DETROIT (CN) – A father and son forced to flee from their Michigan home and go into hiding after an alt-right news website linked them to the murder of a counterprotester at last year’s white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., sued the site for defamation.
Joel Vangheluwe and Jerome Vangheluwe named GotNews and its editor and founder Charles Johnson as defendants in a complaint filed Wednesday in Detroit federal court. They are represented by Dallas attorney Andrew Sommerman and Clinton Township, Mich., attorney Raechel Badalamenti.
The lawsuit claims GotNews falsely reported that Jerome’s son Joel was the driver of the Dodge Challenger used to plow into anti-fascist protestors at the “Unite the Right” rally last August in Charlottesville, Va.
In fact, James Fields Jr. of Maumee, Ohio, was the suspect. Fields faces a second-degree murder charge in connection with the attack that killed 32-year-old legal assistant Heather Heyer and injured 19 others.
At the time of the attack on Aug. 12, 2017, the Vangheluwes say they were hosting a family wedding at their home when their social media and email accounts were inundated with messages after GotNews published a story that falsely linked Joel to the attack.
“Defendants used the Vangheluwes as political pawns, shifting the blame from alt-right extremists to an innocent 20-year-old boy who never owned or drove the car in question,” the filing states.
GotNews reported it had obtained evidence that Joel, who the outlet described as an anti-Trump drug user, was the owner of the Dodge Challenger. The publication made the tenuous link after searching for the license plate number of the Dodge Challenger and discovering it was under Jerome Vangheluwe’s name. It then scanned social media and leaped to the conclusion that Joel owned the car based on an image of the vehicle found on Facebook.
“Joel likes taking drugs and getting stoned, a look at his social media shows. What [sic] he under the influence when he crashed into the crowd at Charlottesville?” the article stated, according to the lawsuit.
As the fake news story lit up the internet, other blogs, websites and Twitter users identified Joel as the driver and decried him as a Democrat and member of the anti-fascist movement Antifa, the complaint states.
The Vangheluwes say GotNews and other outlets circulated the story to persuade readers that Joel was behind a politically motivated attack.
“The torrent of accusations against the Vangheluwes accomplished the over-arching goal of the alt-right media to distract their readers into believing the attack was made by someone other than a member of the alt-right movement,” the court filing states.
The Vangheluwes’ attorneys sent a letter demanding a retraction. GotNews reportedly retracted the story and apologized.
But by that time the damage was already done, the father and son claim. Michigan State Police advised the Vangheluwes to leave their home after they were flooded with death threats, according to the lawsuit.
“The threats caused the Vangheluwes to fear for their safety and well-being. Clients of Jerome Vangheluwe’s business also became fearful after the online threats,” the complaint states.
The lawsuit seeks damages for defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and invasion of privacy.
Neither GotNews nor the Vangheluwes’ attorneys immediately responded Thursday to requests for comment.