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The Whole Story with Anderson Cooper

Waiting For JFK: Report From The Fringe. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired September 24, 2023 - 20:00   ET



ACOSTA: Great to see you as always, thanks very much. We appreciate it.

The all-new episode of 'THE WHOLE STORY WITH ANDERSON COOPER" is next right here on CNN. So stay tuned for that.

In the meantime, thank you very much for joining me this evening and all weekend long. Reporting from Washington, I'm Jim Acosta. I'll see you again next weekend.

Have a great week, everybody. Good night.


November will mark the 60th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Over the years a number of well-known conspiracy theories have flourished. Who really pulled the trigger? Were the Russians behind it? Was the CIA involved?

But there's one conspiracy theory you may not know about, the belief that President Kennedy and his son John F. Kennedy, Jr., who died in a plane crash in 1999, are actually alive and in hiding.

It may sound preposterous to you but there are those who absolutely believe this. They formed a group which some are calling a cult and are led by a QAnon believer. This group holds so much influence over their members some have even abandoned their spouses, their parents, their grandchildren.

For the past year, CNN's Donie O'Sullivan has been investigating what's behind this conspiracy. Over the next hour he takes us across the country to meet the believers, confront their leader, and spend time with the confused, frustrated, helpless families who just want their loved ones to come home.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Word on the street is that Junior, JFK Jr., will show up and introduce his parents.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're expecting JFK, Jr.? UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Absolutely.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The same time of day that JFK, Sr. was shot here in this spot.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Any minute now the big reveal.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And then after that?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He'll probably be the vice president with Trump.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I believe today is going to be biblical.

DONIE O'SULLIVAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on-camera): You don't believe JFK is dead?


O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): This woman, Pamela Raspino Eskine, calls herself Nonnie Codes. When I met her in Dallas she told me she left her family in Louisiana 16 months ago because of her belief in this.

ESKINE: So what was your question? You pointed over there.

O'SULLIVAN (on-camera): So JFK got assassinated just a few yards from here.

ESKINE: So did Jesus Christ.

O'SULLIVAN: And what about JFK, Jr.?

ESKINE: I believe he is alive.

O'SULLIVAN: So that he didn't die in a plane crash?

ESKINE: No, he didn't.

O'SULLIVAN: You think that was staged somehow?

ESKINE: Yes, it was.


ESKINE: It's a war. It's a war against good and evil and they've been trying to kill the bloodline of Jesus Christ forever.

O'SULLIVAN: A blood line.


O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): These women also believe in President Kennedy's resurrection.

ABOULHOSN: Abraham Lincoln was the direct descendent of Jesus Christ's blood line.


ABOULHOSN: And then you would have your connection with Donald Trump, JFK, Jr., and -- am I forgetting anybody?


ABOULHOSN: General Flynn.

BYRD: Elvis Presley.

ABOULHOSN: Correct. They all come from the bloodline.

O'SULLIVAN: JFK was a Democrat. So I think people are confused why all these Trump supporters love JFK so much.

ESKINE: Well, because the system is rigged. There's Democrat, Republican. It doesn't matter. It's all about values.

JESSELYN COOK, REPORTER AND AUTHOR, THE QUIET DAMAGE: A common belief is that President John F. Kennedy knew what the deep state was up to and so for that he was assassinated. This is hard for people to believe because Kennedy was a Democrat and QAnon is a far-right group but Kennedy was also an extremely popular political figure.

O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): Jesselyn Cook is a reporter working on a book about the devastation conspiracy theories have caused for families across America. She says the JFK obsession is fringe even within QAnon circles but, still, it led to all these people showing up in Dallas waiting for a Kennedy.

COOK: JFK, Jr. wanted to carry on the fight against the deep state and so he partnered with Donald Trump all these years ago and started plotting. But in '99 he felt fear for his own life. So he faked his own death in this plane crash and laid low for almost two decades and the hope has been that JFK, Jr. will eventually re-emerge in person and take on the White House with Donald Trump.

O'SULLIVAN (on-camera): And so JFK was a Democrat so are you all Democrats?


BYRD: Nope.

