One of the thorniest issues facing the team that I helped lead at Type Investigations and Reveal News as we compiled domestic-terrorism data from around the nation for our July report on “Domestic Terror in the Age of Trump” was the case of Stephen Paddock, who murdered 58 people and wounded another 851 on the night of October 1, 2017, at the Route 91 Harvest country-music festival in Las Vegas, Nevada.
It was the worst mass killing in American history ever committed by a lone gunman, and it shocked and terrorized not just Las Vegas but the nation. Yet when law-enforcement officials had sifted through the evidence months later, they concluded that they could not discern any motive for the shooting—political or otherwise—and closed the case. One of the clearest incidents of domestic terrorism in our history was somehow not considered such. There was something deeply amiss.
This was more than just an academic matter to me. My niece, a young mother in her late 20s, was in the crowd that night and narrowly escaped with her life. I was all too familiar with how deeply and permanently she had been traumatized by the experience, and in reporting on the event, I realized innately that she shared that same trauma with the 22,000 other people who had been there that night—not to mention the utterly shattering effect it had on both the wounded and the families and friends of the 58 people who had been murdered.
So when our team began examining the multiple cases of potential domestic terrorism that came under consideration for our database—some of which, naturally, we excluded upon determining they failed to meet our established criteria, based on the FBI definition of the term—we included the Las Vegas massacre. It was immediately clear that in several regards, particularly the intent to terrorize large numbers of people and whole communities, it met the criteria.
But a central component—a political motivation, or an intent to affect public policy or laws—appeared to be missing. At least, that had been the conclusion of the Las Vegas Metro Police Department in its final report issued 10 months after the event: “What we have not been able to definitively answer is why Stephen Paddock committed this act." The FBI’s conclusion, in January 2019, was similar: "There was no single or clear motivating factor" for the massacre, it said.
We began to question these conclusions under the guidance of a former Department of Homeland Security analyst named Daryl Johnson, one of the experts who had been advising our team in compiling this data. Johnson had combed through both the official and preliminary reports, as well as multiple press accounts related to the event, and had found the overwhelming weight of evidence led him to conclude that Paddock was in fact a right-wing extremist who had acted out of paranoid beliefs about the federal government and gun control. We also found that other leading experts on domestic terrorism had reached similar conclusions.
The evidence contained within the LVMPD’s preliminary report, particularly, already suggests this conclusion. Multiple people who knew Paddock attested to his paranoid gun fetish, his beliefs about federal gun-control laws, and his hatred of the federal government, making it clear that he was oriented politically to the far right. The chief problem in reaching a definitive conclusion about his motives arises from the fact that LVMPD appears not to have pursued the most damning piece of evidence it included: an anonymous chef who told investigators that Paddock had tried to purchase a kit from him to make his semiautomatic rifles fully automatic, but was refused after Paddock told him that “someone has to wake the American public up” and that “sometimes sacrifices have to be made.” There is no indication any attempt was made to follow up on this interview to either substantiate or debunk it.
“The Paddock case is odd in that if there were the same number of links to ISIS or Al Qaeda ideologies, there would be no question that the government would highlight them and call him an Islamist terrorist,” said Michael German of the Brennan Center, another expert on domestic terrorism we consulted for the Reveal News study, by email. “But here, law enforcement tried to hide and downplay his many links to far right groups/ideology.”
We did our best to correct the record in the report because it’s important for the public to realize that, indeed, the Las Vegas massacre was a right-wing domestic-terrorist attack, though we did take note within the story to explain that adding the Paddock had a pronounced skewing effect on our numbers, especially total fatalities by right-wing extremists. And for my recently released book Red Pill, Blue Pill: How to Counteract the Conspiracy Theories That Are Killing Us, I assembled the evidence so that readers could fully grasp the event themselves.
Following are the relevant excerpts from the book: First, from Chapter 2, details Paddock’s obsessions and behavior leading up to the massacre; then, from Chapter 3, a description of the massacre not just from Paddock’s but, more importantly, the victims’ point of view, relying primarily on my niece’s experiences—as well as a description of the conspiracist nightmare that followed, and which haunts them even to this day.
It’s lengthy, but we hope you’ll agree it’s well worth it.
[Chapter 2: The Red-Pilled]
Stephen Paddock didn’t have a lot of friends. Those who knew him, though, all agreed that he had a thing about guns and the Second Amendment and a deep fear that the government would attempt to take them away.
They just didn’t expect him to commit, on October 1, 2017, the worst mass shooting in American history.
