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When he wants to explain to people what his life is like these days, Connie sometimes tells this story on election night in 2016, he says he went to a bar, got to see no TV, ordered a beer and started making small talk.
And I turned to the guy to my right and said, Did you vote? And from there, he went into a long explanation about some shadow government ideas.
And other voting makes a difference.
And probably 10 minutes into what he was talking about, mass shootings and then eventually Sandy Hook, Sandy Hook, of course, where a gunman killed 20 children on first grade, as well as seven adults as random stranger, then started telling my this particular story about Sandy Hook.
Either the whole shooting was fake, it had to be fake, he said, because one of those first graders also showed up as a victim in a second mass shooting all the way over in Pakistan, in the corners of the Internet where people trade Sandy Hook conspiracy stories. This is a key piece of evidence that Sandy Hook was not real. Of course, it was real and what happened in Pakistan was in reality, about two years after Sandy Hook, the Taliban gunned down more than 100 kids there and there was a public vigil.
And at the public vigil, probably as a sign of solidarity with other kids who had died in school shootings. Mourners had this photo of a boy from Sandy Hook smiling and wearing a Spider-Man shirt under a quarter. Ajaka with very coward Sandy Hook deniers saw that in the coverage and they pounced. Did he die twice to die at all? So the guy at the bar with Lenny is rattling throughout this Pakistan stuff. And then, as when he explained, one of my co-workers, Mickey, make the guy mentions the kid's name.
Noah Pozner, I didn't really need to hear much more than that, I just needed to shut him down, basically. So what did you do?
I took out my driver's license and I said, look, we're talking to, you know, show some respect.
The boy in the photo was gleni, son Noah, who was six when he died because he connected or.
Well, he sure he connected it instantly and he just became more agitated, very angered, went outside and maybe he had a cigarette, came back, yelled at me some more, oh, my God, how much do they pay you? How can you do this?
He was committed to his belief I was the villain. People like this man at the bar pretty much redefined everything about the way he looks his life, where he lives, how he lives. He runs into these hoaxers in person and pretty much every day online, they think the government has paid him millions to play the part of a grieving dad and their minds, Lenny, is the sick one. No, it was never even his kid. And the person who has popularized these theories more than anybody is Alex Jones, who runs the website Infowars.
And he push these theories with his radio show and his YouTube videos. Alex Jones made his name right after 9/11 promoting the idea that 9/11 was an attack orchestrated by our own government with Sandy Hook. Jones said many times that he did not believe the shooting was real. Sandy Hook is a synthetic, completely fake with actors, in my view, manufactured. I couldn't believe it at first. I knew they had actors there clearly, but I thought they killed some real kids.
And it just shows how bold they are that they clearly used actors.
He's going to the government or some shadowy global forces are the ones who hire these actors. He and the other hoaxers call them crisis actors.
It's like this whole alternate world that exists right next to the real one that makes life miserable for parents like winning.
But unlike most parents in that situation, Lenny decided to go all action hero on the hoaxers and on Alex Jones action hero. I will do what needs to get done to defend my family. Damn the consequences. Lenny is resourceful.
He's dogged, he does not give up, and he's effective right now. So many people believe in these alternate worlds and conspiracy theories about, you know, the presidential election being stolen or the whole idea about pedophile rings at the top levels of government. And so we're rerunning this episode that we first ran in twenty nineteen because it's amazing to hear what fighting back against that kind of thing really means. Shall we have any story? And then in the second half of the show, we have a story from writer Jon Ronson, where he also tries to untangle where this alternate hoaxer world ends and the real one begins.
From Chicago, it's this American Life. I'm IRA Glass.
Stay with us. Again, down the rabbit hole, so sorry about the transformation of Lenny Pozner, was put together by Nicky Meek, I say there's some curse words in today's program that we have unbe for this podcast version of the show. If you prefer a beat version, it is at our website. Here's Minkey. The first time Lenny became aware of any conspiracy theories about Sandy Hook was about a month after the shooting, he'd been on a media blackout trying to get through Noah's funeral and taking care of his two young girls.
They were also at the elementary school that morning, and one of them was Noah's twin sister. She hid in a separate classroom. But one day, Lenny finally felt ready to go online, read the news, Google, the son's name Infowars was coming up on search results, the forums, forums. Yeah, and it's just completely disgusting.
In just over 30 days, this whole world had been invented and one of the central pieces of it involved Lenny's wife. Infowars fans were dissecting this one interview she did on CNN. It was with Anderson Cooper just days after Noah's funeral.
What do you want people to know about Noah? He loved running and playing with his siblings and he loved bubble baths and fireflies, and he loved eating the inside of Oreo cookies, and he played the video Gangnam Style ad nauseum. I understand he used to tell his siblings that he that he managed a taco factory. Yes. He was going to split his time as an adult between managing a taco factory and being an astronaut.
The comments online were gross and flimsy. Why didn't she sound sadder? Why would she put on lipstick if she was really grieving? And wasn't she too old to be the mom of a six year old kid? They were convinced that something was up.
How are you holding up? I mean, most of the time I'm I'm kind of numb. I think every mom out there can relate to the fact of how long it takes to create a baby. Those nine months that you watch every ultrasound and every heartbeat and it takes nine months to create a human being. And it takes seconds for an AR 15 to take that away from the surface of the earth.
This reference to guns was another aha moment for conspiracy theorists. Some of them started digging into Veronique's life, looked up her maiden name and then said, hey, look at this. There's a Swiss diplomat who has her exact same name and even fishier this diplomat once went to an arms control summit at the United Nations. So maybe they're the same person. Maybe she's one of those elite globalists trying to make guns look bad so President Obama can repeal the Second Amendment.
Suddenly, every real sentiment Veronique shared about Noah was getting reinterpreted as lines from a sinister script, they were here and they mattered. They all have families and they matter.
And the kicker that cinched it for these conspiracy theorists, Anderson Cooper, is knows there's this moment when the tip of his nose disappears because of a digital glitch. In the video, what CNN says was normal interference that happens with a live satellite feed. It's just a couple of seconds. Hoaxers wouldn't let it go.
They said that it's a green screen or a blue screen or whatever. So that was a fake interview. And Vernick was a participant of a fake staged CNN interview.