KRISTI INESS, PROTZMAN FOLLOWER: No, I'm not. Not a Republican either. I'm a God-fearing patriot.

COOK: I think for people who have really rallied around the JFK, Jr. belief, QAnon is less an ideology than an identity. These beliefs are part of who they are and facts can't change that. It's more important to belong to the group than to believe in the truth.

ESKINE: JFK is the second coming of Jesus Christ.

O'SULLIVAN: How long have you believed that for?


ESKINE: Since I first started listening to Michael around April of 2021.

MICHAEL PROTZMAN, CONSPIRACY GROUP LEADER: So when you spell out 120 it becomes 141, Mr. President 141. Happy birthday, Mr. President.

O'SULLIVAN: Can you tell me about the first time you heard Michael Protzman?

ABOULHOSN: I don't even know how to explain the words, like how put it into words. It was just like this feeling

BYRD: I can't explain it. It's just soothing. It's -- listening to him for hours, you know, and fall asleep to it. It was calming. And it's not a voice just telling stories. You know it's true.

PROTZMAN: JFK is your president. Trump is also your president. Junior is your vice president. JFK is the second coming of Jesus Christ. You're are about to see him.

O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): That's the voice of this man.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How much of this gathering here today are you responsible for or you're just --

PROTZMAN: 98 percent of it.

O'SULLIVAN: Michael Protzman. To his followers he is known as Negative 48.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Negative 48. Do I refer to you as Negative 48, too?

PROTZMAN: That's fine. That's fine.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And what does that mean?

PROTZMAN: 48 is evil. E-V-I-L. E is 5, V is 22, I is 9, L is 12. 48. Negative Evil. Negative 48.

O'SULLIVAN: Those numbers are Gematria, an ancient practice that assigns a numerical value to each letter in the alphabet.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nothing can stop what is coming. Trump is 316, John 3:16.

O'SULLIVAN (on-camera): What is it about Michael Protzman?

ESKINE: He is just a teacher. God is using him to teach his perfect language. A is one. B is two. C is three.

O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): Michael Protzman convinced his followers that Gematria can be used to expose cabals and government secrets. He's used it to build up tens of thousands of followers on social media. In 2021 when he called his followers to Dallas many believed they'd see the return of JFK or his son JFK, Jr. ABOULHOSN: He said who's coming to Dallas? And I just looked at my

daughter and said I am. I said I am. I'm going to Dallas. I went home that night and told my husband. He was watching TV. He was actually watching CNN. And I told him, I said I'm going to Dallas. He goes what? I said I'm going to Dallas. He goes for what? I said I don't know. I'm going to Dallas. Actually I did say -- I said I know I'm going to Dallas, I'm going to meet Jesus Christ is what I told him. And he said you're nuts.

O'SULLIVAN (on-camera): What does it mean to be part of this group?

ESKINE: It means everything. I would leave my family for 16 months for it. It's everything. I have two grandchildren that I adore and love. They are very young. And I've missed a couple of birthdays.

O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): After neither JFK nor his son materialized in Dallas in 2021, most people went home and went on with their lives. But some stayed.

(On-camera): He was only supposed to be in Dallas for a few days?


O'SULLIVAN: Leaving behind heartbroken families.

ERICA VIGRASS, SISTER OF PROTZMAN FOLLOWER: It is true torture. No one should know this pain. Nobody.

COOK: If you don't personally have someone close to you who has been sucked into this, you just don't know the pain it's causing. We as a country I think have looked at QAnon as this big joke. It is insane. But there is a lot of pain behind the insanity that has been happening in the darkness.

O'SULLIVAN: The pain when a loved one gets lost down the rabbit hole.

VIGRASS: One time we it won't play tennis and he got a phone call. Jason believed it was Junior calling him. JFK, Jr. calling him. And this was maybe a week before he went to Dallas.

O'SULLIVAN (on-camera): Wait, so you're playing tennis with your brother.


O'SULLIVAN: And he gets a call.

VIGRASS: Correct.

O'SULLIVAN: And he thinks it's JFK, Jr.?

VIGRASS: He does.

O'SULLIVAN: At that point are you like there is something seriously wrong here?

