This column was submitted to several national news and opinion websites for consideration, and can be republished with permission.
Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones repeatedly referred to the 2014 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting as a hoax purported by the U.S. government as part of an effort to impose stricter gun control laws. There’s no evidence to his claims. Jones also promoted a conspiracy theory claim that Hillary Clinton’s former campaign manager John Podesta sent coded messages pertaining to human trafficking and a child-sex ring that allegedly took place at a restaurant in Washington D.C. This unsubstantiated conspiracy theory claim motivated a man to show up at the restaurant with a semi-automatic rifle; he fired one shot. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
Despite repeatedly being debunked and successfully sued for defamation, Jones boasts a strong following with his radio show and his website InfoWars.com. One of his followers just so happens to be our commander-in-chief.
In my community of San Luis Obispo County, California, Karen Velie is our local version of Jones.
Velie is a self-described “investigative journalist” and conspiracy theorist that co-founded CalCoastNews.com, a website known for publishing unsubstantiated and often defamatory claims about community members. After facing years of criticism for her work, Velie was sued for defamation by a local businessman. In March, a unanimous jury awarded the businessman $1.1 million in damages. The guilty verdict made national headlines. Despite purging the defamatory article from her website, Velie maintains her reporting on the businessman is accurate. In fact, she claims, the lawsuit against her is part of a conspiracy hatched by local officials and critics to shut down her website. There’s no evidence substantiating her claim.
Her conspiracy theory evolved over the course of several years. In 2013, Velie was arrested and later convicted for driving under the influence of alcohol. Using her website as a bully pulpit, Velie claimed that her arrest was orchestrated by local officials she previously reported on. She offered no evidence to back that theory. Later that year, Velie accused the same officials and Social Services of “kidnapping” her grandchildren and placing them into protective custody — again, allegedly as part of a conspiracy to undermine her work. Again, no evidence.
Interestingly, her conspiracy theories was covered on Jones’ InfoWars by an anonymous correspondent who attended her criminal trial.
When she’s not playing the victim and blaming public officials for her indiscretions, Velie has made false allegations about private citizens. In 2014, Velie claimed a young girl committed suicide as a result of bullying; her grieving family rigorously disputed the allegation and demanded corrections. She refused. In 2015, Velie claimed a deceased man’s hand was chewed off by a mountain lion. Local officials and the decedent’s grieving relatives disputed her claim and criticized her for turning his death into a grizzly, gory spectacle; that article remains online, uncorrected. Later in 2015, Velie claimed a young man, who was murdered, was shot in self-defense by his killer. She cited “unnamed sources” to back her claim, which was disputed by the victim’s relatives and the police department. Again, corrections were sought, but she refused to publish them.
I’m one of a few who criticized her reporting and turned that criticism into a beat. That didn’t sit well with Velie, who contacted and threatened my former employer, who had no involvement in my independent reporting pursuits other than granting me permission to occasionally share links to my articles on social media. My employer informed me that Velie threatened my family and was going to sue them because “they had money.” I can vividly remember hearing Velie crying and screaming at my employer, while accusing me of hurting her business and losing advertisers. Since then, Velie and her website have accused me of the following (a partial list): forging documents in Photoshop, impersonating a reporter (Velie), being possibly involved in the mutilating of her pets, claiming I’m spreading “rumors” of trying to take over her website; serving as a “business associate” of a county supervisor and being paid by him to criticize her; and being part of the conspiracy to shut her website down.
As a result of her “reporting,” I’ve received death threats from her supporters.
Velie has contacted and harassed some of my readers for simply “liking” my Facebook posts. In May this year, Velie appeared as a guest on a local radio show and accused some readers and I for calling her and her daughters “whores” and other misogynistic slurs. Her appearance resulted in the radio station permanently banning Velie and CalCoastNews staffers from making future appearances.
Velie has worked closely with other conspiracy theorists, including local self-proclaimed “activist” Kevin P. Rice. Rice has a long and storied history of political stunts, including robocalls that tout baseless conspiracy theories about residents and local officials. These theories also made headlines at CalCoastNews with no attempt to verify anything he’s claimed. He’s written op-eds on the website, featuring claims that were later debunked. In one op-ed, Rice claimed a former congresswoman drunkenly told guests at a party that she wished old Republicans would “die off” so the Affordable Care Act could be passed. Oddly enough, that op-ed was taken down. In another op-ed, Rice claimed the The Tribune, the local newspaper of record, was colluding with a county supervisor in their reporting. Rice was rebuked by the paper’s executive editor Sandra Duerr, and offered no evidence to refute her. That op-ed remains online.
When Rice called me to complain about my reporting, I asked him, “Why do you do these things?” He answered, “It’s what I do,” and that his actions were guided by manifest destiny. I found his comments unsettling. His deadpan, robotic and callous tone reminded me of Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza’s 2011 radio interview. Rice was unapologetic about his actions, which he first said I falsely reported about but he later confirmed, in the same call, that I was accurate. Later when a critical post about him appeared on my Facebook, Rice left two frantic voicemails on my phone. For the first voicemail, he threatened me personally. For the second one, he threatened to “skin” my readers and anyone who “liked” any posts critical of him. It was chilling.
Fast forward to earlier this month. In a recent CalCoastNews op-ed, Rice claimed our county’s history center is improperly storing historical records while accepting hundreds of thousands in county funding. Rice readily boasted about contacting and harassing board members about his allegations, though he never offered evidence that they — in his words — “toss these old journals around, stacking them up like trash.” A member of the history center rebutted his still-unproven assertions.
According to history center board members (whose names I need to redact for obvious reasons), Rice engaged in “escalating communications” and threatened board members, but it wasn’t about their alleged mishandling of records. Rather, Rice objected to the center placing the rainbow pride flag on their outdoor banner poles. Rice once wrote that the flag was “a symbol of discrimination and racism because it excludes the majority.”
There are common threads between Alex Jones, Karen Velie and Kevin P. Rice: they’re mentally unfit, and many conservatives support them wholeheartedly, despite overwhelming evidence that they’re unfit and their content is unfit to print.
That’s not to say that all people suffering from mental health issues act as deplorably as they do, and my observations are not meant to stigmatize mental illness. Because of their issues, they have the innate inability to provide fair and accurate statements. In some instances, they’ve ventured beyond words and engaged in legally actionable criminal activity. Sadly, their behavior has caused pain and suffering for many of their victims. Curiously, Velie mentioned me in a lawsuit I’m not a party of and objected to my opining about her apparent mental issues. And Rice once trespassed on a critic’s property to hand-deliver a faux legal demand for retraction because the critic referred to Rice as a “sociopath.” Rice also put the critic’s Social Security Number on those documents.
In extreme cases like these, I think readers, especially medical professionals specializing in mental health, lobbying for them to undergo psychological evaluation and treatment. I believe the medical community and those in the psychology/psychiatry field should explain to people the ramifications of allowing these sick individuals to continue their deranged pursuits unchecked. I believe they should also explain the ramifications of these people being taken seriously. Clearly what they’ve written, said and done has incited others to act on their conspiracy theory thinking, whether it’s with violence or years of criminal harassment.
We can’t “shut them down,” but we can have a candid conversation on why they’re too unfit to be trusted.