Thursday, September 10, 2009

Whoops! Peter Applebome Forgets To Use Google, Writes Puff Column On Firefighter Impersonator And Alleged Ground Zero Thief.

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.


Roberto said...

He'll be feeling triumphant today.

And so much for the collective institutional memory of the sub-editors/editors ...

Anonymous said...

I like Applebome a lot. Admittedly, not his strongest column but I will keep reading him.

It amazes me that with all the editors he must have, no one thinks to check these people out.

Anonymous said...

I'm also a fan of Applebome's. And while this Bellone guy seems to have a checkered past, it sure seems nice to buy a fire engine and paint the names all over it. Even the worst people can do something worthy of a puff piece. Right? Or are we supposed to fret over Chappaquidick every time we discuss Kennedy's health care proposal?

Anonymous said...

Agree with all the Applebome supporters, he's good. And yeah, the firetruck was a nice gesture. Having the other stuff just would have made the story more interesting.

Anonymous said...

Once again, nytpicker takes a gratuitous swipe at Dan Barry, this time building on its own false premise that Barry had neglected to properly research the background of a subject in one of his columns.

July 31, 7:50 am- Birth of a Premise

"Barry...apparently can't be troubled with conventional reporting techniques like Google and Nexis to flesh out his obervations (sic) of things like the glow of his subect's (sic) cigar. The result is a stale story that -- yet again -- repurposes local news for an unknowing national audience."

Barry addressed this issue in response to several inquiries at 6:17 PM on the same day:

"Some readers have asked why I did not include the nature of Mr. Freitas’s criminal past in my column about a homeless encampment under a bridge in Providence, Rhode Island. A lot of thought went into the decision, which followed conversations with both Mr. Freitas and my editor. Here’s what it comes down to."

"I knew of Mr. Freitas’s conviction involving sexual assault on a child because another homeless person told me about it, and because I found reference to it on the Internet. I asked Mr. Freitas, and he was straightforward about it. He said that he was convicted, that he served four years in prison, and that he has been out of prison for more than 20 years, trying to rebuild his life. So much time has lapsed, he said, that he no longer is required to register as a sex offender."

A simple Google search provides.

Not only has nytpicker not subsequently retracted its contention in the first article, but it sees fit to "repurpose" this notion here, portraying Barry as the original sloppy and incompetent journalist with Applebome following suit.

So, where do we stand?

Either this "team of journalists who prefer to work in anonymity" neglected to do its own research and was unaware of Barry's explanation or they discount his words as those of a self-serving liar and take it as a given that the reader would agree.

For my own part, I find it hard to believe that Pulitzers and Polk awards flow to sloppy and incompetent journalists and I bear in mind that Barry's reputation for integrity is so highly regarded that he was asked lend it to the Times in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal when it had none of its own.

How galling it must be to see hard work and achievement rewarded to those who languish unacknowledged on the bottom rung of their profession.

How tempting it must be to raise oneself by tearing down others.


Anonymous said...

Mike Bellone live in Seneca Falls, NY now. The TRAC Team has an office in Waterloo, NY. The continue to have fundraisers in the name of Veterans and 9-11, but The TRAC Team appears to be the only real beneficiary!! Go figure!!

Anonymous said...

