For the past 10 years, Lenny Pozner and Veronique De La Rosa have been harassed by people who don’t believe that their son Noah ever existed, or that he didn’t really die in the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. For Pozner and De La Rosa, the harassment goes even beyond what some other Sandy Hook parents have experienced. It’s been more personal, more focused, and more violent, and it has profoundly transformed their lives.
Pozner is the founder of the HONR Network, which works to protect Sandy Hook parents and other survivors of mass-casualty events from online abuse, harassment, and virulent conspiracy theories, and to stem their spread online. Meanwhile, De La Rosa’s main priority remains helping heal their two surviving children, both from Noah’s murder and from the torrent of abuse that followed. So what went through their minds when Alex Jones finally had to take the stand to begin answering for the lies about Sandy Hook he helped to spread?
“It’s all a little surreal,” Pozner told Motherboard recently. For so long, he said, it felt like many people didn’t want to confront the harm done by the people he calls “hoaxers,” much less hold them accountable. “This entire narrative of fighting hoaxers and defining the actual phenomenon is something that I started talking about when people didn’t want to hear about it.”
For her part, De La Rosa struggled to watch the first damages trial against Jones and Infowars. “I watched fragments of it,” she told Motherboard. “But I couldn’t watch it in its entirety. I just couldn’t.” Watching for too long, she said, proved incredibly triggering: “It brings flashbacks and the weight of really devastating memories to the forefront, and that’s not always a place where I can tolerate being.”
Late last year, Alex Jones and Infowars lost by default in a series of defamation cases brought by Sandy Hook parents. In the first damages trial, a Texas jury ruled that Jones and Infowars must pay Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, whose son Jesse died in the attack, a total of $49.3 million, though that number may be capped due to Texas laws.
Pozner and De La Rosa had been expected to appear in a Texas courtroom in September, where a jury would assess how much Jones and Infowars owe them for the lies the network helped to spread. The case was stalled, however, when Infowars’ parent company, Free Speech Systems, which is also controlled by Jones, recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Another damages trial, in Connecticut, is moving forward, with testimony expected to begin September 6. (Mark Bankston, one of the lawyers representing all of the Texas plaintiffs, told Motherboard he’s “hopeful” the Pozner case will go to trial before the end of the year.)
The delay has proven excruciating, De La Rosa said. “It feels like a form of water torture, you know?” She sighed. “That drip, drip, drip.” She spends a lot of time in her garden and taking care of her pets, four cats and four dogs, all of whom are rescues. Being outdoors, she said, “just being fully there in the moment, that’s helped me a lot.”
The fact that juries in two states are trying to quantify the harm done to Sandy Hook families is a long way from 2014, when Pozner founded the HONR Network after he and De La Rosa tried, unsuccessfully, to appeal to Sandy Hook deniers on an individual level.
Pozner has been interviewed many times before about his own unique trajectory: before his son’s death, he’d had a casual interest in conspiracy theories. Afterwards, as conspiracy theories about Sandy Hook started to take shape, he felt sure he could reason with people who doubted that the event really happened; he tried to approach people directly, to provide proof of Noah’s life and death. When that proved ineffective, he became focused on trying to get Noah’s image taken down from Sandy Hook denier websites, often using tools like DMCA requests, and began thinking more globally about how internet providers and social media sites were ignoring the harassment and abuse that was happening on their platforms.
For his trouble, Pozner said, he often received criticism that he was creating his own harassment or making it worse. “People were attacking me, saying they existed because I was calling them out,” he said, referring to Sandy Hook deniers.
De La Rosa and Pozner have been separated since before Noah’s death, but after the shooting, they briefly moved back in together, as outlined in a recent, remarkable Boston Globe profile. At first, their focus was solely on keeping their daughters—both of whom were in the school at the time of the shooting—safe and well.
“I think we were really very instinctual in how we were operating in parenting,” De La Rosa said. “And putting the girls absolutely 100 percent first, their safety. What made sense for us as a family was to relocate.” The couple chose Florida, where Lenny had previously lived; they keep their exact locations private, due to a still-relentless torrent of threats and unwanted contacts from Sandy Hook deniers. “I think we didn’t fully grasp at the time just how many times we’d have to move,” De La Rosa said.
As the Sandy Hook denier movement started to take shape, the parents also eventually made a decision to confront one particularly noxious player: James Tracy, then a tenured professor of communications at Florida Atlantic University. Tracy was the person who first began promulgating the idea that the Sandy Hook parents and students interviewed at the scene of the massacre were “crisis actors.” In 2015, Pozner and De La Rosa wrote an editorial together in Florida’s Sun Sentinel outlining the effects of Tracy’s lies on their lives. He was fired shortly thereafter, and has since unsuccessfully tried to appeal the firing to ever-higher levels of power, including the Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case in December 2021.
Pozner founded HONR network in 2014. By then, he’d already specifically emailed Infowars, asking it to stop spreading lies about Sandy Hook.