Like most men of his generation—Paddock attended high school and college in California in the 1970s—Paddock was drawn into the world of conspiracy theories not through the Internet or social media, but from the alternative media ecosystem that emerged in the 1990s associated with the “Patriot” militia movement. These earlier conspiracists’ main media then was the radio, including a variety of guerrilla broadcasts on underground networks, as well as mailings and email exchanges as the chief forms of communication.
Guns were the essence of the militia movement—most of its participants had multiple weapons and considerable stockpiles of ammunition. They showed them off to each other, and gun shows, which attracted a significant contingent of paranoid and suspicious people, were often where the militias themselves organized. Timothy McVeigh, the Patriot militiaman who killed 168 people in Oklahoma City in April 1995 with a large truck bomb, made a living for years traveling to gun shows and selling wares there. He would hand out copies of the white-supremacist race-war tract, The Turner Diaries, to people who bought guns out of the back of his car from him.
It was this deep paranoia about the government confiscating their guns—set off by Bill Clinton’s ill-fated ban on assault weapons passed in 1994—that was the meat and potatoes of what Patriot militiamen talked about, organized around, and prepared for. This fear in turn launched the career of the greatest megastar of the conspiracy-theory universe, Alex Jones.
Many of the people who were radicalized by conspiracy theories in the 1990s never lost their conviction that there was a nefarious New World Order plot to enslave mankind. Among them was Stephen Paddock.
When Adam Le Fevre, an Australian man who was in a relationship with the sister of Paddock’s girlfriend, visited Paddock’s suburban Las Vegas home in 2013, he was given a tour of the place, including the gun room.
“Steve said ‘bedroom ... sitting room ... and gun room …’ Aah, gun room?” Le Fevre later told an interviewer.
The two of them got into a discussion about guns, and when Le Fevre expressed some skepticism about the need for Second Amendment protection of gun ownership, Paddock became emphatic.
“I raised that question with Steve and it’s something that he came back at me with an incredible degree of vigor,” Le Fevre recalled. “He was very strict and very firm on the fact that it’s a right. It’s the freedom of every American to participate, to own a gun and use it...when need be.”
What most of his friends didn’t know about Steve Paddock was that his father was one of the longest sought names on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, having escaped prison in Texas in 1969 and remaining uncaught until 1977. Though he had little contact with his father for most of his life (the old man died of a heart attack in 1998), they shared a set of personality traits: both men were described as highly intelligent, arrogant, and egotistical.
People who knew Paddock in high school said that he was “a real brain” and “extremely smart,” but also self-absorbed and narcissistic. After getting a degree in business administration at Cal-Northridge in 1977, he went to work as a postal carrier, then at the Internal Revenue Service, where he was an agent until 1984.
Family members later told reporters that part of his motivation for being a federal employee involved his desire to avoid paying taxes, which he loathed deeply: he “worked for the IRS in order to learn how to hide his income,” his brother said.
Multiple people, including a real estate broker with whom Paddock had dealings, described how he hated the government and hated paying taxes to it, even moving property ownership from California to Nevada in order to avoid them. This did not change over the years: Adam Le Fevre described to another correspondent how Paddock was “animated about the government and the tax system” and “outspoken about the inadequacies and waste of the government.”
Though his behavior is consistent with a follower, it’s unclear whether Paddock participated in the radical anti-tax movement of the 1970s and 1980s. This movement was affiliated with the conspiracist far right of the time, and many of its tenets and participants were foundational in establishing the Patriot militia movement of the ’90s. Although it’s likely he was exposed to the ideology, there is no evidence Paddock joined any of the anti-tax organizations of that period.
Telling people that he had figured out how to play gambling odds in a way that could sustain an income, Paddock quit work in 1984 and lived off his considerable real estate investments and gambling winnings. He began leading a more leisurely lifestyle, taking overseas cruise ship tours, settling into communities in Texas, California, and Florida before moving to the Las Vegas exurb of Mesquite in 2015.
Something went wrong with his finances in September 2015, according to Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, who told reporters later that Paddock—who was profiled by experts as a narcissist obsessed with being part of the Las Vegas elite—lost “a significant amount” of money in his investments that month.
He also began collecting guns and became increasingly paranoid about them. (Apparently he was also a fan of Donald Trump: “He was happy with Trump because the stock market was doing well,” Lombardo noted.) Between October 2016 and the same month a year later, he purchased fifty-five weapons, most of them rifles, to complement what was already an arsenal of twenty-nine guns. Paddock also had a girlfriend, but in mid-September 2017, he sent her to her home country of the Philippines on a family visit—a surprise trip he sprang on her. When she arrived, he wired her $100,000 to buy a home there.
