CHICAGO — Jillian Soto remembers the day she stumbled across a website that showed photos of her at her sister's funeral — and was horrified to read accusations that she had faked grief as part of an elaborate government hoax.
Only a month earlier, Victoria Soto, 27, had been shot down while sheltering her first-grade students at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The Dec. 14 massacre in Newtown, Conn., left 20 children and seven adults dead.
"I was in tears" reading the website, said Jillian Soto, 24, who was told by a lawyer that the author was protected by free speech. "Everyone tells you, don't pay any attention to these websites. But it hurt."
Conspiracy theorists have thrived on the Internet, producing hundreds of such websites that challenge official reports and claim nefarious plots behind emotionally charged events — despite evidence to the contrary. Some are wildly speculative, casting doubt on whether man really took steps on the moon.
Others, like the website Soto discovered, which espouses antigovernment and anti-Semitic opinions, are viewed by some watchdog groups as malicious hate speech.
Many of the people behind these websites operate in relative anonymity. But, after acting on a tip, the Chicago Tribune has linked the Sandy Hook hoax website to a Chicago-area man named Cassim K. Igram, 57.
Igram is linked to several pseudonyms, including Dr. Cass Ingram and Kaasem Khaleel, names that appear on websites and in books endorsing very different causes.
Dr. Cass Ingram promotes herbal medicinal remedies. Kaasem Khaleel has written books and hosted radio shows that blame the U.S. or Israeli governments for many modern-day tragedies, from the 9/11 terrorist acts to the recent Boston Marathon bombings. The website Jillian Soto discovered is registered to Khaleel, who sometimes goes by "Dr. K" or uses other spellings of the first name.
Igram is an osteopath by training but lost his Illinois medical license in 1999 for "unprofessional, unethical and dishonorable conduct" while trying to charge a woman thousands of dollars for nutritional supplements without her approval, according to the Iowa Board of Medical Examiners, which reprimanded Igram for failing to notify that board that he had run afoul of Illinois law. In February, an administrative law judge rejected Igram's bid to have his Illinois license reinstated. While he remains licensed in Iowa, where he grew up, officials say they are not sure if he practices medicine there.
Ingram has written numerous books on purported herbal remedies and nutrition, which are tied to products sold by North American Herb & Spice Co. LLC, a company that was sued by the Federal Trade Commission for allegedly making bogus claims concerning oregano oil.
Igram also owes the Internal Revenue Service more than $658,000, according to a federal tax lien filed with the Lake County recorder of deeds.
For all his personal and professional troubles, Igram is among the conspiracy theorists who have found the Internet a powerful medium to attract attention and gain followers. While his images and writings are easily found online, Igram did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails seeking comment. Attempts to reach him through family members and business associates were also unsuccessful.
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One Buffalo Grove address listed in public records as Igram's residence is actually the home of Judy Kay Gray, owner of the North American Herb & Spice Co., confirmed a man who answered the door. He denied that Igram lived there and referred questions to a lawyer. Another address provided for Igram led to a post office in Lake Forest.
Hate group experts say they monitor hundreds of websites like Ingram's. Often, they say, before police have cleared the crime scene, conspiracy theorists have pulled together bits and snips of information to create a narrative that supports their worldview.
Less than 24 hours after the Boston Marathon bombings, for example, the site blamed the terrorist acts on government conspiracies. It alleged that the suspected bombers, the Tsarnaev brothers, were framed by the Mossad, Israel's intelligence operation.
"It's people who generally want to demonize someone for a tragic event and often it will be Israel and the Jews," said Marilyn Mayo, a director for the Anti-Defamation League's center on extremism. "This (website) is particularly disturbing because it uses pictures of children killed in the Sandy Hook tragedy to promote anti-Semitic conspiracy theories."
Is it better to expose the people behind such sites or ignore them? That is a question that Mayo grapples with all the time, but "often we do expose these folks," she said. The ADL believes that is it important for the public to know about the "bigotry and demonization that underlie their conspiracy theories," she said.
The website displays photos of victims and survivors — often taken from online news stories or social media accounts — with claims that they have been doctored. The author uses red lines and arrows to point out where he believes the pictures have been changed in order to appear legitimate.
The Sandy Hook hoax allegations were especially jarring for the Soto family, who asked a social media expert for help.
Ryan Graney, 31, of Nashville became friends with Victoria's mother, Donna, after viewing Donna's Facebook page about a month after the shootings. Donna Soto complained about the hoax conspiracies targeting her family, as well as fake fundraisers set up in her daughter's name, Graney said.
Graney offered to help the family for free.
"It's about respect and being a decent human being," said Graney, who formerly worked for a company that "scrubs" clients whose reputations have been tarnished on the Internet.
