Once again, a NYT columnist has neglected to use Google, and ended up writing a puff piece about someone with a shady past.
Peter Applebome's feel-good "Our Towns" column yesterday about Michael Bellone, the "honorary firefighter" who bought a firetruck as a memorial to 9/11 victims, missed a few pertinent details about the supposed hero -- including his 2005 arrest for criminal impersonation, possession of stolen property and grand larceny. Among other things, Bellone was accused of stealing equipment from the NYC Fire Department at Ground Zero in the days after the World Trade Center attacks.
Applebome presented a totally sympathetic picture of Bellone, who he said had been a bar bouncer in 2001 when he went to Ground Zero to offer his help. According to Applebome, Bellone -- who had emergency medical technician training, and who spent many days as part of the 9/11 rescue effort -- now lives in Syracuse on permanent disability with only 13% lung capacity. The story describes in detail Bellone's fond feelings for firefighters, and is pegged to his effort to find a firetruck to "remember the men" by engraving on it the names of the 343 firefighters who died on 9/11.
But in fact, Bellone isn't the good samaritan Applebome presents. Bellone appears to have had an unhealthy obsession with the New York City Fire Department for years that culminated in his 2005 arrest.
Bellone has a history of misrepresenting himself and his charitable group -- TRAC, or "Trauma Response Assistance For Children" -- as affiliated with the Fire Department, and has even been accused of dressing in a firefighter uniform to falsely suggest he was a firefighter himself.
In 2004, the New York Post reported that Bellone and his group was warned by the Fire Department to stop using its name on promotional materials for TRAC, and to stop selling artifacts he was representing as 9/11 souvenirs, such as victims' shoes and eyeglasses.
"The fire marshals have opened an investigation into this group," a department spokesman told the Post, adding it "has no right to imply it works for or acts in any official capacity." The spokesman added that the group's members "are not authorized to wear fire department uniforms."
The Post also reported that TRAC owed $200,000 to a graphics company for printing a Ground Zero book, and had failed to pay more than $20,000 for hotel rooms and airplane tickets in connection with TRAC activities. At the time, Bellone conceded to the Post that he owed money but attributed the problems to "mix-ups."
"We're just a group of guys who want to share our experiences from Ground Zero and show kids that hope can spring from a horrible tragedy," Bellone told The Post. As for the allegation of misrepresenting themselves as firefighters by wearing uniforms, he said: "If someone got that idea, I apologize."
On September 27, 2005, the New York City Fire Department announced that Bellone had been arrested on charges of grand larceny, criminal impersonation and theft of stolen property. An investigation had found a department air tank, harness, regulator and mask in Bellone's possession that had been reported missing from the FDNY's Mask Service Unit on October 1, 2001.
"It's very ghoulish," a fire department source told the Daily News. "[Bellone] may have helped firefighters at the time, but now he's making a living on this." (The NYTPicker hasn't yet been able to learn the outcome of the criminal charges brought against Bellone by the city.)
Bellone has even misrepresented aspects of his involvement at Ground Zero. In a self-published book about the recovery efforts, Bellone and his co-author claimed to have retrieved three of the four missing black boxes from American Airlines Flight 11 at the site, and given them to FBI agents who told him to keep quiet about it. According to Counterpunch, an investigative website, the FBI said those claims were false.
None of these details made it into Applebome's story, of course; it appears that, like his colleague Dan Barry, he neglected to use that popular investigative journalism tool known as Google. However, it should be noted that Google exists only for reporters interested in basing their columns on more than a single interview.