When Jamison Stone shot and killed a massive swine in Alabama last year, the headlines blared: "Boy Bags Monster Pig in 'Bama." An 11-year-old taking down a hog in Dixie was front-page news in Manhattan. "The Today Show" lined him up for an appearance.
Quickly, though, as the details of the hunt emerged, the spotlight abandoned Stone. After countless hours of following the story since it broke in May, I've pieced together a far shadier account of events than initially reported. And I've learned that Stone this week will face a secret grand jury in Clay County to answer for possible animal cruelty charges. He and the four adults he trusted who ultimately tricked him and an overeager press are all subject to questioning, and possible enforcement.
What went wrong?
For starters, the grand jury's issue is not with Jamison's father, Mike Stone, and his initial exaggeration of the pig's dimensions. (Check out my investigation "Hog Washed!" on StinkyJournalism.org for a breakdown of how the "hero shots" after the hunt were manipulated.) Instead, it will be investigating the more serious matter of why experienced hunters let the half-ton hog bleed out across a three-hour hunt when they had the opportunity to kill it swiftly and humanely.
Stone, now 12, may not have known better. He's the young man you remember holding the .50 caliber Smith & Wesson pistol behind the large, hairy hog he shot at a "hunting preserve" called Lost Creek Plantation in Lineville, Ala., in May.
He no doubt had placed trust in his father, Mike Stone, who arranged the hunt with Keith O'Neal and Charles Williams, owners of Southeastern Trophy Hunters. They brokered hunts with Eddy Borden, who owns Lost Creek.
Those men assured young Jamison that hog he killed was wild. The truth is, the animal was in fact a docile breeding swine named "Fred."
The boy's trust in these four men turned out to be misplaced. O'Neal, a professional hunter, persuaded the father to fork over $1,500 to guide Jamison on the rigged hunt. Their actions that day could lead Jamison to face charges in court.
How did three trained hunters and the boy's father lead him around a fenced-in, 150-acre plot for more than three hours, allowing Jamison to repeatedly shoot but merely wound a 1,000-pound animal?
Not one of them thought to say: "Look, son, you had your chance, but those belly shots have wounded the animal and it is in distress. We have to put the creature out of its misery."
Instead, they allowed the hog to bleed out from injury. Mike Stone said during several phone interviews recorded over numerous hours that no kill shot was ever taken. "I regret that it didn't die the first shot," he said on June 5. "But that's all I can say. That's all I'm going to say."
The mystery remains: Why did the hunters do nothing? As director of the Art Science Research Laboratory, which runs a media ethics program and a web site called StinkyJournalism.org, I led hundreds of hours of on-the-record interviews and research into the monster pig case (the records of which were subpoenaed by Clay County District Attorney Fred Thompson). The results of that investigation will offer the jury some clues.
Here is what we found.
Although its web site boasted that the hunting at Lost Creek was "legendary," the hunting operation at the plantation was only four months old at the time of the hunt. Eddy Borden had big plans for developing his canned-hunt operation, the Clay County Times reported shortly before the hunt.
Borden, along with O'Neal, hatched a scheme following the blueprint for hype and financial success generated by "Hogzilla," the first famous and controversial monster hog, shot on a hunting plantation in Georgia in 2004.
Using buzzwords associated with the Hogzilla hype, O'Neal placed an advertisement on April 28th. It promised a "once in a lifetime" hunt for a "monster" wild boar that they had "trapped" and that was now "roaming the wilds of the Lost Creek Plantation."
It turns out that the "monster" boar was in fact plain ol' Fred, a domesticated, part Duroc hog whose original owner, Phil Blissitt, said that Borden and Williams drove their truck to pick up the swine from his farm on April 29th. (Allen Andress, the chief of law enforcement for the Alabama Wildlife and Fisheries Division, confirmed the pickup date in a separate phone interview.)
Borden paid Blissitt $250 for the hog, and in that instant Fred went from breeding stock to "wild" beast just four days before the hunt.
O'Neal, in charge of selling the hunting escapade, knew full well there was no, "beast roaming Lost Creek." Still, he placed an advertisement on his web site, Southeasterntrophyhunters.com, and sent out a mailing to hype the canned hunt as a safari-like adventure. He may have already had Mike Stone in mind as a prospect.
The ad featured Stone himself, who had shot a 627-pound hog at Lost Creek only weeks before. He also mentioned that Borden had just trapped another boar larger than the one Stone had shot.
According to Mike Stone, a local news station advised O'Neal that in order for the hunt to become a news story, only the boy not an adult could take the shot. The media got what they asked for, and a brave young lad shot and killed a "monster" hog in the wilds of Alabama.
