With the Las Vegas shooting motive still a mystery, key questions are co-opted by conspiracy theorists

“To go silent on the worst mass shooting in modern history is unheard of.”

It was the Illuminati. Stephen Paddock was working for Antifa. It was an Islamic terror attack and the FBI is covering it up. The man who appeared on The Ellen Degeneres Show two weeks after the deadly massacre was not actually Mandalay Bay security guard Jesus Campos. The shooting victims were all crisis actors. The gunmen were really on the ground and any witnesses who speak about it are being picked off by the government.

These are just some of the conspiracy theories that have emerged, mostly from alt-right corners of the internet, in the weeks following the deadliest shooting attack in modern U.S. history.

Outrageous? Sure. But isn’t it also outrageous that law enforcement investigating last month’s Las Vegas gun massacre, with a motive still entirely unexplained, hasn’t given a press conference since October 13, four weeks ago? Or that authorities have no idea how or why the hard drive of Stephen Paddock’s computer left in his Mandalay Bay hotel room disappeared — a fact that we only know because a source leaked it to ABC News? And that, per Clark County Sheriff Joseph Lombardo’s first one-on-one one interview, done just last week, investigators seem resigned to never finding it?

Photo: Associated Press

Over a month into the investigation, an American public increasingly desensitized to mass shootings is no closer to understanding Paddock’s motive for opening fire on a crowd of over 20,000 concertgoers, killing 58 people and injuring nearly 500 more, than they were in the first chaotic days of the aftermath.

Absent a complete narrative, and knowing only that the shooter was a U.S.-born middle-aged white male who had legally purchased a staggering arsenal of deadly firearms, pushback came quickly: Some from the same ilk of anti-gun control conspiracy theorists who believe that the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting was staged.

Influential alt-right “independent journalist” Laura Loomer immediately tried to link Paddock to Islamic terrorism because his Filipino-born girlfriend had purportedly spent some time on a beach in Dubai in 2016. When that didn’t pan out, she moved to a theory about a second shooter.

Like-minded pundits, such as Alex Jones, and their followers joined the ranks, and before long the counter-narrative was a chorus of alt-righters hell bent on any spin that might help protect their right to own assault rifles. Despite more measured reporting from mainstream outlets like the Los Angeles Times and Las Vegas Review-Journal that still managed to challenge the official narrative and the gaps in information, that same chorus has continued to recycle a claim that the “MSM” has been quietly complicit in a some kind of a cover-up to hide Paddock’s purported left-wing affiliations, though he has been quoted as saying he was a fan of Donald Trump.

Here’s the rub: The Las Vegas mass shooting *did* drop out of the top position in the news cycle after the first week or so, and precipitously. It stopped trending on Twitter and Facebook, audience engagement analytics showed declining readership of news stories about the shooting, and it seemed that a lot of people just stopped talking about it. CrimeOnline continued to publish stories about the massacre, and by the second week I noticed — within an admittedly narrow sample — that social media engagement on the stories had taken on an unusual character: They were shared and liked by people I would normally disagree with, and ignored — or met with hostility — by the echo chamber.

Given the near-primal divisiveness at the core of these mass killing debates, it’s easy to imagine that both sides are so blinded by white-hot animosity that we couldn’t see a common ground if there was one. Maybe some of us aren’t asking questions we might otherwise be asking simply because of who asked them first.

But plenty of journalists have been asking questions. They just can’t get any answers.

“When police said on October 13 that they would not be talking anymore, that was shocking to me,” said Craig Fiegener, a Las Vegas-based reporter for a local NBC affiliate who lives a mile from the shooting site.

“To go silent on the worst mass shooting in modern history is unheard of,” he said.

Fiegener’s news station is among seven media outlets that filed a lawsuit against the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department late last week, demanding essential information and records about the investigation — Paddock’s death certificate, 911 call logs, police bodycam footage, and more — that reporters so far haven’t been able to access through the usual avenues.

Ostensibly, the lawsuit should curb criticism from the far right accusing the so-called mainstream media of under-reporting the Las Vegas shooting for some nefarious reason. But it probably won’t. In fact, news of the lawsuit wasn’t very big news at all.

Law enforcement officials works at the scene of a fatal shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017. (Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

Maybe it got buried by the two violent massacres that took place in the same week: The October 31 terrorist attack in Manhattan, which killed eight, and Sunday’s non-terror attack at a church in a small Texas town, which killed 26 people, including a one-year-old child. (There was also a shooting at a Colorado Wal-mart last Friday that killed three people. You may not have heard about it.)