That conspiracy theory was all over YouTube and it was all over YouTube with Noah's image.
I've talked to parents who've lost kids and other mass shootings, and they've all been blindsided by online harassment from conspiracy theories, the crisis actor claim is so common now, these attacks usually start almost immediately after. Victims are indeed in the media. And parents who go on TV and talk about gun control like Veronique, they get it the worst. Sandy Hook is when this really took off. Families get stuck fending off all this crazy hate by themselves. There just aren't that many resources for them because law enforcement still hasn't figured out how to deal with those cyber harassment.
And the tech companies aren't much help. So most families just try to ignore the conspiracy theories and hope they'll eventually go away. And that's what Lenny did for a while, his life was Iraq, but after about a year and a half, they were still at it and he couldn't let it go anymore.
I realized that that grieving requires, you know, a calmness and a silence. And all of this material was a distraction for me, and it was noise, and I needed to handle that noise so that I could have the silence and calm that I needed. There's this photo I love of Lenny with his arm wrapped around Noah. He's got a walrus mustache and he's kneeling on a trampoline with a soft smile.
It's spring and Noah has all this big brown hair, fat cheeks. He's struggling his whole body into Lenny's chest. Lenny's got tons of family photos like these, posted them in an online memorial he made for Noah right after he died.
The Sandy Hook deniers downloaded them and repurpose them into cruel memes, wrote Fake Across Noah's face, took a picture of his headstone and Photoshopped under his name is not buried here. Photos of his daughters were circulating, too.
He couldn't just leave them out there on the web with the trolls. Lenny got consumed with thinking about how to take control of the situation, how to extract Noah and his family from all this. The Internet didn't scare him.
It was actually his comfort zone. He ran his own business. He was not the kind of guy who sat around and complained about how something didn't work. He was the guy who fixed stuff.
So you need to find what the problem is and then find, you know, what your solution is and then start getting closer to that solution step by step. Otherwise, the problem is overwhelming. And then you just want someone else to fix it for you. You have to track down where you can make a difference and get closer to being less broken. There was one other thing that made Lenny especially qualified to deal with the conspiracy theorists, he just enjoy those theories himself, the classic fun ones, Bigfoot, Loch Ness, Area 51, NASA faking the moon landing.
What's the fun of it?
It's suspending your disbelief. It's like sitting down and watching a science fiction movie and then looking at the what if. And it's it's just fun, especially if there's no price to pay in your life and there's no cost to that way of thinking that it's just a game.
Sometimes he even listen to Alex Jones in his car. And in fact, just a month after the shootings, when Lenny first saw those things on Alex Jones's website, he tried to reach out. He found a general Infowars email address and shot him off this message. Alex, I'm very disappointed to see how many people are directing more anger at families that lost their children in Newtown, accusing us of being actors. Haven't we had our share of pain and suffering?
I used to enjoy listening to your shows. Now I feel that your type of show created these hateful people and they need to be reeled in. Exclamation point. About an hour later, he heard back from Jones's staff and they responded with we have not supported the crisis or claim, we insist that it's a true event on and on.
This wasn't true. Jones did spread the crisis actor theory. It was on his website at the time and he started talking about it a lot. That CNN interview with Veronique, he talked about it all the time.
Folks, we've got video of Anderson Cooper with clear blue screen out there. He's not there in the town square. We've got people clearly coming up and laughing and then doing the fake crying, we've clearly got people where it's actors playing different parts of different people. I've looked at it and undoubtedly there's a cover up. There's actors they're manipulating. They've been caught lying and they were preplanning before it and rolled out with it.
What Lenny wanted was a one on one conversation with Jones, but it didn't happen.
There were a few emails after that asking me to prove that I'm really who I am and, you know, sort of leading on to get me on the show. Lenny didn't want that.
He's very private and very reserved a behind the scenes kind of guy.
He's careful when he talks things like no comment that's off the record or do I have to talk about my personal life that came up all the time during our interview. One of the ground rules he gave is that I had to run his quotes past him and his lawyer because he's worried about his own safety if his words were misconstrued. Also, he's fighting some of the conspiracy theorists in court. We agreed to his terms and in the end, he didn't ask me to edit any of his quotes, but he did request that we remove one personal detail.
And we did. Now, a year and a half after he reached out to Alex Jones, he decided to try a new tactic. He'd go directly to Jones, his followers and the other Sandy Hook conspiracy theorists.
I think he his approach was, I'm going to make them see the light. This is Veronique.
She and Lenny were separated when the shooting happened, but we're still very much in each other's lives.
They decided to start releasing documents about NOAA report cards, school photos, even disclosed no death certificate, which was a difficult decision that we made, but figured after a while, you know, of providing this this hard copy, convincing evidence that reason would prevail. And they would say, oh, OK, you know, yeah, you've made your point. You know, I'm going to come around.
Lenny also decided to answer anyone's questions. He wanted to join this notorious Facebook group called Sandy Hook Hoax. It's where a lot of the deniers were congregating and sharing theories. The cover photo on their page look like it came straight out of a horror movie, a corpse like girl with a keep quiet finger in front of her mouth. The administrator of the Facebook group immediately let in.
Do you identify yourself as like I am a father, or do you suppose they knew who I was? And still, to me, it seems so crazy to even go there like this doesn't exactly sound like a group of people who'd want to listen to you.
People who are conspiracy minded see these tragedies unfold on the Internet or on television. They still feel separate from these events. And I considered that bridging that gap could be an important step and a human element to this. That's right. That's right.
And so here I am. I am. I'm the person. And so let's see what happens. The questions started pouring in.
Why weren't these children rushed to hospitals? Why wasn't anything done? Why aren't you suing, you know, the EMTs or why are you doing this? Why wasn't a rescue helicopter called from Hartford?
And I started to recognize some of the patterns that were there. There were the people you'd expect in a conspiracy group, anti-gun control people and a government people, but also parents.
They were young parents with small children, and they just couldn't wrap their minds around the reality that, you know, that an adult can look at children in their eyes and pump bullets into their head, but they just can't deal with that.