Trouble was, it just wasn't true.
The Anniston Star newspaper reported on May 30 that hunt organizers O'Neal and Williams said they "knew the harvest of the pig alone would draw some attention but that the addition of Jamison doing the shooting moved the story to a higher level."
O'Neal told the paper: "We knew it was going to be something significant because of the sheer size. The fact that an 11-year-old did it with a pistol, that's what perpetuated it and has kept it going."
The Star continued: "O'Neal and Williams went on to say that a lot of this skepticism might have never happened. They had invited television stations to come with them on the hunt, but none showed up."
It was the Star's May 23, 2007 report that first launched the story into the media; StinkyJournalism.org discovered that it also was invited to attend the hunt, but did not disclose this fact. (We will be writing more later about the media's responsibilities and role in this international fake news story.)
We also found out the main independent witness used to verify the hog's size and skull for the Star, taxidermist Jerry Cunningham, had a business relationship with O'Neal for over 16 years. This should have been revealed to the public.
Was creating a news story in order to promote a hunting business the primary reason the professional hunters didn't take any shots and went to such lengths to ensure that only the boy took aim?
Were the resulting international headlines "11 Year Old Boy Slays Monster Pig in Alabama'' worth the cruelty and suffering to the pig? Borden may no longer think so. Instead of creating a booming business, the Hogzilla scheme backfired. It generated bad press and has led to possible charges against Borden as well as the boy. Lost Creek Plantation has apparently since been closed, and realtors have confirmed to Stinkyjournalism.org that it is up for sale.
Mike Stone, who was sold a "pig-in-a-poke" by O'Neal, Williams and Borden, should not be charged. These three adults, all professional hunters, are responsible. Jamison and the hog are the victims in this case.
Still, Mike Stone is no angel in all of this. He created a web site, Monsterpig.com, filled with celebrity endorsements, posters for sale with Jamison's autograph ($10), and an announcement that Jamison had just received a part in the movie, The Legend of Hogzilla.
Mike Stone bragged that Jamison received congratulations from such celebrities as Rickey Medlocke of Lynyrd Skynyrd; country star Kenny Chesney; Benelli exhibition marksmen Tom Knapp and Tim Bradley; and Smith & Wesson marksman Jerry Miculek.
However, there was no groundswell of support by personalities contacting Jamison. Stone solicited all of these celebrities for their congratulations, and every last one was surprised and dismayed to hear that their names appeared on Jamison's web site.
I asked Miculek, the famed sharpshooter and a role model for hunting youth, whether the .50 caliber hand gun was the cause for Jamison having missed so many shots. "You hit poorly because you can't control the recoil on it," Miculek said.
What about letting the hog bleed out? Miculek did not flinch. "The idea of the hunt is to make a good one-shot presentation on the animal, so it's over with," he said. "It doesn't matter if you're 12 years old or you're 90 years old. You have to respect what you hunt, and you owe it to the animal as much as you do to yourself to make it a quick and accurate shot, so he [Jamison] did neither."
I don't live in Alabama, but I would be willing to wager that most Alabamians know the importance and value of a quick kill when hunting. Not since Neil Young's song "Southern Man" has there been a better time to once again draw the line between what is morally acceptable and what is not. The ugly truth is that a child and his father were duped by three men for financial gain. What happened here is not hunting.
As the grand jury deliberates this week, the state needs a Lynyrd Skynyrd, "Sweet Home Alabama" rebuttal. By enforcing its animal cruelty laws, people who criticized the hog's needlessly painful death around the world will learn that a few flim-flammers won't be allowed to tarnish the good name of Alabama or hunting itself.
Who else will join Stinkyjournalism.org to speak out for poor Jamison and hold the real culprits accountable?
Might the manner of Fred's death constitute cruelty? And if so, who is at fault: a 12-year-old boy, or scheming adults? It is up to a grand jury in Clay County, Ala., to determine.
Editor's note: Rhonda Shearer is the director of Art Science Research Laboratory, which she founded with her late husband Stephen Jay Gould. The New York-based think tank promotes cross-disciplinary studies and supports a journalism ethics program that publishes StinkyJournalism.org, a site bent on debunking erroneous media. She and her colleagues have put hundreds of hours into investigating the claims around a "monster" pig kill in Alabama last year, which they see as a case study in how to create an international media hoax. Because the investigation involves hunting law and ethics, she has written this report for ESPNOutdoors.com, to be published simultaneously on StinkyJournalism.org.