Fake Santa Monica news site prompts real response from Angels over Tyler Skaggs death

A screen capture of a Google Cache showing a now-pulled story published by the fake news website Santa Monica Observer on the death of baseball player Tyler Skaggs. (Photo: The Desk)

A purported news website operating in Santa Monica has pulled a controversial article about the death Los Angeles Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs after claiming the player had died from an overdose earlier this week.

On Monday, the Santa Monica Observer published a pseudo-obituary for Skaggs claiming the pitcher was receiving “several opioid pain prescriptions from several doctors” after undergoing surgery during his short professional baseball career.

The article’s author, identified as staff writer Stan Greene, said it appeared Skaggs suffered the same fate as Tom Petty, a musician who died from a lethal cocktail of prescription drugs and sedatives in 2017.

Skaggs was found dead in his hotel room on Monday hours before the Angels were set to play the Texas Rangers in Arlington. Police there have not officially released a cause of death.

Accusations in the Observer article of a possible opioid overdose triggered a strong and emotional rebuke from Angels spokesperson Marie Garveys, who said the article was “categorically incorrect.”

“This sort of reckless reporting from Tyler’s hometown paper is disappointing and harmful,” Garvey said according to Deadline.

But the Observer is not the hometown paper of Tyler Skaggs, who grew up in nearby Woodland Hills. The Observer, which did at one point publish a printed edition, is no longer a newspaper at all. It is, instead, an online news site with dubious credibility and likely fictitious staff writers.

The evidence of the Observer’s fakery is abundant: The Observer does not print a daily, weekly or even monthly edition — the only daily newspaper serving the city of Santa Monica is the Free Press, a daily edition that, true to its name, is distributed to readers for free. The Office of the California Secretary of State does have a fictitious business name license for a “Santa Monica Observer” newspaper filed in 2000, but the fictitious business name license was later suspended for failure to pay taxes, according to public records reviewed by The Desk.

The article on Skaggs was not the first time the Observer had landed in hot water over suspected fake news: In 2016, Tobias Coughlin-Bogue of TheStranger.com wrote about another article penned by Greene that claimed the Drug Enforcement Agency would re-classify marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act. Greene’s source for the article was said to be a single DEA agent with knowledge of the matter, Coughlin-Bogue wrote, but a DEA spokesperson denied claims in the Observer article, saying there were “no firm plans to reschedule,” Coughlin-Bogue wrote.

Other articles by Greene have been equally suspect, including one that claimed Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg would retire in 2019 (she didn’t).

Greene may be as fake as the news he pedals: Attempts to find social media profiles associated with the reporter turned up empty, except for a profile on MuckRack, the social public relations firm, that claims Greene is an African-American musician living in Los Angeles. This conflicts with a photo used by the Observer that depicts Greene as a middle-aged white man. In a Twitter message, the real Greene said he had “no idea” MuckRack was using his image in a profile for the fake journalist.

It is not the first time the Observer has used a fake image to portray Greene as a real reporter: In 2016, cannabis journalist Tom Angell discovered the Observer was using a photo of Julian Eule, a former law professor at UCLA, as a headshot for Greene (Eule died in 1997). Angell announced the discovery on Twitter while fact-checking a fake Observer story bylined to Greene that claimed outgoing President Obama would sign an executive order de-listing marijuana as a federally-controlled substance.

The Observer has been caught using fake staff photos before: In 2016, the website Santa Monica Next debunked a story claiming rapper Kanye West would be appointed to a cabinet position under President Trump after discovering the headshot for presumed staff writer Sara Storkin was lifted from a portfolio website of university student Hannah Sorkin of Staffordshire, England.

“We’re not going to link to Hannah’s pages because she hasn’t asked for someone to steal her picture and use it as a profile on fake news websites,” Santa Monica Next writer Jason Islas said in a photo caption that accompanied screen shots of the profiles. “But we did want people to see how the Observer is poaching people’s identity to prop up fake articles on their fake website.”

Getting in touch with editors and other staff members at the Observer is nearly impossible: No newsroom phone number is listed. No staff directory is available. A search of internet domain records shows the website was registered with a French company, but no other information was available. A local address listed on the website’s contact page resolves to a strip mall in the city that includes, among other things, a notary public.

That may be because the operator of the Santa Monica Observer website isn’t a journalistic entity but rather one that specializes in providing services associated with legal filings: An associate website reviewed by The Desk revealed the Observer is aligned with a Santa Monica-based company called Signature Filing, a business that offers numerous services related to fictitious business names and other legally-mandated public notices. On the associate website, a different local address is posted — one that is also listed for a now-defunct consulting company that specialized in, among other things, increasing traffic to websites through various marketing tricks.

This post has been updated to clarify the Observer’s former existence as a printed newspaper.