#minorsextrafficking | When an Online Conspiracy Theory Turns Deadly – The Journal.


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Chris Hallett: Okay, what’s going on, everybody. Sure you remember this from the Friday night show.

Kate Linebaugh: This is Chris Hallett, a man from Florida with a Facebook group and a YouTube channel.

Chris Hallett: Which is when I discovered that the actual…

Kate Linebaugh: What is Chris Hallett like?

Speaker 3: He’s a stocky, middle-aged man. He’s kind of a round head, with short gray hair and a gray goatee, sitting there, often in a tie, but he’s not in a tie, in his home office.

Kate Linebaugh: Hallett’s home office is pretty standard. In these videos, he sits at a desk. Behind him, framed certificates line the wall. And it kind of looks like a typical lawyer’s office. Actually, a lot of what Chris Hallett does in these videos, looks like what a lawyer does.

Chris Hallett: We have to differentiate, what’s the difference between civil versus criminal?

Kate Linebaugh: Chris Hallett spends hours talking about the legal system, especially around child custody law.

Chris Hallett: For example, section eight of the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act contains…

Kate Linebaugh: And over time, he turned these online lectures into a business. One that earned him good money. But Chris Hallett is not a lawyer. He has no formal legal training, and the legal theory he’s espousing in his videos, is a conspiracy theory. One partially based on anti-government views that the FBI has labeled as extremist.

Chris Hallett: Is the emoluments of family court lawful? And the answer is no, right?

Kate Linebaugh: Over time, Chris Hallett built an entire community around his theory, with an audience of thousands of people, some who are steeped in other conspiracy theories, like QAnon. And eventually, those online conspiracy theories jumped off the internet and led to violence in the real world.
Welcome to The Journal, our show about money, business, and power. I’m Kate Linebaugh. It’s Monday, July 12th. Coming up on the show, the story of Chris Hallett, and how online conspiracy theories sometimes turn deadly.
In recent years, we’ve seen examples where conspiracy theories that started online spill over into the real world, sometimes ending in violence. Like in 2016 in Washington, DC.

Speaker 8: When a man opened fire on a DC pizzeria, because he believed Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring inside.

Kate Linebaugh: Or the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, that left 11 people dead.

Speaker 7: The shooter was inspired by racist and antisemitic conspiracy theories on the white supremacist social media site, Gab.

Kate Linebaugh: Or a recent example, from January.

Speaker 6: Rioters breaking past the Capitol building’s barriers, chanting “Stop the steal”, interrupting the Electoral College certification of President Elect Joe Biden.

Speaker 5: Five people were killed and nearly 140 law enforcement officers were injured during, and as a result of, the riot.

Kate Linebaugh: Today’s story about online conspiracies spilling over into the real world started years ago. It centers around Chris Hallett, and involves family courts and a follower who Hallett tried to help. Here’s our colleague, Justin Scheck, who spent months reporting on Chris Hallett, talking to friends and family to understand Hallett’s backstory.

Just Scheck: He had a difficult childhood, as many people do. He had a lot of instability. He was raised partially by his mother, partially by his grandparents. He ended up training himself to become a car mechanic, and worked in auto parts stores. But he always felt like there was more that he should be accomplishing, more that he should be doing. When he was 19 years old, he met a 17 year old woman at a roller rink where they used to hang out.

Kate Linebaugh: Chris Hallett married that woman. They had a child together, but the marriage didn’t work out. They split up, and Hallett moved away. But eventually, Hallett decided he wanted custody of his son. And that’s when he first started to interact with child custody law, something that would take hold of his life in the coming years.
Hallett spent years trying to get his son back. At one point, he took him without permission, and returned him only after law enforcement came. He got married again, had two more kids, got divorced again, and spent more years fighting over custody and child support. And when he went to court, he lost. Over and over.

Just Scheck: He became convinced the system was rigged against him, and his life became defined by these obstacles that he viewed; his lack of education, lack of financial opportunity, and a court system that never gave him what he wanted, and that became the way he defined himself. His entire life revolved around his victimhood, from what his family and friends told me. And he felt that his lawyers were in cahoots with the court and his ex wife’s lawyers to make him lose, to keep taking his money, and continually make him the victim.

