Howard High School's principal broke the news to students over the PA system late yesterday afternoon: A recent graduate had been killed overseas in the war on terrorism.
But it turned out that reports of Army Pvt. Ryan King's death were greatly exaggerated. King is alive and well in Korea. And his mother, Cheryl King Craig of Frederick, wants a criminal investigation to find who posted news of his "death" on an alumni Web site.
"Whoever sent this out as a prank or a joke is very mean and very cruel," Craig said. "I'm going to get a computer expert and I'm going to find out where this generated from."
When Principal Mary Day announced King's death to the Ellicott City school's 1,250 students yesterday, some who remembered the Class of 2000 wrestler wept in the hallways. King's junior ROTC instructor called the young man's mother to offer condolences. And calls poured in to St. Rose of Lima church in Southwest Baltimore, where services were supposedly planned.
Day picked up the false report from a Howard High School alumni Web site that said King died in action this month. Posted on the site was a message -- purportedly written by Craig and riddled with typos -- announcing her son's death.
"It is my regret to inform you that my son Ryan King, was killed with his RANGER unit on Nov 8th when they were attacked by Rebel Terrorist trying to scout 'Hill 401' His body will be brought back to the states from the middle east on Nov 12th. The Funeral wll be held at St. Rose of Lima in baltimore. News Channel 2 will be doing a special report on Ryan Nov 13 at 5:30. Please pray for my family ..."
Craig said she knew nothing about the posting until she got a startling phone message yesterday from retired Army Maj. Sullivan Brown, senior Army instructor for Howard High School's junior ROTC program.
"He called and left a message saying he had heard about Ryan," Craig said. "I panicked and got nervous and said, 'This can't be true.'"
But it seemed true enough to plenty of people at Howard High School, particularly given the church details and the purported Channel 2 report. WMAR assignment manager Craig Ball said late yesterday that no story was planned.
Day, the principal, looked at the Web site after hearing students talk about it. She tried and failed to reach Craig, and decided to announce King's death to the school at the end of the day.
"I thought, 'Well, the mother has put it out and I really don't want to bother her," Day said. "... The kids were coming to me and asking me about it and it was circulating around the school. I said, 'I might as well let them know.'"
Students who remembered King broke into tears. Some who didn't know him were upset to think that someone who had so recently walked their school had been lost in the war. Even tough ROTC kids were stricken, Brown said. "They were shocked because they knew him," he said. "One of the cadets started crying. One young man said it is scary because he's so young."
Meanwhile, King's mother was desperately trying to learn her son's fate. She called Brown and he told her another parent had passed word that King had been killed. She called the Red Cross seeking information, but had no luck.
Craig realized the story was a hoax when a reporter directed her to the Web site and she saw that the posting bore her name and misidentified her son as a Ranger. And the date of her son's purported death -- Nov. 8 -- did not make sense, since King's girlfriend had spoken to him by phone this week.
She said she has no idea who would have played such a cruel joke.
"Especially in this time of war," she added. "People should be uniting together and not pulling these pranks and jokes."
Day, the principal, was shocked and relieved to learn from a reporter last night that King is not dead. She said she'll happily set the record straight over the PA system this morning.
"I'll be glad to announce that," she said.