|Welcome to the Kaycee Nicole (Swenson) FAQ version 0.7
This document attempts to exaplain what is currently known about the
Kaycee Nicole cancer Hoax and how the Metafilter.com community uncovered
If you are researching this story, please read this document to get an idea
of what is going on. Remember: The web isn't evil, evil people are evil.
All the references you can handle and then some are at:
Big updates at bottom!
CORRECTIONSRandall's name is spelling with an 'a' not an 'e', as I had mistyped a few times earlier.
Randall met Debbie on Halcyon's citizenx.com, not collegeclub.
Swenson family, not Swensen.
Randall's weblog is only one part of his site, its not the site itself. I'm sorry that wasn't clear before.
Saundra the journalist is the one to broke the story on anywherebeyond.com. I didn't specify this explicitly, I just mentioned a pair of posts on a website. Credit where credit is due.
This document is divided into three parts.
Part 1: Summary - What happened?
Part 2: The Players - Who did what?
Part 3: The Investigation - How was this uncovered?
Part 1: Summary - What exactly happened?
For more than two years, a sizable group of internet users were caught up in the story of Kaycee Nicole. She was an attractive High School/College student dying from leukemia and she kept users updated via her online diary. Eventually her mom also started a companion diary to express the feelings associated with caring for a child with cancer. Many people became close friends with Kaycee Nicole through email, chatroom, and even phone conversations. When Kaycee finally succumbed, her online friends grieved like they had lost members of their own families. Well, there is one problem. Kaycee Nicole never existed.
Here is what almost certainly happened according to the original facts, Metafiler users' investigations, and a reporter who is investigating this matter:
Kelli Swenson was a middle schooler in the Oklahoma City metro area. She, probably with her friends, created an imaginary girl named Kaycee Nicole around 1997 or 1998. They made a series of personal web pages for the new girl to give her a life of her own. Kaycee's first website was on the same Geocities account as Kelli's own page, but other Kaycee homepages were made with basically repetitive information. There was no mention of cancer. Kelli used pictures of a local high school basketball star to give Kaycee the face of an attractive young girl. The person in the pictures (now a college basketball player) is not involved in any way.
At some point, Kelli's real-life mother Debbie Swenson found about about the imaginary person that her daughter and friends had created. She, for whatever reason, took over and turned Kaycee into a leukemia victim. Somewhere around this time, Kaycee joined the CollegeClub website. Kaycee told her stories of suffering from cancer and and became a popular member of the CollegeClub community. Staff members became close friends and traded care packages with the Swenson family. Kaycee Swenson was even quoted in a New York Times article about college life.
The story really begins with Randall van der Woning. He became friends with Debbie and thus Kaycee through John Halcyon's citizenx website. He runs a weblog called "adventures of a big white guy living in hong kong" and he offered to personally set up a weblog for Kaycee so that she could share her love and experiences with others. Unfortunately for Randall, his new friend and source of inspiration didn't exist.
Kaycee Nicole's new weblog became popular. The love and fearlessness displayed by a dying girl was inspirational. All of the weblog entries were actually written by Debbie Swenson. Debbie weaved a tale of remission and reaccurance that kept well-wishers locked on to the site. As imaginary Kaycee's overall condition deteriorated, her new friends did what would be expected. They sent cards, gifts, and possibly money. What exactly became of these gifts is not certain at this time, but Debbie never explicitly asked for gifts to be sent.
On Randall's suggestion, Debbie started her own weblog. She wrote of the pain experienced raising a daughter who she knew would probably die. Debbie gave detailed accounts of everything that happened to Kaycee, but most disturbingly she assimilated Kaycee into stories about her own real life children. When she discussed her two real kids, she would tell how they felt about Kaycee, how much they looked up to her, how worried they were, and so on. The level of detail is amazing.
After a few years, Debbie apprently decided that this had dragged on long enough. Just when Kaycee looked to be beating cancer, Debbie said she had an aneurysm and that she had died. The community outpouring of support was remarkable and those who knew Kaycee well suffered serious bouts of grief. This is also when larger suspicious arose. Debbie refused to provide an address to send cards or condolences, would not provide any real information about a funeral, and basically provided no real evidence that anyone had died. Most people believed that Kaycee was real because no one would attempt such a massive ongoing hoax. That was the stuff of outlandish conspiracy theories. Supporters assumed that the family just wanted to maintain an appropriate level of privacy. But a metafilter post questioning the existence of Kaycee was the key to the undoing of the whole mystery. Participants in the metafilter discussion began searching for proof of Kaycee's existence. None could be found. Even worse, evidence of a hoax emerged. After an intense and impressive community investigation, most of the facts became clear. Debbie admitted she wrote everything, though the details of her confession are questionable. Debbie refuses to reveal who provided Kaycee's voice for those who spoke with her on the phone.
Part 2: The Players - Who did what?
Kaycee Nicole Swenson - A figment of Kelli Swenson's imagination who was turned into a leukiemia victim by Kelli's mom, Debbie Swenson. Debbie claims in her confession that Kaycee is a character that represents three real life cancer victims and was used to tell their stories. She also claimed that the photos of Kaycee were really those of a cancer victim who was one of the three people that made up Kaycee's online personality. It has been proven that the photos are of a girl still living and has nothing to do with any of this. As such, most assume that Kaycee was actually a reflection of Debbie and her daughter with other tidbits thrown in, not the condenced story of anyone directly.
