Journalist: Elizabeth Williamson
Source Link: New York Times
March 29, 2019
In the world of conspiracy theorists, Alex Jones and Wolfgang Halbig fueled each other’s darkest tendencies.
Soon after the Dec. 14, 2012, mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Mr. Jones, the right-wing provocateur, began spreading outlandish theories that the killing of 20 first graders and six educators was staged by the government and victims’ families as part of an elaborate plot to confiscate Americans’ firearms.
Many of the most noxious claims originated in the mind of Mr. Halbig, a retired Florida public school official who became fixated on what he called “this supposed tragedy” at Sandy Hook. Court records and a previously unreleased deposition given by Mr. Jones in one of a set of defamation lawsuits brought against him by the families of 10 Sandy Hook victims show how he and Mr. Halbig used each other to pursue their obsession and promote it across the internet.
Over several years, Mr. Jones gave Mr. Halbig’s views an audience by inviting him to be a guest on Infowars, his radio and online show. Infowars gave Mr. Halbig a camera crew and a platform for fund-raising, even as Mr. Halbig repeatedly visited Newtown, demanding thousands of pages of public records, including photos of the murder scene, the children’s bodies and receipts for the cleanup of “bodily fluids, brain matter, skull fragments and around 45 to 60 gallons of blood.”
Given practical support and visibility by Mr. Jones, Mr. Halbig hounded families of the victims and other residents of Newtown, and promoted a baseless tale that Avielle Richman, a first grader killed at Sandy Hook, was still alive.
The deposition and its details about Mr. Jones’s operation and his interactions with Mr. Halbig were made public on Friday, days after Avielle Richman’s father, Jeremy Richman, killed himself in Newtown’s Edmond Town Hall, where Avielle Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to brain science that the family established in their daughter’s name, had an office.
The deposition and records are part of a defamation lawsuit against Mr. Jones brought by Scarlett Lewis, whose son Jesse Lewis died at Sandy Hook, moving forward in Texas. The families of 10 Sandy Hook victims are suing Mr. Jones, Infowars, and associates such as Mr. Halbig in four separate lawsuits, one in Connecticut brought by eight victims’ families and a first responder, and three in Texas brought by the parents of two more victims.
In the videotaped deposition, conducted this month, Mr. Jones says under oath that his sources for reports aired on Infowars include conspiracy theorists like Mr. Halbig, random emailers and anonymous users on the chat room 4chan. Mr. Jones claims the same First Amendment protection provided traditional news media for his false claims.
Mr. Jones acknowledged in the deposition that Mr. Halbig had been a considerable source of information for him about Sandy Hook. Asked by a lawyer for the families if he would agree that Mr. Halbig was “a raving lunatic,” Mr. Jones responded: “He seemed very credible and put together earlier on, but — I can’t remember the exact number — he seemed to get agitated about four years ago, three years ago.”
The heightened profile Mr. Halbig gained through Mr. Jones and his skepticism about mass shootings drew him into the orbit of the National Rifle Association, as well. On Feb. 15, 2018, the day after 17 people died in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Mark Richardson, a program officer for the N.R.A., emailed Mr. Halbig to stir doubts about the facts of the shooting, according to a document in the Texas lawsuit that was first reported by HuffPost.
Referring to Sandy Hook, Mr. Richardson wrote to Mr. Halbig that “there is so much more to this story,” wrongly speculating in the message that the Parkland shooter “was not alone.”
Mr. Halbig, 72, lives in a gated community in Florida with his wife and a white Havanese dog named Coco. He calls himself a “national school safety consultant” and former Florida state trooper, though his résumé suggests he held the trooper job for at most a year in the mid-1970s. A 1999 Orlando Sentinel report quotes him as Seminole County public schools’ security director, saying a school shooting “can happen any time, anywhere.”
Mr. Halbig displays a folksy affect, and frequently says that as soon as his demands for information are met he can “get back to my life with my grandchildren.” But when unsuccessful in getting the information he is seeking, Mr. Halbig publishes the personal information of his targets, spurring torrents of abuse and threats.