At one point, he began scouting locations for what he had in mind. He visited several hotels overlooking popular music festivals, including what would have been the venue for the Lollapalooza rock music festival in Chicago. Back in Las Vegas, however, he had apparently taken up with a prostitute who later spoke on condition of anonymity. She told investigators she “would spend hours drinking and gambling in Las Vegas” with a “paranoid” and “obsessive” Paddock. “Mikaela,” as the twenty-seven-year-old escort named herself, said Paddock would “often rant about conspiracy theories including how 9/11 was orchestrated by the U.S. government.”
Late in September, another witness told police she saw a man resembling Stephen Paddock with another white male at a Vegas restaurant three days before the shooting. Both of them were ranting back and forth about the 1992 standoff at Ruby Ridge and the 1993 Waco siege, both important martyrdom dates for Patriot militiamen (McVeigh later told authorities the Oklahoma bombing was revenge for those two events).
These comport with a third unconfirmed witness’s tale. This man—a former chef who was in the county lockup on a petty crime charge at the time of the mass shooting—told police he and Paddock had met at a Bass Pro Shop in Las Vegas two weeks before. The man offered to sell Paddock the schematics for making an auto sear: the kind of specialized mechanism that converts a rifle from semiautomatic to automatic, turning an AR-15 into a machine gun capable of mowing down crowds.
The chef described how Paddock would carry on about “antigovernment stuff” that included FEMA camps and Hurricane Katrina. “He asked me if I remembered Katrina,” he said. “That was just a dry run for law enforcement and military to start kickin’ down doors and . . . confiscating guns,” the man quoted Paddock as saying.
If this account is accurate, it is probably not a coincidence that Paddock had been stocking guns throughout the year preceding October 1, 2017. The 2016 hurricane season had been the worst on record, and the 2017 season was anticipated to be even worse (as indeed it was).
“He was kind of fanatical about this stuff; I just figured he’s another Internet nut, you know, watching too much of it and believing too much of it,” said the man.
The deal fell apart, though, because Paddock wanted the man not just to sell him the plans, but to actually make the auto sears for him. He offered him $500. The man turned him down, saying: “I’m too old to spend the rest of my life in federal prison.” Paddock wasn’t interested in the schematics.
He did, however, try to explain his motivations to the chef: “Somebody has to wake up the American public and get them to arm themselves.
“Sometimes sacrifices have to be made.”
[Chapter 3: Sacrifices]
There are always those little “sacrifices” that “have to be made” when it comes to the conspiracist mindset of mass killers. Little people. Ordinary people. People you and I and everyone else knows, somewhere, who become their victims.
The killers don’t know these people. To them they are “sheeple,” hapless pawns in the vast conspiracy ruling the world. They might as well be conspirators themselves. Maybe some of them are.
Something like that was what Stephen Paddock, whose contempt for the “sheeple” was remarked by several people who knew him, was thinking the night of October 1, 2017, as he surveyed the crowd that gathered for the huge, weeklong country music festival taking place next to the Sunset Strip, right below the suite of rooms he had rented three days before in the Mandalay Bay hotel.
It was quite a view. In fact, he could take it in from two entirely different angles from the two adjoining rooms.
At first, Jenna thought someone had tossed out some firecrackers in the middle of the Jason Aldean performance. An obnoxious drunken guy who had been annoying the hell out of her suddenly dropped to the ground. She thought he had just passed out. He hadn’t.
Then there were more pops, and she could see people falling in front of her, one after another.
“I don’t know how long it was, but I didn’t put the two together,” she recalls now. “To me they were separate situations. Someone threw firecrackers, which was annoying, and then the drunken man fell. And no one was screaming. I would say people were kind of looking around, but Jason Aldean did not stop singing.
“And then there was the second part when he shot again, and many more people fell. You could see the crowd and they looked like little dominoes going down.
“That’s where Jason Aldean stopped singing.”
Jenna and her childhood friend Sammi [not their real names] were not first timers at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas that October 1. They had attended the same three-night event two years before. In between, Jenna had given birth to a little blond-haired baby girl, a bright-eyed chip off her mama’s block, who was now ten months old, and in the care of her grandmother back home in Tacoma, Washington.
Like Jenna, Sammi had graduated college and moved on to the working world, too. The week in Vegas had been a chance to taste their old lives again, maybe one last time. So Jenna left the baby, Camden, with her own mother, and flew off for an autumn music fling.