Kate Linebaugh: So Hallett set out to try to understand why he was losing his child custody cases. And according to people close to him, he ended up down a rabbit hole.

Just Scheck: He started studying what he thought were the foundational documents of American democracy and jurisprudence, The Constitution, but also some obscure British legal manuals, things that have very little, if any, relationship to the way things are done in the court system, and decided that the way things were being done was deeply corrupted of the way things should be. And he decided that if more people knew this, they would start winning. And so he just started making videos about this.

Chris Hallett: Never done this from this thing before. So, just bear with me a little bit. You know anybody who you think might benefit from this, by all means, invite them, share whatever.

Just Scheck: And he started doing this, and offering legal help to other people who were in a similar situation.

Kate Linebaugh: And what is he mainly talking about in these videos?

Just Scheck: He’s really talking about his legal theories, his supposed proofs for how the court system, and the government in general, has been corrupted from what the constitution laid out.

Chris Hallett: The reason that you’re hearing this information goes back to the original Continental Congress.

Just Scheck: And behind him is often a whiteboard on which she draws these diagrams that he says layout his theory for what’s gone wrong with U.S. court system. And it’s a combination of what look like calculus equations, and then he would claim that these flowcharts that had these calculus equations and various things, could show, diagrammatically, where a person’s legal case, such as his custody case, had been mishandled by the courts. And his obsession was with The Emoluments Clause.

Chris Hallett: How the emoluments scam actually works.

Kate Linebaugh: The Emoluments Clause. This is the clause that governs how the President, members of Congress, and other office holders, can and cannot be paid. I’m going to try to explain Hallett’s theory, and it doesn’t make sense because it’s a conspiracy theory, but stick with me.
So, Chris Hallett developed this theory that lawyers were in violation of The Emoluments Clause, because when lawyers are admitted to the bar, they get a new title, Esquire, which he said is a title equivalent to royalty. And because lawyers have this title of royalty, they can’t be U.S. citizens. And thus, according to Hallett, can’t represent anyone in court. Hallett’s theory shares ideas with a larger movement, one typically called the Sovereign Citizens Movement. None of it is true, but of course that didn’t stop people from watching Hallett’s videos on Facebook.
What drew people to his videos?

Just Scheck: Most of them had some custody issue with the kid. Some of them believed that there was some widespread plan by the government take children, oftentimes stemming from a custody issue they had.

Kate Linebaugh: That was what drew in the next important character in today’s story, a woman named Neely Petrie-Blanchard.

Georgia Wells: So Neely lost custody of her daughter, and that’s when her troubles began. Because she became obsessed with trying to find ways to get that daughter back.

Kate Linebaugh: That’s our colleague, Georgia Wells. She says Neely, like Chris Hallett, thought the legal system wasn’t being fair to her. Georgia spoke to one of Neely’s best friends about Neely at that time.

Speaker 10: That was definitely a pivotal moment. My sister and I talked about that. And I remember around that time, my sister’s was like, “What’s up with Neely’s Facebook posts? They’re so weird.”

Georgia Wells: How was it weird?

Speaker 10: They became more political, you know what I’m saying? She was really into Trump, which isn’t that unusual, a lot of people voted for him. But just like child trafficking stuff. She came to visit me and she kept talking all this weird stuff, all these satanic rituals, and Nancy Pelosi has political connections with religious figures, and religious sex.
And I was like, what on earth is she talking about? She met my next door neighbor at the time, and he was like, everything she said- Because I was so embarrassed that she was even mentioning this mumbo-jumbo, and my neighbor was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know.” I thought it was some weird delusions or something, but then my neighbor agreed to all of it. So I was like, “Oh, I guess it’s a conspiracy theory thing or something.”

Kate Linebaugh: It was a conspiracy theory. The conspiracy theory called QAnon. QAnon is pretty well known by now. The conspiracy incorrectly alleges, essentially, that the world is run by a cabal of Satan worshiping pedophiles. These people control a deep state government and steal children for a child sex ring. It’s a conspiracy theory that’s taken hold and seeped into different parts of American culture and politics. To Neely, The theory behind QAnon gave her a worldview to hold onto.

