What Kind Of Person Calls A Mass Shooting A Hoax?
Sandy Hook Hoax Exposed
Excerpt: "While the hoaxer world was filled with anti-government and pro-gun supporters, whose vested interest made them impossible to convince, others simply couldn’t fathom a man killing 20 children and were looking for a more comforting explanation."
The Sandy Hook Hoax
Lenny Pozner used to believe in conspiracy theories until his son's death became one.
New York Magazine
On December 14, 2012, Lenny Pozner dropped off his three children, Sophia, Arielle, and Noah, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Noah had recently turned 6, and on the drive over they listened to his favorite song, “Gangnam Style,” for what turned out to be the last time. Half an hour later, while Sophia and Arielle hid nearby, Adam Lanza walked into Noah’s first-grade class with an AR-15 rifle. Noah was the youngest of the 20 children and seven adults killed in one of the deadliest shootings in American history. When the medical examiner found Noah lying face up in a Batman sweatshirt, his jaw had been blown off. Lenny and his wife, Veronique, raced to the school as soon as they heard the news, but had to wait for hours alongside other parents to learn their son’s fate.
It didn’t take much longer for Pozner to find out that many people didn’t believe his son had died or even that he had lived at all. Days after the rampage, a man walked around Newtown filming a video in which he declared that the massacre had been staged by “some sort of New World Order global elitists” intent on taking away our guns and our liberty. A week later, James Tracy, a professor at Florida Atlantic University, wrote a blog post expressing doubts about the massacre. By January, a 30-minuteYouTube video, titled “The Sandy Hook Shooting — Fully Exposed,” which asked questions like “Wouldn’t frantic kids be a difficult target to hit?,” had been viewed more than 10 million times.
As the families grieved, conspiracy theorists began to press their case in ways that Newtown couldn’t avoid. State officials received anonymous phone calls at their homes, late at night, demanding answers: Why were there no trauma helicopters? What happened to the initial reports of a second shooter? A Virginia man stole playground signs memorializing two of the victims, then called their parents to say that the burglary shouldn’t affect them, since their children had never existed. At one point, Lenny Pozner was checking into a hotel out of town when the clerk looked up from the address on his driver’s license and said, “Oh, Sandy Hook — the government did that.” Pozner had tried his best to ignore the conspiracies, but eventually they disrupted his grieving process so much that he could no longer turn a blind eye. “Conspiracy theorists erase the human aspect of history,” Pozner said this summer. “My child — who lived, who was a real person — is basically going to be erased.”
The Pozners moved to Newtown in 2005, partly to send their kids to better schools, but after Noah’s death they saw no choice but to leave. “What happened just weighed on the town like a Chernobyl-like cloud,” Veronique told me from her home in a state far from Newtown that the Pozners prefer not to identify, given the threats that conspiracy theorists have leveled against some Sandy Hook families. The Pozners’ marriage had been falling apart before the shooting, and though Noah’s death briefly brought them back together, the couple eventually divorced. They still co-parent their daughters, who developed a fear of the dark after the shooting and asked Veronique to find a home in a gated community.
Lenny, who has a goatee and a middle-aged paunch, lives by himself a few miles from Veronique. Since relocating, he has moved apartments four times and gets his mail delivered to a P.O. box on the other side of the state. “It’s part of what I need to do to stay vigilant,” he said. After eight months in his newest home, the living room was sparsely furnished, save for a painting of Noah and a cluttered coffee table topped with his daughters’ Barbie dolls and a book called The Meaning of Life.
“I prefer the term hoaxer to truther,” Lenny said, kicking a pair of jeans and Adidas flip-flops onto the footrest of a leather Barcalounger. “There’s nothing truthful about it.” There is no universal Sandy Hook hoax narrative, but the theories generally center on the idea that a powerful force (the Obama administration, gun-control groups, the Illuminati) staged the shooting, with the assistance of paid “crisis actors,” including the Pozners, the other Sandy Hook families, and countless Newtown residents, government officials, and media outlets. The children are said to have never existed or to be living in an elaborate witness-protection program.
Conspiracy theories run deep in the American consciousness — 61 percent of Americans believe Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t act alone — but a mass shooting had never drawn the conspiratorial attention that Sandy Hook did. The modern internet is partly to blame, with hours of uploaded cable-news coverage and reams of documents to parse for circumstantial evidence.
