HOUSTON (CN) — A Connecticut trial against Alex Jones and his company Free Speech Systems over false statements the conspiracy theorist made about the Sandy Hook school shooting may proceed thanks to an agreement announced Monday in Free Speech Systems' bankruptcy case.
Shortly after jury selection started on Aug. 2 for the Connecticut lawsuit — in which 15 people connected to the 2012 massacre of 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown are suing Jones and Free Speech Systems — the defendants' lawyer filed a notice of removal to bankruptcy court in the District of Connecticut, stating that court had jurisdiction because Free Speech Systems had filed for bankruptcy in the Southern District of Texas.
The July 29 bankruptcy filing triggered an automatic stay of Free Speech Systems' involvement in the Connecticut case.
It will determine how much Jones and his company owes the Sandy Hook families and an FBI agent who responded to the shooting. Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis found Jones and Free Speech Systems liable by default for not sitting for depositions or disclosing financial documents in accord with her pretrial orders.
Jones has admitted in court that for years on his Austin, Texas-based radio and internet shows — broadcast through his Infowars media company — he lied to his millions of followers that the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax perpetrated by actors in cahoots with a federal government bent on curtailing Americans’ gun-ownership rights.
Counsel for Free Speech Systems and the Connecticut plaintiffs announced Monday, in a downtown Houston hearing before U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Christopher Lopez, they had agreed to lift the stay to allow the Connecticut case to proceed to a final judgment. Opening statements are scheduled for Sept. 13.
Lopez thanked the attorneys who reached the deal, including counsel for the Office of the U.S. Trustee, the portion of the Department of Justice that helps manage bankruptcy cases.
“This is extraordinary relief in the first 30 days of a [bankruptcy] case and I know a lot of hard work went into it,” Lopez said.
He noted that the Connecticut plaintiffs will have to pursue collection of any judgment through Free Speech Systems’ bankruptcy case.
Lopez also approved agreements for Free Speech Systems to pay counsel for the Connecticut case.
Pattis & Smith of Newhaven, Connecticut, will be paid a flat fee of $100,000 per month for three months, starting with August. Jones will cover 40% and Free Speech Systems 60% of those costs.
Jones and Free Speech Systems will evenly split the $50,000 cost of retaining the Reynal Law Firm of Houston. Its principal, Andino Reynal, will support Norm Pattis, the defendants’ lead counsel in the Connecticut case, as a “non-appearing counsel."
Given there are 15 plaintiffs in the Connecticut litigation, the monetary damages they will be awarded is expected to dwarf the $49.2 million in compensatory and punitive damages a Texas jury awarded Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis early this month.
Reynal represented Jones and Free Speech Systems in the Texas case.
Heslin and Lewis, whose 6-year-old son Jesse Lewis was killed in the elementary school shooting, claimed Jones and Free Speech Systems’ comments about the massacre had defamed them and caused them emotional distress.
Like the Connecticut case, Judge Maya Guerra Gamble in Austin skipped straight to the damages phase after entering a default judgment against Jones and Free Speech Systems for disregarding her pretrial orders to turn over documents to the Sandy Hook parents.
A second set of Sandy Hook parents making similar claims, Leonard Pozner and Veronica De La Rosa — whose son Noah was the youngest child shot to death at the school — also sued Jones and Free Speech Systems in Austin and won a default judgment against them. They are awaiting a damages trial before Judge Guerra Gamble.
Due to harassment from conspiracy theorists, Pozner and De La Rosa have reportedly moved 10 times since the shooting.
Meanwhile, Jones is facing another defamation lawsuit in Austin involving the estate of Marcel Fontaine, who died at age 29 in an apartment fire in May.
Fontaine alleged Infowars had falsely identified him as the gunman who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018 in Parkland, Florida, and posted his photo on its website.
All four of the defamation lawsuits were filed in 2018.
Counsel for the Sandy Hook families claim Free Speech Systems’ bankruptcy filing, where it declared it had $14 million in assets and $79 million in liabilities, was Jones’ latest ploy to avoid trial in the Connecticut case.
While Jones initially cited the First Amendment as a defense against the defamation lawsuits, any hope of raising that argument was nixed by his failure to comply with discovery orders.
For instance, Judge Guerra Gamble ordered Infowars and Jones to pay more than $125,000 in sanctions in the Heslin-Lewis case before it went to trial.
Judge Bellis, in Connecticut, also sanctioned Jones after he offered $1 million for the head of Christopher Mattei, the Connecticut families’ attorney, on his Infowars show.
Lawyers representing all the Sandy Hook families in Free Speech Systems’ bankruptcy asked Judge Lopez in a filing Thursday to place management of the company’s finances in the hands of a trustee, and to appoint a tort claimants committee to represent the interests of its creditors, due to its alleged fraudulent transfers to PQPR Holdings, a business owned by Jones and his parents that supplies diet supplements to Free Speech Systems.
Jones, who with Free Speech Systems has an estimated net worth between $135 and $270 million, purportedly makes most of his money from selling Brain Force Plus and Super Male Vitality supplements.
The families say “a centerpiece of Jones’s plan to avoid compensating them” is the claim that Free Speech Systems owes PQPR $65 million in loan and interest payments.
But they say the timing of the loan debts is fishy because PQPR did not post a notice of them in financing statements until November 2020, after adverse rulings against Jones and Free Speech Systems in the Texas and Connecticut litigation.
They allege that as default judgments were entered in the Texas cases in summer 2021, Free Speech Systems was transferring between $11,000 per day and $11,000 per week, plus 60 to 80% of its revenue, to PQPR for the benefit of Jones and his parents.
They first made these accusations in a fraudulent transfer lawsuit they filed against Jones, Infowars LLC, Free Speech Systems, PQPR and several more of Jones’ companies in April 2022 in Travis County District Court in Austin.
“FSS’s testimony in the Sandy Hook Cases confirms the claimed debt is a cover for Jones to pay himself out of FSS’s profits, while claiming FSS is insolvent,” the families state in their bankruptcy filing.
Lopez, the bankruptcy judge, on Monday denied the families’ push for him to address these allegations on an expedited basis.
But he added, “I don’t want to wait a long time on this. I don’t want this to get pushed to October because there’s some serious allegations made in there. And I want to know what’s going on.”
He indicated he will set a hearing on the matter for Sept. 13 or 20.
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