Jillian Soto planned the day for months. It was the third annual race in honor of her sister Vicki Soto, a teacher gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, three years earlier. Thousands of people came out to run the November race and raise money for scholarships. The roads were dotted with pink flamingos, Vicki’s favorite bird. “People were sitting on the ground afterward, enjoying cupcakes,” Jillian recalls. A man approached, wearing a T-shirt that said Team Vicki. But he was not on the team.
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He began taking a cell-phone video of Jillian and said he had some questions. He held up a copy of a photo he had found online. It was a picture of Vicki and her three siblings on a sunny Easter Sunday. “I knew right then and there that he was one of those people: a truther,” Jillian says. In other words, a conspiracy theorist who believes that the shooting was an elaborate hoax.
So-called gun truthers, or hoaxers, believe that mass killings, such as the one at Sandy Hook, were organized by the government to promote more restrictive gun laws. Some believe that no one died and actors played the parts of victims and grieving relatives. They call the events false flags, a military term for covert operations designed to deceive.
As hard to believe as the theories may sound, they have caught fire on blogs, talk radio, and social media. Increasingly, the families of gun-violence victims, already reeling from the loss of their loved ones, are reporting being subjected to a wave of surreal harassment.
Jillian tried to stay calm when confronted. She sent her young cousins to play in the kids’ tent, then suggested she and the man find a private place to talk. Her plan was to walk with him to the main tent, where she could seek support from family and friends. “He was asking why I was pretending my sister existed,” she says. “He said the picture was Photoshopped.” As they approached the tent, the man realized something was up, and he fled. Jillian followed him, demanding he give her the photo, screaming, “How dare you? You have my sister’s shirt on!”
Her younger sister came and pulled her back. Police on hand for the event approached, and the man ran from them, according to police reports, until a squad car caught up with him. He was arrested and charged with breach of peace and interfering with an officer. Identified as Matthew Mills, he agreed to a plea deal in April that found him guilty of interfering with an officer, although he did not admit guilt. He received a one-year sentence, to be suspended if he stays out of trouble for two years and has no contact with the Soto family. His lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.
“Never did I ever think that people could truly think things like Sandy Hook didn’t happen,” says Jillian. Now 27, the same age as Vicki when she died, she is a junior in college, studying psychology. When she lifts her sleeve, she reveals a tattoo on her inner arm, a playful note her sister had once written to her on a birthday card: “Love you always, actually, sometimes.”
Vicki felt the urge to teach so strongly, Jillian says, she began collecting children’s books in high school for her future students. She was a first-grade teacher at Sandy Hook when she was killed in December 2012 along with 20 students, all 6 and 7 years old, and five other adults. “She gave her life to protect those kids, and I didn’t expect anything less out of her,” her sister says. “Her kids were her world.”
Sandy Anglin Phillips lost a child in that shooting. Her 24-year-old daughter, Jessica Redfield Ghawi, was a senior in college, planning to pursue a career as a sportscaster, when she was shot six times. Jessi, as her mom calls her, had been excited for a big job interview set for the next day. Sandy and her husband, Lonnie Phillips, were later confronted by Alex Jones at a gun-safety event in Texas, hosted by the group Moms Demand Action.
Jones had come from a nearby rally in support of open-carry laws, where he wore a rifle strapped to his back. He approached people at the moms’ event to argue about gun laws. When Lonnie said he had lost his daughter in Aurora, things got heated. Jones accused the couple of being paid by President Obama, Sandy recalls. “I was very close to tears because I was so angry,” she says. “I was just like, Oh my god, what is wrong with you? How can you do this to people? It’s cruel.” InfoWars ran a video of snippets from the incident, calling it “Gun Control Useful Idiots Are Losing.” Representatives for Jones did not respond to requests for comment.
Other sites call Sandy’s daughter “the ultimate fake” and a criminal and scam artist who is now living it up somewhere, perhaps in the Bahamas. “When people are attacking your dead loved one who cannot fight back, it’s devastating,” says Sandy, now a gun-safety activist who travels the country in a Winnebago to speak at events. “The pain of losing someone gets deeper and deeper, and then you have to fight this too.”
Targets of hoaxers have little recourse. The First Amendment protects the right to free speech, even if it’s “offensive and controversial,” says Lee Rowland, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union. The law also “protects your right to speak ill of the dead,” she says. What’s not legal: threats that put people in fear for their physical safety. Families could sue for defamation, but those cases can be hard to win because people have to prove that someone “knowingly told a falsehood,” says Rowland, and conspiracy theorists believe their claims are true.
Noah Pozner’s father Leonard Pozner has started a site, HONR.com, to offer support and advice to families targeted by conspiracy theorists. Jillian Soto says the need is acute. “We have to help these families,” she says.
At a recent hearing for Matthew Mills, Jillian sat quietly, hands in her lap, in a busy courtroom in Bridgeport, Connecticut, waiting to face down the man who says her sister did not exist. “Enough is enough. I need to stand for my family,” she says. “Everybody’s entitled to their opinions. You want to think this is all a conspiracy? That’s fine. But you also have to respect me.”
Even after the resolution of the case, Jillian says, “I believe Mills thinks this is a lie, a joke. I wish he could stop and at least see that the tears are real. The videos I watch from my childhood of the four of us mean that I will never have my complete family again. I wish it were fake. I wish I would wake tomorrow and find out this is all a dream. But for the past three years, four months, 12 days, it hasn’t been a dream. It’s real. It’s my new real life.”
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