VIGRASS: Yes. But what do you do?



PROTZMAN: The best is yet to come. Kennedy (INAUDIBLE).


PROTZMAN: There's people who'll say they're all in but some had to go home and some didn't believe. But we're all in.

VIGRASS: I had never heard the word QAnon or the phrase QAnon until a few weeks before he went to Dallas. I had never heard of this group.

O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): Erica Vigrass' brother Jason is one of those who went to Dallas and went months without coming home.

JASON VIGRASS, PROTZMAN FOLLOWER: This is scandalous. My name is Jason.

O'SULLIVAN: Jason and Erica didn't know each other existed until 2010 when Erica who was adopted as a baby tracked down her birth family.

(On-camera): And so at age 39 you found your long lost brother.


O'SULLIVAN: And he became one of your best friends.

VIGRASS: Yes, he did.

O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): Jason, an Air Force veteran, moved to Pittsburgh to be closer to his new found sister. There he opened his own construction business.

VIGRASS: It was like I'd known him my whole life. We ate dinner together. I would say at least six nights a week. And we did everything together.

O'SULLIVAN (on-camera): What kind of guy was he?

VIGRASS: The best person I ever met. Hilarious. A great friend. Amazing uncle. He was the best of everything.

O'SULLIVAN: So what happened?

VIGRASS: As the story goes, my youngest daughter said, something along the lines of, yes. One of my biggest fears is I'm going to get snatched off the street and trafficked. And he was like, what are you talking about? And I think that set him on a path of finding out, like, what was going on.

O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): It isn't clear if Jason had already been searching conspiracy theories online before this, but Erica says her brother was soon sucked into a QAnon universe that includes the popular belief that celebrities and politicians, usually Democrats, are involved in child trafficking. The claims are made with zero evidence.

COOK: Child trafficking is a very, very real problem in this country, but QAnon has latched on to those fears and exploited them and dramaticized them for its own gain.

O'SULLIVAN: Soon, Erica says, her brother was fully down the rabbit hole.

VIGRASS: It's like he started to get invested in politics after the 2020 election it just flared. It just started getting weirder. It was nonstop. It was all serious and doom and gloom. The thought that the National Guard was going to take over and you have to prepare. You have to have food for weeks on end. And he just was consumed by these dreadful scenarios with the government.

O'SULLIVAN: In October, 2021, Jason told his sister he was going to Dallas.

VIGRASS: I didn't realize how involved he had become with many of these people in his online life.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It started very small. Kind of after the election, after Trump's election was stolen, you know, as they say. She referred to him as the creator.

O'SULLIVAN: This woman who asked me not to use her name told us how her mom, a school teacher, got sucked in.

(On-camera): Your mom -- it starts for your mom after the 2020 election. She believes it was stolen. And then it goes all the way to her believing that JFK, JFK, Jr. is going to show back up in Dallas?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. I mean, that one honestly came kind of quickly. It kind of got jumbled but it started off with, like, oh, JFK is going to come back and we're meeting him at Deeley Plaza and he is going to run for president in 2024. And never died. It was a body double. And now Donald Trump is JFK, Jr. in a mask and it was just -- it just got crazier and crazier.

O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): Her mom began traveling to spend time with Protzman's group.

(On-camera): Your parents live a few hours from Dallas. Your mom starts coming back and forth from here. Tell me what happens.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. She started going back and forth. And it only really lasted a couple of weeks. But she started taking time off at work. And my dad was not super concerned at first. He was like whatever you got to do, go do it. You know, she made friends, I guess. And then by I think the third visit that she took she didn't come back. So -- and we didn't hear from her. Yes. It was about -- probably about a week that we didn't hear from her. Before we started calling the police.

O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): After multiple calls to police, her family eventually went to court.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And we got emergency guardianship of her and they went and they took her to a psychiatric hospital.

O'SULLIVAN: More than a year later --

(On-camera): How is she now?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She is fine now. She wants nothing to do with it. She's just really embarrassed that it all happened and she let herself get sucked into it. She is glad she got some help and she is doing much better.

