On April 29, the Athens Messenger, a southeastern Ohio daily, published a letter to the editor from Asher Nailor of Athens titled, “The need for plant-based meat alternatives may be in the future.”

The letter began with an appeal to Fox News viewers, who had recently been whipped into a contemptuous frenzy over the false claim that Joe Biden planned to limit meat consumption as part of his climate plan, then shifted to a pitch for not eating meat.

The Messenger fact-checked the letter and offered some context. “Fox News did in fact make this claim about Biden,” the editor’s note read, “however, Biden did not propose banning meat in the United States.”

The note went on to describe the basis for the idea — a conflation of Biden’s proposal to cut greenhouse gases in half by 2030 and an unrelated 2020 academic paper that estimated how emissions would be affected if Americans changed their diets. Eating less meat, it found, would have a big effect, but Biden never mentioned the paper or suggested that Americans change their diets.

The fact-check made one notable oversight — the author, Asher Nailor, doesn’t live in Athens, Ohio, and isn’t a real person.

Over the next week, at least 26 U.S. newspapers published the same letter to the editor under various titles. Each was credited to a different author, supposedly a resident of a town in the paper’s circulation area.

The Free Press published the letter on May 11 under the name David Lesterfield of Nobleboro. Later that week, I got an email from Maggie Trout of Rockland, a regular reader, who sniffed out the fake based on the odd-sounding last name of the author.

The town of Nobleboro has no tax or motor vehicle records for David Lesterfield, and the address he provided, 235 E. Neck Rd., does not exist. A Google search suggests that Lesterfield’s existence is limited to writing letters to The Free Press.

“It used to be the policy of all newspapers to make direct contact with contributors to verify two things: ‘Did you write this letter?’ ‘Do you still want it published, if we decide to do so?’” Trout wrote. “I’d bet that ‘David Lesterfield of Nobleboro’ doesn’t even exist.”

A word on the verification process at The Free Press. On any given week, about half of the letters we receive are from people who have written to us for years on a regular basis. You could say we know them. With the others, the email usually shows plenty of clues about whether it’s a local person with a local concern or a mass mailing. In my short tenure as editor, David Lesterfield’s name was among the familiar ones.

We published 24 letters from him since 2012. A search for keywords, like “meat,” unearthed another 14 letters on the same topic, written in the same style (more on that later), from a Deiter Lutzburgh of Waldoboro from 2014 to 2018.

I called some of the other editors who ran the most recent letter. Tim Wood of the Cape Cod Chronicle described a similar verification process to ours: “Sometimes we check it, sometimes we don’t, to be totally honest,” he said. “If it sounds a little suspicious we check.” This one hadn’t.

Kaitlin Thorne, editor of the Athens Messenger, told me she usually just looks for a local address. “We’re going to be looking more closely into things going forward,” she said.

She and others forwarded the original emails they received. As with the David Lesterfield and Deiter Lutzburgh letters, each included what appeared to be a local address — though searches for the exact house numbers on Google Street View were hit-and-miss — along with an out-of-state phone number.

“But who knows, with cell phones,” Dale Hogg, managing editor at the Great Bend Tribune, in Kansas, told me.

When Hogg searched his email for the pseudonym Gunner Thurber, he got two hits: the original email and one that had been diverted to his spam folder from a group called the Center for Consumer Freedom. “We’ve seen these ‘astroturf’ letters in the past from anti-meat groups,” the email said, referring directly to the letter published by the Tribune. “We at the Center for Consumer Freedom would like to counter the message (with our real name).”

CCF describes itself on its website as a “nonprofit organization devoted to promoting personal responsibility and protecting consumer choices.” It is “supported by restaurants, food companies and thousands of individual consumers.”

