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A long, tall Texas tale.

There were no aliens involved, just a dead 79-foot earthworm, but something of a "War of the Worlds' concern still gripped the border town of Laredo, Texas, in early March after the Morning Times reported the worm's appearance.

The 200-word story said that frustrated commuters called police that morning after being unable to drive around the 300-pound worm, described by one motorist as "a grey, fat, rubbery thing." A Laredo State University entomologist, Dr. Luis Leacky, pointed out a sticky trail of mucus along Interstate 35 and surmised that the mutant had emerged from the polluted Rio Grande. U.S. Border Patrol agents, assisted by Laredo police officers wearing rubber gloves, used two cranes and an 18-wheeler to remove the carcass, according to the paper.

That day, Bill Green, publisher of the Hearst-owned Morning Times, dismissed the reporter who wrote the tale. The editor who allowed it to see print also left the paper, although he won't say why. (The publisher would only say the two "no longer work here.") The next morning, Green signed a front page apology to readers on both sides of the border--as well as the Border Patrol, the Laredo Police department and Laredo State University, home of the fictitious Dr. Leacky.

Reporter Carol Huang, 27, says she dashed the story off as a joke after being put on hold during a phone interview. It wasn't the first time she had composed fake stories on her computer to amuse herself, she says. This time, however, she shared it with a newsroom colleague.

When it appeared a few days later on page 3A of the Morning Times under the headline, "Agents recover huge carcass' and her byline, Huang says she was stunned. "I knew fight away I was in trouble."

Tom Sanchez, the news editor who signed off on the story and who now hosts a dally talk show on a local radio station, says it was printed "by accident" but wouldn't comment further or explain who had written the headline or placed Huang's name on the piece. Says Green, "I know this much: He had the story for 24 hours. He did not consult with the writer or another editor. It is inexplicable."

What caused many of the city's 130,000 residents to run to their cars was Huang's final paragraph. "Because federal environmental guidelines do not outline the proper disposal method for large, earthworm carcasses," she wrote, "authorities have left the creature in the Target store parking lot until Monday, when zoologists and EPA officials are expected to arrive from Washington."

Local law officers say they received hundreds of calls. A Texas A&M University scientist notified the Morning Times he was ready rush to the scene with a van loaded with technical equipment. At the parking lot, located across the street from Border Patrol offices, curiosity seekers arrived in droves. Says Alfonso Moreno, a Border Patrol spokesman, "There was a lot of commotion, cars going in and out of there, looking for the worm."

Jose Esqueda, the KGNS-TV chief photographer who drove to the lot in a station car to film traffic for a story on the hoax, soon found 15 cars following him. He says puzzled drivers would catch his eye and shrug, as if to say, "Where is it?" When Esqueda returned a few hours later, he found a batch of curious firefighters circling their truck ahead of what he describes as "a little worm" of tailgaters.

One Target employee says that people knocked on the store's windows even before it had opened "asking if we had [the worm] in the building." Huang, now freelancing and having second thoughts about whether she fought hard enough to keep her job, says the hubbub taught her a hard lesson about the power of the press. "I realized, definitely," she says, "that people read the newspaper and believe what they read."

Martinez, a Laredo native whose first journalism job was as a Morning Times proofreader in 1976, is a freelance writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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Title Annotation:hoax published in the Laredo Morning Times about a giant earthworm
Author:Martinez, Yleana
Publication:American Journalism Review
Date:May 1, 1993
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