Battling Hoaxers in Court, Sandy Hook Families Replay a Tragedy

A month before what would have been his son Noah’s 13th birthday, Lenny Pozner told a jury about the last time he saw him, when he dropped him off at school on Dec. 14, 2012.

“It was cold, but he jumped out not wearing his jacket, and he had one arm in one sleeve and his backpack on the other arm, and he was kind of juggling both and walking into the school that way,” Mr. Pozner told a Wisconsin jury in October. “And that’s — that’s the last visual that I have of Noah.”

Noah Pozner was one of 20 first graders and six educators killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, in Newtown, Conn., seven years ago this week. Since then, some of the victims’ families have been battling an online phalanx of conspiracy theorists who have threatened and tormented them, advancing false claims that they were actors in a government-backed hoax aimed at confiscating Americans’ firearms.

Mr. Pozner was the first family member to turn to the courts, fighting an array of “hoaxers,” as he calls them, including Alex Jones, who peddled falsehoods about the shooting on his Infowars radio and online show.

Mr. Pozner’s Wisconsin testimony was for his defamation case against Jim Fetzer, a former University of Minnesota professor who produced a book titled “Nobody Died at Sandy Hook.”

Mr. Pozner supplied Noah’s birth and death records, and a D.N.A. sample that matched Noah’s, “stored as a little drop of blood on a special piece of paper,” at the Connecticut medical examiner’s office, said Jake Zimmerman, Mr. Pozner’s lawyer. A judge in the case, in Dane County Circuit Court in Wisconsin, ruled that Mr. Fetzer had defamed Mr. Pozner, and on Oct. 15 the jury awarded him $450,000. Mr. Fetzer intends to appeal.

Mr. Pozner’s legal team represented him without charge, absorbing costs Mr. Zimmerman estimates will top $1 million. But there is no escaping the emotional cost of litigating the truth of a murder, in a proceeding requiring families to repeatedly relive the worst episode of their lives, and expose themselves in person to conspiracists targeting them. Earlier in the case, Mr. Fetzer was fined for contempt of court for sharing confidential material in the case, including Mr. Pozner’s videotaped deposition, with other hoaxers, including Wolfgang Halbig, a conspiracist who has tormented Mr. Pozner and other families for years.

“How did you say one last goodbye to Noah?” Mr. Zimmerman asked Mr. Pozner, sitting in the witness box.

“We had a private viewing where we opened the coffin, and I got a chance to say one last goodbye to Noah,” Mr. Pozner said, as some jurors wept. “I remember saying goodbye to him and kissing him on his forehead,” which because the child had been shot in the face, “was the only part of him that was not covered.”

In early 2018, the families of eight victims filed a defamation suit in Connecticut against Mr. Jones and former associates, including Mr. Halbig, a Florida retiree who continuously emails and calls victims’ relatives demanding “proof” of the shooting, including autopsy reports, photos and exhumation of the victims’ bodies.

The lawsuit is stalled, awaiting a decision by Connecticut’s Supreme Court on an appeal brought to it by Mr. Jones in September. The state Supreme Court appeal stems from a lower-court ruling in June, rejecting Mr. Jones’ motion to have the suit dismissed on free speech grounds. The lower court ruling came after Mr. Jones repeatedly failed to produce information ordered by the court, including personal text messages, business and other records, and an incident in which Mr. Jones verbally attacked a lawyer for the families on his Infowars show.

Mr. Jones’s on-air attack occurred in June, after he and his lawyers finally provided the Sandy Hook families’ lawyers with 58,000 emails sought by the court order. A dozen of the emails included attachments containing child pornography. The lawyers turned the material over to the F.B.I., which determined that the attachments were sent from outside Infowars and were not opened by anyone.

Mr. Jones erupted on his show, saying the child pornography was planted to incriminate him. With his lawyer, Norm Pattis, sitting beside him, Mr. Jones said, “Let’s zoom in on Chris Mattei,” referring to a lawyer on the Sandy Hook families’ legal team. “I’m done. Total war. You want it. You got it.”

The court could uphold the lower court’s penalty, or overturn it, essentially restoring Mr. Jones’ right to seek the lawsuit’s dismissal. The court has not yet issued a ruling.

Another legal battle is unfolding in Austin, Texas, where Infowars is based. Lawsuits filed there by the parents of two children killed at Sandy Hook have cleared multiple hurdles toward trial.

Mr. Pozner and Noah’s mother, Veronique De La Rosa, and Scarlett Lewis and Neil Heslin, the parents of Jesse Lewis, have filed three separate lawsuits against Mr. Jones and his associates.

A month after the shooting, Mr. Jones began broadcasting excerpts from Ms. De La Rosa’s interview with the CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, which was taped in front of the Edmond Town Hall in Newtown. Mr. Jones falsely claimed that the interview was taped in a studio before a “green screen.”

On his radio show, Mr. Jones cast doubt on Mr. Heslin’s account of holding his son after his death, playing a video in which an Infowars contributor, Owen Shroyer, says of Mr. Heslin, “He’s claiming that he held his son and saw the bullet hole in his head. That is not possible.”

Earlier this year, in an interview in her kitchen in Sandy Hook minutes after learning about an incremental legal victory, Ms. Lewis lost her composure. “This is the right thing to do,” she said. “But we have to consider that we’re going to aggravate people who are not rooted in reality. And there might be repercussions for that.”

The Texas court of appeals has rejected Mr. Jones’ efforts this year to have all three cases dismissed on free speech grounds. The court further ruled that Mr. Pozner and Ms. De La Rosa were not public figures, a ruling that Mark Bankston and Bill Ogden, lawyers for the families in Texas, say could impact cases in both states. To succeed in a defamation suit, public figures face a higher legal bar: they must prove that Mr. Jones knew claims about them were false before airing them, or that he showed reckless disregard as to their truth or falsity.

In October, Travis County District Court Judge Scott Jenkins held Mr. Jones in contempt for failing to produce records in Mr. Heslin’s suit, ordering him to pay $25,875 in attorneys’ fees.

Records that have emerged in the case have shed light on the network of hoaxers the families are pursuing. In a recent deposition, the lawyers for the families questioned Paul Joseph Watson, Infowars’ chief editor, about a 2015 email he sent to Mr. Jones’ associates.

“Sent this to Alex. This Sandy Hook stuff is killing us,” Mr. Watson wrote in the email. “It makes us look really bad to align with people who harass the parents of dead kids,” he added, naming, among others, Mr. Fetzer.

Kristin Hussey contributed reporting from Connecticut.

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