Georgia Wells: You can see how this QAnon theory that people’s children are taking away would resonate with a woman whose daughter was taken away, and was trying to do everything she can to get her daughter back.
Neely’s mother also says that these theories were attractive to Neely because Neely was ashamed that she had lost custody of her daughter, that whenever she mentioned to someone that she lost custody of her daughter, their first reaction would be like, “What the heck is wrong with you?” And so, Neely was looking at these theories that explained why it wasn’t your fault, it was the system’s fault. Then when QAnon comes along, and QAnon is talking about how like, “It’s not just you. This is a part of this vast system that’s taking people’s children away,” it clicked for Neely.
And then Neely starts spending up to 15 hours a day online, at times wearing this t-shirt that had the letter Q on it.

Kate Linebaugh: While spending all that time online, scouring Facebook for anything that could help her get her daughter back, in 2017, Neely came across another Facebook account with some videos that interested her. Chris Hallett’s.

Georgia Wells: She sees Chris Hallett posting, and she has heard that Chris Hallett has been fighting his own child custody cases. So then Chris connects with her.

Kate Linebaugh: What appealed to Neely about these videos that Chris made?

Georgia Wells: For Neely, they were explaining a system to her that she always believed was corrupt and working against her. And Chris suddenly said he had proof that there was a conspiracy that took her child away. And he said that his legal theories also said he could help her get this daughter back. And that’s what she wanted more than anything.

Kate Linebaugh: At the time Neely found Chris Hallett on Facebook, he had turned his Facebook account and all those videos into a business, which he named E-Clause, for The Emoluments Clause. He started getting money for his videos, and for his advice. Here’s Justin.

Just Scheck: Once he had several thousand followers, he started a Patreon account. And he convinces people that if they pay money to him, at a certain level, you would get a mug that had one of the slogans on it, or you could get a t-shirt.

Chris Hallett: This is one of the things that I think you guys are going to really enjoy about the Patreon, is…

Just Scheck: And they can get access to what he would call graduate level courses, lessons, he would give them video, and they could obtain more knowledge and better knowledge to work on their own court cases. He wasn’t making huge amounts of money, but this is a guy who, he didn’t have a mortgage to pay, he had no expenses. He lived with his mother in his duplex. It was paid off. So he was getting like $1,500 a month from Patreon, and that was enough to pay all his bills, and he didn’t have to work in the auto parts store anymore, and it became a way to live a pretty laid back life where he could record videos for a few hours a day, five or six days a week, and then just hang out.

Kate Linebaugh: And as people paid Chris for the so-called legal education, he promised he would help them win their cases. The problem was he didn’t have much success.

Just Scheck: The typical pattern was that the judge would want an argument based on the facts and based on the law, and Chris would prepare documents for someone that oftentimes was, in the words of the client, “I’m a victim of an unfair system. The system is unfair because of all of this stuff involving The Emoluments Clauses, and a bunch of 19th century British legal procedure manuals, and I demand lots and lots of money from the government.” And then the client would lose. And then Chris would further, he’d say, “This is because the system is rigged against you.” It was never his fault. So that was the trajectory these cases oft followed.

Kate Linebaugh: But most of Chris Hallett’s followers didn’t realize that he wasn’t winning any cases. And in 2018, Hallett agreed to take on another case, Neely Petrie-Blanchard’s case.

Georgia Wells: Chris would spend hours every week working on her custody cases, or telling her that he was working on her custody cases. And in exchange, at least once, she paid him. I don’t know how much. But then he would say like, “You know what? I’ve done so much work on your case. It’s been really, really expensive. Jeez.” And then she would say, “Well, what can I do to help?” And so then he was like, “Well, you could be the social media manager for my group.”
So then she becomes further entwined in his group when she starts running the recruiting on Facebook, and messaging other people who are interested in his cause and doing a lot of the legwork behind getting this Facebook group to get more and more followers.