As with every high-profile mass killing in the United States in recent years, we wait anxiously to find out the ethnic heritage of the killer before we decide which party to blame. Last Tuesday that talk was of border control, on Sunday it was of gun control. Each time, the defenders of the policy implicated in the mass tragedy shouts down the other side for politicizing, until it’s their turn to politicize. And on and on we will go.

“I feel like there’s this increasing division in the country,” said Rick Ardito, a survivor of the Las Vegas shooting, without specifying which side of the divide he was on.

“Our ideas our incompatible.”

Photo: Associated Press

Rick, a young CPA in Apple Valley, California, spoke to CrimeOnline about the night that probably changed his life forever. He had gone with his wife, Cassie, and a group of friends to the Route 91 Harvest Festival for a weekend getaway, and they were taking in the concert from the turf area near the main stage when Paddock opened fire on the crowd. None of them were hit by the bullets they could hear flying past them, but one in their group died just over a week later of a still-undetermined cause.

About 20 seconds before the first shots rang out, Rick said he saw someone set off fireworks a short distance from him. He said a group of people formed a “sort of huddle around it” and he could see the flashes of fireworks between their legs. He insisted he was certain it was fireworks and not gunfire.

“I think it definitely was used as a distraction,” Rick said, adding that he thought it “could have been a signal” to the shooter.

When the first shots were fired, he said, “Nobody went down. Nobody panicked … people got normalized to the sound of fireworks and didn’t realize there were gunshots.”

Rick also said he heard three bursts of gunfire that sounded to be in much closer range than the initial hail of bullets, later in the shooting. He estimated that he heard that gunfire at about 10:07 or 10:08 p.m., and said he knows this because it happened at the same time his wife’s close friend Kymberley Suchomel called her husband. (According to the most recent police timeline, Paddock would still have been shooting during those minutes.)

Rick created and shared with CrimeOnline a map of his group’s locations during the gunfire and the harrowing escape:

Credit: Rick Ardito

Kymberley “was very adamant that there were multiple shooters and that people were chasing us,” Rick said, a claim supported by a post on her since-removed Facebook page she wrote in the days after the attack, which can be found a bit of a ways down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole. Rick and another of Kymberley’s friends said that copies of the post circulating on Reddit and elsewhere are representative of what Kymberley wrote, and  that it was her family’s decision to take down her Facebook page after her death because of the barrage of messages and comments.

The 28-year-old mother of one is said to have suffered from a benign brain tumor and epilepsy, and died one week and one day after the mass shooting. According to Rick, she told her friends she had three “focal,” or partial, seizures the Sunday before she died. Another friend, who did not want to be identified, said that Kymberley’s seizures were almost always triggered by stress, and that she had never before had more than one in the same day. Kymberley’s friends say they are sure she died as a result of her existing conditions, and the family is awaiting the autopsy results.

Though conspiracy theorists have identified as many as seven people as possible victims of some kind of retaliation for speaking against the official Las Vegas shooting narrative, CrimeOnline has only been able to verify the deaths of two other shooting survivors, a married couple from California who died in a fiery single-car wreck near their home in Riverside County two weeks after the massacre.

Kenneth and Irene Hernandez pay their respects as they visit a makeshift memorial with crosses placed near the scene of a shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Monday, Nov. 6, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Rick and I were on the phone just after the news broke of the Sutherland Springs church shooting on Sunday, and he spoke of how the news of yet another mass shooting re-opened the trauma of surviving a shooting just weeks before.

“It changes when you’ve gone through it yourself,” he said.

“It makes me sick to my stomach.”

Later that day, Texas Governor Greg Abbot, a gun rights advocate and vocal supporter of the NRA, was joined by Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackett and other local officials in the first news conference addressing the deadliest mass shooting in the state’s history.

The tone of the press conference was subdued, almost alarmingly so. Those who spoke were barely emotional, and little was said about the shooting victims, none who could be publicly identified at that time pending notification of next of kin. Within a day, public officials, including the President of the United States, placed the blame for the deadly attack squarely on the shooter’s mental illness. If you can point to something in his brain, you don’t have to blame what was in his hands.

Just weeks after it happened, the Las Vegas mass shooting isn’t the most recent mass killing in the country. With the focus now on Texas — until the next one, that is — it seems even more likely that we will move on from the Las Vegas tragedy without ever understanding what drove the shooter. And it feels like accepting the not-knowing might be yet another step towards a collective resignation to the possibility of being killed in a mass shooting as an unavoidable daily risk. Are we already there?


[Feature image: Associated Press]