As Alex Jones rages against CT trial, mom describes how one son lived — and one died — at Sandy Hook

WATERBURY — As Infowars broadcaster Alex Jones stood outside the courthouse Tuesday morning to complain that he was being treated unfairly by the press and the judge, Francine Wheeler, mother of Ben Wheeler, who was killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, told a jury of six how her older son Nate survived. 

"Nate was hiding in a box of T-shirts in a supply closet in the gym, listening to the murders," Wheeler said. "He heard everything," she said of her then 9-year-old son before pausing. "It was there," she said. "If the shooter had turned right instead of left he would probably be gone." 

After three emotional weeks of testimony from families who lost loved ones in the shooting, it's unclear whether Jones will testify again in the trial to determine how much he owes eight families and a federal agent he defamed. Judge Barbara Bellis already held him liable for defamation in a default judgement last year. 

Instead, Jones appeared briefly Tuesday morning in the Waterbury courthouse with two bodyguards, only to leave visibly disappointed, sharing with members of the press outside the courthouse that he believed the judge would place further restrictions on what he was able to testify to. Jones is already barred from testifying that he is innocent under the rules set by the judge, stemming from that default judgment in 2021. 

Jones appeared agitated and frustrated outside the courtroom, calling the trial “rigged” and a “kangaroo court.” He raged against the media, saying he’s been painted as a “bad guy” but still deserves a fair trial. His attorney Norm Pattis hours later told the judge in a sidebar that he didn't know if his client would testify in the trial. The plaintiffs expect to rest their case on Wednesday after another 20 minutes of evidence and testimony. 

As Jones spoke to reporters outside Tuesday morning,Wheeler took the stand to kick off the final week of the four-week trial. 

She revealed to jurors during an hour-long testimony that her family has installed a security system in their home and must continually "be vigilant" in what they post on social media so that Sandy Hook deniers don't affect the mission of Ben's Lighthouse, named after her slain son, to provide social emotional learning to children. 

"I know some of these Sandy Hooksters could hurt us," Wheeler said. "I have this little boy at home," referring to her son Matt, born two years after Ben died. Minutes before, she said her older son Nate, now in college, tries to hide his identity as much as possible, out of concerns for a confrontation with strangers. "He doesn't want people to know," Wheeler said. 

Jones did not enter the courtroom to hear her or the other family members testify. One father's testimony was halted briefly Tuesday afternoon after someone pulled a fire alarm at a parking garage near the courthouse. 

He was originally slated to resume testimony on Sept. 23. But his attorney Norm Pattis opted to delay having his client take the stand after Jones had a heated exchange with Attorney Chris Mattei, representing the families and an FBI agent William Aldenberg who sued on claims they were defamed by the Infowars host, who repeatedly told his viewers the shooting that killed six educators and 20 first-graders was a "hoax" staged by "crisis actors." They claim Jones' repeated defamation inspired his followers to harass them online and in person. 

A jury of six will decide how much Jones must pay in compensation and damages when testimony is complete. Bellis ruled last year that Jones defamed the plaintiffs by default when he refused to comply with court orders regarding evidence. A Texas jury in a similar trial in that state awarded the parents of Jessie Lewis, also killed in the shooting, $49 million in compensation and damages

Threats and confrontations 

Wheeler spoke of encounters, online and in person, that her family has had since the shooting. In one case, she attended a conference for mothers who had lost children to gun violence. It was an opportunity for women who understood the pain of losing a child to gather and find ways to move forward, she said. 

But on day two of the conference, she was confronted with the lies that Jones' broadcasts had evoked, she said. She was in an elevator with a woman who was sobbing, she recalled. The woman had just lost her 19-year-old son three weeks before, during a robbery, she told Wheeler who was trying to comfort the woman. The lady then noticed her necklace which included a remembrance of Ben and asked about it, Wheeler said. 

"That's my son Ben," Wheeler told the woman. "He died in his first grade class."

"You're lying," the woman said. "That didn't happen." 

Jackie Barden, who lost her son Daniel in the shooting, said she and her husband Mark received letters at their home from people threatening to dig up the 7-year-old's grave to prove he wasn't buried there. Another letter said they had urinated on Daniel's grave because they didn't think he was buried there, she said. 

Barden had heard that Robbie Parker, a father who testified last week, had been attacked and accused of being actor, she said. "I remember thinking, how could that be?" she said. But in the years since, she said Sandy Hook deniers have affected the entire family including her husband Mark who was the last plaintiff to testify Tuesday afternoon. 

Their 20-year-old daughter Natalie fears coming home from college, her mother told the jury. "In college nobody knows my name," her daughter told her. "When I'm home I feel like a target." 

"It's terrible to think that you're 20-year-old daughter is so afraid," Barden said. 

The family was still spinning from losing Daniel who his parents described as a compassionate young man with concern for others when they became aware that people were calling his murder a hoax, Mark Barden told the jury. 

"During this time there was horror beyond anything we could have ever imagined," he said. "Trying to deal with the fact that our little boy had just been shot to death in his first-grade classroom and how to literally manage one minute to the next, literally manage one minute to the next and still be parents to James and Natalie and still be strong for them." 

Attorneys for the family showed roughly two dozen comments on social media over the span of years up to a few weeks ago harassing the Bardens and claiming they were actors who were paid to pretend their child had died. 

In the hours before the shooting, Daniel woke up early and went chasing after Mark and James who had gone to the middle school bus stop, his father said. He wanted to give James a hug and tell him he loved him, Mark Barden said. Instead of going back to bed, Daniel stayed up to snuggle with him while looking at the lit up Christmas tree and the sunrise, his father said. He had to walk Natalie to the bus stop and do the same thing — give his sister a hug and a kiss, Mark Barden said. 

As they were waiting to head to the bus stop, Daniel asked his father to teach him to play a song on the piano. It was "Jingle Bells" and he played it perfectly, Mark Barden said. 

"I know I hugged him and kissed him," when he got on the bus, Mark Barden said. "I had no way of knowing it would be the last time." 

Staff writers Jessie Leavenworth and Rob Ryser contributed to this story.