“Sam Hunt was who I really wanted to see, and then Eric Church,” she recalls. “So we had already seen them the previous nights. So Sunday night we were only there to see Jason Aldean.”
Before the show, they hit a couple of casinos. Sammi’s gambling luck changed everything and may have saved their lives. “We first went to the Luxor where there’s this fish game that she just loves,” Jenna recalls. It was just across Sunset Boulevard from the concert venue.
“She said she just wanted to put $10 in and then we can go over there, because every night we had gotten up right close to the stage—not that we could touch him, but maybe four rows back. And $10 turned into $100, and we were there for over an hour.
“So we showed up probably fifteen minutes before he started, and that’s why we ended up kind of farther back,” she says.
Now, people were falling in front of her, some not far away, and the popping sounds kept coming. “I just kind of looked at Sammi and I was like, that’s a fucking gun,” she remembers. “Someone’s shooting people. And it finally occurred to me what we heard thirty seconds prior was a gun, too, so this is someone shooting, twice now. And I knew it was not like a pistol. I knew that it was something automatic and big.
“People around us had hit the ground. At that point, everyone kind of went down. Some people just ducked. Other people had fallen or gotten hit.
“I just went down. Because that’s your human instinct, I guess, to get closer to the ground.”
Her lifelong friend then probably saved her life again: Sammi made her get up and flee. “She said, ‘We need to run.’ And I said, ‘I don’t think we should run.’ And she said, ‘We have to fucking run.’ And I was super scared. I didn’t want to run because at that point, it seemed like the shooter was among us, so I didn’t want to run into him. I couldn’t tell—which way is he coming from?
“People all over are falling, so I don’t know if he’s over by us. Someone got shot right by us. But then I could see people screaming on the other side of the stage, so I had no idea where the gunfire was coming from.
“So I said, ‘I don’t think we should run.’ And she said, ‘We will fucking die here.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’” Jenna got up and they took off away from the stage, toward the back of the venue.
“Basically the only reason I ran is that she started to. I was like, ‘Well, I don’t want to die alone, I guess.’”
Ironically, no longer did the two of them start running away were they separated. They had played soccer as teammates since grade school and into high school, and both were good athletes, though Jenna was known as the slower of the two. Running with the crowd away from the gunfire to the right and past the concessions, Jenna sprinted through the pack. “I just booked it a little bit faster I guess,” she says.
A woman who had been running alongside her suddenly took a shot through the neck in front of Jenna. She “whipped around and went down,” as though someone had cut the strings on a marionette.
“It was literally like it just went through and whipped her whole body around and she went down. And I was just thinking, ‘I just have to keep running, just have to keep running.’”
She ran outside the venue over a cyclone fence that had been toppled by panicked concertgoers as they fled. Out on the street, however, she instinctively took cover behind a five-foot-high transformer that shielded her momentarily.
She pulled out her cell phone and called her mother back in Tacoma, who promptly picked up.
“After I saw that girl fall, I was like, I’m probably not going to survive this,” she says. “I don’t even know where I’m running to. So I called her when I was definitely behind the transformer. And I said, ‘I need you to take care of Camden. I need you to let her know that I love her.’ And she was kind of confused: ‘Well, where is the shooter? Or, where’s Sammi? What’s going on?’
“And I said, “I can’t explain everything but I need you to know this. And I don’t think I’m going to ... I don’t know where to go. But I don’t know if I’ll make it.’ Because at that point I’d seen . . . I mean, there were just dead bodies everywhere, some of them just when I was running past—I don’t know if they were dead or just lying there.
“And so it was in mind—I still have a ways to run, to where I don’t know, or if I’m going to get hit here, but I need to at least get this out of the way. For me, I just had a real urgency—like any parent, I’m sure—there was a sense of urgency to tell my mom to take care of Camden. In hindsight, it’s like, of course she would have. But it was the most important thing, just to get confirmation that she will take care of her and that she’ll raise her to know that I loved her.
“And for me, once that was done, I was able to start thinking a little more clearly. OK, now let’s see if we can survive this.”
Across the street from the transformer was the local Hooters franchise, and she dashed over to it and inside. That’s when it hit her that Sammi was not with her and nowhere in sight. So she called her mother again, and told her she didn’t know where her friend was. But her mother calmly reassured her: “No, we’ve heard from Sammi.”
“Tell her to come to Hooters, it’s the closest place,” Jenna answered.
Jenna wandered through the first-floor casino at the restaurant, which was a vacant madhouse of toppled machines and tables. Finally, she found refuge in a walk-in cooler in the kitchen. What she did not know was that by this point she was herself drenched in blood from the head down, none of it her own.