Debbie Swenson - The woman who made up everything that happened to Kaycee. This is the hoaxer. The amount of detail she provided and the way she wove Kaycee into her life is disturbing. She reportedly believes she did nothing wrong in all of this.
Kelli Swenson - Debbie's real life daughter. She created Kaycee originally and was probably involved heavily throughout Kaycee's existence. One person who called Kaycee reports that Kelli answered and handed the phone to Kaycee. This is how the daughter was originally brought into suspicion of being part of the hoaxing herself.
Randall van der Woning - The man who set up and hosted Kaycee and Debbie's weblogs. He was a close friend who talked to both often. He had no idea that Kaycee didn't exist. After it was revealed to him that it was all a hoax, he deleted both Kaycee and Debbie's weblogs and posted an explanation.
John "Halcyon" Styn - an "unrelenting extrovert" and generally nice guy who became close friends with Kaycee during his days at CollegeClub. His caring nature led him to unwittingly promote and support the fictional Kaycee. Randall met Kaycee through John's citizenx website which of course led to the whole weblog. Some people originally suspected that John might have been involved in the hoax, but this was completely disproven.
Julie -last name omitted- - A high-school basketball star in Oklahoma. Many photographs of her from year books, basketball games, and the like were used as pictures of Kaycee Nicole. When it was discovered that the Kaycee Nicole pictures were really Julie, there was little doubt left that everything Debbie had said was a lie.
Audra Lea - A girl with a website who didn't even know Kaycee well. Her boyfriend at the time introduced her to the Kaycee story and as a small gift, Audra bought Kaycee the kayceenicole.com domain name. The record of her purchasing the domain name and her general resemblence to the Kaycee pictures led some to believe she was involved in the hoax, but this was quickly disproven.
There were many other people involved: friends of Kaycee, people who helped uncover the hoax in varios ways, etc. But those listed were the main players.
Part 3: The Investigation
So how did the Kaycee Nicole story progress from "hard to doubt" to an "obvious hoax"? The answer is that a lot of people worked hard to uncover the truth.
- Initial Doubts -
A few people had doubted Kaycee's authenticity while she was still "living", but so many people talked to her on a regular basis that these doubts were mostly ignored. The initial impetus of real doubt was a pair of articles posted soon after Kaycee's "death" on personal weblogs spelling out how Kaycee could have been faked. Most of the details of these original posts were inaccurate in hindsight, but the authors had the main idea. This led to a large discussion on the Metafilter website which in turn led to many people checking out Kaycee's validity.
At this point, most people still believed Kaycee was real. But all that was really known was that a girl named Kaycee Nicole had possibly died in a small town in Kansas.
- When Kaycee's death was announced, the family wouldn't provide an address to send cards. The P.O. Box used in the past was no longer accepting mail.
- People began to realize that NO ONE had actually met Kaycee in real life, even those who had frequent phone conversations with her over the course of several years time.
- Kaycee often quoted song lyrics in her posts. 1960's and 70's song lyrics. And her posts seemed to be written by someone older than 19.
- No one could find an obituary. One person called the newspaper in Kaycee's small town and they said that they had not heard of any girl with leukemia.
- And most importantly, no one could show that anyone named Kaycee Nicole had lived in Oklahoma or Kansas. High schools tracked down from basketball photos of Kaycee didn't seem to have any students that were named Kaycee. Various random people named Kaycee found on the web were suggested, but none of them panned out.
- Finally, someone noticed that the New York Times article that quoted Kaycee (and Kaycee linked to it on her site) listed her as Kaycee Swenson. This was the only time a last name for Kaycee was mentioned. Someone turned up a "Kelli Swenson" with a mother named "Debbie Swenson" on the web. Kaycee's mother's name was Debbie. Kelli was a little too young to be Kaycee, but the other similarities were stricking. Kaycee said she lived in Oklahoma and moved to Kansas in 1999. The Swenson family page said they lived in Oklahoma and had an update on the webpage about them moving to Kansas in 1999. The actual cities matched. The only thing not certain is why Kelli was younger than Kaycee.
- The operator of Metafilter revealed Kaycee's IP address from an email he had gotten from her before she "died". This IP address was from an internet provider in Peabody, Kansas. The same place Debbie Swenson now lives.
- The Hoax is Revealed -
The next morning, presumably due to this mounting evidence, Debbie revealed that it was all a hoax. She claimed that she created Kaycee to tell the stories of three cancer victims she had personally known and that the pictures of Kaycee on the web were of one of those victims. She said that the person pictued was the main basis of Kaycee and that she in fact had died. Debbie admitted writing everything herself.
Randall was crushed. He deleted the web logs and insisted that Debbie call and explain herself. She told Randall her story, parts of which have been proven to be false. So now we knew it was a hoax. But what wasn't clear was if a 19 year old had actually died or not. We also still did not know if Debbie herself was a real person. Luckily, her talk with Randall revealed some important information.
