In an age of 'alternative facts,' a massacre of schoolchildren is called a hoax

If there is anything worse than losing a child, it is losing a child and having people taunt you over the loss.

That is what happened to the family of Noah Pozner, a 6-year-old with tousled brown hair and lollipop-red lips, the youngest of the 26 children and staff members gunned down in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

In the years since the massacre that shook the country and opened new anxiety over gun violence, the family has received hate-filled calls and violent emails from people who say they know the shooting was a hoax. Photos of their son — some with pornographic and anti-Semitic content — have been distributed on websites.

These outlandish theories, which hold that the Newtown school shooting was a staged mass murder engineered by gun control advocates, have lived until now in the dark corners of the Internet.

But they have gained fresh momentum in the last several months, residents here say, at a time when conspiracy theorists across the country have attained the status of celebrities, and the nation as a whole is engaged in a contentious debate over the nature of truth.

President Trump and his national security advisor, Michael T. Flynn, have been open enthusiasts of Alex Jones’ Infowars, a Web-based radio and video network that has relentlessly pushed the theory that Sandy Hook was staged by Democrats to advance a gun control agenda. 

An unabashed Trump supporter during the campaign, Jones says he received a personal call of thanks from the president-elect days after the election.

Although Trump has not spoken publicly about Sandy Hook, many residents here say he is nurturing the culture of exaggeration and paranoia on which conspiracy theorists thrive.

“Maybe it has nothing to do with Donald Trump, but somehow these hate creeps have been less shy about their beliefs,” said Noah’s father, Lenny Pozner, an information technology specialist. “They’ve been emboldened.”

Mark Fenster, a law professor at the University of Florida and author of a book about conspiracy theories in American politics, said the Sandy Hook hoax theory was a response to a Democratic-controlled White House of a kind that often shows up in political extremist circles.

“Conspiracy theories are pervasive in American politics and they target whoever is in power,” Fenster said. “I think it won’t be long before the Alex Joneses of this world are saying that Trump is part of some conspiracy.’’

The town of Newtown is drafting an official letter to the White House demanding that Trump sever his ties to Jones.

“Jones repeatedly tells his listeners and viewers that he has your ears and your respect. He brags about how you called him after your victory in November. Emboldened by your victory, he continues to hurt the memories of those lost, the ability of those left behind to heal,” reads an excerpt of the letter that was shared recently with the news media.

Family members who lost children at Sandy Hook say they find themselves twice victimized.

An unemployed waitress was arrested in December in Florida on charges of making death threats against Pozner, with repeated phone calls to his home in which she muttered ethnic and racial slurs and profanities. Another man is in Rikers Island prison in New York fighting transfer to Connecticut for a deluge of harassing phone calls to the home and office of the medical examiner who signed the coroner reports for Sandy Hook victims.

At a memorial run in 2015 in honor of slain teacher Vicki Soto, a 33-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., man was arrested after police said he shoved a photo in the face of the victim’s younger sister, Jillian Soto, and demanded to know whether her sister really died.

Another man was convicted of stealing memorial signs erected in playgrounds to commemorate the dead children. He later called the children’s parents and said they shouldn’t mind because their children never existed.

Most of the families associated with Sandy Hook have removed or protected their social media accounts and unlisted their telephone numbers; some have changed homes.

Newtown residents are distrustful of outsiders. On the fourth anniversary of the massacre in December, there was a low-key prayer vigil in a Catholic Church. An unmarked police car was stationed outside the elementary school to keep an eye out for hoaxers who show up frequently, photographing children and confronting families.

Who they were: The Newtown shooting victims »

“This cloud of disinformation and misinformation and fake news has been harmful to the community,’’ said Patricia Llodra, a Republican selectwoman for Newtown. “I’m not an angry person, but when I think about the hurtful things these hoaxers say, I want to ask, ‘How could you? How dare you question the pain that these families experience every day.’”

Other tragedies have inspired conspiracy theories: The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the moon landing, the John F. Kennedy assassination. What distinguishes Sandy Hook is that the theories revolve around people who were utterly ordinary. None would have become public figures if not for 20-year-old Adam Lanza’s rampage through an elementary school that fateful morning.