The internet also made it easier to reach victims, and the Pozners became an early target for hoaxers. Veronique, who is a nurse, joined several parents in channeling her grief into vocal gun-control advocacy. One early conspiracy theory held that she was actually a Swiss diplomat named Veronique Haller, who once attended a United Nations arms-control summit. (Veronique is Swiss, and her maiden name is Haller.) Hoaxers quickly scoured family photos on Veronique’s online accounts and began dissecting them for odd shadows or strange poses, suggesting that she had been inserted into the family via Photoshop.
Photo: Courtesy of Lenny Pozner
Lenny may have been the first Newtown parent to discover that conspiracy theorists didn’t believe his son had been killed, because he used to be a serious conspiracy theorist himself. “I probably listened to an Alex Jones podcast after I dropped the kids off at school that morning,” Pozner said, referencing the fearmongering proprietor of InfoWars. Pozner had entertained everything from specific cover-ups (the moon landing was faked) to geopolitical intrigue (the “real” reasons why the price of gold sometimes shifted so dramatically) and saw value in skepticism. But for him, the appeal of conspiracy theories was the same as watching a good science-fiction movie. “I have an imaginative mind,” he said.
When he first discovered the theories about Noah, Lenny, who grew up in Brooklyn, made only a halfhearted attempt to respond. “I feel that your type of show created these hateful people,” Pozner wrote in an email to Alex Jones, to which one of Jones’s employees replied that Jones would love to speak to him if “we confirm that you are the real Lenny Pozner.” Pozner declined, in part because he found himself unable to do much of anything.
While Noah’s death had given Veronique a mission, Lenny “was just numb,” he said. Lenny had worked for two decades as an IT consultant but now found the crisis management that the job required to be too overwhelming. In the year after Noah’s death, Lenny’s mother died following a battle with Alzheimer’s, and he and Veronique separated. “People tell me it’s supposed to get easier,” Lenny said at the shooting’s first anniversary. “We’re waiting for that to happen.”
But by the spring of 2014, as he watched the hoaxer movement bloom, Pozner decided to try fighting back. He released Noah’s death certificate, to convince those who believed he had not been killed, and his report card — “Noah is a bright, inquisitive boy” — for those who believed he had never lived at all. One Friday night, a year and a half after the shooting, he joined a Facebook group called Sandy Hook Hoax, one of the more prominent hoaxer meeting grounds. (Its logo features a ghostly child holding an index finger to her mouth.) Pozner told the group he was there to answer questions, and he expressed empathy for their mind-set. “I used to argue with people about 9/11 being an inside job,” he wrote. Some members of the group asked earnest questions about inconsistencies in the official account. Others simply lobbed bombs. “Fuck you Lenny fuck off and fuck your fake family, you piec [sic] of shit,” one woman wrote. Pozner chatted for more than four hours, but his patience wore thin as the questions grew more absurd:
why don’t u want to look into the newtown police feeds of the nun n the guy in ski mask
cuz my son is dead and it doesnt matter
Pozner was kicked out of the group, but several people sent him messages saying they had more questions. “There was a segment of the population that wanted to have these things debunked,” Pozner said. “All they know is what they’re seeing online, the buzz of all of this disinformation, and someone needed to provide the service of offering accurate information should they want it.” Eighteen months after his wife had found her mission, Pozner found his, and the next day he started a group called Conspiracy Theorists Anonymous, dedicated to debunking hoaxer theories. He also took his fight public, writing an op-ed in the Hartford Courant in which he called out hoaxers by name, including Wolfgang Halbig, a 70-year-old retired school administrator in Florida. Halbig had become the hoaxers’ lead investigator, filing Freedom of Information Act requests for documents relating to the shooting and posting his findings on a website called Sandy Hook Justice Report. In May 2014, Halbig spoke at a public meeting of the Newtown Board of Education. “These are your children,” Halbig told the board, which sat in silence. “We want truth.”
After the meeting, Pozner emailed Halbig saying that he’d like to talk to him. Halbig didn’t respond, but Pozner says another hoaxer sent a reply: “Wolfgang does not wish to speak with you unless you exhume Noah’s body and prove to the world you lost your son.”