“Haven’t we had our share of pain and suffering?” Pozner wrote in his email. “All these accusations of government involvement, false flag terror, new world order etc…” In response, staffers at Infowars, including well-known talking head Paul Joseph Watson, assured Pozner that Jones took the tragedy seriously. (Watson, at least, did seem to realize the network’s Sandy Hook coverage posed a problem for them, warning Jones and other staff in an email, “The Sandy Hook stuff is killing us” and that some of their sources were “bat shit crazy.”) Then the Infowars staffers tried to get Pozner to speak to Jones on air—though not before demanding proof that he was “the real Lenny Pozner.”
Infowars continued spreading lies about Noah, specifically, including a particularly horrible 2015 segment and article titled “Mystery: Sandy Hook Victim Dies (Again) in Pakistan.” In the piece, an Infowars staffer claimed, correctly, that a photo of Noah Pozner was displayed at a vigil in Peshawar, Pakistan after the horrifying school massacre in which the Taliban killed 149 people, the majority of them schoolchildren. Displaying Noah’s photo was clearly meant to be an act of solidarity, a link between the Sandy Hook victims and the Pakistani ones. But Infowars and other Sandy Hook conspiracy theorists instead claimed that it was suspicious, and that Noah was perhaps being presented as a victim in Pakistan. The article quotes James Tracy, who said, “The emergence and apparent use of the well-known photo to memorialize the December 16 Taliban school attack victims calls into question the authenticity of both events.”
The photo became a central article of faith for the Sandy Hook deniers, and it continues to circulate. “Noah’s photo appearing in Pakistan has become this incredible foundational concept that’s supposed to be proof of everything,” Pozner said.
In 2015, Infowars devoted almost an hour-long segment to complaining about HONR Network and Pozner. Jones said at the start of the segment that Pozner had “reportedly” lost his son at Sandy Hook, then complained, at length, that Pozner had filed a copyright claim against Infowars for displaying Noah’s photo in the Pakistan article. The segment quickly became a treatise on Jones’ suspicions that Sandy Hook hadn’t happened: “We’re investigating this,” Jones told his audience. A panel of then-Infowars personalities — Jones, Rob Dew, and David Knight— also pointed out that Pozner was part of a group of Sandy Hook families suing Remington, the maker of the Bushmaster AR-15-style rifle used by the gunman. (The case was settled for $73 million earlier this year.)
The segment tried mightily to suggest that HONR Network and Pozner were engaged in some kind of fraud or dishonestly soliciting donations, claiming the organization didn’t have a headquarters and was thus suspicious. “Well, we’ll just start investigating that,” Jones declared, at one point. “And I guess I’m gonna probably have to go on up to Newton. I’m gonna have to probably go investigate Florida as well.”
Jones also directly targeted De La Rosa, claiming that an interview she filmed with Anderson Cooper was done in front of a blue screen.
“Anderson Cooper has got some explaining to do,” Jones declared, before claiming, unconvincingly, that he believed Sandy Hook really happened. But, he added, “Something is really starting to get suspicious here.” The fact, he said, “that this whole thing could be staged is just mindblowing.” (Footage of this segment was played in court during the first Texas damages trial.)
Because Pozner was familiar with Alex Jones’ previous content, he knew what an escalation it was for Jones to fixate on the families as he and Infowars were doing.
“He’s gotten worse,” Pozner said. “He’s not the Alex Jones of 2010. Or 9/11 Alex Jones.” In some ways, blaming “George Bush or Hillary or Obama” for mass casualty events is acceptable commentary, Pozner said. But, he added, “going after people who have experienced something unimaginable crosses a lot of boundaries. He was ready to cross those boundaries in 2012. The man he is, the father he is, the husband he is. He was ready.”
Pozner began using HONR Network to illuminate the ways that social media companies were allowing Sandy Hook deniers to use their platforms to harass and terrorize grieving family members. There’s been some progress; after years of advocacy from HONR and many embarrassing news headlines, both YouTube and Facebook found ways of making survivors of mass casualty events into a protected class of users, making it easier for them to report content targeting them. Other platforms are still not making noticeable strides, Pozner said, specifically Twitter: “It’s always the worst. You can’t even give them a court order. They don’t care about a court order and they don’t need to comply with a court order, basically.”
We met with Mr. Pozner and others, and their feedback provided an important perspective to inform changes to our rules and enforcement, including expanded guidance in our hateful conduct policy that specifically prohibits the denial of violent events, including abusive references to specific events like Sandy Hook.
We’re committed to protecting the public conversation on Twitter and we are always looking at how the Twitter Rules are working to address bad behaviors and actors on our service, often in consultation with trusted partners within our Trust and Safety Council and other external experts.)
In his work, Pozner said, he tries to strike a balance between using his own story to promote his cause and wanting to maintain as much privacy as possible. He’s the subject of unique fixation from the Sandy Hook deniers, and some of their threats have been particularly chilling, like a woman named Lucy Richards who ultimately went to prison for sending Pozner a series of voicemails and emails saying things like “death is coming to you real soon.” These days, when he gives interviews, he doesn’t generally do so on camera; in a 2020 episode of Frontline on PBS, he was shown in silhouette. (I appeared briefly in the same episode, which focused on Alex Jones.)