Pozner and his then-wife, Veronique, had moved to the Connecticut suburb, an 80-mile drive from New York City, for its tree-lined cul-de-sacs and quality public schools.

On the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, Pozner drove Noah and his twin sister and another daughter to school. Noah, wearing a Batman shirt, sang along to his favorite song, “Gangnam Style.”

Less than an hour later, he was shot in the face with such force that his jaw was blown off. His sisters cowered in another classroom and survived.

Pozner didn’t pay attention to anything outside the fog of his grief in the first weeks. But when he went online again, he was stunned to realize that many people seemed to think the massacre had been a hoax.

The “Sandy Hook truthers,’’ as they called themselves, tormented not only the grieving families, but teachers, police, photographers, first responders, neighbors, government officials and witnesses — they all were said to be part of the ever-expanding conspiracy to fake the massacre.

“This was specifically a plot to steal America’s weapons in order to neutralize its power. The chief perpetrators are powerful Zionists,’’ declared one website barely a month after the massacre.

The hoaxers claimed Sandy Hook children had been taught to play victims that day, and frequently cruised into town with cameras to “expose” the “child actors.”

Pozner believes his family became a particular target because they were the most openly Jewish family, and because his wife (from whom he is now divorced) was speaking publicly about gun control.

At first, Pozner was almost sympathetic to the disbelievers, in part because he had flirted with conspiracy theories himself in the past. “A lot of these people couldn’t fathom that somebody would look a 6-year-old in the face and pump bullets into his head,” he said.

He chatted online with those who thought the shooting had been faked. He fought back with facts. He released Noah’s death certificate, the medical examiner’s report on his death and, for those who insisted Noah didn’t exist, his birth certificate and his kindergarten report card. (“Noah is a sweet, inquisitive boy and I feel very fortunate to have had him in my class this year,” wrote his teacher.)

But it didn’t work. One of the doubters told Pozner he ought to exhume the body to prove he really had a child who died.

Eventually, Pozner gave up. He set up an organization called the HONR Network, devoted to fighting hoaxes. He and volunteers now operate a series of websites that duel with the websites of conspiracy theorists.

He has filed a lawsuit against the most prolific hoaxers and succeeded in getting Florida Atlantic University to fire a professor who had set up a website pushing the hoax theory. Free-speech laws protect much of the online rumor-mongers, but Pozner has had success removing pictures of children.

“My objective is to reduce the footprint of the hatred and the most disgusting content,” he said.

It took nearly a year to remove a video that featured photos of Noah over the soundtrack from a porn movie. He is currently pressing YouTube about a video with maps and directional arrows pointing to an apartment where he used to live, chillingly zooming in on him through a balcony door as though a sniper was aiming a shot. 

Fearful for his safety, he has moved six times since Noah’s death (he now lives in Florida) and has all mail sent to post office boxes.

The conspiracy theorists have shown unflagging energy. The most persistent, Wolfgang Halbig, a 70-year-old Florida man who describes himself as a retired school safety expert, said he had made 22 trips to Connecticut, wiped out his pension and spent more than $100,000, which he raised online.

His theory is that between 500 to 700 people were involved in the “conspiracy” — including the schoolchildren, parents, teachers and police, all the way up to President Obama.

In a telephone interview, he said he was encouraged by Trump’s election and was expecting that the new administration would open an investigation into not only Sandy Hook but also the Boston Marathon bombing and the Sept. 11 attacks.

“You have a president who is open and he wants the truth. He called out CNN for doing fake news,” Halbig said. “This opens up a whole new avenue for these events to be investigated.”

Sandy Hook became an issue late in the presidential campaign when Hillary Clinton ran an ad attacking Trump for his support of Alex Jones.

A week after the election, Jones doubled down on Sandy Hook with a lengthy special report.

“Children were lost at Sandy Hook. My heart goes out to each and every one of those parents and the people that say they’re parents that I see on the news,” Jones declared.

Then he turned, in Pozner’s view, maddeningly ambiguous. “The only problem is that I’ve watched a lot of soap operas, and I’ve seen actors before,” Jones told his listeners. “And I know when I’m watching a movie and [when] I’m watching something real.”

barbara.demick@latimes.com

Twitter: BarbaraDemick

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