O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): Her mother is home. Erica's brother, Jason, still attends Trump rallies with Protzman's followers. But the man standing next to Jason, his family is not so lucky.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And which one is that, Mom?


O'SULLIVAN: U.S. Marine veteran Klaus Richter went to Dallas, too.

(On-camera): You remember the last time you saw Klaus before he left for Dallas?

CARMEN RICHTER, MOTHER OF PROTZMAN FOLLOW: Yes. We sat up there in the living room. We sat for most of the night talking. I don't know why I was getting a little leery about it, maybe you just shouldn't go at all, you know?

O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): Klaus looked after his mom here in Sarasota, Florida. But when he didn't come home from Dallas, his family began to worry.

CLAUDETTE RICHTER, SISTER OF PROTZMAN FOLLOWER: I think with all of us, as time progressed and the longer he was gone, we all kind of started to get a little more concerned as to what was going on.

O'SULLIVAN: Klaus stayed in Dallas and began traveling the country with Michael Protzman's group, going to a series of Trump rallies. Photos and videos suggest he was having a good time, like here dancing in front of Protzman. But his sister Carmen says at one point he began to express concerns.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He goes, something is not right here. And I go, what are you going to do? You want to get like extricated? Let's get you out. And he is like, well, just give me a day or two.

O'SULLIVAN: But Klaus Richter never did leave the group. On April 14th, 2022 his sister Carmen got a call from Michael Protzman. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There was an accident and Klaus is in the

hospital. And I'm like, what?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's going to be a possible entrapment. There is going to be a power line down.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've got one confirmed injury.

O'SULLIVAN: Klaus was a passenger in this vehicle. The driver was this man, another member of Protzman's group.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Richter, what's your middle name, sir?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. Thank you, sir.

O'SULLIVAN: The Richter family rushed from their homes here to this hospital in Mobile, Alabama. When they eventually got here they were not able to see Klaus.

CLAUDETTE RICHTER: One of the individuals from the group claimed to be his daughter.

O'SULLIVAN: That woman began making decisions on Klaus's behalf according to medical records provided to CNN by his family.

CLAUDETTE RICHTER: And when we explained to the hospital that he did not have a daughter, they said, yes, it's his daughter, and you know, Mom basically explained to them, he doesn't have any children. Eventually we got up there. It was very disturbing.

O'SULLIVAN (on-camera): And you are a nurse.

CLAUDETTE RICHTER: Yes, correct. I knew automatically that it was a very grave situation. He was intubated, had a tube pretty much the whole left side of his body was crushed.

O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): Days later Klaus was dead. His obituary notes how he loved God and America and was a caretaker for his mother, always helping as needed.


CARMEN RICHTER: I love you, my son. I love you.

O'SULLIVAN: A grand jury in Alabama voted in April, 2023, to close the investigation into the crash, but the Richter family is still looking for answers about the circumstances surrounding Klaus's death and his treatment at the hospital including how someone falsely claiming to be his daughter could make medical decisions on his behalf.

CLAUDETTE RICHTER: When you lose somebody especially somebody unexpectedly you want answers.

CARMEN RICHTER: I hope they pay for what they did.

O'SULLIVAN (on-camera): We asked the University of South Alabama Health which runs this hospital for answers.

(Voice-over): They say they investigated this incident and found the hospital had acted appropriately.

But how do people get sucked into this world?

(On-camera): Michael, how are you? Why do people like you so much?

PROTZMAN: Bless you. So you're done?

O'SULLIVAN: Are you a con man?

PROTZMAN: No. I don't talk to press-titutes. The whores for -- globalist pimp. Get that out of my face. Shut the door.



ESKINE: I have 1700 notes in here and this is where I do all my calculations. My born name comes to 182.

O'SULLIVAN (on-camera): OK.

ESKINE: You know?

O'SULLIVAN: So what does that mean then?

ESKINE: Well, every alphabet letter is coded.

DIANE BENSCOTER, ANTIDOTE FOUNDER: Every cult has these things that from the outside seem crazy. They have the secret codes. These easy ideas to complex questions are very appealing when you are emotionally vulnerable.

O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): Diane Benscoter runs Antidote, an organization that helps people get out of cults. Diane knows a lot about cults because she says she was in one.

