This essay is adapted from the book Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth, by Elizabeth Williamson, published by Dutton.
Hours after the elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 children and two teachers dead, it began.
“I’m sorry but I have to say it,” one poster wrote on a far-right message board. “We have to have another false flag shooting, killing small children.”
“Those directing false flags know the emotional response from the Buffalo shooting is wearing down for the sheep,” another person posted online. “So they did another one in Uvalde Texas to reinforce the response. Don’t be fooled. False Flag season is here.”
This script could have come from 10 years ago—and in fact, some of the same people spreading lies about Uvalde have been doing it for a decade. I have spent the past four years tracking the rise and spread of misinformation about a tragedy heartbreakingly similar to Uvalde: the Sandy Hook massacre. The haunting echoes between the two shootings don’t stop at the young victims.
The story of Lenny Pozner shows how these misinformation campaigns proceed. Two years after his son, Noah, 6, was murdered at Sandy Hook, Pozner started to receive chilling messages online. “I want to hear the ‘slaughter,’ and I won’t be satisfied until the caskets are opened,” one message read. “Prove to the world you’ve lost your son,” another demanded.
The missives in this case arrived from a woman with the online handle “gr8mom.” They were not the first, and wouldn’t be the last. After Sandy Hook, Infowars broadcaster Alex Jones had spread the same bogus theory that the shooting was a staged pretext for federal gun control, with the families of the victims in on the plot. The families fought back. In 2018, 10 of them, including Pozner’s, sued Jones for defamation. They won late last year, and soon, juries will decide how much Jones must pay them in damages.
The people who spread these conspiracies online were harder to categorize. For Pozner, who led the families’ battle against the conspiracy theorists, there was a difference between commercial conspiracists like Jones and relative unknowns like “gr8mom.” “Jones was not interested in getting to any sort of destination or truth,” he told me in an interview. But perhaps some others struggled “to carry the pain of women and children being executed.” Maybe their questions sprang from a genuine inability to understand how this could have happened. Pozner hoped that by walking these people through the reality of Noah’s life and the hell of his death, he could make them believe. Or at least make them stop.
In my new book, I caught up with “gr8mom,” who harassed the families of victims for years. Had her life gone as planned, she would have been a first-grade teacher. A suburban Tulsa grandmother, she instead became a vicious conspiracy theorist, tormenting the parents of children murdered in their Sandy Hook classrooms. When we spoke, she told me she was proud of what she’d done—and is still doing.
Today, one-fifth of Americans believe all major mass shootings are staged, according to Joe Uscinski, an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami who studies political conspiracy theories. These false theories will no doubt torment the families of the victims in Texas, just as they did in Sandy Hook. How could anyone, a parent no less, not only believe these delusions but make it a point to confront the families with them? Pozner wanted to know. This is the story of one of those people.
Kelley Watt began her conspiracy career in the 1990s, as a mom convinced that liberals in the Department of Education were indoctrinating Tulsa’s public school children, “grooming” them to reject “their own kind.” (Mocked and shunned for her claims back then, Watt today finds them echoed by establishment Republicans and a former president.)
By mid-2014, Kelley Watt, posting online as “gr8mom,” had become a daily visitor to Pozner’s Google Plus page.
A divorced mother of two children in their 30s and a grandmother of two, Watt is the proprietor and sole employee of Maid in the USA, a housecleaning business in Tulsa. Women, particularly mothers, made up a large proportion of Americans airing questions about Sandy Hook during the first year after the shooting. Most moved on when confronted by the facts, embarrassed to have entertained such notions even briefly; others joined Pozner’s effort to push back on false claims about the shooting. Not Watt. Suspicious by nature and distrustful of government, she believed “proving” that anti-gun politicians faked the shooting was an end that justified all means. “Sandy Hook is my baby,” she told me.
Short and squat, with chestnut hair, Watt is in her early 60s but retains the energetic air of the gymnast she was in her youth. She leads a quiet life in Tulsa with Duke, her boyfriend of nearly two decades, a retired sales manager. When I told her I’d visited Oklahoma City a couple of times, she said she’d never seen the Capitol: “Too busy researching Sandy Hook.”
Kelley Watt grew up as the daughter of an Oklahoma oil company engineer and a homemaker. She attended Oklahoma State University, partied a lot, and left with an associate’s degree. Soon thereafter, she married Jim Watt, whom she’d met in high school. Popular and adventurous, Jim interrupted college to compete as a motocross racer, then earned electrical engineering and law degrees. He came from a “really good family,” Kelley said, owners of a prominent electrical contractor in Tulsa, which Jim took over. The Watts bought a “cute little house” in Tulsa and a summer place. Kelley threw herself into volunteer work, serving as a “play lady” in a local hospital and an aide in a Christian school for special-needs children. She ran a scout group even before her son, Jordan, and daughter, Madison, were born.
