Alex Jones was ordered to pay $45.2 million to the family of a Sandy Hook victim.
Jones' theories prompted fellow conspiracy theorists to target and harass surviving family members.
Nearly one in five Americans believe mass shootings are staged, says researcher Joseph Uscinski.
"Today is very important to me and it's been a long time coming," Neil Heslin said in court on August 2. "To face Alex Jones for what he said and did to me. To restore the honor and legacy of my son."
Heslin's son, 6-year-old Jesse Lewis, was killed during the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. For years following the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, that killed 26 people — including 20 children — Jones used his Infowars platform to spread lies that the school itself was fake, the victims and their families were actors, and the shooting was a "false flag" that never actually happened.
Following years of targeted harassment, Heslin took the stand in the defamation case against Jones in which the jury awarded him and Jesse's mother, Scarlett Lewis, $45.2 million in punitive damages, on top of $4.1 million in compensatory damages. Jones was found liable by default because he refused a court order to turn over documents and financial records for deposition in the case, The New York Times reported.
While Jones has been found liable in other defamation cases over his Sandy Hook lies, most of the often-anonymous harassers will never face legal action. Though not all will perpetuate harassment of the victims, as many as one in five Americans believe mass shootings like the one in Newtown never happened, according to Joseph Uscinski, who studies conspiracy theories.
One such believer, Kelley Watt, a Tulsa, Oklahoma, housekeeper and grandmother of two, spoke to Insider about how she spent the better part of the past ten years "researching" the Sandy Hook shooting, which she believes was staged by the US government.
'Why weren't any of the parents using Kleenexes?'
In her pursuit of proving the 2012 shooting did not happen, Watt coauthored two chapters of the libelous anthology, "Nobody Died at Sandy Hook." She told Insider she's spent countless hours calling officials, researching her theories, and speaking to Lenny Pozner, whose 6-year-old son, Noah, was killed in the tragedy.
Watt said she believes Noah never existed and that Pozner posed as a bereaved parent in order to infiltrate a group of "worldwide researchers," of which she is a part, who are dedicated to revealing "the truth" about Sandy Hook.
Watt denied that her views are conspiratorial and told Insider that after years of looking into details about the shooting, nothing she has seen has convinced her she could be wrong.
Among the things she considers proof that the Sandy Hook shooting was faked, Watt pointed to parents of Sandy Hook victims who she says did not cry enough — "why weren't any of the parents using Kleenexes?" — or didn't "come across" like a grieving parent. She questioned why no fundraising was recorded for the school through the Box Tops for Education program that year, and why there wasn't an entry in the local newspaper for that year's spelling bee winner.
Watt's theories are among some of the oft-debunked falsehoods that circulated following the shooting and are in line with those pushed by the likes of Jones.
Prevalence of conspiracy theories
Uscinski, a professor of political science at the University of Miami, found that belief in theories like those peddled by Jones are more common than he anticipated.
"I've been polling the public for about a decade," Uscinski told Insider. "And I ask about a lot of conspiracy theories on my surveys. And one of the items I've asked a few times is: 'School shootings like those at Sandy Hook, Connecticut, and Parkland, Florida, are false flag attacks perpetrated by the government.'"
Respondents to the survey are then asked to rate how strongly they agree with the statement on a five-point scale — with one being "strongly disagree" and five being "strongly agree."
"We get between 15 and 20% usually saying that they agree or strongly agree, and that's pretty stable," Uscinski said. "And it's sort of shocking, because I didn't think it was going to be that high."
Uscinski has also found a correlation between strongly held conspiratorial beliefs and the endorsement of violence. People with a strong predisposition toward conspiratorial thinking are more accepting of violence as a way of expressing disagreement, he found. And though major spreaders of misinformation like Jones may not directly commit violence themselves, followers of such theories sometimes do.
All conspiracy theories are not created equal, however. Some — like believing the CIA killed John F. Kennedy or that the moon landing was faked — do not correlate with violence. But theories that Uscinski categorizes as "antisocial" — that the Holocaust was faked or exaggerated, that AIDS was purposely spread to people by the government, or that mass shootings are "false flag" events — do correlate with violence and are strongly linked to specific personality traits.
"People tend to pick explanations that match how they already view the world," Uscinski said. "Oftentimes, we find that the people who have a very conspiratorial worldview are also people who are high in what we'd call dark personality traits, like high in narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy."
Targeting a grieving father
In 2014, Watt connected with Pozner, whose son was the youngest victim of the shooting, through social media. She was publicly posting online about her disbelief in the Sandy Hook attack when he followed her on Google Plus.
