Park Service attacks claims in shark e-mail
07/27/01By RUSS HENDERSON
Claims in an unsigned e-mail and a frenzy of media calls about them prompted National Park Service rangers to reopen their investigation of a July 6 shark attack this week, even though rangers say they suspect the claims are unfounded.
The widely distributed e-mail states that a Mobile man, Vance Flosenzier, was fishing for sharks and throwing chum into the water just before a bull shark attacked his 8-year-old nephew, Jessie Arbogast, near Pensacola.
Not only have rangers questioned the truth of the e-mail's account, but the general-interest Web site About.com currently lists the message as the most popular "urban legend" of the week.
Media experts are taking the opportunity to condemn the use of the Internet to spread unsubstantiated scuttlebutt and to remind people that anybody spreading such stories, even on the Web, can be dragged into court.
"When we released our report, we were 99 percent sure what had happened out on the beach that day," said chief park ranger J.D. Tomasovic. "Now we're re-interviewing all the witnesses and looking for new witnesses in order to be 100 percent sure. We're doing this because the media is hounding us to death."
The park service's report, dated July 13, states that Jessie Arbogast and his brother were playing in water that came up to their stomachs or chests when Jessie's aunt heard his scream. Jessie's uncle, Vance Flosenzier, ran into the water, grabbed the shark by the tail and dragged it onto the beach as an unidentified person brought Jessie ashore, unconscious and almost drained of blood.
Officials are looking for the source of the anonymous e-mail, which claims that Flosenzier was fishing for sharks with heavy tackle and chum and had been fighting the 7-foot shark for two hours before the attack. The note claims that "when the shark got into two feet of water, the kids all ran into the water in jubilation and the shark lunged from off the ground and hit Jessie Arbogast twice, took (his) arm and bit into his leg!!!!!!!"
"A lot of people have forwarded this e-mail and have quoted it as if it were fact," Tomasovic said. "We're trying to determine ourselves who this person is and if they have information that can prove what is stated in the e-mail. If this person has evidence or a statement as a witness, they've never come forward with it."
The Pensacola News-Journal possesses time-stamped photos taken by a Colorado tourist that document the Flosenziers' activities just five minutes before the attack, Tomasovic said. Jessie's uncle is shown standing a few feet from the water's edge and his aunt, Diana Flosenzier, is shown relaxing on a beach blanket, he said. No fishing tackle is pictured in the photos, he said. The park service is securing these photos as evidence, he said.
"The rumors are just rumors," said Robin McArthur, with E.W. Bullock Associates, a Florida public relations firm retained by Jessie's family in the wake of the attack, when asked about the e-mail last week.
Nothing in the incident report indicates that the shark had been hooked, though some people at the scene told investigators that people had been fishing at the public beach. The Flosenziers, through McArthur, flatly denied they were fishing for sharks.
"This is a case of urban legend finding its way into the mainstream media," said Sreenath Sreenivasan, a journalism professor who teaches new media studies at Columbia University in New York. "The media seems to have pounded it until officials reopened the case, lending this e-mail an artificial authority. That's really unfortunate, because this is horribly hurtful for this poor family."
Sreenivasan said that people should consciously avoid participation in e-mail hoaxes.
"The best thing that people can do is not forward e-mails that are urban myths like this, unsigned and unsubstantiated allegations, crazy stories about needles covered with the AIDS virus being left in public phone coin slots, stuff like that," Sreenivasan said. "It's a new world out there. People can disseminate any kind of rubbish they want to for free, instantaneously and to a worldwide audience. The least we can do is not add to the confusion."
If the author of the e-mail is identified, he could potentially be sued for libel, said Matthew D. Bunker, a journalism professor that teaches media law at the University of Alabama.
"The Internet's no different from any other media. This guy could be tracked down and sued," Bunker said. A case could be made that the message has caused damage to Flosenzier's reputation, that he was clearly identified in the message and that it was published to thousands or even millions of people, he said.
"All the basic requirements of a libel case would seem to be present here," Bunker said.
Jessie continues to be in serious condition at Sacred Heart Children's Hospital in Pensacola.
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