The conversation on this Facebook group quickly got ugly and abusive. Some of the members started using anti-Semitic slurs. Lenny was trying everything to keep up a rapport with them, even told them I listen to Alex Jones in my car. I used to argue with people about 9/11 being an inside job.
I entertain that we didn't go to the moon, but it didn't work. So we started blocking people and fighting back. This got him booted from the group.
What's remarkable is just how up for this whole fight he was when a bunch of people kept private messaging him, Lenny thought, you know what, I'll just start my own Facebook group. He called it Conspiracy Theorists Anonymous. This name was meant as a joke. He has a dry sense of humor. Anyway, he made some progress with people, the people who aren't full blown deniers, who actually wanted help passing out the truth of what really happened, but they dropped away once they got answers.
And pretty soon the only ones left were just dark, sadistic trolls coming in to entertain themselves.
One of Lenny's worst trolls was a guy named Wolfgang Halbig. That's his real name, by the way. He's a retired school security expert in Florida who's probably the number one new town hoaxer in the world. This guy travels to Newtown, appeared as an expert on Alex Jones, the show. He's even called for Newtown parents to exhume the bodies of their children to prove that they're dead. Halbig ordered a background check on money, then sent it out in an email to lots of people.
It was almost 100 pages listing everything from a Social Security number and phone number to almost every address he'd ever lived at with photos. Names of his relatives were included to the online. Harassment had become so intense that Lenny and Veronique and their two girls went into hiding. They moved into separate high security gated communities. But Lenny's address kept getting exposed and hoaxers started posting videos of where he lived.
One apartment that I had moved into, I had only lived there, I think, for a month. And I got a call from a particular hoaxer who happens to be in prison now for attempted murder. And he called me up and was acting like a smart ass and then read me my Social Security number and then read me my address where I just moved into. And I said, well, you know what? I don't like this apartment that much anyway.
And and I moved shortly after that. To try and throw the hoaxers off, Lenny started putting utility bills in different names and got multiple pillboxes all over the place. All this force, Lenny, into a new battle strategy. If they were going to expose him, he'd do the same to them. He wrote newspaper op ed Klein out Halbig and the others by name. And when these hoaxers posted his new addresses online, he did the same to them.
He also made it so that if you Google their names, the first thing anyone would see was all the Sandy Hook garbage they'd created. And Lenny being Lenny decided to write a biography about Wolfgang Halbig life called The Hoax of a Lifetime. He released it as an e-book. Lenny became the one who knocks. He calls his troll rustling. It's like trolling the trolls. He gets both energized and sheepish when talking about it. He insists sometimes the only way to fight hardcore hoaxers is to turn the tables on them.
And it worked on some of them, freaked them out. Still, Lenny was just one guy, and every day new mountains of content about Noah were showing up online. His crusade was a lonely one. The hoaxer seems so dangerous, most of the other Newtown parents wanted to stay as far away as possible from them.
In my darker moments, the conspiracy part of me would return and ask myself, am I the only one that lost a child? Why am I the only one fighting back? I mean, what the hell is going on?
People were trampling all over other people's children's memories, and those children no longer had a voice to defend themselves and people were just silent about it. But while Lenny was escalating his tactics, so is the other side, around the second anniversary of Sandy Hook, a small group of conspiracy theorists made an almost three hour movie on YouTube questioning the shooting. They describe themselves as independent journalists and researchers, but their backgrounds were totally random.
They included a magician, the owner of a moving company, a guy who'd been arrested for stabbing someone five times and a stay at home dad.
I just had an idea that I wanted to be an underground filmmaker myself. This is Doug McGuire. He says he met this group online on YouTube and got brought in at the end to help Polish the movie. It felt exciting at the time. Doug was a struggling filmmaker in Los Angeles, occasionally did some stunt work.
He got into conspiracy theories the way lots of people do, watching them on YouTube.
Like Lenny, he loved the ones about Bigfoot and UFOs. But then he went to look up news about Sandy Hook and YouTube's recommendation system started suggesting hoax videos. He didn't believe the theory that the kids were actors. He thought children died, but he felt pretty sure there was some other kind of cover up going on, maybe one with the Mafia. And where did you get that information? Like where did you come up with this idea of a mob?
How do you read this somewhere?
I know it was, you know, because I make movies. So I think I have an active imagination and I'm confused.
Like, what was your thinking? A family had done something wrong, like, let's say the movie Goodfellas. OK, Henry Hill is is hiding out in the Little Village Kids.
He also mentioned Kindergarten Cop, but when they released their film, they uploaded it to a bunch of different accounts on places like YouTube, Vimeo, Dailymotion. Pretty soon it was showing up everywhere. To combat this, Lenny had to change tactics one final time. No more talking to hoaxers one on one.
Now, the thing he'd focus on was content removal, scrubbing their stuff off the Internet. He decided he was going to get every single copy of the movie taken down, which wasn't going to be easy. You couldn't just write into YouTube and say, hey, this video is full of lies. That wasn't going to be enough. The Internet is full of lies. He needed something else and he realized he had it. These conspiracy theorists had used photos and videos of him and Noah and Veronique.
Those were his property making this movie a copyright violation. The stolen images were now a useful weapon. Lenny tracked down every place where this video was posted. And you've probably seen this. There's a little button you can click on to report stuff. So that's what he did for hours every day. And success, sort of. The hoaxers kept reposting and moving the video onto other sites.
You know, the crazies are not running the asylum. It's it's the platforms who are allowing this to go on. So that solidifies it for me that we have to just remove all of this garbage and that's all we need to do.
But this, of course, pissed off a lot of hoaxers.
We don't know what's going on. We just know it doesn't look right.
Alex Jones, he was stumped. Lenny had successfully forced the foresight to remove pictures of Noah using copyright.
So frustrating. This is amazing. The claimant is Lenny Posner. They think because they can hold out some little kids and say we're shutting people's websites down because they're belittling the memory of these children. No, we're not. But even if we were, you couldn't violate our First Amendment because that's what it's there for. And if you take our rights, you take everybody's rights.
Then Jones put one of the guys who worked on the movie on the air. His name is Brian. He's from Alabama.
What do you think of us being censored? What's been happening to you?
