Conspiracy theorists harassing, impersonating Aurora victims

Last July, dozens of theatergoers in Aurora, Colo., survived a massacre. Now they have to survive the people who think they’re liars.

In a court filing this week, Arapahoe County prosecutors said the conspiracy theorists have been such a problem that releasing more victims’ names publicly could hurt the prosecution of James E. Holmes in the killings.

“Since the time this case was filed, unforeseen events continue to adversely affect the daily lives of the victims and witnesses in this case,” the filing stated, which opposes a move to unseal more court records.

These events, prosecutors said, “include relentless contacts by proponents of purported ‘conspiracies’ who have contacted the victims in this case, some of whom have even gone so far as to recruit other members of the public to contact the victims and to publicly post maps with the home addresses and phone numbers of the victims on various social media sites.”

Prosecutors also hinted that “harassers had impersonated victims and witnesses in this case.”

Several high-profile shootings over the last two years have focused mainstream political discussion on the basics of prevention: limiting access to guns, or improving mental health care. The Aurora shooting, during a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” on July 20, left 12 people dead and about 70 wounded.

But beyond Capitol Hill, and outside of the conventional airwaves, a murmur of paranoid skepticism has accompanied these attacks and occasionally bubbled into public view: So-called Sandy Hook truthers contend the Newtown, Conn., massacre at an elementary school was staged as part of a government-media conspiracy to galvanize support for gun control.

Some theories, tinged with anti-Semitism, suggest actors playing the role of victims made up their interviews about the killings. Newtown resident Gene Rosen, who helped six students after they escaped the violence, said he had faced phone calls and emails accusing him of being a phony.

The popular theories behind the Aurora massacre involve speculation that Holmes had received funding for the attack from outside sources, or that he had been drugged and left outside the theater while other shooters did the killing.

“We are convinced at this point that this was a staged provocateur operation,” news director Rob Dew said on a recent late-night radio talk show. “Either the guy is a mind-control subject or he was working with other people.”

“The planning is rather simple and direct,” one writer speculated in August. “The actual killer(s) will enter the theater, while Holmes, who is drugged into a stupor and is sitting in his car, waits in the parking lot of the theater, among weapons and other gear that matches the killers’.”

Preliminary hearings in Holmes’ case last month revealed a wealth of new details and accounts, including surveillance video of Holmes entering the theater complex just past midnight. Witnesses testified to seeing only one shooter. Police said they had found Holmes standing next to his car in the parking lot.

Speculation surrounding high-profile attacks regularly outpaces investigators’ and the court system’s ability to present evidence in a public trial. Many mainstream news organizations have struggled over whether to give coverage to such conspiracy claims, while some, such as BuzzFeed, have pointed out that some burgeoning Web traffic numbers suggest conspiracy thinking isn’t as fringy as those close to the shootings would think.

In the Arapahoe County filing, prosecutors acknowledged the tensions between the public’s right to know and protecting witnesses, and argued for redacting their names before the trial. They said witnesses “have expressed concerns for their privacy and personal safety” and have asked for their names to be kept under seal.

The city of Aurora has asked a judge to lift a gag order on the case, and some news agencies have requested the disclosure of certain court documents in the case.