“My whole life has been about kids,” she said. “That’s my biggest regret in life. I should have been a teacher. I would have been a really good first grade teacher.”
Watt has a Pinterest board called “Beautiful Children.” She had posted more than 100 photos there of babies, toddlers, and prepubescent girls, many of them twins. They wear fur-trimmed hoods, chic berets, oversize bows, earrings. Their hair is often flowing, framing enormous eyes with irises in unusual colors. They smile and hug, peek through doorways—a fantastical, eerie ideal for how children should look and live.
When we spoke, I asked her whether she doubted Sandy Hook because first grade children being murdered in their classrooms was too hard for her to face. “No. I just had a strong sense that this didn’t happen,” she said. “Too many of those parents just rub me the wrong way.”
She judged the parents as “too old to have kids that age.” She found their clothes dowdy, their hairstyles dated. Where were their “messy buns,” “cute torn jeans,” their “Tory Burch jewelry”? She mocked their broken stoicism. Their lives had fallen to pieces, but in Watt’s mind they seemed “too perfect,” and also not perfect enough.
Watt had read widely about the shooting and the families, choosing from each account only the facts that suited her false narrative.
She brought up Chris and Lynn McDonnell, parents of 7-year-old Grace, a child with striking pale blue eyes who liked to paint. Lynn McDonnell told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that Grace had drawn a peace sign and the message “Grace Loves Mommy” in the fogged bathroom mirror after her shower, leaving traces her mother found after her death. She described the abyss she felt upon seeing her daughter’s white casket and recalled how she, Chris, and Grace’s brother, Jack, used markers to fill its stark emptiness with colorful drawings of things Grace loved.
Watt mocked this reminiscence in a singsong tone. “ ‘Ohhhhh, Grace. She loved loved loved loved loved Sandy Hook, and we’re glad she’s in heaven with her teacher, and she’s with her classmates, and we feel good about that,’ ” she said. “ ‘She had a white coffin, and we busted out the Sharpies and drew a skillet and a sailboat.’ NOBODY CRIED,” she barked.
Watt’s feral lack of empathy astonished me. Watt a few minutes earlier had boasted about her son Jordan’s voracious reading habits and how well her daughter, Madison, played the piano. If Watt’s children died, wouldn’t she also speak highly of them and their gifts?
“No. This was to build up the sympathy factor,” she said. “I think they’re people with a gun control agenda.
“If Jordan died, I wouldn’t be in Washington lobbying,” she added.
It was a strange thing to say. When Watt’s children were young, she ignored them, obsessed with saving families from imagined government plots while her own family unraveled around her.
Watt’s children were barely in grade school when a neighbor urged her to join a battle against the passage of Oklahoma House Bill 1017, aka the Education Reform Act of 1990. The proposed overhaul, including new curricula and testing standards, would cost more than $500 million over five years, funded through a tax increase. “I didn’t even know property taxes funded the schools,” Watt said, but the cost wasn’t the problem. She believed the reforms masked the government’s true intent: “dumbing down the population,” asserting control. She threw herself into the campaign, speaking at meetings, picketing, making phone calls late into the night. She lost; the bill passed. But the campaign “changed my life,” Watt said. “I kept going and going.”
Watt exposed what she claimed were examples of social engineering in reading texts, math problems, even the free lunch program. Her group campaigned to ban a book titled Earth Child and its corresponding science curriculum, saying it taught children to worship “Earth above humans.” She compiled stacks of “research,” pressing it on PTA parents and local politicians, hand-delivering it to the Tulsa World newspaper and the city’s three network affiliates. She grew enraged when ignored, ringing people in the middle of the night and turning up at their offices and homes.
“Every education reporter during that era remembers her,” Ginnie Graham, a Tulsa World writer who covered education at the time, told me. Well-spoken and fashionably dressed, Watt came off at first “like any active PTA mom,” Graham said. “But it didn’t take long to uncover more conspiratorial thoughts.” (This was before the decline of local media and the rise of Facebook’s news feed, back when trusted community outlets had the power to shut down verifiably cuckoo claims.)
Watt’s battle for the minds of local schoolchildren blinded her to ominous developments at home. The family electrical business was racking up losses on Jim’s watch, and consumed by guilt, he fell into a depression. “I’d be up all night researching, and Jim used to go to this little bar up the street because he hated my research,” Watt recalled. “So did I drive him to drink? I guess I did.”