Yes, I can tell you lots about Lenny. This man is something that you've never seen before. He's got a group of trolls.
And you I mean, if they're trying to shut us down when we're just investigating it and looking at all sides, it must be horrible for folks out there that vehemently think this is staged show shows specifically.
What have you gone through? I can't even put up a video showing that he has put up a copyright strike against me without him copyrighting, striking that these people are filed. And Lainez, if you're listening, your day is coming, my friend. It is coming. Wow.
I mean, this sounds like a war going on. I think they made a major mistake involving us.
Oh, I totally agree. They don't know what they bit off if they go after them. Alex crushed them in this video on YouTube.
Don't shoot his fans. He had millions of them. Lenny's email, the city he lived in and the address he picked up his mail, even held up some satellite shots from Google Earth.
He got this video taken down to thugging it for privacy violations, but it didn't matter. The hoaxers had taken on a mob mentality, pursuing and harassing Lenny. This is an Infowars man named Lucy Richards who left multiple death threats on Lenny's phone.
Did you have your imaginary phone and fucking you fucking do best. They're going to die and rot in hell. That's what's coming to you real soon. And there's nothing you can do about it. So you're just going to have to take it. OK, you better look behind. His death is comedy real soon. She said, look behind you.
Death is coming to you real soon. Lenny was already living in hiding. He moved multiple times by then because hoaxers kept tracking down his address. But now the chances that a hoaxer might show up at his door and kill him suddenly felt much higher. His kids were living with him half the week and he worried about them at the same time. He didn't consider stopping. He didn't think it would make them safer.
That's one of the misconceptions that exist, that people think that I am only targeted because of challenging the content. And that's not the case. I took the action because I was being targeted. So my address is published all over the Internet. My photo was published all over the Internet and my living children's photos are published online.
That's existed before I did anything. I didn't cause the targeting. It was already there. I was minimizing the targeting. He posted receipts for firearms. I'd asked if he actually bought them and he wouldn't give me an answer.
Amidst all this, Lenny kept up his daily ritual, he'd wake up, make coffee and then sit in front of his computer for hours, flagging content, trying to systematically erase Noah from the Sandy Hook hoax story. There was a lot of stuff he couldn't invoke copyright law for, like the death threats and harassment that was much harder to get taken down.
The tech companies were wary of becoming arbiters of truth making decisions about what its users could and couldn't say. But Lenny, in his usual methodical fashion, kept chipping away on YouTube. He kept a scorecard. Once he nailed someone with three copyright strikes, YouTube would remove their accounts. He killed thousands of videos. This way, the hoaxers called this getting postered. He'd become a hashtag. Then he and Veronique helped get a professor in Florida named James Tracy, fired this guy at harass them for years and kept using his image to promote his conspiracy theories.
He's also the one who helped popularize the conspiracy term crisis actor on his blog right after the shooting. And that woman who was leaving death threats, Lucy Richards.
Lenny reported her to the police and they arrested her. She was sentenced to five months in jail. The judge rebuked her for going after Lenny, saying, quote, This is a reality and there is no fiction. There are no alternative facts. He barred her from Infowars and other conspiracy websites is one of the conditions of her parole. One surprising thing that happened over the years is that some of the hoaxers who used to harass Lenny flip to his side, there were dozens of them.
Lenny says these were people who came to him only after they change their own minds, that people who tried to convert. He says that never works. It's a waste of time. Some of them became disenchanted when they saw Sandy Hook hoaxers who were more interested in photo shopping evidence and getting online followers than tracking down the truth. One of them was Doug, who worked on that hoax or movie about Sandy Hook. In twenty sixteen, he found a phone number for Leny and left a voicemail.
Hey, Lenny Pozner, this is dickhead Doug McGuire. If you ever need me, if you ever want to get a hold of me and learn about what all these people are up to. Here's my number, did you apologize on that message? I don't believe I did.
Not surprisingly, Lenny didn't return his call. Doug was reaching out to Lenny because the hoaxers had turned on him, too. He says he started feuding with some of them after he made a video exposing a Christian you Touba, who is making money off false, outrageous claims. All of the social media accounts then got hacked. Lenny was the only person he could think of who knew how to fight back. He wanted advice, so he tried him again and got through.
He told Lenny that it felt like he'd been sort of brainwashed, that he'd been on a roller coaster ride, that he wanted to switch sides.
Lenny had started a nonprofit called The Honor Network, where volunteers help families from mass tragedies fight digital harassment. So Doug began helping him scrub content.
When you were doing it, did you feel like you were doing penance? Yeah. Yeah, and. My heart is very heavy for this. Were you surprised at how quickly let me let you in? Um. Yeah, and I still am the fact that he even. Is giving me a chance. I'm very humbled, you know, I tell them I love them, I tell them that he's like my mentor. Sometimes I call him boss and he says, don't call me boss.
So if you apologize to other families at Sandy Hook. Now, I think just to try to like call up, you know. One of these families that they don't they don't need to hear from, you know, some kind of YouTube or guy in Los Angeles, I think like.
One day, I am very sorry, very sorry for any problems to the victims.
Doug is now one of Lenny's most devoted volunteers and he's got more than 100 people helping him out at any given time, though the burnout rate is high because the work is so intense and hoaxers harass volunteers like Doug all the time for helping Lenny.
When Lenny Googles know his name now, he no longer gets page after page of hoax or content.
A lot of it is gone now. Instead, the first hits that come up are news articles about Lenny's fight to make the tech companies more accountable. For years, he's been criticizing them in the press for not doing more to protect families of mass tragedies from online abuse. Last summer, he and Veronique called out Mark Zuckerberg in an open letter in The Guardian. They wrote, quote, You are arguably the most powerful man on the planet, have deemed that the attacks on us are in material, that providing assistance and removing threats is too cumbersome and that our lives are less important than providing a safe haven for hate.
Shortly after Facebook reached out to Lenny, he started working with their content moderators and policy makers and says their response times are now much faster. He also helped turn up the heat on Alex Jones that spring, he and Veronique and another dad from Newtown filed defamation lawsuits against him. Other parents followed with their own suit.
A few months later, Apple started removing Jones's material from iTunes, saying they would not, quote, tolerate hate speech.
