Jillian Soto remembers the day she stumbled across a website that showed photos of her at her sister’s funeral — and was horrified to read accusations that she had faked grief as part of an elaborate government hoax.
Only a month earlier, Victoria Soto, 27, had been shot down while sheltering her first-grade students at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The Dec. 14 massacre in Newtown, Conn., left 20 children and seven adults dead.
“I was in tears” reading the website, said Jillian Soto, 24, who was told by a lawyer that the author was protected by free speech. “Everyone tells you, don’t pay any attention to these websites. But it hurt.”
Conspiracy theorists have thrived on the Internet, producing hundreds of such websites that challenge official reports and claim nefarious plots behind emotionally charged events — despite evidence to the contrary. Some are wildly speculative, casting doubt on whether man really took steps on the moon.
Others, like the website Soto discovered, which espouses anti-government and anti-Semitic opinions, are viewed by some watchdog groups as malicious hate speech.
Many of the people behind these websites operate in relative anonymity. But, after acting on a tip, the Tribune has linked the Sandy Hook hoax website to a Chicago-area man named Cassim K. Igram, 57.
Igram is linked to several pseudonyms, including Dr. Cass Ingram and Kaasem Khaleel, names that appear on websites and in books endorsing very different causes.
Dr. Cass Ingram promotes herbal medicinal remedies. Kaasem Khaleel has written books and hosted radio shows that blame the U.S. or Israeli governments for many modern-day tragedies, from the 9/11 terrorist acts to the recent Boston Marathon bombings. The website Jillian Soto discovered, nodisinfo.com, is registered to Khaleel, who sometimes goes by “Dr. K” or uses other spellings of the first name.
Igram is an osteopath by training but lost his Illinois medical license in 1999 for “unprofessional, unethical and dishonorable conduct” while trying to charge a woman thousands of dollars for nutritional supplements without her approval, according to the Iowa Board of Medical Examiners, which reprimanded Igram for failing to notify that board that he had run afoul of Illinois law. In February, an administrative law judge rejected Igram’s bid to have his Illinois license reinstated. While he remains licensed in Iowa, where he grew up, officials say they are not sure if he practices medicine there.
Ingram has written numerous books on purported herbal remedies and nutrition, which are tied to products sold by North American Herb & Spice Co. LLC, a company that was sued by the Federal Trade Commission for allegedly making bogus claims concerning oregano oil.
Igram also owes the Internal Revenue Service more than $658,000, according to a federal tax lien filed with the Lake County recorder of deeds.
For all his personal and professional troubles, Igram is among the conspiracy theorists who have found the Internet a powerful medium to attract attention and gain followers. While his images and writings are easily found online, Igram did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails seeking comment. Attempts to reach him through family members and business associates were also unsuccessful.
One Buffalo Grove address listed in public records as Igram’s residence is actually the home of Judy Kay Gray, owner of the North American Herb & Spice Co., confirmed a man who answered the door. He denied that Igram lived there and referred questions to a lawyer. Another address provided for Igram led to a post office in Lake Forest.
Hate group experts say they monitor nodisinfo.com and hundreds of other websites like it. Often, they say, before police have cleared the crime scene, conspiracy theorists have pulled together bits and snips of information to create a narrative that supports their worldview.
Less than 24 hours after the Boston Marathon bombings, for example, the site blamed the terrorist acts on the government conspiracies. It alleged that the suspected bombers, the Tsarnaev brothers, were framed by the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence operation.
“It’s people who generally want to demonize someone for a tragic event and often it will be Israel and the Jews,” said Marilyn Mayo, a director for the Anti-Defamation League’s center on extremism. “This (website) is particularly disturbing because it uses pictures of children killed in the Sandy Hook tragedy to promote anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.”
Is it better to expose the people behind such sites or ignore them? That is a question that Mayo grapples with all the time, but “often we do expose these folks,” she said. The ADL believes that is it important for the public to know about the “bigotry and demonization that underlie their conspiracy theories,” she said.