Nearly a decade ago, John (JS) Dirr was a 21-year-old University of British Columbia student who played in a band and had a twin brother, Sam, who had been murdered by a knife-wielding girlfriend.
In the ensuing years, Mr. Dirr would have a busy life. He became an RCMP officer, fathered 10 children, married a surgeon named Dana and did his best to cope with the cancer that was ailing his seventh child, Eli.
All this was copiously documented on thousands of posts on many social websites, Tripod, Xanga, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, where Eli was called “Warrior Eli” for his courage in the face of illness.
Over the years, scores of fellow cancer survivors shared messages of support and well-wishers sent donations in Eli’s name to cancer charities.
It was all an elaborate hoax and after so many years, it collapsed in recent weeks.
Last month, Mr. Dirr announced on Facebook that his pregnant wife had been in an car accident but gave birth just before dying on Mother’s Day.
“I lost the love of my life,” he wrote in a rambling note on his page.
That post went viral but it also raised suspicions. Some wondered how Mr. Dirr could have gone online the morning after his wife’s death.
In Chicago, futures trader Taryn Wright said she was baffled over why there was no news coverage of the tragic event.
She recounted that she and her friends scrutinized Mr. Dirr’s Facebook page and noticed that there were no group photos of his family. That all his “friends” seemed to have similar Facebook accounts.
As Ms. Wright raised doubts on her own blog, tips started pouring in. She said she was told for example that pictures of two of Mr. Dirr’s kids were actually pictures of the twins of Tertia Albertyn, a South African blogger in Cape Town.
“I feel sick,” Ms. Albertyn wrote on her blog about the identity theft. “I am obviously not wildly excited that he/she stole photos of my kids but what really, really upsets me is that they played on the feelings of several thousand people by pretending to have a child with cancer.”
At the same time, the mysterious Mr. Dirr erased his online accounts. In all, the hoaxer had created more than 70 fake Facebook accounts with hundreds of bogus photos, which all disappeared in recent days, Ms. Wright said.
“It’s mind-boggling, everything that had been created,” she said in a phone interview.
There were always odd things about the fake Mr. Dirr and Warrior Eli.
For example, Donna Jantzen, a volunteer for a cancer foundation in Kansas, said she was moved by Eli’s plight and wanted last April to mail him a homemade blanket. Mr. Dirr told her that, because of his job, he couldn’t share his address publicly.
She was instead instructed to mail the blanket to Mr. Dirr’s sister, Emily, at an address in Rootstown, Ohio.
Similarly, wristbands with Eli’s names were sent to supporters, but from the Rootstown address rather than Canada, Ms. Wright said.
If there was no real J.S. Dirr, there is an Emily Dirr who was enrolled at Northeast Ohio Medical University, in Rootstown.
After the hoax was exposed, Ms. Jantzen received a package, returning her blanket, with $80 to cover her postage and a letter of apology signed “Emily.”
“I am so sorry for the pain I have caused you, your family and your foundation. I never meant for any of that,” the note said.
The note did not explain why, for so many years, someone went to so much trouble, for no financial gains.
“These are parents of children with cancer who have been sympathizing and shared stories and ideas and they’ve been hurt. That’s what’s unfair,” Ms. Jantzen said.
Emily Dirr dropped out of the med school a few weeks ago, just before the university received complaints about the hoax, said spokeswoman Cristine Boyd.
As a first-year student, Ms. Dirr didn’t interact with patients, Ms. Boyd said, adding that the university doesn’t plan to discipline someone who is no longer a student.
There were no answers to phone calls left to the Rootstown residence and an e-mail sent to Ms. Dirr was not answered.
Mr. Jantzen said she is not even sure if Emily Dirr is really behind the deception.
“This person has lied about everything else. Why would she give her name now?”