The business went bust. The Watts eventually lost their houses and cars and had to withdraw their children from private school. The couple divorced in 2004. Jordan lived for a time with his father, who continued to spiral, at one point cleaning out the college savings account for his son to pay a DUI fine, Watt said. (Jim Watt died in 2020 in the storage shed where he was living, from natural causes likely brought on by alcoholism.)
Watt did secretarial work, then switched to cleaning houses because she couldn’t afford a full-time babysitter for Madison, then in second grade. “You know what? The bad times teach you a lot—to persevere, be determined, and stick to your guns, seeking truth, seeking justice,” she told me. “When you’re poor, you have more time to do stuff. You clean two or three houses a day, and you have a lot of time left over.”
She devoted most of that time to more research. Madison’s public school denied Watt a slot on a task force to review proposed new textbooks, so when picking up her daughter one afternoon, Watt said she grabbed one book from atop a stack. She wound up in a standoff with the principal, who called the police. Watt withdrew Madison from the school and homeschooled her for a time.
The quiet-natured Madison loved to paint and yearned for piano lessons. Her mother had envisioned a different ideal for her, entering her in kiddie beauty pageants and ice skating competitions. “But then came the divorce, and I couldn’t afford it, so that was all gone,” she said.
Jordan recently told her, “ ‘Mom, you ignored us so bad,’ ” Watt recalled. “He’d come in when I was on the phone and say, ‘Mommy?’ And I’d wave my finger and tell him to go play in the backyard.”
Her voice broke into a sob: “Oh, my God, yes. I have so much guilt.”
In a bar one night, Watt met Duke, her boyfriend, striking up a conversation about the poor quality of the public education his children were receiving. He hired her to clean his house; they dated and eventually moved in together. Watt gave up her public schools campaign. Without the web to enshrine her research forever, her crates of files moldered in her attic.
Sandy Hook gave Watt a new cause, and social media, a global audience. Three weeks after the massacre, Watt worked a late-night office-cleaning job and headed to her and Duke’s cabin in Grand Lake, Oklahoma. It was too cold to go fishing, so she flipped open her laptop. On CNN, she watched Anderson Cooper “railing about James Tracy,” she said. “He was saying that this nutty professor from [Florida] Atlantic University who has a blog site called Memory Hole doesn’t think [the shooting] happened.
“Being a curious person, I immediately clicked off of Anderson Cooper and logged on to Memory Hole,” Watt said. “This professor was saying this didn’t happen, and something just clicked. That’s when I called to ask them who got the contract to clean up the blood.”
Watt made hundreds of phone calls to the Newtown Town Clerk’s office, town education officials, the Connecticut State Police, and state environmental protection officials, demanding the name of the company that cleaned the crime scene. When they either told her off or slammed down the phone, she named them as participants in the cover-up.
Watt believes Noah Pozner, Lenny’s son, never existed. She insists Noah is actually his mother Veronique De La Rosa’s son from a previous marriage, born nearly a decade before Noah. Holding out her iPad like an evangelist wielding a Bible, Watt toggles between Noah’s photographs and photos of the young man that she lifted from his Facebook account. Compare, she urged me, “the angel bow in the lip, the roundness of the face, the color of the eyes, the bushy eyebrows” of the dead child with those of his living older brother. “Pictures do speak,” she told me, her voice low and brimming with import. Watt watches true crime shows on TV, and when she talks about Sandy Hook, she adopts their narrators’ sonorous tone.
“We’d be filling up our boat at a boat dock, and I would have crowds captivated. People would be like, ‘Oh, my God,’ ” she said. “I told my clients, people in elevators, waitresses. Duke would say, ‘Come on, we’ve gotta go. Don’t bring up Sandy Hook—we’re not gonna be here that long.’ But I felt like this was a global story that needed to be told.”
In December 2013, Connecticut released the first recordings of 911 calls from inside the school. Todd Schnitt—an AM radio host whose syndicated program, The Schnitt Show, aired on WLAD in Danbury—played excerpts from the calls, inviting people from Newtown to weigh in. “Kelley in Tulsa” called in on line t3. She urged him to watch a “documentary that’s gone viral” called Unraveling Sandy Hook in 2, 3, 4, and 5 Dimensions.
Schnitt snorted. “Whoa, you’re calling my show, and you’re gonna sit here with a straight face and say the Sandy Hook tragedy—that 20 kids were not shot and killed? What the hell—what are you talking about?”
“Absolutely,” she said. Watt told him about her calls to Connecticut, where “there was no blood to clean up, all right?”
