As Alex Jones stands trial, Newtown would rather forget him
By Karen Zraick
Less than 20 miles from the place where a gunman massacred 20 first graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the trial of Alex Jones, who has spent much of the decade since the attack spreading lies about what happened that day, neared its conclusion last week.
The closely watched courtroom spectacle playing out just up Interstate 84 was part of a long-running defamation case that has featured wrenching testimony and explosive outbursts. But in Newtown, Connecticut, people are done talking about Jones.
“I think that most of the people in this town would like to forget about him, to forget his name,” said Richard Fattibene, 81, as he sat in the town’s general store having a coffee last Tuesday morning.
As the founder of the conspiracy website Infowars, Jones was found liable last year in four defamation lawsuits, and a jury in nearby Waterbury, Connecticut, was expected to decide within days how much he should pay in compensatory and punitive damages in one of the cases.
But for the very real town where his twisted fantasies were focused, the trial has been less a courtroom reckoning than an unwelcome reminder of the tragedy that has become synonymous with its name.
Fattibene is semiretired from his business selling parts to auto body shops. He recalled the brutal aftermath of the attack, the police cars on his street guarding the houses of children who had perished, the universal anguish.
“The town was upside down,” he said.
A friend who had joined him that morning, Dominic Calandruccio, 80, an insurance salesperson who is also semiretired, sounded a similar note. He hadn’t been following the Jones trial, but he had strong feelings about the man at its center.
“We hate him,” he said, adding, “I hope he goes to jail.”
Calandruccio, who moved to Newtown in 1978, thinking it would be a great place to raise his family, said he still loved the town, with its rolling hills, its well-preserved architecture and its access to nature. He often walks his dog near a site that is to become an animal sanctuary named for Catherine Violet Hubbard, a little girl killed in the tragedy who had loved animals.
It left him dumbfounded that conspiracy theorists could harass and stalk victims’ families after what happened.
“How can anybody be so cruel to those people?” he asked.
Almost immediately after the attack, conspiracy theorists seized upon the toxic notion that the tragedy had been staged by the government as a pretext to advance gun control. It was trauma layered on trauma, and one of the key figures behind the lies was Jones, stoking the frenzy on his popular Infowars show and website.
Jones was found liable in four defamation lawsuits filed by the families of some of the victims, and damages are being determined by juries in three separate trials. The judgments were made by default because he had refused to turn over documents, including financial records, through years of litigation.
Jones and anguished families have both testified, and though he had been expected to take the stand again Wednesday, he did not.
In his first case, in Austin, Texas, over the summer, a jury awarded nearly $50 million to Scarlett Lewis and Neil Heslin, parents of Jesse Lewis. That total may be revised because in Texas, where Jones’ media company is based, verdicts are capped. During that trial, Jones conceded that the attack was “100% real.”
The case being heard in Connecticut this week is the second and was brought by eight families of victims and an FBI agent who responded to the attack.
In Connecticut, there are no limits on the damages, so the decision could ruin Jones financially. He has made millions selling survivalist gear, diet supplements and gun accessories on his broadcasts — and was found to have violated a state law prohibiting the use of lies to sell products.
The third trial is tentatively scheduled for later this year in Austin.
At a cafe near the Sandy Hook Elementary School — where a new building now stood after the previous one was torn down — Sue Bucur and Barb Baldino, both 59 and local residents, were catching up over lunch. They were not watching the trial, but they remained incensed about the role that Jones had played in circulating falsehoods.
“For someone to deny what happened — he didn’t sit here and watch a line of hearses go by on the way to the cemetery,” said Bucur, who owns a crystal shop near the cafe.
Baldino, who works in media sales, added that the money could not reverse the damage that had been done by the lies or reverse the pain that the families had been subjected to during the trials.
“I don’t know how you can punish him enough,” she said. “The money’s not going to do anything for anybody.”
The Rev. Andrea Castner Wyatt, rector at Trinity Episcopal Church, has been painfully aware since she arrived in Newtown two years ago that the work of healing the trauma the town endured would take many years. The church has helped organize annual interfaith services of remembrance, although the community hasn’t yet settled on a location for the service next month, which will mark 10 years since the attack.
Part of her deepest distress comes from seeing that mass shootings continue to take place around the country, she said. The church also hosted a well-attended vigil for the victims of the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting in May, which she said was painfully similar to the Sandy Hook attack.
“They’ve had 10 years of learning what it’s like to live with this,” she said of the town. “That’s why their hearts really went out to Uvalde.”
For John Bergquist, 47, the trial was a reminder of the political divisions roiling the country. He grew up in Newtown, works in a winery nearby and was sipping a rosé at a favorite haunt, My Place, after work Monday.
“People have reached their saturation point with talking about the tragedy,” he said. “Not that they don’t care, but it’s been relitigated so many times, it’s difficult.”
But he added that the shadow of the killings always loomed.
“Even if you do stop talking about it, I think everybody feels a connection to what happened,” he said.