“I’ve said nobody died,” Mr. Halbig said in an interview last month, but “I’ve never ever been given the documents to form a true and honest opinion. We want to know the truth so we can teach other school districts to prevent this.” Mr. Halbig did not respond to emails and telephone messages requesting comment for this article.
While not the only person to pursue and torment the families, Mr. Halbig has been particularly relentless. And as Infowars boosted Mr. Halbig’s profile, the victims’ families and Newtown officials have struggled to stop him. He repeatedly has asked Newtown educators to give him the identities of children from the Sandy Hook choir who performed in a salute to the victims at the 2013 Super Bowl, seeking to “prove” Avielle Richman and other dead children attended.
In 2015 the police stopped Mr. Halbig and an Infowars crew from filming residents and children outside St. Rose of Lima Catholic church and school in Newtown. Exhibits in the Texas case viewed by The Times include a letter from an official at the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., ordering Mr. Halbig to stay away.
Mr. Halbig sent reams of rambling, misspelled emails to Infowars and others asserting that Avielle Richman is living under an assumed name with another family in Newtown, repeatedly naming the other girl online, the families’ lawyers said.
In the wake of Mr. Richman’s suicide, his family has appealed for privacy, and the police have not released the contents of a note he left. There is no public evidence of a link between the suicide and the activities of Mr. Halbig and Mr. Jones. But his death has surfaced more outrage from the Sandy Hook families about the harassment they have endured, and calls to do more to stop it.
Neil Heslin, whose son Jesse Lewis died in the same Sandy Hook classroom as Avielle, said that for more than six years, the shooting has been “a constantly publicized event, a political agenda and then you become a target of this conspiracy stuff? It has a tremendous effect on you.”
At the time of his death Mr. Richman and his wife, Jennifer Hensel, were among eight Sandy Hook victims’ families suing Mr. Jones, Mr. Halbig and Infowars for defamation in Connecticut.
Mr. Halbig has attended hearings on his public records requests in Newtown with an Infowars camera crew in tow. He has repeatedly posted photos of Avielle and a girl who currently lives in Newtown online, with an “expert” analysis contending the images depict the same child.
Nelba Márquez-Greene, whose daughter Ana perished at Sandy Hook, called Mr. Halbig “a certified lunatic” on Twitter after he posted harassing messages to her last month. “He’s been asking for pics and dash cam crap forever,” she wrote. “These aren’t bots. These are real people. I’m like- for real you think we faked this? You think first responders did? What a depraved mind. Depraved.”
Another parent, Leonard Pozner, whose son Noah died in the same classroom as Ana, reported the abuse, and after six years of appeals, Twitter suspended Mr. Halbig’s account last month. Mr. Pozner founded the HONR Network, a nonprofit combating online hate, after Noah was targeted by the conspiracy theorists.
Mr. Halbig has raised at least $100,000 to finance his records quest, according to Mr. Pozner, whose HONR Network volunteers reported Mr. Halbig’s activities to GoFundMe, successfully getting his fund-raising page taken down.
In a 2015 email to Infowars’ news director, Rob Dew, Mr. Halbig asks him to thank “Infowars Nightly News” host David Knight “for allowing me the interview. It has raised $1545.00 since last night.”
Mr. Pozner at first tried to engage Mr. Halbig, asking to speak with him in a 2014 email. He received a response, viewed by The Times, from Kelley Watt, one of Mr. Halbig’s fellow hoaxers. “Wolfgang does not wish to speak with you unless you exhume Noah’s body and prove to the world you lost your son.”
Mr. Halbig helped spread a 100-page background check containing Mr. Pozner’s addresses, relatives’ addresses, and Social Security number among the hoaxer community. Mr. Pozner and Noah’s mother, Veronique de la Rosa, live in hiding as a result of harassment.
In his deposition, Mr. Jones acknowledged that some of what Mr. Halbig and others were telling him about what happened at Sandy Hook “was not accurate.” But he also said that “retired F.B.I. agents and other people and people high up in the Central Intelligence Agency have told me there is a cover-up in Sandy Hook.”
Kristin Hussey contributed reporting, and Kitty Bennett contributed research.