A financial expert testifying for the parents of a child killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting has estimated that Alex Jones and his media company are worth between $135m and $240m as they seek punitive damages beyond the $4.1m they secured a day ago for the US conspiracy theorist’s falsehoods about the massacre.
The expert, Bernard Pettingill, said from the witness stand in an Austin courtroom that Jones and his Free Speech Systems company earned more than $50m annually between 2016 to 2021 – even as popular social media companies banned him from promoting himself through them – due to his “rabid following” of millions.
Pettingill added that it was difficult to get an exact read of Jones’s financial outlook because he used a web of shell companies that own nothing and employ no one to move money belonging to him around.
Jones also reported loans totaling more than $50m in an apparent effort to make it look as though he is worth less than he is, and he failed to disclose monetary records that Pettingill needed to form his assessment, the expert testified.
But Pettingill said he saw evidence that Jones was able to withdraw – or pay himself – $18m from Free Speech Systems between 2015 and 2018. Last year, when he lost lawsuits filed against him by Sandy Hook parents over his lies that the deadly school shooting was an elaborate ruse to build support for gun control reform, Jones paid himself $62m, Pettingill said.
“We can’t put a finger on what he does for a living,” Pettingill said of Jones’s ability to capitalize on unhinged, baseless conspiracy theories. “He didn’t ride a wave – he created a wave.”
For his part, Jones’s attorney, Federico Andino Reynal, questioned whether Pettingill’s estimation accounted for the various pending legal battles he is facing.
Pettingill’s testimony came after a 12-person jury, in a 10-2 majority decision, on Thursday said Jones must pay $4.1m to the parents of the parents of a six-year-old boy killed during the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. The shooting on 14 December 2012 left 20 children and six staff members dead.
The verdict followed a two-week trial in the city where Jones’s radio show and webcast Infowars are based.
However, $4.1m may not be all that Jones is ordered to pay. That amount is to compensate the parents of the plaintiffs Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, parents of six-year-old Jesse Lewis.
But the parents are also seeking punitive damages, which can be awarded in addition to compensation for what a jury believes was especially egregious behavior by a defendant.
Jurors were to begin deliberating what in effect is a second verdict after Pettingill got off the witness stand late Friday morning.
Mark Bankston, a lawyer representing Heslin and Lewis, thanked jurors for the compensatory award on Thursday. But he said Friday he hoped jurors sent “a very, very simple message – and that is stop Alex Jones, stop the monetization of misinformation and lies. Please.”
Heslin and Lewis testified that Jones’s followers harassed them for years in the false belief that the parents lied about their son’s death. They accused Jones of defaming them and intentionally inflicting emotional distress on them, and they won a default judgment in their favor after Jones refused to provide documents in response to their lawsuit.
That set up a trial to determine what Jones owed for his lies. He sought to distance himself from the conspiracy theories during his testimony, saying he was sorry if he hurt the parents’ feelings while acknowledging that Sandy Hook was “100% real”.
Kyle Farrar, an attorney for the parents, urged jurors during closing arguments on Wednesday to hold Jones accountable for profiting off their son’s death.
Reynal, Jones’s attorney, told jurors on Wednesday that Infowars had reported “irresponsibly” on Sandy Hook but said his client was not liable for the actions of his followers.
Jones’s company, Free Speech Systems, requested federal bankruptcy protections last week. Jones said during a Monday broadcast that the filing will help the company stay on the air while it appeals the outcome of the case in Austin.
The bankruptcy declaration paused a similar but much larger defamation suit brought by multiple Sandy Hook families in Connecticut where, as in Texas, he has already been found liable. He also faces another case brought by other parents in Texas.
Jones also could face perjury charges after one of the Austin trial’s most memorable episodes, when Bankston revealed to the defendant in the civil case that his legal team had “messed up” and provided “every text message” Jones had written in the past two years.
Those messages included texts that apparently contradicted claims Jones had made under oath in a prior deposition that he had nothing on his phone pertaining to the Sandy Hook massacre. Bankston said he notified Jones’s attorneys of the apparently erroneous leak, but the defense never took steps to label the communications as “privileged”, which could have kept them out of court.
Bankston on Thursday also said the congressional committee investigating the January 6 attack on the US Capitol had requested that he provide the panel with the texts from Jones, a prominent supporter of former president Donald Trump.
A pro-Trump mob carried out the Capitol attack, and the panel apparently wants to see what communications the ousted president’s team may have had with Jones.
Bankston said he intended to comply with the request unless a judge ordered he do otherwise. It was unclear if or when that might happen.