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- Juan Thompson, center, shown in the yearbook at Mehlville High School.
On the surface, Thompson seemed to adapt to life at the small private college without much trouble. He began to write a little for the school paper and hosted a podcast called News and Booze, in which he and three political science classmates debated topics such as the New York Police Department's stop-and-frisk strategies and a white law school applicant's lawsuit attacking affirmative action.
Ian D'Emilia, now 25, was a co-host of the podcast and roomed with Thompson and two others during their senior year in 2013.
"He's a charismatic guy," D'Emilia says on the phone from San Francisco. "He's a funny guy. He's an intellectual guy."
- Thompson, in another Mehlville photo.
He could also be secretive and combative. D'Emilia recalls a night they were hanging out at a friend's place talking politics. The conversation turned to the then-mayor of Newark, Cory Booker. Thompson, not a Booker fan, grew furious with the friend. "He took his shirt off, like they were going to fight," D'Emilia says.
Around professors and others he wanted to impress, Thompson was pure eloquence. D'Emilia says he had the charm and smarts of a politician in the making. Thompson especially liked to talk about his acceptance into University of Chicago Law School, one of the best in the nation.
But D'Emilia was growing increasingly skeptical of Thompson's stories. As graduation approached, they made plans to go to a string of commencement events together. Thompson, though, never showed up.
When he didn't even go to collect his diploma, D'Emilia tracked him down at their apartment to ask why. Thompson claimed he was short a language credit he needed to graduate. It seemed almost impossible he wouldn't have known that before graduation week, especially since Thompson had talked so much about Chicago and law school, D'Emilia says.
"He was a peculiar guy," he says today. "Very peculiar. I never really trusted him."
Thompson moved to Chicago after leaving Vassar and began trying to make his way as a journalist. He interned for few months in the summer of 2013 at hyperlocal news site DNAinfo Chicago, he says, writing neighborhood stories. He landed another internship almost a year later at WBEZ, the NPR affiliate in Chicago.
And then, after less than a year total of experience as an intern, he was hired by the Intercept and moved to Brooklyn.
The Intercept's story-by-story review of Thompson's work leaves some sections of his writing still standing. Often, it's the work pulled from other sources and cited.
Looking at the body of work and the parts that his former employer is no longer willing to stand behind, Thompson seems less a Stephen Glass — spinning fantastical tales that really were too good to be true — and more a Jayson Blair, a guy who took shortcuts or embroidered details that weren't in the foreground.
Even in his Scott Roof story, the supposed interview with the cousin was just an anecdote dropped into the fourth paragraph, below talk of the shooter's racist photos on Facebook and a quote and citation from an ABC story. The parts found to be fake by the site's review team were usually just the bits of original reporting needed to complete a narrative supported by context and facts already out in the world.
That's also the case in Thompson's story about some local unsolved murders, "St. Louis Grapples — And Fails to Grapple — with the Matter of Murdered Black Women." The story describes a common thread of apathy and disrespectful media coverage in response to the killings, buttressing Thompson's argument with readily available crime statistics. The part he allegedly fabricated is an interview with a criminal justice professor, the kind of secondary interview reporters include for a little context. The woman does exist, but she doesn't teach criminal justice and hadn't spoken to Thompson, the Intercept found.
The retracted and corrected stories on the site cover only the occasions where the Intercept could find people who refuted claims or denied saying the quotes attributed to them. The site's investigators noted more than a dozen other instances where they couldn't find the people quoted and couldn't determine if they were real or not.
It's a pattern that casts doubt not only on Thompson's stories, but pieces of his resume. In bios attached to freelance pieces, he was repeatedly described as a Vassar grad who was taking a break from law school as he gave journalism a try and worked on a forthcoming memoir — It Hurts Even More in French — to be released by Crown Publishing. But a University of Chicago spokesman wouldn't say if Thompson was ever accepted to the prestigious school, much less confirm whether he'd been awarded a full scholarship — a detail mentioned in a Vassar alumni magazine piece that quoted Thompson.
The memoir claim was repeated in the Intercept's announcement of Thompson's hire in November 2014. But months later, it was deleted from the site — without so much as an editor's note letting people know the item had been altered.
When asked about the change by RFT, Reed says the site's computer system shows Thompson did it himself.
"The Intercept did not find out the claim was suspect until we conducted our investigation much later," Reed, who didn't hire Thompson, writes in an email.
The claims about law school and the supposed book deal are like the people the Intercept's researchers couldn't find. Maybe he interviewed those people, and they're now hard to locate. Maybe the book deal fell through. Maybe he was accepted to law school and didn't go. But in Thompson's new reality, doubt covers anything that can't be pinned to verifiable facts.
Thompson insists it was all true enough. He continues to fight back, and seems most bothered when people question the stories he's told about his family and hometown. That includes the essay that Talking Points Memo deleted, which detailed the crime and violence committed by his father and uncles in the same neighborhoods where their families had to live.
Court records confirm his father was repeatedly arrested and incarcerated during Thompson's life. Harder, if not impossible to confirm, are the sections attributed to memory. Did Jones really tell his son he'd murdered four people? Did he say "I smoked some niggas," as Thompson writes?
"I wish I could make this shit up, but I can't because it would be such a horrible thing for a child and a person to have to go through the things I wrote about," Thompson tells RFT.
Another story, "How St. Louis Police Robbed My Family of $1,000 (And How I'm Trying to Get It Back)," is even more of a tangled web.
First published eight months after the unrest in Ferguson brought a national spotlight to the way petty traffic offenses have tormented black people in the St. Louis area, the story describes the time in 2007 when his mother was jailed in St. Louis city following a traffic stop.
Thompson wrote that his mother had been taken into custody by St. Ann cops, who mistook her for another woman with a bunch of outstanding warrants in the city.
"St. Ann is one of the more notorious cities in the county when it comes to traffic violations, and in my mother's case, the city's finest, quite simply, fucked up," he wrote. "As it was, my mother had no warrant; the police confused her with another woman who shared her name — sans the middle initial."
But that part simply wasn't true. His mother had warrants from 2001 and 2003 for driving on a license suspended in 1997, according to records at the 22nd Circuit Court examined by RFT.
Questioned about his story's claim of mistaken identity, Thompson says that wasn't the point.
"The point about the story was that she was arrested and detained for a few days, and her family didn't know where she was," he says. "Even if a poor black woman was driving on a suspended license, she can still be mistaken for someone else who has a worse record. She can also be detained for days without her family knowing where she was."
He offered his mother's plight as an example of the way the criminal justice system grinds up those who don't have political clout or money to pay for attorneys, and parts of the narrative check out. Yolanda Thompson did spend at least two days in city lockup. She did plead guilty, and it does sound like a misery that a person with a lawyer on retainer wouldn't have suffered.
"I cried for four or five days while I was down there," she tells RFT. "It was a horrible experience."