Kate Linebaugh: When Neely started managing the Facebook account, more than 50 people a day were messaging E-Clause asking for help with their cases. Neely became invested in the group. She even got a license plate with the business name, E-Clause.

Georgia Wells: She also was very active on these Zoom calls that Chris did with all of his followers. And so Chris would refer to her as evidence of his own authority, because he was working on her case, and he needed more of these people who he was working on their cases so that more and more people would want to come to him for help. He was even charging people to give them legal advice, but he needed to point to cases that he was working on, and he claimed successes on, in order to convince people that he had the authority to help them. And Neely was providing this for him.

Chris Hallett: It’s when I met Neely and oh, here, she drove all the way down here. It was almost a month that she was here and we almost every day worked on that 801 pages.

Georgia Wells: Chris in one of the videos said that they had a father/daughter dynamic.

Chris Hallett: I took her under my wing as it were, because there’s more of a kindred spirit there than just the relationship that Neely and I have developed. I always say it’s more of a father/daughter thing, really.

Kate Linebaugh: In these videos, she’s turning to him for advice. He’s very avuncular, very comforting. He says he’s taking care of everything.

Chris Hallett: I’ve already handled this case.

Neely Petrie-Blanchard: Right. Well, they know they’re depriving my liberty interests. They just…

Georgia Wells: And there’s even a photo of the first time they met where you can stare at them, and they’re both smiling, and they’re standing next to each other.

Kate Linebaugh: But their partnership wouldn’t end well for either of them. Months later, one of them would be dead, and the other in jail for murder. That’s after the break.
As Chris Hallett and Neely’s partnership grew, Hallett’s online community was doing well. But the undercurrent among its members was becoming more and more conspiracy minded. Some of his followers said the earth is flat, others in comments and on video calls said that pedophiles in the Pentagon steal children.

Georgia Wells: And did he believe in these conspiracy theories, and specifically the QAnon one?

Just Scheck: From what we can tell? No, not at all. What he told people close to him is he didn’t believe in them at all. And even in some of the videos when people would start going on about the more outlandish things, he would say, “Oh, show me some proof. I don’t believe that,” but he would allow them to keep talking about it. So it seems like he was someone who benefited a lot from other people’s belief in QAnon and similar theories, because it helped him attract an audience. Some of whom paid for his videos and paid for services. But he didn’t believe in it, from what we know. From what we could tell you, he didn’t believe in it at all.
It’s significant that there are people who foster the spread of the theories, who may not believe in them, or for whom belief in the theory is not the main thing. So they can make some money or gain some power.

Kate Linebaugh: Meanwhile, while working with Hallett, Neely was having more custody troubles. She’d already been fighting a custody battle for her eldest daughter, and she had two other children. Seven-year-old twins who were in her mother’s custody. According to a lawyer for Neely, Chris Hallett recommended that nearly kidnapped her twins. And in March 2020, Neely did. She was eventually arrested, bailed out, and the twins were returned to her mother’s care. That event made Neely’s custody cases for her eldest daughter and her twins more complicated. And according to Neely, Chris Hallett started making bigger promises to her. Here’s Georgia.

Georgia Wells: The more time passed from when Chris said he could get her daughter back to her, the more outlandish his promises became. So in the beginning, he said, “I’m going to get your daughter back to you.” Then his promise became, “Your custody cases on President Trump’s desk. President Trump is aware of this and he’s working on it.” Then he told her that, “Any day now a U.S. Marshall is going to deliver your daughter back to you.”

Kate Linebaugh: But Neely was starting to doubt Chris Hallett. And since he wasn’t winning any of the other cases like he promised, others in the E-Clause community started to doubt him too.
And soon, there was a new conspiracy theory spreading. This time, about Chris Hallett. The theory was that Chris Hallett wasn’t trying to take on allegedly corrupt systems that were keeping people’s kids from them, like child protective services. He was working for them. And according to someone close to her, Neely came to believe this theory. Still, Neely continued to work on her case with Chris.