I'm sure that GOOGLE was used for doing research on Mike Bellone, but who takes the New York Post seriously as a newsworthy paper? The POST is a tabloid, and 90% of what they write is garbage. Mike Bellone IS an Honorary Firefighter, Mike Bellone never did any of the things that the POST reported. Mike Bellone raises monies for and donates products to those in need through his charity. Mike Bellone has numerous letters of commendation from FDNY Brass and Mike Bellone worked 9 months for free at WTC assisting the FDNY in human recoveries. Everybody and every story needs a villain, and there are a few who conveniently chose Mike Bellone to be the villain, after all SOMEONE has to be the villain. Sorry to report, but Mike Bellone is one of the good guys, NOT the villain, and I say that after doing all the research. There are a select few who are jealous of Mike Bellone because he unknowingly became well known and acknowledged for his good deeds and perhaps THEY did not get recognized for their good deeds at Ground Zero. Mike Bellone never stole anything from WTC and certainly never sold any artifact - if he had - he'd have been charged with a crime. Yes, Bellone was arrested - but anyone can be falsely arrested, as was the case with him, and that is why the NYC District Attorney's office and the Judge released Bellone seconds after he was brought into court after his false arrest by the FDNY Fire Marshals. He was released and all charges dropped because Mike Bellone never committed any crime and Mike Bellone never committed any unethical or immoral act in the name of 9/11. In December of 2009, ABC News& World Report chose Mike Bellone as one of the HEROES OF THE DECADE, one of only 10 people to be given such an honor. So, who are you going to trust when deciding WHO Mike Bellone really is? Are you going to trust the NY Times and ABC News or a rag paper such as the New York Post who has a history of false reporting? Is Mike Bellone the evil JOKER or is he BATMAN? Common logic and all available data points to BATMAN. And just to clear something up - when someone dons a jacket with an FDNY patch - that does not make them an impersonator.

Anonymous said...

The last "Anonymous said..." sounds a lot like Mike Bellone himself. I met this loser a few years ago at one of his tables he sets up at conventions to sell his 9-11 paraphernalia (books, hats, t-shirts, etc..). After talking to him for a few minutes you realize this man is a fraud and thief. He has used 9-11 like his personal piggy bank for years. Mike Bellone preys on the emotions of families all over the United States. His new scam is targeting families of the military who have lost loved ones by hosting “Healing Fields” each year (WITH THE MONEY RAISED GOING TO HIS ORGANIZATION). He should be locked up and the key thrown away. He should be investigated by the New York State’s Attorney General. The I.R.S. should also audit his so called charitable organization “TRAC”. The fact that NYC dropped the charges is not an indicator of innocence. The NYC District Attorney routinely declines to prosecute due to their extreme case load. All this man does is try to be relevant when he has nothing to offer. For example, his new information regarding 9-11 he revealed on that cable show “Conspiracy Theories” proves he is desperate for attention. He is a liar and manipulator. He was never a fireman (honorary or otherwise) and volunteering at ground zero was done by thousands of people. His effort to be associated with the New York Fire Department is an embarrassment to the 343 that died that dreadful day. ABC News should do a better job vetting their stories because the words hero and Mike Bellone should never be included together in a sentence. As for the fire truck, it is just another tool for him to solicit money from people that have a soft spot for firemen and the memory of 9-11. There is a special place in hell for people like Mike Bellone.

Anonymous said...

I realize this article is a little old, but after spending 3 days with Mr. Bellone and his wife interviewing him for a possible documentary, I found some pretty serious problems with this article.

First, Mr. Bellone never hid the fact that he was a bouncer at a night club, and wasn't ashamed about it at all, nor should he be. I don't see how what he did prior to his work at ground zero should diminish his contribution and efforts there. There were people from all walks of life and backgrounds there. The tragedy brought out the best in people, Mike was no exception.

During the course of our conversations, while proud of his honorary status, he NEVER represented himself directly as a firefighter; always as a volunteer and recovery worker first, honorary firefighter second.

I didn't really see any evidence that Mike or his wife were exactly lining their pockets from any of the work that either Trac does or through some sort of exploitation of his involvement in 911. I got the sense that the vast array of medications he's taking to basically try and stay alive due to the toxins he was exposed to on the site have been taking a toll on them financially, even though he made no comments or complaints to that effect.

Mr. Bellone was falsely arrested, never stole anything and the charges against him were formerly dropped when he produced a letter from the FDNY's own counseling department stating they'd approved the use of the equipment for his work with TRAC.

Mr. Bellone had exceptional records, letters, artifacts, pictures and video to back up virtually every claim that he made with our team on camera and was very careful not to provide us any sort of information or stories that he couldn't otherwise back up. I found him to be quite thorough in this regard. In fact, the extensive archival materials that he'd produced for us presented us with the interesting problem of too much background information to support his stories from ground zero.

Even though there were some clarifications after this article was posted, if your standard for proper investigative journalism is simply performing Google searches and trusting what you find there as the truth, I'd you may want to consider alternative methods.