BENSCOTER: I went from being a lost teenager to being a disciple of the Second Coming of Christ.

O'SULLIVAN: She was in the Moonies better known as the Unification Church. They believed their leader Sun Myung Moon was Jesus Christ. From the Mansons --

CHARLES MANSON, MANSON FAMILY CULT LEADER: It's my world. I got rights that my father has died for. That my uncles bled for. That my kin and my kind died for all down the road.

O'SULLIVAN: To Jonestown, to Heaven's Gate. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you follow me, I can give you the good news of

the kingdom of heaven.

O'SULLIVAN: There has been no shortage of cults in America through the decades. They've all had leaders who present themselves as messiahs offering their followers warped, biblical promises. Cults can be appealing during times of tumult where people are looking for answers. Experts say COVID-19 was --

BENSCOTER: The perfect storm. There is a pandemic and we're told to stay inside and we don't know what's going on.

PROTZMAN: 716-1999 was JFK, Jr.'s plane crash date. Really? Seven could be 6 and 1. 61 is the red tie that Trump wears. 122 equals JFK, Jr. alive.

O'SULLIVAN (on-camera): Can you check what my name is?

ESKINE: Of course. Let's do it.

O'SULLIVAN: My name is Donie, D-O-N-I-E. O and --

ESKINE: It's 47. Yes. But Donie is 47.


ESKINE: John is 47. OK? See?

O'SULLIVAN: So the significance of my number is adding up to John's.

ESKINE: It just shows how powerful the language is. It shows our connection with God or with Jesus Christ or with the bloodline.


ESKINE: Of the good side.

ABOULHOSN: Negative 48 taught us Gematria, which is God's language.

O'SULLIVAN: Is Gematria mentioned in the bible?

ABOULHOSN: That's a good question. I'm not sure.

BYRD: I'm not positive. I don't know with that.

O'SULLIVAN: How do we know it's God's language?

BYRD: It's just -- it's mathematically impossible to have all those coincidences.

BENSCOTER: Human beings have psychological pain of different kinds. When they feel lost in their world it is relieved by these easy answers to life's hard questions, by these groups that claim that they're going to build a whole new world.

CARMEN RICHTER: Whenever he talked to me he had to go far away from this so we can actually talk.

O'SULLIVAN: So you're saying Klaus would be calling you.

CARMEN RICHTER: And he had to make sure that he could get away from them to talk.

O'SULLIVAN: Get away from who?

CARMEN RICHTER: The whole group.


BENSCOTER: Oftentimes family members are considered the enemy because they are the biggest threat and it's disloyal to be talking to the enemy.


VIGRASS: I got cut off for eight weeks, so in the very beginning, he wouldn't call me. He wouldn't text me. And I'm sure it was calculated. How else do you gain control of someone's life unless you keep them from their life?

PROTZMAN: Truth wins the day. 215.

O'SULLIVAN (on-camera): Michael Protzman built an audience on his Negative 48 Channel on the social media messaging app Telegram. At one point he had more than 80,000 followers there and was a prolific user of the app's audio stream feature where he preached for hours at a time.

PROTZMAN: I just go simple. And General Patton is Trump's father and his uncle is JFK, and that means JFK, Jr. and Trump were cousins.

BENSCOTER: I think a lot of times people just looking on will say I don't see what people see in this guy. He just looks like an idiot. You know, people say that about cult leaders all the time. But there's, I'm sure, some sort of charisma that he has when he is talking with his followers that just makes him seem like lofty.

PROTZMAN: Trump's first 15 words that night came to 1,087. Zero means nothing. 187.

BENSCOTER: And so interesting and he knows so much.

O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): Protzman's group has spent a lot of time here at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Dallas.

(On-camera): When is Kennedy showing up?


O'SULLIVAN: He's here.

(Voice-over): They call it the ark, another biblical reference.

PROTZMAN: Trust the plan, 174.

O'SULLIVAN: They travel the country going to Trump rallies.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are you guys with Negative 48? Whoo-hoo!

O'SULLIVAN: And they posted videos of stays in luxurious locations.

(On-camera): How is he paying for all this?