“Oh my God,” Schnitt erupted. “You know what scares the crap out of me? People like you, psychos and kooks who believe this conspiracy crap.”
Schnitt hung up on her, furious. Watt was elated—she just wanted the documentary to spread.
Soon, James Fetzer, a retired University of Minnesota professor and repellent conspiracy theorist, contacted Watt online and interviewed her for his website. Watt was thrilled by the attention from a “researcher” with a doctorate and a two-decade history of bucking government narratives. She fed her biohazard theory to Fetzer and his online conspiracy pal Wolfgang Halbig. Halbig added Watt’s query to the blizzard of public records requests he had been sending to Newtown. He wanted receipts for the cleanup of “bodily fluids, brain matter, skull fragments and around 45 to 60 gallons of blood.”
In fact, the Newtown police had already released detailed records of the school’s cleanup, performed by Clean Harbors, a national industrial cleaning company.
Watt told me she had visited Clean Harbors’ website. “Now, it might have changed, but it said, ‘We clean up harbors and waterways from oil spills.’ Which told me they don’t clean up urine and blood and guts from elementary schools.”
That’s wrong, I told her. It had taken me one phone call to confirm that Clean Harbors had cleaned Sandy Hook. The company had performed biohazard cleanup for decades, including of ground zero after the 9/11 attacks.
“You told me you made hundreds of phone calls looking for the cleanup information,” I said, working to keep my voice neutral. “Did you ever read the one-page Newtown police report that spells out what you spent years trying to get?”
Watt was momentarily silent. “I haven’t seen that document,” she said blithely. “But where are the receipts?”
Pozner’s theory about regular people who deny the murders in Sandy Hook may apply to some armchair conspiracists, but Watt, whose embrace of Sandy Hook lies transformed her from a self-described “janitor” to a “researcher,” never betrayed any doubt, nor any remorse.
Joe Uscinski, the political science professor, said that in most research, partisanship and ideology are less predictive of conspiratorial beliefs than are “dark personality traits.” People who embrace and defend “antisocial” conspiracy theories like Sandy Hook and QAnon often exhibit traits that psychologists call the “Dark Triad”: narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism, meaning the willingness to manipulate others to gain a certain result. Once isolated, now they bond online, deriving enhanced status and self-esteem as social media rewards them with likes, shares, and more conspiracy content. The survival of these virtual communities depends on their members’ defending these falsehoods, sometimes with confrontation and violence.
Whatever drives Kelley Watt, the toll her quests took on her family is clear. Shortly after I learned of Jim Watt’s death, I spoke to their daughter, Madison. In our exchanges, Kelley Watt had spoken proudly of Madison, a gifted artist and linguist, who to Watt’s frustration “doesn’t question things the way her mother does.”
In a fraught, seven-hour conversation, Madison relived the breakdown of her family while her mother pursued self-actualization through conspiracy-mongering. A reserved, cerebral young woman, she left Tulsa for good when she won a scholarship to a prestigious university in New York. Today she lives with her family in Europe, where she works as a consultant. She pushes back against her mother’s beliefs, but has never been able to dissuade her.
When cornered by the truth, Kelley Watt “moves the goalposts,” Madison said, and she didn’t see much hope for changing her mother’s mind. “The only thing that could make her question it would be if that inner circle of hers started to doubt or chip away, but even then, it would be hard,” she told me.
“There’s a great deal of narcissism in this idea that ‘everyone’s got it wrong and we’re in this select group of people that knows.’ It would explode her own persona to allow any doubt to come in. Her whole identity has been built on this for so many years. She’s invested so much.”
Madison recalled years inhabiting the dreams her mother had for her, a shy, bookish little girl dressed in fur and entered in beauty contests. Once, while her mother shopped at Dillard’s, Madison crawled into a hulking four-poster bed on display and fell asleep. Finding her, Kelley was so taken by the tableau that she bought the bed. After the Watts lost their house, mother and daughter slept in the bed together, in an apartment so tiny they put it in the dining room.
Kelley still has it. She crawled into it with her iPad and wrote a chapter for Nobody Died at Sandy Hook, a libelous anthology compiled by Fetzer and a dozen other hoaxers. In her chapter, Watt analyzed the gunman’s bedroom, believing it too empty, too lacking in decor, for a kid that age to have lived there. She was keen for her daughter to read it.
By Elizabeth Williamson. Dutton.
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“I think she feels bad that she in some way hasn’t accomplished something,” Madison told me. “It’s really important for her to be seen as someone really intelligent and good at research.”
Her mother believes she’ll eventually be proved right, Madison said: “And if that happens, even in the hereafter, then that’s her claim to fame.”