In the aftermath of a deadly mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas in October 2017, conspiracy theorists latched on to an entirely unrelated tragedy in upstate New York, falsely claiming a link between a murder-suicide perpetrated in Fairport, New York, and the actions of the Las Vegas shooter:
A key witness in the Las Vegas shooting massacre has killed himself and his disabled daughter in a horrific murder-suicide shortly after the FBI raided his home. John Beilman was wanted for questioning by federal agents in connection with a communications device discovered in suspected shooter Stephen Paddock's hotel room.
Articles explicating this conspiracy theory contained many details and factual claims that were not supported by any real evidence, and even cited evidence that, in reality, comprehensively disproved any "link" between the deaths of John Beilman and his daughter and the Las Vegas shooting massacre.
Here is what we know to be true: On 4 October 2017, police in the town of Fairport, New York (about 10 miles from Rochester) confirmed that 60-year-old John Beilman had shot and killed his 27-year-old daughter Nicole before shooting and killing himself.
Beilman left a note for his wife, but the motive behind the shooting is not known. Police confirmed that Nicole Beilman was diagnosed with Rett Syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that can severely impair an individuals ability to speak, walk, eat and breathe.
Two days later, the Rochester newspaper Democrat and Chronicle, citing anonymous sources, reported that Federal Bureau of Investigation agents had searched the Beilman home on 3 October 2017, the day before the shooting. That article does not provide any specifics as to the reason for the purported search.
Claims that Beilman's actions have anything to do with the Las Vegas massacre rest on the following "evidence":
- Investigators found in the Las Vegas shooter's hotel room a charger that doesn't match any of his phones.
This claim is inaccurate, and was known to be inaccurate at the time both articles were written. On 6 October 2017, NBC News reported that investigators, after earlier being puzzled by the presence of the phone charger, "have now been able to match all of the cell phone chargers found in the room with multiple cell phones that Paddock had with him."
- The device charges a particular type of battery
Without providing any evidence, both articles claim that S.V.R. (Russian intelligence) sources had identified the device as charging a "CP502520 3.0V 600mAh Li-MnO2 Non-rechargeable Thin Cell Battery." Setting aside the fact that there is no evidence to support this claim, we know it to be impossible. The battery specified is non-rechargeable -- there is no charger that is compatible with it, so the charger found in the Las Vegas shooter's hotel room cannot be associated with it.
The entire conspiracy theory falls down around this point alone, but let's briefly address some of its other components.
- That battery is used by United States Special Forces and the CIA.
Even if the charger could work with the type of battery specified (it cannot) we know that this battery is used "in both professional & consumer applications," according to its manufacturer, Ultralife Corporation. There is nothing particularly notable about its use, or the use of the (imaginary) charger associated with it. Some of the common applications listed include: smart security cards, bank theft tracking systems, and medical devices. None of these are exclusive to U.S. special forces or the CIA.
- John Beilman worked for Ultralife from 2007 to 2012 as a "product design and manufacturing professional"
This appears to be accurate. Beilman's public LinkedIn profile lists him as an employee of Ultralife from 2007 to 2012 and mentions that he performed "electromechanical assembly" of lithium ion batteries, chargers, and other devices.
Whereas conspiracy theorists posited that Beilman "worked on various top-secret communications systems for the US military," there is no evidence to support this claim. Given that police have paired the charger found in Stephen Paddock's hotel room with one of his phones, and the battery at the center of this conspiracy theory cannot be charged anyway, John Beilman's work history is, of course, irrelevant.
- Beilman was a "key witness" in the Las Vegas investigation and was "wanted for questioning" by the FBI before his death.
There was no evidence to support these claims.
It appears that the creators of this theory started with the fact of John Beilman and his daughter's death, and worked backwards, via his professional history, in an effort to find some way of connecting him with the Las Vegas shooting. There is no valid connection, and the evidence offered actually refutes the entire theory.
"Sorcha Faal" is the alleged author of an ongoing series of "reports" published at WhatDoesItMean.com, whose work is of such quality that even other conspiracy nutters don't think much of it. There is a high chance that "Sorcha Faal" is actually David Booth, the owner/operator of the website, or someone collaborating with him.
The primary audience of Sorcha Faal's reports and the only ones who take them seriously are usually other conspiracy theorists.
Each report resembles a news story in its style, but usually includes a sensational headline barely related to reality (e.g. "American Rebel Forces Attack Gas Pipelines, Explode Trains As US Civil War Nears") and quotes authoritative high-level Russian sources (such as the Russian Federal Security Service in the same article) to support its most outrageous claims. Except for the stuff attributed to unverifiable sources, the reports don't contain much original material. They are usually based on various news items from the mainstream media and/or whatever the clogosphere is currently hyperventilating about, with each item shoehorned into the conspiracy narrative the report is trying to establish. Cited sources range from the mainstream media and Wikipedia to Infowars and Richard Hoagland. The author also has the habit of adding unnecessary links to the websites of the various Russian institutions they mention.
Nonetheless, the WhatDoesItMean.com fabrication gained enough currency online that the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle felt a need to debunk it as well:
If you get your local news from the Democrat and Chronicle or television news stations in town, there’s a lot you haven’t heard about the Fairport man who killed himself and his daughter.
Namely that the man, John Beilman, was a “key witness” in the Las Vegas mass shooting and was “wanted by federal agents” in connection to the massacre.
It isn’t true, but it’s been widely circulated online via social media courtesy of bogus news websites and their readers, most of whom are unschooled in news literacy and unable to parse fact from fiction.
The Beilman-Las Vegas connection appears to have originated on a website called WhatDoesItMean.com in a report dated Oct. 7 under the bizarre byline of “Sorcha Faal, and as reported to her Western Subscribers.”
Faal is a suspected pseudonym of the website’s owner. Shoddy and fictitious sourcing, half-truths and bewildering leaps of logic are trademarks of her reporting.
None of this has stopped her story from being circulated by websites known to publish schlock and sensational disinformation for the purpose of profiting through clickbait. Two such sites are Neon Nettle and USSA News, which bills itself as “The Tea Party’s Front Page.”
From there, the story has been spread like wildfire on social media by unsophisticated news illiterates whose reality is so muddied they can’t tell truth from fiction anymore. It’s sad and dangerous and undermining our institutions.
Is it coincidence that Beilman committed the murder-suicide within hours of the FBI search of his home? We don’t know for sure, but probably not. It’s very likely that the search motivated Beilman to act.
What federal agents were looking for at Beilman’s house hasn’t been reported because the search warrant affidavit, which was signed by a judge authorizing the search, is under seal.
The 1 October mass shooting in Las Vegas has prompted a slew of conspiracy theories and hoaxes, many focused on the involvement of "second shooter." During a press briefing on the day after the massacre, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Assistant Sheriff Todd Fasulo directly rejected such theories:
I want to emphasize we believe Paddock is solely responsible for this heinous act. We are aware of the rumors outside of the media and also on social media that there was more than one assailant. We have no information or evidence to support that theory, or that rumor. We believe there was only one shooter and that was Stephen Paddock.