Facebook, Google and Spotify then followed suit. YouTube killed his channel completely, but you can still find his videos on the platform. And Twitter was one of the last to take action against Jones and Infowars.
The New York Times reported that getting de Platformed cut his online audience nearly in half.
I met up with Lenny at his place recently.
He lives in a gated high security residence. He was filing copyright and harassment reports to places like Instagram, Pinterest, Reddit, Vimeo and Twitter.
He says Twitter is as big as headache right now. There's content about Noah. He still can't get down and he gets personally attacked there all the time.
Do you feel like you've jumped in this rabbit hole that is never going to end?
Um. I don't think I jumped then I think I just got pulled in, you're just constantly subjecting yourself to just so much hateful material, just like throwing trash out once it's gone.
It feels really good and really does.
This is what victory looks like, taking the trash out every day. He recently spotted one of the hoaxers who's been after him. Turns out the person lives nearby, is about to have to move again. This will be the eighth time. McPeake is one of the producers of our show. It's been two years since we first broadcast this story. Just last month, the Texas Supreme Court rejected Alex Jones attempt to stop Lenny and Veronique's lawsuit against him. The lawsuit is going to go forward.
Last month, Alex Jones helped organize the funding to pay for the rally near the White House for Trump supporters on January six. For some of those supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol. Coming up, how Alex Jones became Alex Jones, or maybe not. That's a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.
This American Life Glass, today's program, beware the Jabberwocky. We've arrived at Act two of our program to Alex in Wonderland.
It's one of the occasional contributors to our program. Jon Ronson actually got to know Alex Jones personally years ago, long before Alex Jones became the most notorious conspiracy theorist in the country.
They met doing a story where together they snuck into a summertime enclave of the rich and powerful called Bohemian Grove.
They each did their own stories about it. John thought it was pretty harmless. Maybe it was silly. Alex Jones thought it was much more sinister now and then over the years, they would touch base then in 2016. John met somebody in Alex's orbit and that is where this story begins. The man's name was Josh Owens. And in October 2016, he started sending me cryptic texts about his boss. A lot of times I'm conflicted with what I'm saying.
Anyway, I won't get into that. His boss was Alex Jones, just work for him as a cameraman and a field producer. We exchanged more texts and then we arranged to meet in a hotel lobby in Washington, D.C. And here he was walking in from the street, waving shyly. I was struck by how nervous he looked. He had travelled here to tell me secrets about Alex. And the reason he chose me is because I have known Alex Jones for so long.
When I first met and wrote about him 20 years ago, he focused Infowars on an ISDN line from a child's bedroom in his house, which was coveted choo choo train wallpaper. Back then, the whole operation was him, his producer, Mike, and his webmaster, executive producer girlfriend Kelly, also known as Violet.
Well, Alex, at 26 years old, is now syndicated to over 40 commercial markets. So he's huge, not to mention that he's on short wave and the Internet. He's been number one on AOL, you know, numerous times.
Alex's is a sensation because he's young, he's vibrant. And so many people are getting involved with this movement through what Alex does.
This is tape recorded back in 1999. It would eventually become Alex's wife and then years later, his ex-wife in an extremely acrimonious divorce and custody battle during which Alex would at one point stare at her from the dock and tell the court she doesn't have any good qualities.
The beautiful mother. This is my girlfriend, Violet Nichols, beautiful, smart. Look at it. Oh. She is just incredibly smart. That's the webmaster of Infowars dot com.
I followed Alex around for weeks that year. He was different back then, an eccentric, fledgling conspiracy broadcaster. I can't remember him attacking anyone but the powerful in those days. He wasn't going after victims of school shootings as crisis actors. He didn't assert, as he did in 2017, that the yogurt maker Chobani was, quote, importing migrant rapists who is spreading tuberculosis. He later apologized to Chobani in the face of a lawsuit. He has money now, a workforce of something like 40 employees and a fan in President Trump, who has repeated a bunch of theories championed by Alex that Barack Obama is a Muslim who wears a ring with an Arabic inscription to Ted Cruz's father was linked to the JFK assassination as Obama and Hillary co-founded ISIS.
Alex is playing a role in propagating the misinformation and confusion that's permeating America was Hillary.
She is an abject psychopathic demon from hell that as soon as she gets into power and try to assure the planet Fox, let me just say there are dozens of videos and photos of Obama having flies land on him indoors at all times of year, and he'll be next to 100 people. No one has flies on. Hillary, reportedly, I mean, I was told people around her that they think she's demon possessed, OK, you can't watch that evil off man, till there's a rotten smell around Hillary.
I'm not kidding. People say Obama and Hillary both smell like sulfur. They smell like Al. Anyway, back to my meeting with Josh, I was a big listener of the show, he said working for Alex had been his dream job. He'd actually won an online report contest four years earlier to work for Infowars. He was a young and angry Alex Jones fan back then, committed to exposing the shadowy elites. But now he was disillusioned because Alex had changed and a final straw was the Muslims.
Alex had lately been broadcasting untrue stories about American Muslims running secret terrorist training camps in the Catskill Mountains of New York and cheering the 9/11 attacks. Here he is talking to then candidate Donald Trump.
You are vindicated on the radical Muslims celebrating not just in New Jersey, but New York, Palestine, all over. What do you have to say? They're still attacking you?
Well, I took a lot of heat and I was very strong on it. And I just want to finish by saying, your reputation's amazing. I will not let you down.
So Josh had found himself intimately involved in the business of demonizing Muslims. This wasn't why he'd signed up.
These weren't powerful elites. They were regular people. Recently, Josh boarded a plane and sat next to a Muslim family. The little girl was laughing. Her face pressed to the window, just looked at her and he hated himself. And soon after he began texting me, he wanted to make amends. He said he knew he should quit working for Alex, but it was hard. Alex paid him well, and although he had seen Alex scream at people in the office and punch cabinets and ripped down blinds, he'd only ever be nice to Josh.
And basically, as we continue to talk, I realized that Josh hadn't come to tell me any specific secrets about Alex.
He just wanted to vent his frustrations to somebody else who had known him a long time. But then he said, Oh, here's a story. Here's the thing Josh told me then what, if true, totally rewrite the story of how Alex Jones became Alex Jones. First, you should know that Alex's account of origin story about what got him obsessed with rooting out conspiracies.
