Conspiracy theorists were arrested at the site of the Sutherland Springs church shooting after harassing families and survivors with death threats and taunts about their loved ones, residents said.
Robert Ussery, 54, was charged on Monday with making a “terroristic threat” after he showed up to the First Baptist church in Texas and and allegedly threatened to “hang” the pastor, whose 14-year-old daughter died when agunman killed 26 people in November. Ussery shouted profanities at the pastor, Frank Pomeroy, and demanded proof that his daughter had died and that the shooting was real, according to witnesses. Jodie Mann, a woman who accompanied Ussery, was also arrested for trespassing.
The case appears to be the latest example of viral online conspiracy theories leading to real-world harassment and abuse of gun violence victims and grieving families in the US. In recent years, conspiracy theorists have repeatedly spread false claims that mass shootings were staged and have attacked survivors as “actors” – a form of harassment that has intensified in the wake of the recent Florida high school shooting.
“He [Ussery] taunts people on the internet and in person,” Sherri Pomeroy, the pastor’s wife, told the Guardian on Tuesday. “He says, ‘Produce me a death certificate,’ like we have to prove something to him. He was spouting all this hatefulness.”
The small town of Sutherland Springs, which has a population of just a few hundred, was thrust into the national spotlight last year when a gunman killed 26 worshippers in one of the deadliest mass shootings in modern US history. In recent months, Ussery – who is from Lockhart, Texas, an hour north of the church – has repeatedly targeted Sutherland Springs residents with harassing comments, in town and online, according to Sherri Pomeroy and other locals.
“We’ve been on heightened alert,” Pomeroy said. “Lives have been turned upside down not only because of the shooting, but because of this guy.”
Ussery and Mann arrived at the church on Monday morning, refused to leave, were “belligerent” andswore at the officers who arrested them for trespassing, according to police reports. Mann also had a “wire and a small video camera on her” when she was arrested, police said. Prosecutors alleged that Ussery had committed a “terroristic threat”, a misdemeanor, after he threatened to kill Pastor Pomeroy and Rod Green, another victim who was present.
Green, 71, said: “He had been warned to get off the property.” Green, who called Ussery a “sick individual” and a “fool”, said he called 911 and “just tried to ignore” Ussery, who he said was yelling about birth certificates and demanding they take lie-detector tests to prove the shooting was real.
Green is a member of the church who was not inside the building when the gunman opened fire in November. He added: “We’ve been through enough. This is evil.”
Ussery told the pastor that he would hang him on a tree and urinate on him, according to Sherri, who was not present for the confrontation.
The San Antonio Express-News, which first reported on the arrests, says Ussery runs a conspiracy theory website where he calls himself a “journalist” and promotes his “investigations” by falsely claiming that the government staged recent mass shootings. Mann also allegedly works with Ussery and spreads the conspiracy theories online.
After publication of this article, Ussery said in an email that he and Mann were “100% innocent of all charges”, except for a marijuana possession charge. He further claimed that there were “never any specific threats made by us”, but at the same time noted that they had said they “hoped one day to see the people hang those involved for their treason against the American people”.
Sherri said Ussery had filmed himself harassing people and has published highly edited videos that don’t include his taunts. She said he had often tried to push the boundaries without breaking the law, making it difficult to stop him: “He is yelling and cussing, saying he knew his constitutional rights and could do what he wanted to.”
The situation has made it difficult at times for Sherri to feel safe in her own town, she said, adding: “This is making our town rally together. … Even the people that aren’t part of the church are rallying together to protect the church.”
The church is working on getting a restraining order following the arrest, she said.
The situation resembles the attacks after the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting, including conspiracy theorists sending death threats to parents whose children died. Last year, one woman who harassed an outspoken father was sentenced to five months in prison.
In 2016, a gunman motivated by a fake news story known as “Pizzagate” ended up firing his weapon inside a restaurant because of conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton and the pizza shop. Google, Facebook and YouTube have alsofaced intense scrutiny in recent years for providing a platform and helping spreadthese kinds of beliefs, which can lead to online abuse and even real-world violence.
“People are frightened,” said Green, adding that he hoped the conspiracy theories and harassment would not have a long-term impact on the town: “We’re recovering very strong.””