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Grabbing Attention but Not the Gator

A false report of the elusive Reggie's capture generates commotion.

September 14, 2005|Nancy Wride | Times Staff Writer

The strange summer of urban alligators grew wackier Tuesday when local and international media reported the capture of Reggie, the elusive critter residing in a Harbor City lake -- only to learn hours later that it was a hoax.

The false report was the latest twist in the saga of the wayward reptile, whose owner abandoned him sometime before he was spotted Aug. 12 in the man-made Lake Machado.

At 2:35 a.m., Associated Press -- entrusted by media organizations worldwide as a reliable source of breaking news -- issued an alert: Reggie had been caught.

A full story followed. In short, it said Reggie had been nabbed by Colorado wrangler Jay Young and crew, and quoted this vivid by-telephone account of the gator smack-down:

"He put up a good fight," AP quoted Young, 47, of Colorado Gators Inc., as saying. The company had previously been hired by the city of Los Angeles to catch Reggie, but -- like a Florida wrangler and countless park rangers and volunteers -- did not succeed.

The AP story quoted Young as saying it took only 15 minutes after their 2 a.m. arrival for him and his crew to spot Reggie. "Their powerful flashlight lit up his red eyes" at water's edge, a rope was looped around the gator's neck and the thrashing began, the story said.

"After a short battle," it continued, "they taped its mouth shut, wrapped it in a blanket to keep it warm and placed it in the back of a rented black 2005 Cadillac Escalade for transportation to the Los Angeles Zoo."

Not quite.

Reggie is still on the loose. Young said he remains in Colorado and never called AP or any other media operation claiming to have bagged the alligator. By day's end he was a tad peeved about having to defend his wrangler credibility against some "impostor."

Local TV stations that aired news of the capture said they based their initial reports on AP. For its part, AP stood by the story until an 8:46 a.m. advisory was sent to clients, including the Los Angeles Times, announcing that the item should be held because it could not be confirmed.

AP spokesman Jack Stokes said there would be little comment beyond the 10:22 a.m. article that first quoted authorities dismissing the capture claims, but he added that the story was still being reported.

Did the venerable news organization fear it had been snookered?

"Well, yeah," Stokes said. "Reggie is still in the lake."

Young was a bit testy about AP, which he said he couldn't believe would run with a story absent proof of the gator's capture.

"The phone's been ringing off the hook. All the L.A. stations, the BBC, a Canada newspaper," Young told The Times.

"I think it's a disgruntled employee [of Colorado Gators] who is not right in the head, and he's done this before," the wrangler said. "I won't tell you his name, but four months ago he called up a [Colorado] radio station during the whitewater rafting festival and claimed there was a 10-foot alligator in the river, then later called and said we'd caught it."

Young said he would never call a news organization with a story that could so easily be debunked when the alligator failed to materialize -- as Reggie failed to do at the zoo Wednesday morning.

But not before news choppers buzzed overhead and TV reporters "frantically looked into every car that entered the zoo, looking for which one was sneaking in the alligator," said Janice Hahn, the L.A. councilwoman who was later framing the upshot of the day's events with such sound-bite quotes as: "I'm sure Reggie is a he, because he clearly avoids commitment and he's never where he says he's going to be."

Bada-bing.

Young will, however, be back in the Southland on Thursday. He said he has a meeting with an agent about representing him for possible animal show gigs and other entertainment work.

His colorful lake-side outfits, reminiscent of the star of the "Crocodile Dundee" movies, had made him "a media star," Hahn said.

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