For those of us who get the Wall Street Journal on Saturday, it is a newspaper of respite. Yes, all of Friday’s news is there but the features are sections on what books to read and what piece of 16th century art or literature merits a second look. It’s WSJ light, best evidenced by the change in the masthead from THE WALL STREET JOURNAL to WSJ.
The April 3-4 edition’s front page had an article titled: “Custody Fight Plus QAnon Turns Deadly.” Long, long ago, I was interviewed by the Journal for an article about an adoption proceeding. They don’t often stray into the family law field. However, Saturday’s story was harrowing.
Last fall, a woman named Neely Petrie-Blanchard was in a custody battle concerning her daughter. She had the kind of history not uncommon today. High school graduate known for being impetuous, she became pregnant by a boyfriend who seems to have shared those characteristics and she lost custody of their child to her boyfriend’s mother. Feeling that she had been wronged by the judicial system, Ms. Petrie-Blanchard kidnapped her child and was jailed for the offense. According to friends and family, once released she became obsessed with a system that could do this to a mother and she found people online who suggested that this was the product of a deep state conspiracy. In the meantime, she had two more children and married another man who is father to none of the three. When she was jailed for kidnapping her eldest, Ms. Petrie-Blanchard lost custody of her two youngest children to her own mother. She became obsessed with recovering her children and wanting them to succeed.
In 2017, the internet introduced Ms. Petrie-Blanchard to a 46-year-old man name Christopher Hallett. Although not formally trained in the law, psychology or social work, Hallett claimed that he would assist her in getting her eldest child back. Hallett fed this woman, whom he liked to consider a client, just what she wanted to hear. Judges and lawyers were conspiring with others to take away children from ordinary people like Ms. Petrie-Blanchard. Through an online business, people hired Hallett to assist in recovering children they had lost. It would appear Hallett was a Janus like figure. He told his friends and family that many of his “clients” were crazy. Meanwhile, he grooved on the adulation and the money he received for supporting these conspiracy theories. Hallett would post instructional videos supporting his theories, many of which tracked those found on QAnon websites. He sold mugs and clothing on his website promoting his theories.
Hallett began to buy deeper into his own shtick, actually appointing Petrie-Blanchard as some kind of agent for his services and appearing in court on behalf of people using an identification number he secured from the American Bar Association. The ABA does not license people to practice law. By 2018, Hallett had conference calls with clients including Petrie-Blanchard to map strategy in their individual custody cases. The reader is left with the sense that his mission was leading women in what all participants saw as a righteous cause.
By 2020, Ms. Petrie-Blanchard’s frustration resulted in her kidnapping her two youngest from her mother following a visit with the children. It seems that Hallett and his adherents abetted this act. A person associated with Hallett posted her bail after her arrest on new kidnapping charges. As the election season came into full swing in 2020, Hallett indicated to Petrie-Blanchard that he had been in touch with the White House about its possible intervention in the case and “reformation” of the U.S. Justice Department to abate these miscarriages of parental rights.
As Hallett’s representations became more and more grandiose, some of his adherents began whispering that he was not effective and might even be conspiring with the government. Ms. Petrie-Blanchard heard these stories and fell prey to them. On the evening of November 15, 2020, Petrie-Blanchard met with Hallett at his home in Ocala, Florida. During that meeting she drew a gun and shot him first in the shoulder and then in the head, professing to police that he had joined the government’s cabal of child stealers. She is now in prison charged with murder.
There are crazy people everywhere. Crazy people are not a new phenomenon. But a couple things coming from this story are new. The internet has provided crazy people with a new place to find and associate with other people of like mind. In addition, just as disturbing, is the existence of people like Christopher Hallett who abet craziness and in some instances prey upon it for power or money. Mr. Hallett paid for this with his life. Three young children will probably be effectively orphaned once their mother is convicted or adjudicated as insane.
This story might be treated as a “one off”; something more likely published in the National Enquirer or The Star rather than the Wall Street Journal. I would be of that mind had I not recently been involved in cases where QAnon and other conspiracy theories are blended into otherwise ordinary custody disputes. This has included people who subscribe to theories that vaccines are administered not to stop pandemic disease but to advance other goals. We like to dismiss these people as uneducated at best, fools at worst. But these people are not as far below the surface of our society as one might think. What resonated with me about the Journal’s article was the reference to the fact that Ms. Petrie-Blanchard was glued to the internet for many of her waking hours. If you devote dozens of hours to that source each week and you get to choose where on the internet you go for information, you can lose touch with the larger world and fall prey to people who want you to follow their lead.
In 1968, a neoconservative Edward Luttwak published a book titled Coup d’état: A Practical Handbook. Back then, Luttwak suggested that anyone wishing to control the minds of the people, get control of the media immediately after overthrowing the government. A half century later I am concerned that many people in our society are more than willing to have their thoughts controlled by people who profess to agree with them. No guns required.