The Strange and tragic story of Karen Sehlke

Karen Sehlke was a married woman living in Harris County, Texas, most of which is part of the Greater Houston city area.

She entered the news in early April 2020. A Facebook post supposedly posted by her, where she ranted against the stay-at-home rules, and made comments dismissive of Covid, was posted on the wider internet by people essentially saying “Gee, look at this wackadoodle”. The posting soon became a bit of an internet pile-on, as numerous internet news outlets re-posted all or part of the story, with sometimes blunt commentary.

The reason was obvious. In the last week of March, friends of Sehlke had posted that she was sick and had been admitted to hospital. Further postings and commentary seemed to suggest that she had been diagnosed with Covid-19.

On April 2nd, announcements appeared on Facebook that Karen Sehlke had passed away. Initial announcements seemed to suggest that she had died of complications caused by Covid-19.

A GoFundMe appeal was launched by one of her friends, ostensibly to pay expenses associated with her death and to help her family. The fund swiftly collected nearly $36,000 dollars in donations, at which point it was closed.

Needless to say, the news that a person who had ranted dismissively about Covid-19 had apparently died of the virus ignited a firestorm of commentary, ranging across the spectrum from sadness, through schadenfreude, to smugness, and into the spectrum of crowing “the sniveling hypocrite deserved it”. In other words, a lot of people came out to comment.

However, the question soon began to be asked; was the original posting by Karen Sehlke actually a real artifact on the internet, or had it been invented by mischief-makers? In other words, was there a post hoc effort under way to create a nice story about a hypocritical person being horrifically terminated by the very virus that they had sarcistically minimized? A modern morality tale that could be used for months as a “Har Har Har, that’s what happens to stupid people” teaching aid?

The question was being asked by fact-checking websites on the internet. It was also asked of me by a commenter at NextDoor when I posted the story from a social media platform. He was an ex-journalist, and pointed out that not everything on the internet is correct, factual or well-researched. He seemed somewhat skeptical of the veracity of the story.

So, in the interests, not of defending my posting, but ensuring its veracity, I set to work to try to find out.

My efforts led me down a couple of blind alleys, and down the path of researching a more cynical hypothesis.

Looking at the possibilities, it seemed there were quite a few. In the interests of not converting this into a novel, here are the main ones:

  1. Karen Sehlke did post the comments attributed to her, and she contracted Covid-19 and died of the virus in the first week of April 2020.
  2. Karen Sehlke never posted the comments attributed to her, but she did die of Covid-19 in the first week of April 2020.
  3. Karen Sehlke died in the first week of April 2020, but died from another disease or problem, not Covid-19.
  4. Karen Sehlke did not die, was still alive, and the entire story was a heist to gain money by faking a death and running a GoFundMe campaign on the back of it.
  5. Karen Sehlke was not a real person, and the rest of (4).

Yes, I know. (4) seems overtly cynical. But there are plenty of instances of GoFundMe campaigns that ranged from misleading to deceitful. So I thought I owed it to myself to look at whether that was a possibility.

As for (5), well, when cats run Facebook and Twitter and Instagram accounts, and people routinely operate under false IDs all over the internet, it has to be considered.

So, I began looking into the possible scenarios. Let’s go in reverse.

Q5. Is/was Karen Sehlke a real person?

The answer appears to be Yes. Apart from her Facebook page, which was a fairly typical “Texas married suburban woman with children” page, she also has a LinkedIn profile here. The picture on the profile is a match for images from her Facebook page, and the rest of the profile information appears to match her name, age, location and occupation.

Q4. Did a Karen Sehlke die in early April in the Houston area?

This is the question to which I was unsure of the answer for a lengthy period of time. There can be a lag of up to a week or more before a death notice appears in the local media in Texas. Most commonly, a funeral home posts an obituary online on their website. If the person is a well-known community figure, local media may precede that with the news of the person’s death and a written obituary.

I monitored the local funeral home websites in and around Houston to see if a death notice appeared. It took nearly 2 weeks, but finally this death notice appeared. Yes, it looks like a match for Karen Sehlke.

So hypotheses 5 and 4 can be disposed of.

So now we get to the most interesting questions: did Karen Sehlke die of Covid-19 complications, and did she really post the rant attributed to her on Facebook?

Here is part 1 of the rant, snapshotted into a Twitter posting:

And here is part 2:

A couple of fact-check websites have taken a run at trying to determine whether Karen Sehlke actually created and published this rant attributed to her on Facebook.

Snopes took a run at it. Now, normally I have a lot of time for Snopes. They do investigate questions in some depth. So I was eager to read their analysis.

The article states that Karen Sehlke did die (seemingly) from Covid, and that a message stating that she had been diagnosed with Covid had been posted on Facebook by a family friend.

Snopes dug into the question of the authenticity of her supposed Facebook rant, and found that it appeared to date from March 13th, but…it had been written by somebody else.

Which leads to the obvious question: If the text actually appeared on Karen Sehlke’s Facebook page or wall, HOW did it appear? Did Sehlke herself re-post it, either with or without comment? Did somebody post it(or a link to it) on a comment thread on her Facebook page?

Snopes provides no insight on this topic, and it seems that nobody else has tried to analyze the posting in that way and context either. Since the posting has now disappeared, further analysis may be impossible.

The bottom line question: Was I, like a lot of other people, fooled by the easy-to-like Karen Sehlke tragi-comedy story?

The short answer: I still do not know. Most of the story appears to be well-established. That Karen Sehlke was a real person who tragically contracted Covid-19, and died from complications, seems to be a fact. She was not the author of the posting generally attributed to her, but whether she re-posted it (almost word for word) because she agreed with it, or whether a friend posted it and she left it on her page because she agreed with it, is not clear. It is not possible to establish with certainty whether she posted it herself in mid-March 2020, effectively agreeing with its contents.

Which leaves me frustrated.

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