A year and a half after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, Lenny Pozner called to set up a meeting with Wolfgang Halbig. A 68-year-old security consultant, Halbig was the de facto leader of a community of conspiracy theorists, known as hoaxers, who claimed that the shooting had been staged by the government. To the hoaxers, the 26 victims — one of whom was Pozner’s 6-year-old son, Noah — were fictional characters.
It was May 28, 2014, and Pozner, an IT consultant, was in Florida on business. He hoped to sit down with Halbig at a coffee shop near his home in Orlando, Florida. He wanted to talk to him face-to-face about Noah, who was his only son and never far from his mind. On December 14, 2012, the day of the shooting, Pozner had been the one to drop Noah off at school. As they drove, they listened to “Gangnam Style,” Noah’s favorite song. When they arrived, Pozner said, “Have a fun day,” and watched as his child headed inside, fiddling with his backpack and brown jacket.
Ever since his son’s death, Pozner had been dealing with the hoaxers. It was his habit to regularly post photos of Noah, a happy boy with soft blue eyes and a wide smile, on his Google Plus page. He would put up pictures of Noah hugging his twin sister, or playing on the beach, or showing off the tooth he lost less than two weeks before he was murdered. The hoaxers would see these images and offer comments: “Where’s Noah going to die next?” read one. Another commenter, seemingly believing that Pozner had been recruited to help perpetuate the myth of the shooting, asked, “How much do you get paid?”
Pozner was one of the rare Sandy Hook parents who confronted those who questioned his child’s murder. In response to their comments, he posted online his son’s birth and death certificates. He shared the medical examiner’s report and one of Noah’s report cards. The hoaxers said the records were counterfeits.
Pozner remained undaunted. He thought that perhaps if he could show Halbig the documents in person, he and the rest of the hoaxers might at last relent. “I wanted to be as transparent as possible,” Pozner says. “I thought keeping the documents private would only feed the conspiracy.”
When Pozner did not receive a reply from Halbig, he contacted Kelley Watt, one of the more aggressive hoaxers who showed up on his Google Plus page. Watt wrote back on Halbig’s behalf. “Wolfgang does not wish to speak with you,” her note said, “unless you exhume Noah’s body and prove to the world you lost your son.”
Giving up on a meeting with Halbig, Pozner looked to engage in some sort of dialogue with the people who, around this time, made him their chief target. (One video montage that started making the rounds showed images of Noah set to a soundtrack of pornographic sounds.) In June 2014, Pozner accepted an invitation to join a private Facebook group called Sandy Hook Hoax. He told its members that he was willing to answer their questions. “I think I lasted all of eight minutes,” he recalls. One participant said, “Man, I’m gonna have to coach you up if you wanna go on TV and make money, Lenny.” Another typical attacker proclaimed, “Fuck your fake family, you piece of shit.”
Pozner eventually realized that, for Halbig and his brethren, this was a game without end. His efforts to combat them became a mission. “I’m going to have to protect Noah’s honor for the rest of my life,” he says.
Every modern atrocity or disaster has its attendant conspiracy theories. Their shared thesis is that governments, needing a way to keep the populace in fear, orchestrate mock calamities, using the tools of the state to cover their tracks. Within 24 hours of the recent mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, videos claiming the event was “staged” surfaced on YouTube and received thousands of clicks.
It was the same in 2007, after a senior at Virginia Tech killed 32 people and wounded 17 others in the worst mass shooting in American history up to that time. The record death toll fed rumors that “black ops” must have been behind the incident. Five years later, in the wake of an attack on a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, Alex Jones, who runs the popular conspiracy site InfoWars, implied that the gunman was in cahoots with the government, pointing listeners to his graduate student work at a “government-funded neuroscience program,” not mentioning the fact that, like most graduate programs, it receives plenty of private funding, as well. In one of the darker ironies America has recently produced, the sheriff investigating the October 2015 mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon was found to have shared mass-shooting conspiracy theories on Facebook.