Just Scheck: In the fall, she made a plan to go down to visit Chris in Florida, stay down there for a little bit, and work on her various cases. They spent a few days together working on these legal filings, and Neely seemed to be in it. She was deep in participation with Chris acting as her advisor on trying to figure out her various legal cases.
And one night when they were working, Neely said she wants a coffee. They’d been staying up late, getting up early, working on this. And Chris went into the kitchen to make some coffee. And as you reached up to the cabinet, Neely went in and said, “You’re part of the problem. You’re trying to keep my kids from me,” and then shot him and killed him.

Kate Linebaugh: Chris Hallett was killed in his kitchen in November 2020. His girlfriend and her daughter were home at the time. They gave statements to the police about the killing. Neely fled the scene. She was later arrested. She’s currently in jail in Florida, and Georgia called her there.

Georgia Wells: Hi, Neely.

Neely Petrie-Blanchard: How are you doing good?

Georgia Wells: I’m good, how are you?

Neely Petrie-Blanchard: I’m doing all right.

Kate Linebaugh: Georgia was able to talk to Neely and jail a couple of times. She recorded some of their calls via speakerphone, so everything sounds a little muffled. But Neely didn’t want to talk about how Chris Hallett died. She did say that she thought Hallett was after money.

Georgia Wells: Did he ever say anything about what his aspirations or his dreams were, with E-Clause?

Neely Petrie-Blanchard: He had said at one point that he was going to be on a private jet, and he was going to have to deal with paparazzi, and when all this came out that he was basically going to be very well-known.

Georgia Wells: So he was seeking money and fame, it sounds like?

Neely Petrie-Blanchard: He said, “I have to do this right.” He said there is no not doing this right, it had to be perfect, it could not be messed up.

Kate Linebaugh: Neely said she’s continuing to research the law and her legal options.

Neely Petrie-Blanchard: I was just actually at the law library and I keep on finding stuff that is relevant to everything going on, so I’m really excited.

Kate Linebaugh: Neely is currently awaiting trial on a charge of first degree murder. Neely’s lawyer doesn’t deny that nearly shot Chris Hallett, and intends to mount a temporary insanity defense.

Georgia Wells: How much does the fact that Chris is making a business out of it, how does those kinds of economics incentivize the continuation of the spreading of these conspiracy theories?

Just Scheck: There are all these people who have some incentive to promote these things, is a big part of what’s happening. So look, Alex Jones, the radio host, said in court filings that he’s not news. It’s just entertainment. If Chris doesn’t have something to gain, if he doesn’t have money and an audience and some satisfaction to gain from it, especially money, then maybe this community doesn’t come together. Maybe Chris is still alive. Maybe there’s not a forum for people who are already so distraught over losing their children to explain the reasons for their distress as being this vast conspiracy that needs to be attacked. So, I think it’s a huge problem that mechanisms are in place for people who may not believe the conspiracy theories to benefit from them.

Kate Linebaugh: There’s just something so sad about it all.

Just Scheck: Yeah, it’s heartbreaking because they’re all people who just want their children. They just want to be with their children. But when you go back and review how it played out, you can see how it happened, where Neely was obviously conspiracy minded, just this deep QAnon believer. As Chris’s life had been, her life had been consumed for a decade at that point with trying to get back the children of whom she lost custody.
She was in this, I think, intense bubble of obsession. What this story, I think, helped me understand a little bit was how on an individual level these things can happen, and how it’s not as simple as crazy people all get together on the internet and do crazy things. Most of these people are searching for something.
They’re searching for an explanation for what they think went wrong. Sometimes they’re searching for money. Sometimes they’re searching for an audience. I think Chris, as much as money, Chris wants some respect. He felt that he was somebody who was smart and should be respected, and said he’d been treated poorly, he felt, his whole life. And here you had all these people are coming to him, asking him for his expertise. And so, I think this combination of people who were aggrieved and sources on the internet who tell them what they want, and people who stand to benefit from spreading these theories, creates this really volatile mess that can turn into violence in the real world.

Kate Linebaugh: That’s all for today, Monday, July 12th. The Journal is a co-production of Gimlet and The Wall Street Journal. If you like our show, follow us on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. We’re out every weekday afternoon. Thanks for listening, see you tomorrow.



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