“So I ran because they were holding the kitchen door open as an access door, and I ran in and they were kind of shuffling people into the freezer. And the woman next to me was holding a woman next to her who had a cut or had been shot. And that was kind of shooting blood, too.” A woman there asked Jenna where she had been hit; she answered, “I don’t think I’ve been hit.”
The scene was fraught with the lethal unknown and all the wild misinformation that accompanies it: Death had descended on all of them from some place they could not see and they had run, but none of them believed there was only one gunman. The shots rattled around the plaza and they came from different angles, and Jenna thought it seemed as though a team of terrorists was shooting at the crowd. Her perception was widely shared.
Once inside the restaurant and locked down in the walk-in cooler, the panic began to set in. Misinformation was running rampant—people inside the cooler believed there was an active shooter inside the hotel. “Every time someone came into the kitchen, they thought it might be the shooter and there was a big commotion,” Jenna recalls. “And that’s when I kind of had a moment where I could think: ‘OK, if the shooter does come in, we’re all sitting here like a little bunch of ducks. This isn’t a good hiding spot.’
“So I announced, ‘I’m leaving.’ And I remember, the lady next to me was kind of motherly. She was, ‘No, you can’t leave, you can’t go out there.’ And I was, ‘I can’t stay here.’” Jenna left and returned to the vacant casino floor, trying to find a hiding place.
It turned out that Sammi had hit Hooters running and fled to the upper floors immediately, finding refuge in one of the rooms on the fourth floor, and her mother texted Jenna that she could find her friend there. At first she couldn’t get an elevator because they had stopped working and she was advised not to take the stairs, but after a while, the elevators returned to service and she was able to get to the fourth floor.
Jenna ran down the halls screaming her friend’s name: “Sammi!” No one answered. Then, a man opened his door and told her, “Okay, you need to get in here. There’s a shooter out there.” Jenna began: ‘Is my friend in your room? Her name is Sammi and—” The man stopped her: “No, but you need to get in here, there is a shooter in this hotel.” So she went in, he closed the door behind her, and she joined the fifteen or so people who had already taken refuge in the ordinary little room.
“Everybody had these injuries, and so all of a sudden these women start coming up to me and begin taking off my dress and stuff. And I’m like, ‘What are you doing? Stop!’ They’re saying, ‘No, honey, you’ve been hit. We need to figure out where you’ve been hit. She’s a nurse.’ But I told them, I haven’t been hit.” They persisted: “You’re in shock, you’ve been hit.”
“So they take me into the bathroom, and at that point I knew I had been hit, because I looked in the mirror, and I look like Carrie. There’s blood on my face and stuff and everywhere else. So suddenly I’m just thinking, OK, maybe I am hit. Even though it feels like I’ve been down in the lobby for an hour and I never felt like I was hit.
“And so anyway, they get me in the shower, and they’re literally spraying me off with my dress on, and I’m thinking, this is lovely.” The women washed her down and found a wound in her leg—a graze with flecks of shrapnel in it that they removed and cleaned. But it wasn’t large enough to have drenched her in blood.
The man whose room they were hiding in gave her some warm socks. They were safe, but in the swirl of panic and misinformation, the hysteria became relentless. Someone in the room tied the sheets together so people could climb down to a courtyard below in the event the shooter came to their door. Everyone was certain that killers were roaming the hallways of the Hooters Casino Hotel.
Jenna finally managed to connect with Sammi, who was hiding in another room on the same floor. Their respective hosts accompanied them to a halfway point, and then Sammi came back to the room where Jenna had found refuge.
“And that’s the first time that I felt like we might get through this,” Jenna says, “because I was sure I’d never see Sammi again, regardless whether it was her or me. So when I saw her, I felt as though, OK, there might be the light at the end of tunnel. And so this was probably an hour and a half in and there was still nothing on the news. And then, finally, we got the news on the TV and they started to give kind of a report. And that’s when it felt like, ‘OK, they’re taking care of this.’”
As the night went on, it became evident that the shooting had ceased and that police had the situation largely under control—not to mention that much of what they had been hearing throughout the night had been misinformation that only heightened the chaos. The local media had also contributed to it, spreading unconfirmed rumors, including a report of bombs in the basements of the hotels.
“It’s just crazy because really I was only in danger two minutes, basically. But I felt in danger for three hours . . . just sure I was going to die. Like saying my goodbyes to my family. In hindsight, I think that’s one of the hardest parts of the process—realizing you didn’t have to be panicked for that long.”