Yet even amid this terrible canon, the conspiracy theories that sprang up after Sandy Hook have been exceptional. Less than a month after the shooting, a video called “The Sandy Hook Shooting — Fully Exposed” had received 10 million views on YouTube. Driving some of these hoaxers, in part, was a panic over new firearms restrictions. An infamous conspiracy theorist named James Fetzer called the Newtown attack a “FEMA drill to promote gun control.” The National Rifle Association laid the groundwork for such sentiments. In February 2012, Wayne LaPierre, the group’s executive vice president, described then-first-term President Obama’s hidden agenda: “Get re-elected and, with no more elections to worry about…erase the Second Amendment from the Bill of Rights and excise it from the U.S. Constitution.”
In the wake of the massacre, Halbig started the website sandyhookjustice.com. He touted his credentials as a former security director for schools in Seminole County, Florida, and claimed he worked on the official investigation into the mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999. He said his knowledge of security protocols and procedures provided him with a singular ability to analyze what happened that day in Newtown, and highlight what he believed to be the government’s many lies. Other hoaxers rallied around Halbig’s alleged resume, and donated tens of thousands of dollars to his GoFundMe account. On his show, Alex Jones championed him as a “leading expert” on Sandy Hook.
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Halbig became known for asking a set of 16 questions that he argued proved the event was staged, carried out by “crisis actors,” whom the government pays to pose as victims during emergency preparedness drills. Halbig claimed the authorities could not provide him with answers that, in fact, were available to the public in the Connecticut State Police report on the shooting. For instance, he wanted to know why paramedics and EMTs weren’t allowed to enter the school (they were), and why helicopters weren’t used to transport victims to the hospital (with the exception of four wounded, who were taken by ambulance, the rest were dead). Supplied with those facts, he and the hoaxers insisted they had to be fiction, given their source. The whole point, after all, is that the government can never be trusted.
Frustrated by their inability to rattle government officials, hoaxers began attacking the families of victims, accusing them of being “treasonous” government operatives. To press their case, they designated themselves authorities on the physiology of grieving. The parents didn’t appear sad enough in interviews, they argued; therefore, they could not possibly have lost children. “They aren’t behaving the way human beings would act,” the conspiracy theorist Jay Weidner said on his radio show. Hoaxers also latched onto time-stamping errors on certain victims’ memorial pages, which, because of a common Google bug, made it seem like they were set up the before the massacre. The hoaxers found a photo of a little girl taken after the shooting. Mistaking its subject for her dead sister, they held it up as proof that the victim was still alive.
The conspiracy movement’s personal attacks show no sign of abating. Early this November, a 32-year-old man was arrested for accosting the sisters of Vicki Soto, a slain teacher, at a Newtown charity event; he wanted to ask them whether a family photo of theirs had been photoshopped.
For the hoaxers, no private moment has been sacred. At one point, they vigorously picked over the details of Noah’s funeral. Prior to the ceremony, the family had opened Noah’s casket for a private viewing, which was reported in the news. It’s not an unusual custom for Jewish families, but hoaxers alleged it was against the laws of the religion, which somehow helped substantiate their claim that Noah wasn’t real.
It was around this time that Pozner began to fight back. Halbig’s sandyhookjustice.com had by then drawn a benificent counterbalance, blogs like sandyhookfacts.com, devoted to debunking every crackpot claim put forward by the hoaxers, whom they referred to as “conspiratards.” Pozner began to work with the blogs’ authors, who had no connection to Newtown or its residents, beyond a shared disgust with Halbig’s campaign. “This became my catharsis, my path to healing,” Pozner says. “It was how I was getting the pain out of me.”
I know that the more garbage that is out there, the more it ages over time, the more the myth becomes accepted as a disgusting historical fact that tries to dismiss the existence of my child. I mean, damn it, his life had value. He existed. He was real.”
Pozner also began filing police reports against his harassers. The reports would never go anywhere, but Pozner didn’t care. He put the documents online. “So the hoaxers could see what I was doing,” he says. Often, it was enough to cause people to take down the offensive content in question.
During the summer of 2014, two months after Pozner had suggested they meet in Florida, he filed a complaint against Halbig with the Florida attorney general. “I wanted the AG to know he was a fraud,” Pozner says. The complaint read, “Mister Halbig is soliciting donation[s] from people to fund his uncovering the Hoax at Sandy Hook… As a parent of a child that was murdered on 12-14-12 in Sandy Hook Elementary school, I feel his scam is just plain wrong.”
