(An occasional look at the most popular, most blogged, and most emailed stories on the Web.)
A few weeks ago, Mark LaFlamme stood by the side of a road in Turner, Maine and inspected a furry piece of road kill. Though only a few days old, the animal’s body was already badly decayed. “We’d had a period of hot weather,” says LaFlamme. “By the time I got there, it was a soupy mess.”
Standing over the carcass, LaFlamme wasn’t exactly sure what he was looking at. But already he suspected that he might be staring down at one of the biggest stories in his journalism career.
For the past twelve years or so, the 39-year-old LaFlamme has worked as a crime reporter for the Sun Journal, a daily paper in Lewiston, Maine. During the inevitable lulls that come with covering crime in the Pine Tree State, LaFlamme has developed a second beat of sorts — chasing down rumors of a mysterious beast that, according to some locals, has stalked the woods of Maine for years.
And now here was the legendary beast, dead on the side of the road. Maybe.
The woman who had summoned LaFlamme to the scene lived nearby. Days earlier, she had taken photographs of the creature’s dead body before it had decayed beyond recognition. LaFlamme agreed to look at the pics.
“There was nothing outlandish,” he recalls of the photos. “There were no wings on the creature, no gills. I was kind of hoping for that. But it was odd enough that I thought we should do a story and let the readers decide for themselves.”
On Wednesday, August 16, LaFlamme’s initial story appeared on the front page of the Sun Journal under the headline “Mysterious Beast.”
“An animal found dead along the powerlines over the weekend may be the mystery creature that has roamed the area for years, mauling dogs and frightening residents,” he wrote. “Or it could be a dog that has been running wild in the woods.”
“Since 1991, residents across Androscoggin County have reported seeing and hearing a beast that defies classical description,” he added. “Theories have ranged from a fisher, a coy dog, a hyena or a dingo to more fanciful ideas: some believe the local creature is Maine’s own Chupacabra.”
Elsewhere in the article, a renowned cryptozoologist speculated that the road kill might be a hybrid between a dog and a wolf. A professional trapper guessed that it might be a black coyote with abnormal features. And one local told LaFlamme: “It looked like something out of a Stephen King story.”
Recently, the Sun Journal sent away part of the creature’s paw to a laboratory for DNA analysis. (“It floored me that [the paper] would spend extra money on something like that,” says LaFlamme.) The paper is hoping to have a final answer about the creature’s identity sometime next week.
In the meantime, word of the story spread fast. When LaFlamme, who is a late riser, awoke the afternoon following his front-page scoop, reporters and producers from other news organizations were already swarming to the scene. Local television stations. Canadian newscasters. German reporters. Carolina radio hosts. Fox News. The BBC. Matt Drudge. Montel Williams. MTV Canada. They all wanted a piece of the beast. Before long, the swarm of attention crashed the paper’s Web site.
“I knew people would be interested because they always are in the mystery stuff,” says LaFlamme. “Then it kind of mushroomed.”
Soon the Associated Press was filing dispatches from Turner. As of Thursday, one of the AP’s articles about the “Hybrid mutant” claimed the number seven spot on the Boston Globe’s Most emailed list, two spots below an article titled “Astronomers say Pluto is not a Planet” and two spots above “No, that’s not a penis pump, Mom. Really.”
And like many a contagious news story worth catching and passing along to others, LaFlamme’s article has already inspired a line of collectibles — which includes mugs, buttons, and T-shirts emblazoned with the original “Maine Mutant” logo designed by a graphic artist in California.