Photo: Jeff Riedl
Wolfgang Halbig lives 45 minutes northwest of Orlando in a gated golf-course community. He is a large and gregarious grandfather to three who pushed back my initial request to meet so he could join his grandkids at the beach. “A man who’s 70 only gets to go to the beach so many more times,” he said.
Halbig says that, initially, Sandy Hook had horrified him, and he donated $200 to the town of Newtown and the local United Way. “The first ten days, they had me hooked,” Halbig told me over lunch at the golf-course clubhouse. He had worked in school security for a number of years, and he said that it was only after he was asked to give a presentation to the Florida School Boards Association about preventing such an attack that he began seriously investigating the shooting. “I didn’t have the answers,” Halbig said. “So, I said, ‘I’ll find out.’ ”
After lunch, Halbig drove me to his four-bedroom house, where Coco, a small white Havanese, yapped away as Halbig showed me his home office. On the floor were a dozen laminated posters featuring aerial photos of Sandy Hook and blown-up police dash-camera footage. His desk was covered in green file folders marked “CT State Police,” “FBI,” “Pozner Lawsuit.” There was also a handgun. “It sure looks real, doesn’t it?” Halbig said with a laugh after picking it up and telling me it was a fake gun. “Come on,
I gotta play, too!”
Halbig was born in Germany in 1946 to a mother who wanted an abortion, until his Catholic grandmother offered to raise the baby instead. He met his mother for the first time when he was 12 — he never met his father — and she told him they were moving to Florida, where Halbig graduated from high school, he says, with a 1.0 GPA; he was barely able to speak English. His early years in America were largely marked by bullying. “I lived for years being called a Nazi and a Bastard Child,” he wrote on Facebook recently.
But Halbig was a promising football player, and after going to junior college, and then the Air Force, he played linebacker at Abilene Christian University. He took a job as a high-school teacher in Florida, then worked briefly as a state trooper before returning to education, eventually becoming the director of school safety for a large school district north of Orlando in the ’90s. In 2009, Halbig was let go as the director of risk management for another school district, which he told the Orlando Sentinel was due to the fact that he had confronted district officials about mold problems. (The district said his contract had simply run out.) Halbig had been the victim, he believed, of a conspiracy.
In a deposition given several months before Sandy Hook as part of a personal-injury lawsuit — Halbig lost the case because he “failed to produce evidence supporting the essential elements of his claim” — he testified that losing his job left him depressed and a psychiatrist had prescribed medication to help him deal with his “anger and frustrations.” Injuries left him unable to play tennis or golf, and he had spent the past few years looking for something to do. He launched several school-safety consultancies, none of which survived; ran for county commissioner, winning 5.7 percent of the vote; and started writing a movie in which four of the Founding Fathers travel to 2018 and discover a secret government program also involving time travel. “I am a nobody with a great idea,” he tweeted at Jimmy Fallon, asking him to look at his script. He spent considerable time commenting online about an alleged cover-up involving a Photoshopped version of President Obama’s college ID.
Two months after Sandy Hook, Halbig sent an email to an employee of the Newtown school district suggesting that the full story of the massacre had not been told and offering his services as a school-safety consultant to investigate. The board, flooded with such emails, never responded, which Halbig took as an affront. He began making FOIA requests and peppering people in Newtown with questions. In one email, he asked Sally Cox, the school’s nurse, who hid in a closet when Lanza opened fire, “Why close your eyes when you have seen blood before you are a nurse?”
Not long after he emailed Cox, Halbig says, two Florida police officers visited his home to relay a message from police in Connecticut that he risked being charged with harassment if he continued contacting people in Newtown. The incident made him a celebrity in the hoaxer world: Here was a real example, they believed, of the authorities trying to silence their investigation. Alex Jones invited Halbig on his show to share his run-in with the police and to detail the 16 questions Halbig believed needed to be answered about Sandy Hook. (“12. Why did the parents of the two children who died at the Danbury hospital not allow their children to donate their organs to other children waiting for the gift of life?”) Halbig told Jones the stress of the investigation was threatening his marriage, but said in another interview that nothing could stop him. “You’re willing to die for this?” the host asked.
“Yes, I will,” Halbig said.
