Philips, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, said he believed in the authenticity of the documents in part because they had been filed in court. But the Smoking Gun's sharply critical review said The Times had overlooked numerous misspellings and unusual acronyms and redactions that could have cast doubt on the documents' authenticity.
The website also described unexplained coincidences that made it appear Sabatino had composed the documents from prison. The Smoking Gun showed that Sabatino had filed court papers on his own behalf that had "obvious similarities" in typography and "remarkably similar spelling deficiencies" to those in the purported FBI documents.
The Smoking Gun used a report from Sabatino's sentencing in 2003 for fraud and identity theft to suggest that his history of lying began in childhood. When the boy's mother left home at 11, he told a teacher that his mother had died in an accident, rather than acknowledge the truth, said his father, Peter Sabatino, according to the website. It posted what it said was a letter that the father wrote to the judge.
At the sentencing, the younger Sabatino told the judge that he had been battling a "demon for a very long time" and that his motivation for committing fraud was "to make attention to myself," according to another court document posted by the website. The headline on the Smoking Gun story, over a picture of the picture of the portly Sabatino: "Big Phat Liar."
Philips said in an interview that he had believed the documents were legitimate because, in the reporting he had already done on the story, he had heard many of the same details.
He said a source had led him to three prison inmates who purportedly carried out the attack on Shakur. One of those inmates implicated the planners of the attack and another implied who was involved, Philips said. Two others who said they witnessed the attack corroborated portions of the scenario described in the article, he said. None of the sources were named in the story.
Philips also said the events the sources described fit with previous accounts in the media and even in Shakur's songs.
Still, Philips said he wished he had done more.
Philips said he sought to check the authenticity of the documents with the U.S. attorney's office in New York, which had handled the investigation of the attack on Shakur, and with a retired FBI agent, but did not directly ask the FBI about them. The U.S. attorney's office declined to comment, while the former FBI agent said the documents appeared legitimate, Philips said.
His statement said he "approached this article the same way I've approached every article I've ever written: in pursuit of the truth. I now believe the truth here is that I got duped. For this, I take full responsibility and I apologize."
Philips has spent years digging into the rap music business and had won a reputation as a dogged streetwise reporter. He and Times reporter Michael Hiltzik shared a Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for beat reporting for their accounts of entertainment industry corruption, including illegal detoxification programs for celebrities.
Duvoisin has overseen many of The Times' most notable investigative projects in recent years.
The first significant tip that led to the Shakur story came nearly a year ago, Philips said. He conducted interviews and reported the story in the interim, then focused on the piece more intensively beginning in January.
The story was reviewed by Duvoisin and two editors on the copy desk.
Other investigative stories published by The Times in recent years have in some cases received the scrutiny of at least one more editor and often of the managing editor or editor of the newspaper. The Shakur piece did not receive that many layers of review.
Bob Steele, a journalism values scholar at the Poynter Institute, said he would not pass judgment on The Times' editing process.
"But any time you have a substantive investigative project you need multiple levels of quality control," Steele said. "You need contrarians within the organization who are going to be very skeptical."
The editor of Smoking Gun, Bill Bastone, who shepherded the website's critique, had been an acquaintance of Philips before the Shakur investigation. The two met not long ago for lunch, discussing their mutual passion for investigative reporting and other matters.
Bastone knew The Times would publish a story related to the attack on Shakur, and he said he had immediate misgivings when he saw the piece last week.
He said he called Philips to say "things just don't feel right about this."
Bastone said he "took no joy in doing this," adding, "We greatly respect your paper and Chuck and Chuck's work. . . . But I think what happened here is that this guy Sabatino is a master con man, and they got caught up with him."