After Halbig learned of the complaint, he tried calling Pozner several times, leaving messages on his voicemail. He sounded alarmed, and said it was “urgent” that they speak. Halbig denies reaching out, but Pozner saved the voicemails and phone records from that period. I asked Halbig about the discrepancy. “That’s very strange,” he told me. “Never called him in my life.”
On December 16, 2014, shortly after the two-year anniversary of Newtown, Taliban gunmen opened fire at a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, killing 141 people. Soon after, a poster of Noah inexplicably appeared at a vigil there. “I assume it was done out of solidarity,” Pozner says.
Halbig and the hoaxers made much of this development. They began to sarcastically refer to Noah as the boy who was “killed twice.” Halbig splashed the pictures all over sandyhookjustice.com. Then, in early 2015, he escalated his attacks, posting Pozner’s complaint to the attorney general on his website. The complaint contained all of Pozner’s contact information.
“So I sued him in September,” Pozner says.
The injunction required Halbig to remove the complaint from the Internet. Instead, Halbig took down his entire website. Pozner was pleased with the result, until a month later, when Halbig launched a new website, where he resumed what he calls his “investigation.” Last week, Halbig used the site to recirculate photos of Noah that had previously appeared online.
“He does it to mess with me,” Pozner says. “It’s a taunt.” He alerted Godaddy, which hosts the site, that Halbig was violating its terms of service. The photos have since been removed.
To further his cause, Pozner has created an organization, called the HONR Network, whose goal is to “bring awareness to Hoaxer activity” and “prosecute those who wittingly and publicly defame, harass, and emotionally abuse the victims of high profile tragedies.” Since there is no criminal law that protects families like Pozner’s from the darker impulses of the Internet, he and his volunteers — folks he met virtually, when he began debunking — perform a slow and painful task. Whenever a video or a screed appears online attacking the victims of a horrible event, they alert venues like YouTube that their rules have been broken. The victories have been small. Though they’ve removed hundreds of links from the Internet, there are countless more like them.
“I know that the more garbage that is out there, the more it ages over time, the more the myth becomes accepted as a disgusting historical fact that tries to dismiss the existence of my child,” says Pozner. “I mean, damn it, his life had value. He existed. He was real. How dare they.”
In November, the HONR Network released an ebook on Halbig, called “The Hoax of a Lifetime.” The volume runs more than 100 pages, and digs deeply into his past. One of the things the group reports is that it could find no evidence that Halbig ever worked on an official investigation related to Columbine. But that is not the most interesting revelation. It seems Halbig’s tenure as director of security for Seminole County schools was rather unremarkable, save for one particular incident: in 1997, a student stole his gun. He expressed embarrassment to the Orlando Sentinel. “I mean, gosh, I’m the director of security,” he said.
Halbig, for his part, insists he’s just an investigator with good intentions.
“I’m not a conspiracy theorist,” he assured me. “I don’t even know what a hoaxer is.”
An update from staff writer Mike Spies
One of the eeriest aspects of Lenny Pozner’s story is how it anticipated the current political climate. It seemed inconceivable, way back when I first met Pozner in 2015, that even the most committed conspiracy theorist could be so contemptuous of the truth and so flagrantly cruel to its adherents. Today, it can feel like objective reality is at constant risk of being swamped by the dark fantasies and manipulations of the fringe. “I kept saying, ‘They’re growing, they’re growing.’ I kept saying, ‘It’s like a brush fire that needs to be contained,’” Pozner recently told me. “Now, because it was ignored, it’s not on the edge; it’s dead center. It’s burned into the Capitol.”
Over the past two years, Pozner has not flinched from the fight that has become his life’s work. Days after our story first ran, a leading hoaxer whose actions Pozner had helped to expose was fired from his professorship at a Florida college. Another hoaxer who made death threats against Pozner has received prison time. Pozner shared his experiences in a lengthy 2016 New York magazine profile, risking further troll swarms as he accepted a higher public profile. He and the hundreds of volunteer online monitors he has organized have convinced YouTube and other web giants to remove hoaxer content. Their work has also directed scrutiny toward the corporate practices that facilitate the proliferation of vile conspiracy theories in the first place. He hopes one day to successfully lobby for a law designating the families of mass shootings as a protected class, which would make attacks on them a hate crime.