Pozner kept Conspiracy Theorists Anonymous going for more than a year, but because he couldn’t bring himself to read the state’s official report on his son’s death, he largely depended on a stable of volunteers to do the debunking. Most of them had no personal connection to Newtown, and many, Pozner found, were recovering conspiracy theorists just like him. While the hoaxer world was filled with anti-government and pro-gun supporters, whose vested interest made them impossible to convince, others simply couldn’t fathom a man killing 20 children and were looking for a more comforting explanation. Pozner found that the forums were filled with mothers who had children who were Noah’s age. “I was really traumatized by what happened at Sandy Hook,” Tiffany Moser, a 36-year-old California mother of two, told me. Moser kept her children out of school for a few days after the shooting and was looking for information about how the families were holding up when she stumbled upon the Sandy Hook Hoax group. “I told them, ‘I don’t really know what the heck you people are doing, but I’d like to believe these little babies didn’t die,’ ” Moser said.
She started spending her free time investigating Sandy Hook. At one point, she helped Halbig scour Newtown Board of Education documents for evidence supporting a theory that the school had been closed before the shooting. Instead, she found evidence to the contrary, but when she brought this to Halbig, she says he dismissed her. “They could never admit when they were wrong,” Moser said.
In December, Moser left the group and began helping Pozner. (She did not give up fringe theories entirely and believes that her son has autism because of a childhood vaccine.) Moser was disappointed that after she left, only one hoaxer approached her to ask what had changed her mind. Instead, they turned on her, accusing her of being a part of the conspiracy all along. Moser said they published her personal information, as they had done with several Sandy Hook families, and reported her to Child Protective Services. One hoaxer obtained explicit footage Moser had shared with a former boyfriend and posted it online.
Moser’s experience clarified for Pozner something he had begun to understand: Debunking had run its course. “I realized there was no one left with questions,” he said. “The only people left were trolls.” When we first spoke, Pozner showed me an email he had received that day, asking for “proof that anyone died at that dilapidated dump of a school,” then adding: “One more thing before I close, your wife is uglier than sin.” As Pozner started to take on the hoaxers more directly, trolls had begun posting rumors on social media that he was a child pornographer. “They aren’t attacking the event,” he said. “They’re just attacking me.”
The attacks weren’t confined to adults. One of Halbig’s favorite Sandy Hook theories is that Sasha Davidson, who was killed, is in fact alive and living as another Newtown girl named Allison Rodriguez. (I’ve changed the names of the children here.) The two girls happen to look alike if you pick the right photograph from the right angle. If Rodriguez Googles her name — she is now 12 years old — she will be confronted with a page full of results declaring that she is actually her dead schoolmate.
Pozner encountered the same problem with Noah, whose name produced search results that were “95 percent garbage,” and decided that if he couldn’t convince hoaxers that they were wrong, he could at least try to protect his son’s legacy. While conspiracy theorists thrive online, Pozner found most of them to be technologically unsophisticated, and his IT background gave him an advantage. “The internet is kind of my backyard,” Pozner said, sitting at a pair of computer monitors with a WORLD’S NO. 1 DAD mug on the desk and a Sharper Image foot massager underneath. He begins most days by Googling his name, and Noah’s, to see if he needs to report any posts or videos. On the morning I visited, he was dealing with hundreds of tweets from the night before that referred to him as “Cyber Terrorist Child Predator Lenny Pozner.”
Pozner found that his most effective tool for getting material taken down was to file copyright claims whenever anyone used a family photo of him, or Noah, in a post. By his estimate, Pozner had successfully taken down hundreds of images — he sometimes intentionally posted photos of Noah online, knowing that hoaxers would take and use them, which then allowed him to file a complaint — and he smiled when I told him that I had recently watched a video in which a hoaxer referred to a deleted YouTube channel as having been “Poznered.”
“A whole lot of them fear me,” Pozner said proudly, noting that much of the hoaxer community assumes he has connections at Google or works for the NSA. Just as Halbig had become the hoaxer community’s figurehead, Pozner was now the de facto leader of the anti-hoaxer movement, in part because none of the other Newtown families seemed to want much to do with it. “I support his efforts, I just don’t have the stomach for it,” Veronique told me. Pozner had little contact with other Sandy Hook families, most of whom simply hoped the hoaxers would move on to other preoccupations. In 2015, he had started an organization called the HONR Network, to help take down online hoaxer content, but the group’s interaction largely took place online. His was a lonely crusade, and he admitted that in his “darkest, darkest moments,” the conspiracy theorist inside of him would reemerge. “I sometimes wonder, Why am I the only one fighting back?” he said. “Could I have been the only one that lost a child?”