The sheer chaos and terror of the scene had spread confusion like wildfire, including among police, who had great difficulty figuring out where the gunfire was coming from. There were reports it was coming from the Luxor casino resort, the great glass pyramid that is next door to both the Mandalay Bay resort and the concert venue; other reports suggested it was coming from the festival grounds. Finally, police had observed the flashes of gunfire that were emanating from the thirty-second floor of the Mandalay and dispatched a tactical squad to put an end to it.
Stephen Paddock had already had an encounter with a Mandalay security guard named Jesus Campos, who had gone to the thirty-second floor in response to an open-door alert and promptly found he couldn’t enter through an access door because Paddock had screwed it shut with a metal bracket. Entering through another door, Campos went to the door of the room where Paddock was waiting with his arsenal of fourteen AR-15s equipped with bump stocks that enabled him to fire them like automatic weapons, along with eight AR-10s, a revolver, and multiple one hundred–round magazines loaded with ammunition. When Campos knocked, Paddock opened fire through the door.
One of the rounds caught Campos in the thigh, and he took refuge in an alcove. Inside, Paddock took a hammer and bashed out the windows of both suites he had rented. A Mandalay maintenance man named Steve Schuck approached his door about that time and barely evaded another round of gunfire. Campos, from his alcove, warned him to take cover, which he did. Then Schuck got on his radio and warned the hotel’s security office about the shooting on floor thirty-two.
Ranging from room to room with his weapons, Paddock had unleashed a relentless fusillade of more than eleven hundred high-velocity rifle rounds into the audience gathered below him. Then, just as suddenly, he had stopped. When the tactical team came to his door about ten minutes after he had first opened fire, the gunfire had ceased; when the team broke through an hour later, he was already long dead from a self-inflicted gunshot.
Fifty-eight people died at the Route 91 festival that day, thirty-six of them women. Another 851 people were injured, about half of them with gunshot and shrapnel wounds. Hundreds more were injured in the scramble to escape—broken legs, torn ligaments, deep cuts.
There were thousands of survivors that day. They all endured the same trauma—and all of them are still in various stages of recovery. Many, like Jenna, receive therapeutic treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Despite the shooter having been taken out, the chaos continued for hours afterward as reports poured in of shooters at other hotels, including the Hooters where Jenna and Sammi had taken refuge. Eventually, as the morning light grew brighter outside and it became clear that things were safe again, the two of them wandered back downstairs, out of the casino, and onto the streets again. They navigated their way back to their hotel, showered and changed, then caught the 11:00 a.m. flight home to SeaTac airport just as they had planned all along.
Camden was waiting for Jenna. It was a heartfelt embrace, but it took Jenna a while before she could hug her daughter for as long as she wanted. In her mind, he had already died and left her little girl behind, and now it felt like a betrayal for which she could not forgive herself.
That was just the beginning of her journey back. Two years later, she is still traveling it.
“Now I live thinking it’s going to happen everywhere,” Jenna says. “I don’t think I’m entirely wrong. I think that because of the way that things have been going, people just shoot other people in Walmarts these days. So I don’t go to Walmart. I do avoid Walmart.”
She says she still finds herself affected “in strange ways,” adding that she keeps wondering if or when things will start getting better. “He didn’t take away a day, he didn’t take away a week—he’s taken so much joy from my life, and that’s the hardest part.
“I drive by the school where kids are playing and I can’t have a nice thought like, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to drive past this elementary and see Camden playing out there.’ No. I have to think, ‘Oh, it would be so easy for someone to hop the fence and just kill all those kids.’
“That’s what I’ve been robbed of. It’s hard—like just having nice thoughts, it’s hard to have nice thoughts to think they get ruined by such a horrible thing. I think that’s what is the hardest part.
“I can walk through what happened with anybody; it’s not traumatic to go through that for me anymore. It’s what I’ve been left with that’s so destructive.”
Even having the blessing of a happy-go-lucky toddler in her life becomes a kind of curse: “I mean, I think it helps to have [Camden] in my life, but I think that she is also a source of my worry. I think I’d have less worry if it was, ‘Oh, if I get shot in this movie theater, my parents will be sad, my brother will be sad, but no one needs me.’ So I think having someone that needs you almost makes it worse because you’re thinking, ‘Someone needs me out there.’”
