A man and his son were hosting a family wedding at their rural Michigan home last summer when they were misidentified as the owner or driver of a car that killed a woman during the racist “alt-right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
After being singled out by several far-right news sites and Twitter users, Joel Vangheluwe and his father, Jerome Vangheluwe, both received death threats and had to go into hiding, their attorney says.
Now the two men, who live about 43 miles from Detroit, have filed a federal suit in the Eastern District of Michigan, alleging defamation, emotional distress and invasion of privacy.
Their suit follows two other blockbuster suits filed last October in Virginia, targeting 21 racist “alt-right” and hate group leaders and 17 of their organizations involved in the deadly, so-called “Summer of Hate” rally.
The new suits allege defamation of two men who are private individuals, not public figures. It names 22 defendants including GOT News and its editor Charles C. Johnson; Freedom Daily and its writers Alberto Waisman and Jeffrey Rainforth; Gateway Pundit’s editor Jim Hoft, and Washington Times columnist Shirley Husar.
Also named defendants are Jonathan Spiel, who operates Studio News Network and a YouTube site; David Petersen, of the Puppet String News website, and Gavin McInnes, co-founder of Vice Media and founder of the hate group Proud Boys.
The suit also names seven Twitter account users, including Paul Nehlen, an antisemitic Wisconsin congressional candidate. He was banned from Twitter earlier this month after posting a racist image.
“They were hosting a family wedding at their house and their phones started blowing up, people texting them, saying, ‘Oh, my God, what’s happened?’” family attorney Andrew Sommerman of Dallas told Hatewatch.
What had just occurred, unbeknownst to the Vangheluwes, was GotNews, a self-proclaimed alt-right news outlet, had just published an article falsely naming Joel Vangheluwe as the driver of the vehicle that struck and killed Heather D. Heyer, 32, and injured several other people during the August 12 Charlottesville rally.
Soon, other alt-right web sites piled on, and the bogus reports spread like wildfire on Twitter and Facebook.
In short order, other defendants falsely claimed that Jerome Vangheluwe owned the vehicle at the time it ran down protestors in Charlottesville.
Jerome Vangheluwe at one time did legally own the Dodge Challenger in question, but he had sold it years earlier, and it was re-sold several more times before it came into the possession of James Alex Fields, Jr.
Fields, 20, of Maumee, Ohio, ultimately was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding and failing to stop at the accident scene.
But before Fields was publicly identified by police, the alt-right social media was afire, falsely focusing on the Vangheluwes.
“Immediately following the wedding, they had to go into hiding,” the plaintiffs’ attorney, Sommerman, Dallas, told Hatewatch. “They were getting death threats. They were very worried about their own safety, so they had to abandon their home and disappear.”
“They absolutely took these threats seriously,” Sommerman said of his clients.
“People had made up all kinds of crazy notions,” the attorney said. “At one point one of these folks started saying Jerome is connected to George Soros, you know, the guy who gets blamed for everything.”
“Some of this was complete nuts, conspiracy theories, that somehow Jerome is connected to this guy, Soros, and this is all part of some conspiracy. What?”
Joel Vangheluwe, who’s an artist, lived at the time with his father, who works in the finance industry, their attorney said, explaining that neither man is politically active.
The local sheriff’s office in rural Bruce Township, Michigan, assigned deputies to provide protection for the family until they relocated. They returned home about three weeks later.
Then, they decided to fight back, taking their case to Michigan attorney Raechel M. Badalamenti, who affiliated with Sommerman.
The false reports suggesting the Vangheluwes were involved “in the commission of a terror attack on American soil were false and defamatory,” damaging the men’s reputations and characters.
“To state that someone is a terrorist subjects them to scorn and outrage by the community,” the suit says.
The suit’s causes of action claim defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy. It seeks an unspecified award for compensatory, exemplary and punitive damages, and attorney fees and legal costs.