Sandy Hook families testify about threats, fear of deniers

Published: Sep. 21, 2022 at 11:12 AM CDT|Updated: Sep. 21, 2022 at 6:27 PM CDT
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WATERBURY, Conn. (AP) — Erica Lafferty said the general harassment began soon after the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, with people telling her it was a hoax and that her mother never died. But soon, she said, it got scary and more graphic.

“Things would be mailed to my house that were threats of rape,” the daughter of slain Sandy Hook principal Dawn Hochsprung testified Wednesday.

Lafferty is among those suing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones for promoting the Sandy Hook conspiracy theories on his media platforms, including his Infowars web show. She took the stand Wednesday along with David Wheeler and Jennifer Hensel, who lost children in the shooting.

Jones, who is expected to testify Thursday, has already been found liable for damages to an FBI agent who responded to the shooting and relatives of eight of those killed. The jury, seated in a courthouse some 20 miles (32 kilometers) from the massacre site, is now hearing evidence to determine how much Jones and his Free Speech Systems company should pay.

Last month, a jury in a similar case in Texas ordered Jones to pay nearly $50 million in damages to the parents of one of the slain children.

In often emotional testimony, family members described enduring death threats, in-person harassment and abusive comments on social media. Some moved to avoid to avoid the abuse.

“There are days when grief is just so awful,” said Hensel, whose 6-year-old daughter Avielle Richman was among the slain. “Then you add on the idea that people think you made all this up for money or that your child didn’t exist. That compounds everything.”

After the shooting, Hensel and her husband, Jeremy Richman, set up a foundation named for their daughter. Soon after, the foundation’s email addresses were flooded with messages saying Avielle did not exist, that Hensel and others were actors and questioning why money was being raised from a fake shooting.

The harassment has continued ever since, Hensel testified. In 2019, after Jeremy Richman died by suicide, friends called Hensel to tell her people were at the cemetery where Avielle was buried looking for evidence her husband had died.

“It was relatively soon after Jeremy’s death and I was still reeling from that and I had to compartmentalize that,” she said. “I couldn’t wrap my head around just one more family member being part of this narrative. It simply doesn’t end.”

One of the jurors wept as Hensel testified and was comforted by another panel member.

Lafferty testified she’s moved five times since the shooting and avoids going out to grocery stores and other public places. She said she’s endured death and rape threats from people telling her that her mother was fictional.

She said she became part of the lawsuit so her niece would know the truth.

“I wanted to make sure that I was at least taking steps to make sure the first thing that came up when she Googled her grandmother’s name wasn’t that she never existed,” she said.

Wheeler, father of 6-year-old victim Ben Wheeler, detailed two instances in which people actually showed up at his home — one demanding to see Ben, insisting he was alive.

He said people also pointed to a student film he made in college as proof he was a “crisis actor.”

“It’s very stressing,” he said.

“It was demeaning. It felt like being delegitimized in a way,” he added. “It makes you feel like you don’t matter.”

The trial is being streamed live by the website Law & Crime, which disabled the comments section Tuesday of its YouTube stream, citing threatening posts and harassment targeting the victims’ families.

Jones held a news conference Wednesday outside the courthouse to again argue he was being victimized by the trial, where he will not be allowed to assert that he is “innocent” because he already has been found liable.

“I’ve come here and for six years said I believe it happened and apologize if I caused pain,” he said. “But the truth is, I didn’t create the story and I didn’t create the distrust in the system that led in cause to this.”

Judge Barbara Bellis said she is prepared to handle any incendiary testimony from the Infowars host when he is called to the stand and planned to speak with Jones prior to his testimony to make sure he understands the court’s rulings.

“If we do have an issue, Mr. Jones will be dealt with just like any other witness or party to appear before the court,” she said. “He’s not going to get special treatment. He’s not going to get more harsh treatment.”

Jones has complained he was found “guilty” without trials. There is no guilt in civil trials, including this one in Connecticut and last month’s trial in Texas. Jones faces a third trial over the hoax lies, in Texas, by the parents of another child shooting victim.

In all three cases, judges found Jones liable by default for damages to the families without holding trials, as punishment for what they called Jones’ repeated failures to turn over documents to the families’ lawyers.

During Wednesday’s proceeding, Norm Pattis, Jones’ lawyer, cross-examined the family member about their views and activism on gun control. He is arguing they are overstating their damage claims because of their political beliefs.

Lafferty denied that was a motive.

“This case has been brought because there have been lies about me and my family and they would not stop,” she said.

On Tuesday, a federal bankruptcy judge in Texas dismissed Jones’ attorney and the chief restructuring officer in that case, citing a lack of transparency by the company in disclosing financial information. He also gave more power to a federally appointed trustee monitoring the case, and authorized the trustee to hire additional legal help.

Jones said Wednesday that Free Speech systems is working closely with the trustee to obtain new representation.