He started a few times to the Rolling Stone journalist Alexander Zaitchik and doing monologues on his show when I was like 16 years old and I'd be at parties and would come up a sheriff's department car and they'd come in and sell bags of drugs to people.
This took place in the Dallas suburb of Rockwall, where Alex grew up.
And I went to school and they were having an editorial meeting about drug testing and stuff. They had they had cops up there that I knew were drug dealers. I stood up and I said I was at a pool party. He was selling cocaine and ecstasy last week. They took me in an office, ran my head in the wall, told me, we're going to kill you if you don't shut up. They said you're going to move out of this town right now.
So we moved on here. Awesome. Because of it.
Police corruption in Rockwall had opened Alex's eyes to the existence of powerful cabals and exposing them and would become his calling. And it all began at that school assembly. So that's Alex's origin story. But according to Josh, it wasn't true, the true story, he said, was much more revealing and it was also a big secret.
Josh said, OK, I've heard the story a couple of times from childhood friends and family members. Very few people in the office know it. But when Jones was a teenager, he was a bully. No one liked him because he was a bully. There was a group of kids that felt unsafe around him. And so they came up with a plan to trick him. They invited him out to a party in a bar and it was a trap Josh set, and they beat him within an inch of his life.
That's why his family moved to Austin. His whole family uprooted him and moved into a completely different city because of this crazy thing that happened to him. Josh, that having those guys conspire against Alex by luring him to that party was the real reason he got obsessed with conspiracies. He had been the victim of one.
Josh and I parted. Soon after that. I walked around replaying our conversation and wondering if I should look into it further. There were now two Alex Jones origin stories and Alex's version. He was a brave figure, forced out of town for standing up to corrupt authority.
But in justice, he was an outcast, run out of town by fellow high school kids.
And Alex still been the fringy Alex of the 90s. I would have left his childhood alone, but he had become an influential figure, spreading chaos. And according to Josh, being ambushed at that party was the moment that shaped him, that made him who he was. And so I took around some more. It became really clear really quickly that Alex's school assembly story did not stand up to scrutiny. My producer, Lina Masset, says reached 10 people who at the school at the time.
And while it's true that the local sheriff had been convicted of stealing marijuana from the police evidence room with a plan to sell it, no one remembered anything like that assembly happening, not the students, not the principal or the teachers. At one of Alex's old football coaches, Randall Talley, who preferred to go by Coach Randy.
Do you remember an assembly where Alex called out the cops in the assembly for being drug traffickers?
Well, I didn't know about that. Is that your first time hearing about it?
Yes. His former classmate, Ryan Tipton.
No, not at all. That was probably there, the DARE program, and I do not remember that at all.
He's an old school friend, Jacob Olsen, who told us that. No, no.
And Lina found the police officer who actually worked in the school when Alex was there, who presumably would have been one of the drug dealing cops who beat up Alex. His name is Terry Garrett.
OK, that sounds like something he probably would say, but I don't think anything like that ever happened. I mean, I would be willing to bet my whole pension that that never happened. I mean, I don't think there were any times where actually we were able to question a student that an administrator wasn't in the room. What everyone does remember about Alex is, well, how memorable he was.
Emailed the same stories over and over from former classmates, quote, He used to run through the halls saying he was the devil. This is no joke. And he spoke a lot about being Satan or the Antichrist. And he would walk the halls with his arms flat out with this intense, wide eyed evil look in his eyes. And he proclaimed to be the Antichrist. His coach.
Randy, I'm crazy to tell you something that's going to blow your mind. He gayley. People thought he was possessed. Have you heard this? I've heard this from so many students, but this is the first time I've heard it from an adult. Well, he could back his tongue turned black. And he would roll his eyes back in his head and he would just sort of shake his head. It was I don't even know how to describe it.
It was so eerie. So you would see him do it? Yeah, I saw him during class and what did you think you were looking at?
I really didn't know if he had broken pants or something, you know, to get his tongue in his mouth, black or not.
He terrorized that high school, just run full steam and shove his head into the lockers and scream, Hail Satan. This is Ellen.
I'll call her Ellen. She didn't want us to use her real name because she texted. I am not afraid of Alex directly, but I am very concerned about retaliation from his followers. Elementary, middle school and high school with Alex, she didn't remember any party in a bar where Alex got revenge attacked, but she did have lots of other memories of him, like these sitting in art class with him across the table.
He's over there wringing his hands, describing to me in great detail how he's going to rape me. And I never thought he would actually do that. Just shock factor.
If Alex hadn't become famous, would you still have remembered Alex?
Oh, yes, definitely. You don't forget people like that.
Then Allen told me her worst Alex memory, the most violent incident was in second period geography, where he bludgeoned to one of his closest friends to the point where he was unconscious and bleeding and laying on the floor.
Was that Jared? Mm hmm. So when did you first meet Alex Jones, 1990, my senior year child's real name is Jared. He still lives close to Rockwool in a mobile home in the countryside, even though his mother, who is watching this from the kitchen, had counseled him to be anonymous. Jared was steadfast. He wanted to be named Robert.
He was on board. Real strange. We want him around because it was funny at first, you know, Dooryard, but it got worse, more from him and we just didn't want to hang out with him at all.
Travis was bewildered that a journalist had contacted him. Nobody had asked him about the day Alex beat him unconscious since high school. It was an argument over a girl.
I was scared to go home. He came in behind me and pretty much ran into the wall and called me fall off balance. And it gave me a albar vision. I couldn't I could see him, but he picked me up and I just went over and hit first and knocked me out immediately and started my body. When it convulsions, I just flipped out of the ground and he just kept stomping on my head and kicking my head and kicking in my blood, clumber, ear, nose and everything.
He was trying to kill me, you know, point blank, whatever weather excuses or, you know. You've got seven fractures, the skull and concussion, last 20 percent here in my right ear.
I live with headache pretty much all the time I get prepared, Alex Jones said the parents took over after that. Alex's father, a dentist, offered to pay Jared's medical bills, including a 10000 dollar neurologist's bill. But there was a condition.
