The story went like this: A Filipino tourist was sitting in a restaurant in Davao City and refused to put out his cigarette despite a strict city smoking ban.
The mayor, Rodrigo Duterte, was called to the scene. Eat the cigarette butt or lose a valuable piece of male anatomy, the mayor said, pointing a pistol at the man’s lap. The man meekly swallowed what remained of his cigarette.
It seemed the perfect anecdote for a New York Times profile of Mr. Duterte to illustrate his violent nature and his hands-on style of running the city.
As with many of the stories that swirl around Mr. Duterte, who is now president of the Philippines, the truth is hard to pin down. He and his supporters promote tales that place him at the center of police raids, brutal killings and other acts of macho violence.
But on closer inspection, many of Mr. Duterte’s most remarkable deeds dissolve into legend — making reporting on him all the more challenging.
Mr. Duterte speaks often and freely, which provided a wealth of material for the profile. Yet he declined to be interviewed or answer questions directly, making the job of separating fact from fiction that much harder.
For instance, one tale I chased was the report of his pushing a drug lord out of a helicopter and into the sea. The story had been circulating for years, and although a former diplomat told me that Mr. Duterte had once crowed to him about it, details proved scarce. Who was the drug lord, and where was the helicopter? When did it happen? And why were the mayor and a drug lord in a helicopter together? Answers to these questions never surfaced.
Mr. Duterte has bragged many times about personally killing people. In December, he boasted about patrolling his city by motorcycle years before, looking for criminals to kill. At other times, he spoke of stabbing a man at a beach and shooting kidnappers in police raids.
During two trips to Davao City, in the southern Philippines, I pursued these and other cases. While proof was usually lacking, the story of the swallowed cigarette butt was promising because it looked like there were witnesses.
Emmanuel Piñol, a longtime friend of Mr. Duterte’s who is now his secretary of agriculture, had recounted the episode on Facebook, complete with quotes from participants. The post, which cited “sources close” to Mayor Duterte, was shared nearly 5,800 times and drew 1,700 comments.
According to Mr. Piñol’s account, the arrogant tourist was informed of the local smoking law and responded by insulting the mayor. The restaurant owner called the police and asked them to summon Mr. Duterte.
He pulled out his snub-nosed, .38-caliber revolver and threatened to shoot. After the man swallowed his cigarette butt, Mr. Piñol wrote, the mayor told him, “Never, ever challenge the law.”
I called Mr. Piñol for details. When did this happen? Which restaurant? Was it possible to contact the owner or other witnesses?
Mr. Piñol, a former journalist, was friendly, if vague. He said he had never asked Mr. Duterte for the restaurant’s name, which seemed odd. And it wasn’t clear who the witnesses were. But he promised to get more information for me.
He never did. Nor did he take my calls after that.
I tried to find others who knew of these events. One of Mr. Duterte’s friends came up with a restaurant name. The owner said he knew nothing about it.
Jocellyn Duterte, Mr. Duterte’s sister, said she believed that the cigarette butt and helicopter stories were just myths.
Finally, I asked Mr. Duterte’s communications secretary, Martin Andanar, if the smoking incident was true.
Mr. Andanar, also a former journalist, put the story to rest, at least for me.
“Secretary Piñol said the story has become a stuff of legend,” Mr. Andanar said in an email. “It has been the talk of the town in Davao for many, many years.” / By RICHARD C. PADDOCK/www.nytimes.com