Graney tracked several people through the website, finding several email addresses. Besides Khaleel, she found the names of two other men, one who lives in north suburban Wauconda and another associated with a website for Knowledge House Publishers.
Virtually all books sold on the website for Knowledge House, whose address is a rented mailbox in Vernon Hills, are by Khaleel and Ingram. The business was registered with the state of Illinois to Cassim K. Igram and its president was listed as Cassim Igram, according to the secretary of state's office.
While the website still appears active, the company was dissolved by the state after failing to file an annual report and pay a franchise tax in 2011, according to state records.
Graney sought to reach the people associated with the website through email, asking that photos of the Sandy Hook families be removed. None of the people she contacted responded to her messages, she said. Instead, the website turned its attention to Graney and Jillian Soto themselves with emails purporting to be "cease and desist orders" for harassment.
Someone also posted portions of Graney's emails on the website, combined with her photos that they found through her Twitter account. They devoted a page of the website to Graney, calling her a "Mossad spy."
Despite becoming the target of the website's ire, Graney doesn't regret coming to the Sotos' defense.
"If this was my family, I would want someone to do what I'm doing for them," Graney said. "It's 100 percent libel and slander. But the only thing to do is to get a lawyer, and they (Sotos) just don't have the time and money."
The site proclaimed that Graney is "a kind of Internet police person, scouring and looking throughout the World Wide Web for the slightest enemy of the Soto clan and its ludicrous actions."
Graney said, "They take tweets of mine from two years ago and say I am part of the plan."
Jillian Soto also called Knowledge House Publishers directly, but said that the man who answered the phone hung up after she identified herself.
She called back and left a voicemail: "You are not a coward on the Internet to post my picture and say all this stuff about me," she said, "but you won't talk to me over the phone?"
No one associated with Knowledge House Publishers returned calls or emails from the Tribune.
The Tribune also phoned Igram using a number provided by the Anti-Defamation League. The voicemail greeting identified the phone's owner as "C. Ingram," but the man who answered the phone on a separate occasion said he was Kaasem Khaleel. He declined to be interviewed, saying he was "on the road" but would try to find someone to respond to questions. No one associated with him or the website called back or responded to additional interview requests.
Separate YouTube videos - some espousing anti-government conspiracy theories, others touting herbal remedies - show what appear to be the same person, but they are introduced or identified as Khaleel or Dr. K in the former and Dr. Cass Ingram in the latter.
On fightingforliberty.ning.com, the two identities appear to overlap: A page identified as Cass Ingram's includes information with similar conspiracy themes.
Two of Cassim K. Igram's siblings said they were dismayed to learn about the website.
On Knowledge House Publishers' website, books by Ingram such as "The Cure is in the Cupboard" and "Natural Cures for Radiation" are advertised next to books by Khaleel, including "Wrongly Blamed," which promises that readers will "discover who really was behind 9/11 and the London bombings."
As Dr. Cass Ingram, Igram touts the miracle effects of wild oregano oil. He has been long associated with a company that sells the product, North American Herb & Spice Co. LLC, based in Lake Forest, according to court documents.
Igram also co-wrote a book with Gray, the company's owner.
In 2008, the FTC ordered Gray to pay $2.5 million for falsely claiming that wild oregano products are scientifically proven to prevent or treat colds and flu. The products, sold at prices ranging from $29.99 to $69.99, also were credited with boosting the immune system and killing a variety of germs and pathogens, according to the FTC complaint.
Company advertisements that include Igram's image and endorsement of the oregano oil were included in the FTC exhibits.
Gray could not be reached for comment.
Igram's relatives say they seldom talk to him, other than occasional email correspondence.
He received a doctor of osteopathic medicine degree in 1984 from Des Moines University. He was licensed to practice medicine in California from 1991 to 1995, public records show.
In 1999, Igram ran into regulatory trouble in Illinois and agreed to have his medical license permanently suspended and to pay a $4,000 fine to the state of Illinois.
According to a complaint filed with the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation, Igram in 1996 charged a woman $300 for a brief medical consultation over the phone. Without seeing the client, he ordered medical laboratory testing for her and her husband. He then attempted to charge her more than $4,000 for nutritional supplements, lab tests and fees, the complaint said.
Last June, he petitioned to have his medical license reinstated, saying that he did not understand that the "placement of his license on inactive status was permanent and irrevocable," according to a court document. He also testified that he had spent about $100,000 in attorney's fees to settle the case.
In February, an administrative law judge declined his request.
Jillian Soto now speaks for a group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which calls for the federal government to reform laws concerning firearm sales and background checks.
While she has made her Facebook page "private," she continues to post photos of events held in honor of her sister and other Sandy Hook victims.
Said Soto, "We refuse to let them run our life."