Pozner had taken to following the accounts of Sandy Hook deniers and engaging with them, believing that if they had their questions answered, they would change their minds and stop harassing him and his family online. Eventually, the two exchanged numbers and spoke on the phone.
"I said I would like to have a copy of Noah's death certificate," Watt told Insider about her first conversation with Pozner. "And I'd like to have a picture of your wife holding both of your children, the twins Danielle and Noah, in the hospital after she's given birth. And I would like to have a copy of his report card."
Pozner confirmed he ultimately provided both the report card and copy of his son's death certificate, which Watt claimed was a forgery. Watt invited him to take a polygraph test in Florida, but she said Pozner told her he didn't like flying and declined, which she found suspicious.
Watt claimed she spoke with Pozner for over 100 hours, questioning him about the death of his son and talking about topics such as movies and other current events. Pozner told Insider the claim about how long they spoke is impossible.
"Hoaxers have this aspect of delusion; there's really no way that I spoke with her at that length," Pozner told Insider. "I probably spoke to her on the phone at least, I'd say approximately 10 times, and like 95% of those were her dialing my number. Maybe one or two went for an hour, but the rest were very short. There wasn't much left to say after the first few calls."
Pozner described interactions with Watt as persistent but "respectful" — until their last conversation, at which point even Watt acknowledged their call became contentious.
"We finally quit speaking after about six months, because I said, 'Someday I just feel in my heart that there's going to be a class-action lawsuit against you. There's just too many people that know that don't believe the story anymore,'" Watt said she told Pozner, believing he would be held legally liable for being a "crisis actor" and faking his grief about the shooting.
"I said, 'Someday I think there's going to be a class-action lawsuit. And I want to donate to your foundation. What's the name of it? Noah's Ark or whatever. I want to donate $1, because if there's ever a class-action lawsuit, I want to be part of it.' And he says: 'Fuck you, bitch.' And then he hung up and that was the last conversation we ever had."
Watt refused to see the grieving father's anger as anything other than proof that she was right.
She said Pozner's refusal to continue to speak to her meant he was concerned about the financial and legal implications of being "found out" and that her suggestion of a lawsuit was a threat to his "charade."
"Show me proof where I'm wrong on any of this," Watt said. "I haven't seen any proof that I'm wrong on anything."
The lasting impact of conspiratorial harassment
Like most people who perpetuate harassment of families of shooting victims online, Watt has not faced legal consequences for targeting Pozner or for the chapters she contributed to the book "Nobody Died at Sandy Hook," despite the fact that a jury found the content defamatory.
Pozner successfully sued James Fetzer, the primary author of the book, for claiming the death certificate he provided to Watt was a forgery and was awarded $450,000 in damages by a jury. The case is currently under appeal.
Jones has been found liable in defamation cases in Connecticut and Texas related to the conspiracies he spread about the families of Sandy Hook victims. Jones' company, Free Speech Systems, which operates Infowars, filed for bankruptcy on July 29 in response to the latest suit, in which Heslin and Lewis were awarded $49.3 million.
The talk-show personality has since described his conspiratorial mindset as "some kind of psychosis" and blamed the media for his behavior.
Though Watt never specifically threatened violence, the Pozner family became a particular target of Jones and followers of Sandy Hook hoax theories and, as a result, faced significant harassment. The family moved six times in about as many years after identifying information was posted online. One harasser was sentenced to five months in prison after pleading guilty to sending voicemails and messages threatening to kill Pozner.
'I fear for my life, I fear for my safety'
Nearly a decade has passed since the shooting, but families of Sandy Hook victims — including Heslin and Lewis and the Pozners — still face intense harassment both online and in person, and regularly receive death threats.
The forensic psychiatrist Roy Lubit — who treated both Heslin and Lewis for complex post-traumatic stress disorder — testified the parents live in constant fear that a follower of Jones will kill them.
"The overwhelming cause of their pain is what Jones is doing," Lubit said in court.
Lubit testified in Jones' most recent defamation trial that, in addition to harassment on the street, Heslin said he has had guns fired at his home. Lubit also said that Lewis installed surveillance equipment and sleeps with a gun, knife, and pepper spray nearby because of the fear she'll be attacked.
In his testimony, Heslin said Jones and his followers have made his life a "living hell."
"What was said about me and Sandy Hook itself resonates around the world," Heslin said during the trial. "As time went on, I truly realized how dangerous it was."
"I fear for my life, I fear for my safety," he said.
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