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-minute YouTube 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, and 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 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.
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.
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