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A judge orders Alex Jones to sell personal assets, but Infowars can continue for now

Infowars founder Alex Jones speaks to the media outside Waterbury Superior Court during his 2022 defamation trial in Waterbury, Conn.
Joe Buglewicz
Getty Images North America
Infowars founder Alex Jones speaks to the media outside Waterbury Superior Court during his 2022 defamation trial in Waterbury, Conn.

Despite the decisions by the federal bankruptcy judge, Sandy Hook families are likely to get only a tiny fraction of the nearly $1.5 billion in damages Jones owes them for his lies about the 2012 school shooting.

It’s a day of reckoning today for Infowars conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, and a long-awaited culmination for the Sandy Hook families who sued Jones for defamation. A federal bankruptcy judge in Texas is expected to force Jones to liquidate his personal assets, including ownership of his media company, Free Speech Systems, in order to pay families nearly $1.5 billion in damages for spreading lies that the 2012 school shooting never happened.

Jones' influential Infowars show and website could be shut down by the end of the day, and his personal belongings — from his gun collection to his jewelry — could soon be auctioned to the highest bidder in something of a fire sale. He could even lose access to his account on X, where he currently has 2.3 million followers. However, Texas law allows him to keep his home, which is worth more than $2 million.

The families declined to comment ahead of the court hearing, but one of their attorneys, Avi Moshenberg, said liquidation would be "a victory in the sense that [Jones] is going to pay a heavy price" for what he did, adding, "It will be a big step toward dismantling [Jones'] ability to inflict any more harm on the families."

On the other hand, the plaintiffs are likely to collect only a tiny fraction of what they're owed, and bankruptcy is unlikely to silence Jones fully, as some families had hoped. "You can’t force him to shut up through a Chapter 7 liquidation," Moshenberg said. Jones had proposed a settlement with families that would have barred him from talking about the Sandy Hook shooting, but for various other reasons, that offer failed.

“There’s some frustration about that,” Moshenberg said.

A court appointed trustee for FSS on Thursday urged the judge to also convert Jones' company to a Chapter 7 liquidation. She called Jones’ behavior in recent broadcasts “much more erratic and unhinged than his typical rhetoric” and expressed concern that his “increasingly poisonous rhetoric” — including promoting new Sandy Hook conspiracies — is diminishing the value of his estate and any eventual payout for families.

Grief, guilty verdicts and bankruptcy

Twenty people, mostly relatives of the 20 children and six staffers killed at Sandy Hook Elementary, sued Jones for defamation in Connecticut and in Texas in 2018. Jones had told his followers that the family members were just actors, "fake crying" and "playing different parts of different people" as an elaborate plot meant to drum up support for gun control. As a result, the families testified, and Jones' followers stalked and tormented them for years. They were harassed online and in person, bombarded with death threats and relentlessly taunted by Jones' followers, who desecrated and threatened to dig up their loved ones' graves to prove it was all a hoax.

"We've been tortured, we've been abused. And the abuse that we have suffered over the last decade is just overwhelming," said Jen Hensel, whose daughter Avielle was killed at Sandy Hook, and whose husband, Jeremy Richman, later died by suicide after years of grieving. Jones also questioned Richman’s death. Speaking to NPR immediately following the 2022 jury verdict in one defamation case, Hensel said, "The idea behind all of this was to stop that abuse and to stop [Jones]. This is not OK to be doing this off the blood of innocent children who are murdered and their teachers."

During the trial, Jones acknowledged the shootings and deaths were real. But he has long maintained that his musings and rants are protected by the First Amendment. He showed up in court with tape over his mouth with the words "Save the 1st," and he said in a deposition, "If questioning public events and free speech is banned because it might hurt somebody’s feelings, we are not in America anymore."

But families rejected that notion. As one of their attorneys, Mark Bankston, told jurors: "Speech is free, but lies you have to pay for."