“I conceal my identity so I’m not out there in the media promoting myself,” Pozner said. “I just do the bare minimum which is necessary to educate people and bring awareness to the work we’ve been doing. I don’t draw much attention to myself and I live that way. Neighbors don’t know who I am.”
If the trial moves forward, Pozner said, “I’m going to lose all that anonymity and privacy,” a prospect which he admits is causing him anxiety. “I’d rather things resolved themselves without having to take it to that extreme step.”
Even in the Heslin/Lewis trial, Pozner’s experience was front and center: The Richards threats were discussed in court, as was the harassment against Pozner and De La Rosa by people like Wolfgang Halbig, another notorious Sandy Hook denier. Those threats, Heslin and Lewis testified, were taken by the Sandy Hook families to be threats to them as a group. But they were also, specifically, about Pozner.
“I’m the narrative,” he told Motherboard, grimly. “I’m the story, unfortunately.”
Besides the Infowars lawsuit, Pozner has also successfully sued James Fetzer, another persistent and virulent Sandy Hook denier and the co-writer of a particularly widely circulated book about the tragedy. In 2019, a Wisconsin jury ruled that Fetzer must pay Pozner $45,000. As of July, Pozner was also awarded the copyright to the book, as well as several websites previously owned by Fetzer, all of which the court turned over to him as a partial payment of the judgment. (Fetzer continues to appeal the case, in a manner of speaking, by filing nonsense motions pro se.)
His experience with Fetzer and other Sandy Hook deniers, Pozner said, has been illustrative of the ways that many of them are driven by “delusion and narcissism.”
“It turns into this situation where their ego can’t surrender to the idea that not only have they lost, but have been completely wrong,” he said. Fetzer, for instance, “has turned into Ahab from Moby Dick. It’s gonna destroy him and he has zero success in any of it.” He’s also become grimly aware of the skin-crawling camaraderie among the deniers, the ways that trying to poke holes in his family’s nightmare has become a group sport.
“They share photos and mock them and mock the community,” he said. “That’s always existed. They have this level of camaraderie. They’re the clan that’s important and the outsiders, it’s all fair game.”
For Pozner, dealing with people like Jones and Fetzer has become a constant, both before and surely after the Jones lawsuits are settled. “My fight never really stopped or ended,” he said. “It’s constantly going on.”
De La Rosa isn’t involved with HONR network, but she’s supportive of it, she told me. “I absolutely have always agreed with and supported his efforts,” she said, “to out these people for who they are. So we’ve always worked in concert.” (Besides the op-ed about James Tracy’s conspiracy theorizing against them, Pozner and De La Rosa also published a 2018 open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, calling on him to take action against Sandy Hook denial and harassment on Facebook.)
If and when the case goes to trial, De La Rosa said, she hopes to communicate to the jury who Noah was and what was stolen from her family, both in his murder and in the ceaseless lies about him after.
“I think for me it is almost necessary to talk about him,” she said. “This wider network of conspiracies about Sandy Hook being a false flag event was almost a negation of his very existence.”
At six, De La Rosa said, Pozner was “pure light,” an energetic, playful kid always “on discovery mode,” a “vibrant, very happy little boy,” she said. After years of grief, she’s had moments recently where she can remember him with joy. The other day, driving and thinking of him, she suddenly remembered a time when they were in the car together and Noah overheard a brief radio segment about the death of deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi. She didn’t think Noah heard or was paying attention until he chirped, anxiously, from the backseat: “Mom, why did they kill Daffy Duck?” (She speedily explained that Daffy was very much alive.)
“He existed. His life was stolen from him,” she said. “And he has marked our hearts and our memories forever. That is almost an obligation that I feel that I have: to communicate what the magnitude of that loss was and the chasm it left at the center of our lives—me, Lenny, his sisters.”
The fact that the Sandy Hook damages trials are moving ahead the same year that the Remingston lawsuit was settled is all a little overwhelming, De La Rosa added, but it all feels just as important.
“Those are necessary face-offs we need to have, to see this through, and hopefully to make a difference,” she said. “At the end of the day everything has to be faced eventually. And Mr. Jones needs to answer for his behavior around Sandy Hook. The way he targeted my child. The way he gave rise to threats of violence. The way he mocked my son’s death. The way he called me a crisis actor. The way he and his ilk went after Lenny, doxxing him. It’s just been a relentless persecution campaign.”
If the trial does take place by the end of the year, De La Rosa added, it will coincide with another terrible milestone: the 10-year anniversary of the attack.
“I would call that a double-edged sword for us,” De La Rosa said, referring to the idea that they could be in court while observing the anniversary. “But whatever needs to happen for this to come to a conclusion, I’m on board. I’ve come this far and there’s no way I’m giving up.”