- Debbie said that Kaycee's last name wasn't Swenson, but instead she had used Debbie's own last name in the New York Times to protect her identity. Well, Kaycee didn't do that because she isn't real but this indirectly told us that Debbie's last name WAS Swenson, and thus she was very likely the same Debbie Swenson found earlier. Before this, the last name couldn't be confirmed.
- A huge connection was made. Someone noticed that Kelli Swenson's N'Sync fan page was on the SAME ACCOUNT on Geocities as the oldest Kaycee Nicole (pre-cancer) page. There was little doubt now that we had the wrong Debbie and Kelli.
- The Swenson family page had a picture of their old church in Oklahoma. Someone called the pastor listed on the sign in the picture. The pastor confirmed a lot of information that was suspected. He also mentioned very quickly that Debbie LOVED to write poetry. Kaycee was also a huge poetry writer. A poem on the Swenson family page was found to be very similar to one of Kaycee's poems.
So now we know that Debbie IS a real person in Kansas and that she wrote the weblog. But we didn't know if there was or wasn't a dead teenager. We had to prove that the person shown to be Kaycee in all the photos was either dead or alive. Trying to find someone based on a few pictures and no confirmed name can be pretty hard.
- The obvious step was to examine the pictures for any evidence of their origin. Many of the pictures were amateurly edited in a graphics program to remove things like the name of the school on Kaycee's basketball uniform. Someone used photoshop to enhance a skewed image of the Gym floor to uncover that the school's mascot was a lion, but that was little help at this point. We didn't have a confirmed real name for Kaycee and high schools don't usually post pictures of their students on web pages, so we couldn't see who looked like Kaycee.
- Some thought that Audra Lea was the person in the Kaycee pictures. People who really knew Audra however said she looked nothing like the those pictures in real life.
- Around this time, a live chat room for discussing developments was set up. Work was very collaborative and productive in this environment. Additional Kaycee web pages were found. These pages had more photos. One of these photos clearly showed the school mascot and that Kaycee was #10 on the basketball team. By putting together the mascot in the photo with the city the Swensons were originally from, the school where the photos originated was tracked down. A women's basketball roster for the school in 1999 listed #10 as Julie . Someone immediatly typed the full name into google, and the first link returned was quite eerie. It was Julie's player profile from the college she attends. And clear as day was a picture of "Kaycee Nicole" staring back from the screen.
The whole situation quickly blew up. Julie was still playing basketball games and wasn't dead. There was now hard evidence that not only was Kaycee Nicole Swenson a fabrication, but she was also not directly based on any mysterious dying teenager. The owner of Metafilter.com soon after got an email to call a journalist. He called, and the holes were filled in. The journalist had talked to Debbie directly. She told more about what actually happened, but refused to talk about who provided the voice of Kaycee on the phone. She also claims she did nothing wrong.
- Julie has been contacted. See below. She didn't even know any of this happened. The Swensons were big fans of Julie and Julie gave her the pictures herself. Those pictures were used to create Kaycee.
- Since Julie is alive and well, obviously Debbie's confession that claimed the photos were of a cancer victim are completely false. She can't even confess honestly.
- I've learned that Kaycee wasn't pictured in the New York Times article because she claimed to be frail from cancer and didn't want to appear. The paper respected her wishes and didn't try to come take pictures. This info is from the other person (the one pictured) in the NY Times article.
What an exciting and weird week.
Date: Tue, 22 May 2001 19:31:22 -0000
Subject: [kaycee-nicole] julie knows
ok. i guess i've given julie and her mom enough information and a
head start that i can post this now.
i called julie's mom this morning at 8:30 cst to let her know what
was going on. i come from a small town in north texas (we call it
baja oklahoma) and i know what that's like and i wanted her to be
prepared. she said julie was alive and at home asleep. also, julie
never checks her email and is away from school so she won't see any
messages until september at least.
she (julie's mom) wasn't very web savvy. i gave her all of the links
and information and a friend was helping her sort through it all.
she said in a town that small, 326 people, star athletes like her
daughter were either envied or revered. she said the whole swenson
family had a fixation on her daughter and would travel everywhere she
went to see her play basketball. debbie especially just adored her.
she was the one who gave debbie the photos because debbie offered to
make a photo album for julie's graduation. she was supposed to return
the photos. i don't think she believed me until i started describing
the photos and what julie was wearing, etc. she recognized all of the
photos i mentioned.
i don't think she realized that newspapers keep online archives. she
was shocked to learn that they were so easy to find and that
information about her daughter was out there beyond what debbie was
doing. please be very gentle with them and discreet about the last
name even though it's been posted before.
i don't know what they are planning on doing. they are such nice
devout christians that i seriously doubt they will attempt to sue.
she wants everyone to know that she and julie knew nothing about any
of this and that julie is a good girl who goes to church a lot and is
a great basketball player.
Thanks to the many people who helped uncover the truth. Sorry to all of those who had their hearts twisted multiple times by this story.
Feel free to copy this document as much as you want as long as you leave it unchanged. If you feel there is a factual error, email me and I will check it out.