Ultimately the jurors in both cases concurred, and as their guilty verdicts rolled in, Jones filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for himself and his company, Free Speech Systems. Then last week, after years of refusing to cooperate with the process, Jones agreed to convert his case to a Chapter 7 liquidation. His lawyers declined to comment for this report, but in court papers they say that would mean fewer administrative expenses and would best serve the interest of all parties.

Families of Sandy Hook victims sit in the front row as Infowars founder Alex Jones testifies during the Sandy Hook defamation damages trial in Waterbury, Conn., in 2022.
Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media via AP
Hearst Connecticut Media via AP
Families of Sandy Hook victims sit in the front row as Infowars founder Alex Jones testifies during the Sandy Hook defamation damages trial in Waterbury, Conn., in 2022.

Little monies left after any liquidation

Meantime, court filings show Jones has continued to spend lavishly while in bankruptcy — spending on average about $100,000 a month — even as his assets have dwindled to just about $10 million. That means after his assets are liquidated and lawyers and expenses are paid, the leftover amount would total only about $200,000 per plaintiff. Before the families sued, Jones and FSS combined were estimated to be worth between $135 million and $270 million, according to expert testimony in the Texas trial.

Under Chapter 7 liquidation, a trustee would be appointed to dig around for any assets Jones might have hidden, something families have accused him of but Jones denies.

"I'm sure he's been doing some doomsday prepping," Moshenberg said.

For example, the families accuse Jones of using a shell company — partially owned and managed by Jones' father — to claw back money for himself. PQPR Holdings Limited, a supplier of the dietary supplements sold on the Infowars website, claims it’s owed more than $50 million in secured debt. If legitimate, that would entitle the Jones-related company to be paid ahead of the Sandy Hook families. Lawyers for the families call the debts bogus and are challenging them in court.

Jones has also started encouraging his followers to buy his lucrative line of supplements from a new company owned by his father instead of from Infowars. An attorney for the families argues that is a violation of bankruptcy law.

Families are also concerned that Jones might fudge any future earnings. Chapter 7 wouldn’t bar Jones from reincarnating into a new company, and there are ways he could continue to work and structure his future pay so that it would be difficult for families to reach. Jones said on his show this week that he's had a lot of offers to go work for other people. But the bankruptcy trustee in Jones' case would have authority to continue chasing his assets forever. Unlike most cases where bankruptcy wipes out debts and offers debtors a fresh start, the judge has ruled that Jones is not entitled to a clean slate because his wrongdoing was malicious and intentional. That means families can keep hunting indefinitely not only for any money Jones may have hidden, but also for any future earnings.

"The point is, he is going to come out of this looking over his shoulder at those plaintiffs for the rest of his life," said Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law professor Bruce Markell.

An ironic twist for the Sandy Hook families

But Markell notes that families may find themselves in a somewhat awkward position, where their chances of collecting more of what Jones owes them depends on Jones continuing his brand of conspiracy-laden broadcasting that they sued him for.

"The irony here is that the people harmed by Jones' bile [would] profit from the bile that he's going to spew afterwards," Markell said. "I mean that’s the only way they get paid."

Indeed, experts say, meting out what families may see as justice in a case like this, is far beyond the capacity of a bankruptcy court. "I sometimes say it's kind of like using a screwdriver to hammer in a nail," Markell quipped. "It’s not the best tool for what you want to achieve."

And despite families' hopes, Jones' experience might not actually serve as a deterrent to others. Instead, those with the biggest megaphones and deepest pockets may view even large defamation verdicts as just a cost of doing business, says First Amendment lawyer Kenneth P. White.

"Whether it's Alex Jones or a former president of the United States or whoever is prone to getting attention by making big claims and attacking people, unfortunately I think those are prices worth paying to some people, so long as it means they can keep riling up those crowds, getting those donors to political campaigns, getting those people to buy the snake oil advertised on their shows," White said. "And that's a grim realization."

Jones, meanwhile, is appealing the defamation verdicts that drove him into bankruptcy, as well as the judge’s decision that the families can chase him for every dollar he makes for the rest of his life.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Tovia Smith
Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.