June 15, 2013 at 12:09 PM ET
Like many proud moms, Sarah Gilliam created a blog to capture all the memorable moments from her son’s childhood.
Little did the Tennessee woman know that the photos she was posting of her son, Jack, were being used on a fake blog claiming to pay tribute to a 3-year-old boy named “Reilly Bowman” who died of leukemia.
Gilliam was oblivious that her son was playing the central role in the fabricated tragedy on the blog “Remembering Reilly,” which offered T-shirts and ribbons designed to commemorate a child who never existed. Her ordeal raises the question of how much to share in an age when many parents chronicle their children’s lives online.
“I knew that these were very simple mundane images of him playing in a yard with a cape on, so to see these images turn into, ‘This was your last walk,’ was really hard to read,’’ Gilliam told TODAY.
Gilliam finally was informed of the blog's use of her son’s photos by the Warrior Eli Hoax Group, a watchdog organization that outs people faking cancer and other diseases online. Shelly Jackson, an investigator with the organization, looked into the blog's “Remembering Reilly’’ and “Reilly’s Cancer Journey,’’ discovering inconsistencies with the alleged treatment for chronic myelogenous leukemia, which Jackson’s son suffers from. She then did Google searches on the images of “Reilly,’’ and matched them with ones of Jack on a site run by Gilliam, who is a professional photographer.
Warrior Eli Hoax Group then used some cyber-sleuthing to uncover the alleged culprit, who turned out to be a 17-year-old high school sophomore in North Carolina. The fake blogs were taken down along with their related Facebook and YouTube pages after an apology was posted on the “Remembering Reilly” Facebook page.
"There are families that followed her who have children who were dying, so that's really tough to digest,'' Gilliam said.
The girl said she never made any money or received any gifts from the hoax. She also apologized to Gilliam, saying, in part, “You have every right, beyond every right, to be furious with me, and with what I have done. It is an ungrateful, shameful, humiliating, downright awful thing.”
Gilliam has contacted authorities, and an investigation is ongoing.
“I think there should be some consequence, otherwise actions like this and lifting images and fabricating stories will just go on,’’ Gilliam said.