Pozner had found decent traction scrubbing Noah’s Google results of hoaxer content, but he knew that would do little to stop Halbig’s investigation, which he worried was going to lead to more than just nasty YouTube videos. “Wolfgang gives crazies the justification to go out and do what they do,” Pozner said. He cited a Southern Poverty Law Center reportthat tied nearly a hundred murders to stormfront.org, a white-supremacist website. Last month, a Nevada man who had posted Sandy Hook hoax videos online was arrested for threatening a mass shooting, and another father in Newtown sent me pictures from one of Halbig’s FOIA hearings, during which an unidentified man with long hair and a stoic expression sat in the background. “It’s the hoaxers who stay quiet who really worry us,” he said.
Halbig was far from the only active hoaxer. In 2015, James Tracy, the Florida Atlantic University communications professor, sent a letter to the Pozners demanding proof that they were Noah’s parents, and James Fetzer, an emeritus professor at the University of Minnesota, published a book called Nobody Died at Sandy Hook. Halbig co-hosts a semi-regular Sandy Hook Justice Report podcast with a man who uses a pseudonym in an attempt to conceal his identity. In November, at a memorial run honoring Vicki Soto, a teacher killed at Sandy Hook, a Brooklyn man named Matthew Mills walked up to Soto’s sister, wearing an official T-shirt from the run, and demanded that she tell him whether a family photo had been Photoshopped to include Vicki, whom he believed didn’t exist.
But Halbig has been the most persistent, and over the past two years, he has gone to Connecticut more than 20 times — his business card reads HAVE TRUTH WILL TRAVEL — to examine documents, speak at public meetings, and attend hearings. The investigation has been financially costly to both sides. Halbig says he has raised more than $100,000 from supporters through fund-raising sites like GoFundMe, while state and local governments have had to devote significant resources to dealing with his visits and ceaseless document requests. (Since first contacting Halbig, I have been CC’d on emails to various government agencies on an almost daily basis.) Whenever Halbig comes to Newtown, a group of local fathers keeps tabs on him. Halbig has been banned from St. Rose of Lima, a local church, after he was seen with other hoaxers who were allegedly videotaping kids walking in and out of the building. A local official told me that one of the Sandy Hook mothers had started crying when she heard Halbig was in town.
“This is my adventure,” Halbig told me in July at a diner in Newtown with a 26 angels sticker on the door. It was the day after President Obama referenced Newtown at the Democratic National Convention and a day before the new Sandy Hook Elementary School building was to open. (The old building was torn down after the shooting, which hoaxers view as the ultimate destruction of evidence.) Halbig was in town to review insurance claims he had requested, hoping they would show there had been no actual damage done by the shooting. By this point, he had narrowed his 16 questions to five. “The questions that I’m asking, they’re not disrespectful to the families,” Halbig said. “Are you ready for this? This is my big one — who ordered the port-a-potties?” The vast conspiracy could be cracked, Halbig believed, if he could prove that toilets brought to the scene after the shooting had not been delivered by a local port-a-potty company hoping to be useful during a tragedy but had instead been ordered in preparation for a staged event. Halbig tends to fixate on minor details that he imbues with outsize meaning, a strategy that also has the benefit of filling his days with an endless number of leads to follow. He ignores countervailing arguments and exaggerates both the evidence for his theories and his credentials, which he regularly cites as qualification for his investigation: Halbig said that during his brief career as a state trooper, he once drove in a motorcade protecting Martin Luther King Jr., the difficulty being that King died years before Halbig joined the force. Halbig told me that he modeled himself on Perry Mason and Columbo and compared his investigation to his recent experience at a David Copperfield show. He had purchased front-row seats so that he could “try to catch him and see how he did it.” The only problem, Halbig said, was that he couldn’t.