You just don't jump on, Alex. You know, just just leave alone. I'll pay all the bills so, you know, so I just left him alone, Jared said.
Alex's father also gave Jared's parents a book about why it's wrong for people to sue people. Lots of people remember Alex beating childhood up his coach, Randi, who broke up the fight. Oh, golly, Alex had him upside down. You know, the piledriver is no, what is it? You literally have the person with his feet up in the air and his head down between your legs and you just drop to the ground. And first thing that it's in your bed, in his head at the same time.
Holy shit. Yeah. Holy shit.
Jarrett eventually returned to school, and then one night he was at a party. It wasn't an option.
It was at a house that this was the origin story that Josh, the cameraman, had told me, the beating in the countryside. Shouts at the instigators were his friends, Mark and Brian, the two guys who brought him to the party. Did they know that they were taking him somewhere where he might get attacked?
The other two guys that brought him here? They love their ideology. They fought all the time. They figured it me or somebody would help him. You know, they want to see it.
So they brought him out and he came and he's been drinking and just whooping and hollering carried on. Finally, one of my buddies slept in the back of his head, and I try not to even look at him now. He thought it was me. And here we go. He just pointed me out and just picked me and said, come on, I'm going to be just like I did before, you know, started all that flipping around and flopping around the living room and throwing his coat on.
Don't you know he's Satan and he will kill me. And I had to you know, it just it was ridiculous that he did what he did to me. I had to prove to myself and all my friends, I mean, it was a fluke, man, you know? I mean, I jumped on my I hit him until I broke both of my hand them until I can hear no more. I just reached over and this, you know, wooden handle still.
Right. But with and I just thought I hit him in the back of the head with it and it knocked him down. And when we come back up running, that's when he ran into my buddy. And as a mistake, you know, he got but he grabbed it by the ear and planted the knee in his face and. And he just took off running and went to three weeks later, they moved, so they moved because of this fight, because the Rolling Stone article said that he like had had uncovered some corruption in the local police force.
And that's why they moved here.
No, there was nothing like that. They couldn't go nowhere anymore. Don't know where to go. No, nobody hung out with nobody just couldn't stomach him, you know? So, you know, there was none left in. Right, Rockwall one. So, Josh, the cameraman story had turned out to be sort of right, but he's wrong about a couple of things. It wasn't a barn, it was a house. But more importantly, the way Josh told it, the fight was the thing that had made Alex a conspiracy theorist.
The coward said, no, that's not true. He said Alex always had his theories even before then.
You know, he had something to say about the principal and the teachers and the and the school cop and everybody's, you know, doing all this. If we were at war, it's you know, it was the guy on the pool hall and he don't call them he don't call the DEA and a weird man that everybody was. Hey, guys, I'm sorry, I'm like five minutes late. I was stuck getting back to the office. I got a lot of a lot of crazy stuff going on.
It's good to be here with you guys.
It's a Thursday in February. Alex is talking to me from a studio in Austin. I'm at home in New York. I think the crazy stuff Alex is referring to, by the way, is that a judge has just ordered him to give a sworn deposition in the court case brought against him by some Sandy Hook parents. Alex had one condition for doing this interview. He wanted to make a brief statement, though. My story isn't about Sandy Hook. This is what he wants to say.
So here's my Sannikov statement. Looking back before I was ever sued years ago, I reviewed the information and I do believe the horror of Sandy Hook happened.
By the way, that's only sort of true. Even after Alex first admitted the children died at Sandy Hook, he hedged, saying they probably died. And I tend to believe they died.
I have apologized to the families many times in the last few years in my reporting has caused them any pain.
These apologies are contentious because he's apologized, but then continued to cast doubt on the shootings.
I never said that anyone should harass the victims families. And I asked the media to please stop saying that.
I have said that as best as we can tell, Alex never directly instructed his fans to harass the families. But on his broadcasts, he repeatedly talked about Lenny Pozner, his ex-wife and son, and he gave passengers mailing address and showed Google Earth shots of the building and said he would probably have to go there himself.
Ask anyone else who is going around the families to stop. What happened at Sandy Hook and similar events is a tragedy that needs to be recognized. It's time for us to come together as Americans and as human. And defend the lives of children. And other officials, individuals, period, Alex declined to answer follow up questions about Sandy Hook. I got to the business at hand. OK, so there's a guy in Rockwall called Jared, but I think you knew him maybe as Pupper.
Oh, I remember Bubba, who was a senior and I was like a freshman coming and getting me out of class. And he was like a hall monitor so he could do it. And then he attacked me in the hall. So I defended myself and I'm sure that he got put in a coma. But that's just what happened. I never talked about this stuff and I'm not particularly proud of it, but I always defended myself. I never started a fight.
This is different to Jodi's version, by the way. Jodi's account, Alex, started the fact also, Travis said he wasn't in a coma, but he was hospitalized for multiple skull fractures.
Jared said that he thought that you were trying to kill him. Well, when a. Two hundred fifty pounds, he would be a self-described redneck and you weigh 160 pounds, starts attacking you, you defend yourself. So so the way it works in America is when someone physically attacks you and you defend yourself, you're not the bad guy.
By the way, Alex does confirm parts of childhood story. He remembers his father paying the medical bills that he doesn't recall a book about why it's wrong for people to sue people.
I felt real bad, my dad, when visiting him at the hospital. I mean, we weren't happy about it. And I mean, that's the story you've got. What about the time? I mean, you didn't hear about the time. Like 20 people attacked me.
Well, the other story I heard was you were at a party and some of Jared's friends attacked you. So is that is that the story that you mean? And no, that never happened. So what supposedly happened at that? The story I heard is this, it all started with Jared, with the geography, and then you were at a party and I told Alex everything Jared said about the ambush and that's why you left town was because of that party.
That's the story that total, total, complete horse crap, total Shakespearean fiction. So what happened is I wasn't that big of a guy and everybody would start fights with me. I mean, this is just total fiction, totally made up. You didn't hear the part where the captain of the football team attacked me in the lunchroom and I literally took on the entire senior football team, you know, that I did not hear that. That was an epic fight that was like Hercules.
