pills for nausea in the name of a relative.
The community was angry. Donors were hurt. And a newspaper looked bad.
The NSP is one of the best community newspapers I’ve encountered. None the less, the role it played in this matter is an embarrassment – not just to the newspaper but to journalists everywhere.
Some folks find it off-putting when reporters are suspicious and seek verification. Too bad; that’s our job.
• Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.