TAMPA — Lenny Pozner knew how cruel Internet trolls could be. That became clear to him after he lost his 6-year-old son, Noah, to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, only to have strangers spread conspiracy theories claiming no children died.
But the death threats in mid January were personal. They came by voice mail, spilling into his ear while his two young daughters were nearby.
He remembers feeling chills. He had to stop listening.
"It was hard knowing this darkness is out there," he said.
Pozner's initials appeared this week in a federal grand jury indictment charging a Tampa woman, 57-year-old Lucy Richards, with making death threats against him through the phone and Internet. Court records don't identify Pozner, but he told the Tampa Bay Times he received the threats.
"(Y)ou gonna die, death is coming to you real soon," Richards said or wrote, according to the indictment. "LOOK BEHIND YOU IT IS DEATH."
A prosecutor called Richards a Sandy Hook "truther," a subscriber to a conspiracy theory that claims the massacre of 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., didn't actually happen.
A number of conspiracy theorists, among them talk radio host Alex Jones, have suggested that the shootings were staged. The false stories have managed to gain traction through conspiracy-themed websites that peddle the theories as news.
Pozner and his family have had to endure not only the pain of their loss but an onslaught of attacks from so-called "truthers."
He said he thinks some people who believe the conspiracy theories are simply gullible, while others hate the government or are mentally ill. He tries to ignore them and instead thinks about Noah. "I get so much hate on a weekly basis," he said, "I couldn't focus to honor the memory of my son if I was getting upset about these things."
Some websites have used pictures of his son and have claimed that Noah didn't die or that he never existed.
Pozner started a website of his own — www.honr.com — to bring attention to the hoaxster phenomenon. The phone messages that were later linked to Richards are posted on You Tube.
The recordings contain ethnic slurs and obscenities in addition to death threats.
Richards faces four federal counts of sending threats over the phone and Internet, each punishable by up to five years in prison.
The case against her originated in South Florida, but she was arrested Monday in Tampa, where she appeared in U.S. District Court before U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo, who released her on a $25,000 signature bond. He concluded that she is unlikely to be a flight risk, given that she claims to have agoraphobia and uses a walker.
He called the alleged conduct "particularly disturbing."
"If I find that you pick up the phone and call somebody making a threat," the judge warned, "whatever your belief system is, you'll be in violation of the conditions of your release."
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Richards, who rents a room from a Brandon woman, did not respond to an interview request.
She is under orders to appear in federal court in Fort Lauderdale on Dec. 19. The case, investigated by the FBI, is being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Florida.
Richards' only prior criminal history in Florida was a petty theft arrest in 1997.
Her mother, who lives in northern Hillsborough County, told the Times she has not seen her daughter in years. A sister, Mary Richards of New York City, said she was shocked to learn of the criminal charges. The last time she spoke with Lucy Richards was after their father died in 2011, she said. Before Wednesday, Mary Richards said, she wasn't sure her sister was still alive.
Lucy Richards struggled with mental illness, the sister said.
"You so much as say one thing to her, yeah, I think she could hurt you," she said.
Richards grew up in New York but moved to Hillsborough County in the early 1990s. Her family settled into a home on Gregory Drive northwest of the University of South Florida. Most neighbors couldn't recall seeing Lucy Richards around much.
On Wednesday, heavy drapes with tattered linings were drawn shut in the main window, which was covered with iron bars.
Richards' arrest Monday marked the second time in two days that a follower of online conspiracies had been accused of acting illegally on the basis of fake reports. A day earlier, a man in Washington, D.C., fired a rifle inside a pizza restaurant based on false stories that the restaurant was tied to a child abuse ring.
Times staff writer Anastasia Dawson contributed to this report.