The organization doesn’t disclose specific sources of funding, a decision that Executive Director Rick Berman has defended in numerous TV appearances as being consistent with the practices of other nonprofits. Berman’s reputation, however, precedes him. “60 Minutes,” in a 2007 episode titled “Meet Rick Berman: a.k.a. Dr. Evil,” described him as “the booze and food industry’s 6' 4", 64-year-old weapon of mass destruction.”

The editors I spoke with who got the CCR email simply took it as a counteroffensive from a pro-meat group. The important part was that it tipped them off that they’d been duped.

Meanwhile, the author, or authors, behind anti-meat letters remained a mystery.

When I called the number given by Lesterfield, I got a voicemail with a gnomic voice, like the friendly wise man in a movie: “Thank you for calling. Please leave a message.”

I left several, but never got a reply. Same with the email, consciouseffort80@gmail.com, which turned out to be the same one given to the Athens Messenger. Finally, in what I thought was simply due diligence, I emailed a different address that was given to the Keene Sentinel in New Hampshire under the name Kasper Sweitzer. Minutes later, he responded: “Hi, Ethan, I am emailing to confirm I wrote the below letter for publication. Thank you, Kasper Sweitzer.”

I immediately wrote back explaining that I’d received a number of letters under a different name and asking if he could help me untangle it. When I got no reply. I asked a more direct question: “Are you with Farm Animal Rights Movement?”

FARM is a Maryland-based nonprofit that advocates for the rights of animals raised for food. In 2009, the Beverly Citizen, a Massachusetts newspaper, traced a long-running anti-meat letter writing campaign back to the group. The Citizen had printed 24 letters under what turned out to be a false name attached to a real address. In an impressive piece of investigation, the paper connected the letter to a staff member of FARM through phone records and numerous interviews. The FARM agent pleaded ignorance and gave plausible excuses for the inconsistencies, but by then the Citizen had triangulated enough pieces that a case of mistaken identity was unlikely.

FARM’s website talks up its EdLetters program, through which it claims to inspire activists to write to their local newspapers: “These letters to the editors, promoting an animal rights message, appear in hundreds of newspapers and reach millions of readers every month.”

The EdLetters page includes a link to the blog of FARM co-founder Alex Hershaft with sample letters to the editor suggested to run near holidays for added impact. For Thanksgiving, he invokes the president’s ceremonial pardon of a turkey, saying, “Every one of us has that same awesome power … by choosing a plant-based roast.”

The text of the letters from Lesterfield and Lutzburgh to The Free Press matched portions of the texts of these sample letters. Those that didn’t appear on Hershaft’s blog matched his style — always leading with a reference to a current event or holiday before pivoting to hard facts about the meat industry and a pitch to choose vegetables.

In 2014, The Free Press published a letter from Dieter Lutzburgh supporting national calls for police use of body cams after the killings of three Black teens.

“There is ample precedent,” Lutzburgh wrote. “Animal protection activists have used body cameras to document egregious atrocities and safety violations by workers in the meat, dairy and egg industries.”

In 2016, Lesterfield remarked at the number of animal characters in the week’s top 10 movies — “Finding Dory,” “Zootopia,” “Kung Fu Panda” and others. “We love our animals to death. Literally …” he said, then delivered statistics about animals raised for consumption.

Like an annoying party guest, the Lesterfields and Lutzburghs of the editorial pages could seemingly turn any topic you might care about into a chance to talk about what they care about.

Lesterfield in 2017: “Are you, too, fighting mad about Trump pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord? Then let’s fight back three times a day by adopting an eco-friendly plant-based diet.”

Bill Bilodeau, managing editor at the Keene Sentinel, said he thinks Kasper Sweitzer might be a real person — that perhaps his name was on the local voting rolls.

If that were the case, and this was a local person sending in chain letters that they agree with, it would be less concerning, he said, but he wouldn’t encourage it. In the meantime, he said, the Sentinel has given Sweitzer more than enough chances to say something original.

“I’ve contacted him and let him know that we’re not going to be printing his stuff anymore,” he said.

Same to you, David Lesterfield, whoever you are.