As is so often the case with trauma, it actually hits the hardest at quiet moments when she’s not busy and it blindsides her. “I don’t look forward to lying in bed at night,” Jenna says. “After this, I would never want to go to bed and not go to sleep for an hour because I don’t want that time alone with myself to think about things because I know where I’m going to go. So I’ll either read or watch TV to the point where I can barely keep my eyes open. So then I don’t even have the ability to sit there and have some sort of deep thought.
“Because if I start thinking—why do these things happen in the world? It’s just too much. Because there’s no answer.”
In an ironic twist, the survivors of the Route 91 massacre, as well as the families of the victims, soon found themselves victimized a second time by the same universe of conspiracy theories that had fueled the mass death in the first place.
Misinformation had been rampant throughout the night, and it continued into the next day and then into the following week. A thread at the alt-right-friendly 4chan/pol/message board misidentified the shooter, describing him as a registered Democrat; this misinformation quickly spread to other right-wing sites, such as Gateway Pundit. A fake news site called Your News Wire reported a second gunman firing from Mandalay’s fourth floor. A Russian news agency, Sputnik, falsely reported that the FBI had identified the shooter as part of a terrorist group; still other false reports indicated the shooter was a member of the antifascist movement.
But that was just the beginning.
The conspiracy theories about what happened in Vegas that night began spreading widely through the usual rumor mills, particularly Infowars and its dozens of YouTube imitators whose ability to attract audiences usually depends on their ability to be outrageous. Soon, the narrative in conspiracy land was set: this was a false flag operation by government agencies designed to provide the government an excuse to take away their weapons.
They couldn’t have known that this was precisely the same narrative that Stephen Paddock believed—namely, that his attack would inspire an extreme government crackdown that would reveal its tyranny.
The day after the massacre, Alex Jones speculated that it had been perpetrated by his usual menu of favorite villains: Islamic State, antifascists, leftists, Communists, and globalists. On his Infowars show, Jones went even further, warning his audience that liberals were going to be killing them.
The enemy’s engaging us. Everybody needs to be packing, like I told you on Friday and on Sunday. Get ready—Democrats are going to be killing people, a lot of folks. And obviously, just like you don’t see conservatives going out and doing mass shootings, they don’t want to blame the Second Amendment, they don’t want to go out and kill people.
It’s almost always drug-head Democrats, devil worshippers, you name it. That’s their M.O. The Democrats know when they mass kill now, they know to not say they’re Democrat operatives. They just want to use that to get the Second Amendment and get a civil war going.
According to Jones, the whole event was part of a scheme to cow the American public into accepting sweeping gun controls: “With this event and this attack, the leftists, the globalists, the social engineers are going to use those dear lives of those poor people who were snuffed out to try to wound what’s left of our republic and complete our journey into disarmament,” he warned, claiming that comments after the shootings by Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton were proof that they intended to start a “race war in America.”
Although Jones had promoted the idea of a looming civil war for decades, his projection-fueled rhetoric reached stochastic terror levels as the broadcast continued:
This is a leftist Democratic Party operation, with mainstream media, corporate media hyping the climate of “kill the Republicans, kill the white people.” They’ve gotten so radicalized with their own propaganda that they’re believing all this stuff. And then when their folks go out and kill, they cover it up, and they blame it on the victims. …They’re getting ready for war! And in full spectrum dominance, they’re going to carry out the attacks, and then they’re going to turn around and blame us and say our rights and our freedoms are to blame! Get it? That’s twenty-first-century warfare. You carry out the attack, and then you blame your enemy, who you just killed.
Near the end, he concluded with a red-faced rant warning his audience that their “globalist” enemies intended to round them up in concentration camps and murder them en masse, with a flourish worthy of Slim Pickens:
You think you’re hunting us? We’re going to destroy you politically. And we’re going to hold our fire. But you watch, they’re going to false flag even bigger now. They’re going for total broke to break your will. And if they do that, then they’re gonna put fifty million people in forced-labor camps. That’s mainstream news. And they can’t wait to give every one of these little Communists time with your wife and kids in some dungeon. ’Cause that’s what they want.
I’m not kiddin’. They’re comin’. You wanted to see the fight for America, you’re living it, 2017, baby! This is it! Toe-to-toe combat with the globalists, politically.
The conspiracy theorists immediately began claiming that the victims weren’t really victims but instead paid “crisis actors” working on behalf of a “globalist” conspiracy. That’s when the death threats started.
Braden Matejka, a thirty-year-old from British Columbia, caught a bullet in the back of his head that night when he and his girlfriend, Amanda Homulos, turned to run away. However, he was lucky: the shot only grazed his skull and knocked him down. He found himself in a hospital room recovering the next week, and TV crews visited. Both he and Homulos gave interviews describing how happy they were to be alive and how fortunate they felt.