It was like pow, pow, pow, pow, pow. It was just like. It was the greatest trip of my life, I mean, later we talked to Alex's old friend Jacob, and one of the football players and coach Randy, and no one remembers it this way. How best? Jacob said Alex fought off two or three football players, which is actually still quite impressive.
And then, like the whole football team, the whole senior team charges me like a phalanx and I just pow, pow. I mean, it was just like it was the best. So I thought you were actually getting to that story. No matter how poor Bubba is starting a fight with me. That was a minor conquest. I'll tell you what. Bubba wants to charity get in the ring with me today. I'll do it. These big old tough guy was getting the ring right now where he said he has to be very careful with this skull while he physically attacked me.
Like Ron said, if I came up and punch you in the face, would you have a right to defend yourself? I would have a right to defend myself. I think it's unlikely that I would defend myself because I think George and I have to punch you in the face. You've never punched me, Alex, was I ever threatening physically to you? No, never. Let's be honest.
Have I not been a big old teddy bear?
It's true on a personal level. Alex is adamant that the party did not happen, but we confirmed that it did. We talked to two people besides Giat who say that they were there. One is named Marty Bottoms. He says he personally attacked Alex. The other is Mark Milton when he found my producer, Celina. She was asleep. He was on his tractor bleeding, recorded it as best as she could.
I'm probably going to lose you when I got down this Caprock girl.
But, you know, Mark said he remembered Alex beating Jared unconscious in geography and then he said this will end up going to a party.
And some of his friends jumped in that this was at a party after Alex beat up Charlie. Yeah, this is at Mark Latham House out there. And McLinden says so he moved to Austin after that party.
Yeah, they sold the condo over Lakesha Village and he couldn't take it from him being jumped by the boys, it was a little guy, the deal.
This is the story Joshua told me in the hotel lobby. Gary told me it's the story Alex swears is untrue. Alex's family wouldn't talk to us, so I can't say exactly why they finally moved out of Rockwool. In our interview, Alex retold the story of the school assembly, but he also named other reasons for that move. Like I was Austin born, mother was homesick and fed up with all the fighting. In the end, what seems clear is that this fight happened and the assembly where Alex outed the drug dealing cops probably never did.
If I had to guess, I would say that Alex has replaced a true story where he's humiliated at a party with a different story, where he's a hero standing up to corrupt cops and getting beaten up for his bravery.
In a way, it's the same story as one of the whole football team came at him in a phalanx. It's the character he plays on Infowars.
The beleaguered hero attacked from all sides, bloodied but undaunted and emerging the victor. It's like stories little kids tell about themselves. Alex disputes most of the other things that people told me about him. He says he did not pretend to be the Antichrist in high school, says he didn't roll his eyes back in his head or tie his tongue black. He says he never told a classmate how he would like to rape her.
He calls all of that insane garbage. He says he doesn't punch cabinets or rip down blinds in the office.
During our reporting, something very strange kept happening. It happened during Lena's call with Mark the tractor man, Mark's daughter Chelsea was listening on mute as he was telling Leanna how he knew for certain that the police assembly story was a lie. Just then, Chelsea unmetered herself and said to her father, Nobody knows what you found out about the car.
So you can't speak and say all the reasons why you have probable cause. He might have found out that you didn't even know about it kept happening.
All these people who knew for sure that Alex had been a liar back in Rockwall, a lot of them believe that what he says on Infowars might be true.
They have a reference for him, that coach, Randi, I agree with so many things, say a lot of people just think it. Alex goes ahead and says it. But not Jared, actually, Jarrett had somehow gone through life not realizing that Alex was a radio host and when I brought it up, it was awkward.
And, you know, who's a who's a fan of his now? Donald Trump. Yeah, Donald Trump's been on his show. He talks about what a great reputation Alex has.
I could tell that Jared didn't want to hear the president. Trump was an Alex fan of Donald Trump. He gave me a look to say a few fake news with the media and stuff I did.
I don't know. I mean, I don't know what I don't know. I wouldn't I don't know. Not believe it or not, you know, he likes and they like each other.
Yeah. It's like all of that craziness that happened at Rockwell High School, Alex, and making stuff up. And, you know, now Donald Trump's a fan. The fact is he's carried on saying all of these crazy things, but it's no longer about the school or the pool hall. Now it's about the globalists and the Muslims. People believe him now, including the president. I mean, I mean, I have to say, I mean I mean, some of the stuff he says could be true and it could be I mean, Obama it could be a Muslim.
He could back the radical Muslims and he could have been giving them money. And I mean, who knows? You know, we don't know. I mean, we hear what they want us to hear and we see what they want us to see, you know? I mean, anything could be anything. You know, chariot's more than anyone might have understood to. Alex doesn't always tell the truth, but no. This is Alex's legacy, the chaos he sows in the world, the feeling that nothing can be known for sure.
John Robertson, he and his producer, Lina Mix, originally created a version of the story for Audible, where they also did John's Audible Original the last days of August, a deep dive into the never before told story of what caused the untimely death of 23 year old porn star August. It's available on Audible or wherever you get your podcasts. Audible is the world's largest producer and provider of downloadable audio books and other spoken word entertainment.
Don't you see that they this as a made up story? Can you see the. As part of our program was produced today by Dana Chevis, the people who put our show together today includes Ben Calhoun, Giancola, PPTA Cornfeld, Damián Grave, Michelle Harris, Megi, Meeks, Donelson, Katherine Reymundo, Ben Fagan, Raymond Robin Semiannually, Sullivan, Christopher Satava, Matt Tierney, Julie Whitaker and Diane Wu. Additional production help on today's rerun from Ari Sapperstein, our managing editor for today's program is David Kestenbaum.
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You can't watch that evil off. And I'm IRA Glass, back next week with more stories of this American Life style. Thank you. Now, you never know. Next week on the podcast of This American Life, it was a drawing of an octopus that a kid drew that somehow and it became a thing in this third grade class, kids would go look at it on the wall. They talk about it.
Was it a good drawing? It was like an eight year old's OK drawing. It wasn't amazing, but it was like you knew what it was and then they disappeared and they had a funeral for it, and that's when things got, I don't know, bigger. Next week on the podcast and your local public radio station.