Halbig didn’t find anything when he looked through the Sandy Hook insurance claims, either, but decided to stop by the school on his way out of town. “Make sure you got your camera rolling,” Halbig said to Mert Melfa, a retiree from upstate New York who had taken to filming Halbig’s quest. Despite his claims of being an investigator, Halbig was clearly pleased with his prominent role in the hoaxer movement: After Hillary Clinton mentioned Sandy Hook hoaxers in her speech tying Donald Trump to the alt-right, Halbig posted a video complaining that Clinton had credited Alex Jones, rather than him, with the theory’s spread. As Halbig walked toward the school, several firefighters watched through the window of the neighboring firehouse, where the Pozners had waited to learn Noah’s fate. A woman in an SUV slowed down as she drove by and yelled, “Wolfgang, fuck you!”
“Thank you, baby,” Halbig yelled. “Thanks for knowing me!”
As Pozner struggled with the sheer volume of disparaging material on the internet, he started to look for a more permanent solution. “You can’t show up at their house with a baseball bat — or, I have kids to raise, so I can’t,” Pozner said. He began to wonder, however, if there were less violent ways to punch back. “The debunking thing was very 2015,” he said. “The consequences part — the punishing-hoaxers part — is really where I’m at now.”
If the hoaxers were going to make Pozner’s life even more of a hell than it had become when his son was killed, he might as well make their life hell, too. He filed a complaint with the Florida attorney general against Halbig and built a website on which he posted the personal information of various hoaxers. Pozner and other families successfully lobbied Amazon to remove James Fetzer’s book and persuaded GoFundMe to shut down Halbig’s account. In December, Pozner co-wrote an op-ed in a Florida newspaper with Veronique demanding that Florida Atlantic University fire James Tracy. A few weeks later, the university dismissed Tracy for filing improper paperwork. (Tracy, who had tenure, is suing to get his job back.) Last fall, Pozner filed a lawsuit against Halbig for invasion of privacy. “Suing Halbig is symbolic,” Pozner said. “If I can show that if you go after a victim, a victim is gonna sue you, that’s real.”
Looking at the lawsuit, I noticed that Pozner had filed it on September 11, which I assumed was a coincidence. But Pozner told me he had chosen the date on purpose. “I know how these guys function, and this is just another shock to their nervous system,” Pozner said, pointing out that the overlap between 9/11 truthers and Sandy Hook hoaxers is high. On July 4, he redirected the HONR Network site to the NSA’s homepage. Pozner denied getting any satisfaction out of his campaign but acknowledged that he tried “to have a sense of humor about it.” He also created an Onion-like site mocking the hoaxers: “Computer enhancement of mirror’s reflection reveals the truth! Wolfgang Halbig is a shape shifting reptilian!!!”
Last November, the HONR Network published The Hoax of a Lifetime, a 165-page ebook that treated Halbig’s life, much like Halbig had treated Pozner’s, as a hoax to be exposed. The ebook’s thoroughness highlighted the fact that Pozner had become nearly as preoccupied with his campaign against Halbig as Halbig had with his own quest: In one of our conversations, Pozner diagnosed Halbig with a particular medical condition based on his analysis of a facial tic he had noticed while watching videos of him. (The two have never met.) The Hoax of a Lifetime noted inconsistencies in Halbig’s record, pulled out salacious details from his personal life, and demanded that he answer the types of trivial questions he had been asking people in Newtown, like one asking why his wife’s name appeared with a different middle initial on several documents: “Question #5 Wolfgang MUST answer: Why does your wife have so many aliases? What is she hiding?” The trolled had become the troll.
Pozner knew that by prodding the hoaxers, he had perhaps brought more vitriol upon himself and that many in Newtown viewed his campaign as counterproductive. But he denied kicking a hornet’s nest. “People don’t understand what trolls are,” he said. “If you don’t feed them, they don’t just go away.”
At a minimum, the pushback seemed to rattle Halbig, who called Pozner in a panic after the Florida attorney general contacted him. On a recent trip to Connecticut, Halbig and several other hoaxers found one of their cars covered in rubber ducks, which had become a symbol of Newtown’s recovery. (After the shooting, a Kiwanis club sent 500 to Newtown as part of a donation; Sandy Hook students eagerly snatched them up.) Halbig showed me an online comment in which someone, writing from the account Sandy Hook Facts, warned Halbig not to give the ducks to his grandkids, suggesting they were poisoned. He took the ducks to the police, who conducted tests, which came back negative, but he was spooked nonetheless. “I don’t know who these people are,” Halbig told me. “They’re stalking me.”