Soon there were supportive posts on Facebook, but then everything took a turn to the dark side. Strangers began showing up in the comments making threats and accusing the couple and their family of being liars.
“Obviously a TERRIBLE CRISIS ACTOR,” wrote one named Samantha. “HE’S SCAMMING THE PUBLIC. ... This was a government set up.”
“YOUR A LIAR AND THEFT PIECE OF CRAP,” wrote another named Karen.
“You’ll pay on the other side,” said a user named Mach. Others called Braden a “LYING BASTARD,” “scumbag govt actor,” and “fuckin FRAUD,” while one user named Josh wrote: “I hope someone comes after you and literally beats the living fuck outa you.”
“You are a lying piece of shit and I hope someone truly shoots you in the head,” a commenter wrote to Matejka on Facebook. “Your soul is disgusting and dark! You will pay for the consequences!” said another.
“There are all these families dealing with likely the most horrific thing they’ll ever experience, and they are also met with hate and anger and are being attacked online about being a part of some conspiracy,” Taylor Matejka, Braden’s brother, told the Guardian. “It’s madness. I can’t imagine the thought process of these people. Do they know that we are actual people?”
“It makes you angry,” said Rob McIntosh, fifty-two, who suffered chest and arm wounds at the massacre yet was subsequently accused of faking his injuries. “You’ve already been through something that’s traumatic and terrible, and you have someone who is attacking your honesty. You don’t even have the opportunity to respond.”
Taylor Matejka said nothing seemed to work when he tried responding to the conspiracy theorists in person: “I’d be happy to talk to these people, but it seems there’s no reasoning. A really sad part of this is that a lot of these people think they’re fighting the good fight and exposing truth.”
Jenna encountered similar people in her mother’s social circle on Facebook. “It wasn’t like a conspiracy group, but they were just saying like, ‘what’s the funniest conspiracy that you believe in?’ And . . . some of them were funny. Like—oh—‘I believe reptiles run the government’ and it’s like . . . ‘the Titanic was switched.’ It’s . . . kind of fun. And then it started to get into 9/11, and Sandy Hook, or Vegas, or Holocaust deniers.
“And I got so heated—like to the point where I was shaking and crying— because it was these whackadoodles who believe the craziest things. They don’t believe Sandy Hook happened and basically were saying the same thing—that everyone there was paid actors. And I lost it.
“So someone said, ‘Oh, the Las Vegas shooting didn’t happen the way they said. No one was up in the hotel. The shooter was down below.’ And that it was all government driven—that there were multiple shooters, there’s proof.
“I understand where people get worked into these beliefs, but this person insisted that the victims were paid actors. And I said, ‘Okay, well, I can tell you that it wasn’t. I definitely was not paid anything. So I’m still waiting on that check.’” The woman remained insistent, though, eventually concluding that “we’ll just never know what really happened.
“It was just so frustrating. You can’t even reason with someone like that. And when they get enough people to believe it, then they just feed off each other, it seems like.”
Jenna used to dabble in conspiracy theories a little herself, just for fun. Now she runs away from them, because she knows firsthand that they arise in a vacuum of ignorance. “These people who believe like Sandy Hook or Vegas didn’t happen—I doubt any of them have spoken to anyone that was there. So they can say whatever they want: ‘Oh, well, it’s because everyone’s a paid actor.’ And I’m, ‘Talk to me, I’m right here.’
“I just don’t think they want to know the truth—or it’s not that they don’t want to know the truth, I think it’s that they think they know the truth, and it would be hard to be faced with something else that then they would be able to reconcile with the story that they’ve created.”
The official investigation took ten months, but in the end, it provided no resolution for the victims, the survivors, or their families. Las Vegas Metro’s official report in August 2018, despite the abundance of evidence of Stephen Paddock’s conspiracism, was unable to determine any kind of motivation. It pointed to his lack of organizational affiliations, the absence of any kind of manifesto, and no evidence of a conspiracy before concluding: “What we have been able to answer are the questions of who, what, when, where and how…what we have not been able to definitively answer is why Stephen Paddock committed this act.” The FBI’s report five months later likewise concluded that “there was no single or clear motivating factor.”
That meant that the deadliest mass shooting by an individual in American history was committed for reasons that law enforcement officials couldn’t explain—to the victims, their families, the survivors, or to the public. The conspiracy theories that Paddock believed in, in this calculus, could not count as a motive. And so his victims just became the inert things Paddock himself conceived them as.