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Homeless Man’s Heroics Called Into Question

May 17, 1994

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ First honored as a hero, homeless man Michael Dennis now is the object of questions about what role he might have played in the rescue of an elderly couple from a burning car.

″I think it’s just a big scam. He’s making this stuff up as he goes along,″ said Glen Charouleau, the man now believed by the fire department to have pulled at least one person from the car.

″I pulled those people out and he’s taken credit for it,″ Charouleau said Tuesday.

Dennis was singled out by police and witnesses in the rescue of Margaret and Elmo Waltzer. He appeared on television and talk shows, describing how he pulled first Mrs. Waltzer, then her 79-year-old husband, from their blazing car.

″I know what I did and I did just what I said - pulled that old couple from their car before it exploded,″ Dennis said Monday. ″I never asked for anything for it, but I’m grateful for what I got.″

Police described Dennis, who was living under a bridge and had been panhandling on the corner where the accident happened, as a hero.

″Without a doubt, he saved human life,″ Sgt. Gilbert Johnson said at the time.

The original fire department report also cited Dennis, along with Charouleau, manager of a store in the area, and Bill Premaza, who was at an auto shop nearby, as taking part in the rescue.

That report has been changed.

″There have been a lot of new stories surface,″ said Fire Chief Don Grossnickle. ″I was told at the scene that Mr. Dennis rescued the people and I had no reason to doubt it. Since then, some people have changed their stories, some new people have come forward.″

Grossnickle now concludes that Mrs. Waltzer fell from the car and was pulled away by several people, possibly including Dennis, and that Charouleau actually rescued her husband.

″Mrs. Waltzer doesn’t remember the accident and Mr. Waltzer said he believes Mr. Dennis rescued him,″ Grossnickle said. ″My feeling is that Mr. Charouleau rescued Mr. Waltzer and Mr. Dennis probably helped after he was out of the car.″

One witness, Dorothy Gatlin, stands by Dennis. ″I know what I saw and I saw Michael Dennis pulling those people from that fire,″ she said.

The Waltzers, who have refused to talk to reporters, were recently released from a hospital.

Dennis, 30, estimates he received $600 to $700, although he said earlier it was as much as $3,000 and police said it was probably more than that. He said he spent $200 for a car and has about $300 left.

He also was given a maintenance job at a halfway house but quit, saying he was being exploited for publicity. He’s staying with friends, looking for work.

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