Pozner denied knowing anything about the ducks, and one day, in Newtown, I was sitting in a Starbucks when a middle-aged man — he asked me to refer to him by his email handle, Vlad the Impaler — walked up and told me he was part of the group of Newtown men, mostly fathers, who have taken it upon themselves to keep track of the hoaxers. None of the 18 men had lost a child in Newtown, and they weren’t in touch with Pozner, but Vlad said that he and many others privately supported Pozner’s crusade. They just didn’t want to say so publicly for fear of drawing the hoaxers’ ire. As a father, Vlad said his primary concern was removing the photos of Newtown children like Allison Rodriguez from the internet; he felt that Newtown had been too polite in dealing with the hoaxers, and there was also part of him that found satisfaction in being able to retaliate. “You know what ends a fight?” Vlad said. “Cruelty.” The only viable strategy, he believed, was to disrupt the hoaxers’ lives. In March, a friend of Vlad’s sent Halbig an email from email@example.com, inviting him to a meeting at Mar-a-Lago where he could present the findings of his investigation for possible use in the campaign. Halbig, who is a Trump supporter, drove three hours to Palm Beach only to be turned away by confused security.
“Did Wolfgang tell you about my duckies?” Vlad asked me with a big smile. He had started sending the rubber ducks to hoaxers, he said, as “our way of saying you can’t hide behind a computer.” I asked whether the ducks had, in fact, been poisoned. “I think you could say they were ‘weaponized,’ ” Vlad said. “When we rubbed them on our ball sacks.”
I feel good, because I really feel deep inside my heart that no children died that day,” Halbig told me. “But then on the other side, what if I’m wrong?” In that case, Halbig said, he would pay for a billboard apologizing “for all the harm I’ve done” and then promptly check himself into a mental institution. It wasn’t exactly clear what would convince him, but he expressed hope in a lawsuit brought by nine of the Newtown families, including the Pozners, against Bushmaster, which makes the AR-15. “They’ll have to exhume the bodies to prove it was the AR-15 that actually killed the children,” Halbig said.
By late August, however, it was unclear whether his campaign would last much longer. After another FOIA hearing in Hartford, in which he unsuccessfully demanded the release of several police dash-camera videos, Halbig lost his temper and said he wouldn’t leave the room and was prepared to go to jail. His sit-in lasted 70 seconds, but he seemed distraught. “You have to understand — my family, they can’t even go to work anymore,” Halbig said. “They’re scared to death.” For several weeks, Vlad had been sending anonymous emails to Halbig’s wife and sons and their employers, insisting that they were complicit in his harassment of grieving families. It was the first time anyone from Newtown had reached out to Halbig’s family — Pozner said he had never considered the idea — and a few days later, Halbig gave in to the pressure and shut down his website. He was not ending his investigation, but he was down to three questions, for now. Vlad said that he planned to start contacting the family members of other hoaxers.
But Pozner was skeptical that Halbig would truly go away. The hoaxer problem, as he saw it, was one the victims of tragedy would be dealing with well into the future: When I visited Halbig in June, just after the Pulse shooting in Orlando, which happened 45 minutes from his house, he pulled up a blueprint of the club to point out the building’s security cameras and ask why no footage had been released. “It’s the same players, the same method,” Pozner said of the conspiracy theories that now erupt after most every tragedy. “The hoax thing is like a brush fire.”
Pozner hoped to build the HONR Network into an organization capable of changing how we deal with digital harassment and equipped to file lawsuits like the one he brought against Halbig, which is still ongoing. But he was having enough trouble simply keeping up with the day-to-day task of protecting his son’s memory to have much time for long-term planning. The HONR Network had more than a hundred members, but only a handful were actively helping him. Others had been scared away by hoaxer threats or simply didn’t have the motivation to dive into the muck with Pozner, who was planning to relocate again, now that I knew his address. The heartlessness of the internet’s darker corners had only compounded the senseless cruelty that took his son’s life, and he found it impossible to move on. Until proved otherwise, Lenny said, “for me, everyone is a hoaxer.”
*This article appears in the September 5, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.
*This article has been updated throughout.
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