The father of one of the 20 first graders murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School said Wednesday that his life collapsed after his son’s death and was further upended when he learned that right wing broadcaster Alex Jones was telling an audience of millions the crime never happened and the victims were actors in a bizarre, conspiratorial hoax.
“After the shock of Ben’s murder, the best way to describe it was, I felt like I was under water and I didn’t know which way was up,” David Wheeler, father of first grader Ben Wheeler, testified Wednesday at the continuing trial in Waterbury of a defamation suit against Jones by relatives of the Sandy Hook school shooting victims.
“So you are trying to get your head around that,” Wheeler testified. “And to have someone telling the world that it didn’t happen and that you are a fraud and a phony is incredibly disorienting. It’s like you are already fighting, and I couldn’t understand why anyone in the world would think this. I couldn’t figure it out.”
Wheeler, Erica Lafferty and Jennifer Hensel — all of whom lost loved ones in the shooting — testified Wednesday about being harassed and confronted continuously over the decade since the 2012 shootings by people persuaded by Jones’ broadcasts that the mass murder was a hoax staged by actors involved in a conspiracy to win support for gun control.
Lafferty, whose mother, Sandy Hook Elementary School Principal Dawn Hochsprung, died in the shooting, said she has been confronted so many times about being a “crisis actor,” she has stopped grocery shopping, buys everything online and uses pseudonyms when traveling.
“How do you trust anything?” Lafferty testified. “How do you trust your safety? I have lived in six different places and it has been five moves, mostly so people don’t know where I am.”
Hensel’s daughter, Avielle, was one of the first graders who were killed and her husband, Jeremy Richman, later died by suicide. Before his death, the couple — both scientists — created a research foundation to explore causes of the violence behind shooting. She said Sandy Hook deniers clogged its website with claims that the school massacre was a fraud and the foundation was a criminal attempt to profit from it.
Later, she said she learned people were prowling around a cemetery looking for evidence that her husband had in fact died.
“You add on the fact that people think you made all this for money or that your child didn’t exist and that compounds everything,” Hensel said. “I couldn’t work. I write for a living. I couldn’t form sentences. It makes it hard to get out of bed every day. Because it makes it hard to push that away, that continual noise that it was faked, that she never existed.”
All three relatives described how they no longer feel secure after having Sandy Hook deniers mail them threatening letters, appear at their homes to accuse them of fraud and prowl around the graves of loved ones looking for proof of death.
While the relatives followed one another on the witness stand Wednesday, Judge Barbara Bellis sounded as if she were running out of patience with what she has referred to in recent days as “sniping’ between the opposing lawyers: Norm Pattis, defending Jones, and Christopher Mattei and Josh Koskoff, who are suing for the victim families.
“The next person who does it will be on the receiving end of a contempt hearing,” Bellis told the lawyers at one point Wednesday afternoon, during a sidebar conference at the judge’s bench.
Almost since the outset of the trial last week, the parties have clashed over how far Pattis can press those relatives bringing the suit about their opinions of Jones and his opposition to the politically fraught issue of gun control.
The clash erupted again during testimony Wednesday. Wheeler traveled with his wife to Washington in 2013 after she had been asked by former President Barack Obama to record a plea for gun control. Lafferty works for a gun control advocacy group.
Mattie and Koskoff want Pattis blocked from asking such questions. Pattis claims he has a right to let jurors see whether witnesses are testifying out of some bias against Jones.
Bellis said she would not permit questions by Pattis about politics, but would allow questions about what witnesses know about Jones’ views on gun control.
Jones, who is waiting at an undisclosed location for his turn on the witness stand, made another surprise visit to the sidewalk outside the courthouse during lunch hour Wednesday and again blasted the trial as an illegal effort to revoke his free speech rights and shut down his broadcasting and internet operations.
Jones again admitted he was wrong in calling the Sandy Hook massacre a staged event and said he has been apologizing for six years.
“I said some things that were hurtful and not right and I apologize for the 500th time,” he said. “But I’m not the Sandy Hook man.”
“These lawyers,” he said, pointing at the courthouse, “have said, ‘We want to stop and shut down Alex Jones and silence him.’ I’m being used as a precedent to censor and shut everybody down.”
The jury is hearing evidence for the sole purpose of deciding what compensation the families get for a decade of being defamed, stalked, threatened and harassed by people who subscribe to Jones’ assertions that the people suing him and their murdered relatives were actors.
A year ago, Bellis issued a default ruling that settled the question of Jones’ liability in favor of the families The ruling was an extraordinary legal sanction or punishment of Jones for abusing court procedure and failing to participate in reciprocal exchanges of information with the victims.
The ruling found for the victims on a central point of their suit — that Jones’ false broadcasts were the cause of the harassment and mental anguish experienced by the victim families.
Jones and Infowars cannot defend themselves under the default finding, but can try to minimize what they have to pay in compensatory and punitive damages.
The families hope to collect tens of millions in damages from Jones in suits that charge him with defamation, responsibility for emotional suffering and, significantly, violation of the state unfair trade practices law. If the families can persuade the jury that Jones spread lies and fear for profit, it could find him liable under the trade practices law, which puts no ceiling on damages.
Wheeler and Hensel gave painful accounts of coming to grips with the violent murder of first graders, only to be confronted within weeks by angry accusations by complete strangers who insisted the grief was an act because there were no murders and, in some cases, no children.
“I was told I was lying,” Wheeler said. “I was going to burn in hell and I would pay for what I had done. And they continued for quite a while. That it was a hoax. That I was a liar. That it was a fake. An event like this makes you question everything. It is completely disorienting. You don’t know what’s what anymore. It is awful.”
Wheeler said his tormentors learned from material posted on the internet that, for more than a decade after college, he struggled — ultimately, without success — to be an actor in New York. Film clips were cut and spliced in misleading fashion to suggest he was still an actor playing the two parts — that of a grieving father and of Bill Aldenberg, an FBI agent who was one of the first responders to the shootings.
A year ago, Wheeler said Aldenberg — an earlier witness at the trial — asked to speak with him, apparently consumed by the belief that his resemblance to Wheeler was somehow contributing to the harassment.
“We sat outside and talked,” Wheeler said. “It was a hard conversation for both of us. It was very hard for Bill. Because it became very clear to me almost immediately that he felt a tremendous amount of responsibility for what had happened to me. He came to apologize to me, which was ridiculous, because he had absolutely nothing to apologize for.”
More difficult, Wheeler said, was having to explain the hoax claims to his older son, pre-teen Nate, who was in danger of being exposed to people saying his little brother never died.
“And for years he would ask me why anyone would do these things, why Alex Jones would do these things,” Wheeler testfiied. “We had to sit down and talk about it. We had to have conversations. I had to explain my thoughts about why someone would do this. I didn’t have an answer. I didn’t know what to tell him.”