A news release sparked a search for Seattle's safest neighborhood: Lavilla. Never heard of it? Neither had we.

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The tip arrived with the flurry of morning e-mails. “America’s Safest City Neighborhoods,” the title read.

In this age of information proliferation, it’s hard to know whom to trust. But this came from AOL. That’s at least an actual company. It was worth a look.

It turns out AOL’s consumer finance site, WalletPop.com, would “reveal for the first time” the safest neighborhoods in America’s biggest cities.

Seattle’s safest neighborhood?

Lavilla.

Lavilla?

That’s right, Lavilla.

Around the newsroom, keyboards clacked and TVs murmured.

Then someone blurted, “Maybe it’s so safe because no one’s ever heard of it.”

The challenge was on.

Sure, anyone could just type Lavilla into a search engine, see what popped up, and call it a day. As journalists, we have a higher mission.

First stop, City Hall. If anyone knew Lavilla, it’d be the people in charge of Seattle.

Lois Maag, the spokeswoman for the Department of Neighborhoods , was at first circumspect.

“I can double check… ,” she said.

Her search turned up nothing. But here at The Seattle Times, we are willing to entertain the possibility that City Hall is, on occasion, mistaken.

Next try, the Seattle police. Surely they know where crime is, and isn’t.

Nothing.

“My experience has been that people from outside the region, they assign really weird arcane names” to things, said Seattle police spokesman Mark Jamieson. “It could be a suburb of Bellevue for all we know.

“That would account for the low level of crime.”

Within moments of this clever banter, he changed gears, asking, perplexingly, to go “off the record.” A new wrinkle. But we couldn’t afford to waste time. Reluctantly, we turned to Google, and found a map purporting to show Lavilla, up near Sand Point. What did this tell us about our central question — whence Lavilla? Nothing.

Back to the original e-mail, which came from one Chris Savarese, of AOL Corporate Communications.

“Please feel free to contact me directly with questions,” he had typed.

“I’d prefer not to be quoted,” he said on the phone.

He did, however, hear out our contention that Lavilla doesn’t exist.

“Hmmm,” he said.

He also provided a map. It shows about one-third of Lavilla’s land area is part of the Sand Point Country Club, and that a swath of it is in Lake Washington. We then turned to Jean Godden, who had a 29-year career as a journalist before becoming a member of the Seattle City Council. She lives there — only she calls it Sand Point.

“I can’t imagine when we started calling it Lavilla,” she said.

Godden also mentioned a burglary at her place, not long after she moved in.

“They didn’t take much of anything,” she recalled. Flatware, some jewelry, a fake Rolex watch.

So there is crime in Lavilla, after all?

Not so fast. Godden said the break-in was years ago.

“And after that, why, the neighbors all got together and said we have to watch one another’s houses. Which we do.”

Finally, we turned to NeighborhoodScout, a Rhode Island company that provided the statistical analysis for the original report. According to founder and CEO Andrew Schiller, the site is “the most widely used neighborhood search engine in the world.”

He explained how they pegged Lavilla. Turns out it wasn’t strictly tied to actual crime data.

Instead, Schiller’s group took citywide crime data from police departments, then crunched it with other data, like neighborhood education levels, and income.

Note the word, “like.”

Schiller wouldn’t reveal exactly how it’s done, except to say 1) that he’s an expert in geography, statistics and demographics 2) that his analysis uses “more than 18 proprietary computer models,” and 3) that it’s “pretty … amazing.”

Amazing, perhaps. Still, there remains the nagging problem that no one seems to have heard of the neighborhood.

“No kidding,” he said. Then he launched into a long explanation involving the peculiarities of “mental maps,” the downside of ZIP codes, and the vagaries of census tracts, until finally revealing where he came up with the name: the Geographic Names Information System.

Essentially, it’s a vast federal database, decades old. In it, every inch of land and water is accounted for. Each area gets an official name — usually, it’s something normal, like, say, Duwamish — and it pretty much sticks.

Finally, we had hit upon the truth about Lavilla: The federal government was involved. Explains a lot.

Meanwhile, Maag, from the city, had heard tell of a La Villa Dairy — but it wasn’t actually in Lavilla. She also found a reference to a La Villa Station. It appears to be in the vicinity, but it still doesn’t explain anything. The Puget Sound Regional Archives couldn’t even find the name on a plat.

For now, suffice it to say that Lavilla is on the map.

Maureen O’Hagan: 206-464-2562 or mohagan@seattletimes.com

Reporter Mark Rahner contributed to this report.