VIGRASS: I know he can't possibly be paying his way at the hotel for months and months on end. I've been told people are paying for him and they might pay for everyone.

PROTZMAN: And right now people are donating money because we're all out of town, we don't have suits, dresses and stuff.

O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): Until now, little was known about Michael Protzman's background. Public records show he lived in Washington state. Prior coming to Dallas in 2021 his wife had filed for divorce. His business shut down. His house was foreclosed. And a police report details an altercation with his wife where she says he was believing conspiracy theories about the government.

Michael Protzman called his followers back to Dallas in October, 2022, a year after the first gathering at the Grassy Knoll. Some of his followers again believed the Kennedys were coming back. Michael Protzman didn't answer our questions when we reached out to him but we did catch up with him at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, his so-called ark.

(On-camera): Rolling?


O'SULLIVAN: Michael, how are you? My name is Donie O'Sullivan. How are you?

PROTZMAN: Well, I'm beyond excellent but I got to go.

O'SULLIVAN: Where are you going?

PROTZMAN: Where I need to go.

O'SULLIVAN: Are you going trying to find Kennedy?

PROTZMAN: Ah, you'll find out.

O'SULLIVAN: When will I find out?

PROTZMAN: When the time is right. Timing is everything.

O'SULLIVAN: You got a big following here.


O'SULLIVAN: Yes. What is it that you do? Why do you think people like you so much? PROTZMAN: First of all, if you understood that A is 1 and Z is 26.

O'SULLIVAN: Gematria.

PROTZMAN: ABC as easy as 123. Trump ran on law and order, 115. The anointed 115. World War II had a thing called the purple code. Purple code 115. Trump JFK 115.

O'SULLIVAN: So what does this all mean?

PROTZMAN: His book, "Art of the Deal," 115.


PROTZMAN: The Resolute Desk that John-John hid under. The same desk Trump used because he is telling you he's hiding John-John.


O'SULLIVAN: Who is John-John?


O'SULLIVAN: JFK, Jr. died in a plane crash.

PROTZMAN: You'll find out.

O'SULLIVAN: Are you saying he didn't die in a plane crash?

PROTZMAN: You'll find out. Resolute 115.

O'SULLIVAN: Right. Like the Resolute Desk.

PROTZMAN: The assassination date right over here. Go add it up. 11-22- 1963. 11 plus 22 plus 19 plus 63, 115. We are at war, 115.

O'SULLIVAN: So what is the significance of 115?

PROTZMAN: You'll find out, 174.

O'SULLIVAN: What is my number?

PROTZMAN: Trust the plan, 174.

O'SULLIVAN: What is my number?

PROTZMAN: My number?


PROTZMAN: Is 174. But it's also 218 but I got to go.

O'SULLIVAN: Why is it that people like you so much? Are you a con man?


O'SULLIVAN: Are you? Are you taking these women for a ride literally?

PROTZMAN: No, they're taking me for a ride.

O'SULLIVAN: You were bankrupt, right?

PROTZMAN: I make them, and I am not bankrupt and they know it. See you later.

O'SULLIVAN: How are you making all --

PROTZMAN: I don't talk to press-titutes. The whores for -- globalist pimp. Get that out of my face. Shut the door.

O'SULLIVAN: So what did you make of that?

BENSCOTER: Well, I saw a few things in there. One, was what I call thought terminating cliches. He just kept saying, you'll find out. You'll find out. You'll find out. And that is the kind of thing that there is no real answer to. There is no explanation needed. You can just repeat these things and there is no way to kind of prove or disprove you'll find out. And so those are the kind of things that are really kind of a trademark of cults.

PROTZMAN: You're a fraud. You're fake news. Watch out. Get that out of my face.

BENSCOTER: And this type of deception, this type of controlling tactics.

O'SULLIVAN: With your expertise and your estimation, is Michael Protzman leading a cult?

BENSCOTER: Yes. In a word, yes.

O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): But who really is Michael Protzman?

(On-camera): Does your son run a cult?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't know. I don't know.

O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): After months of trying to get answers, Michael Protzman's mother agreed to sit down and talk to us.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But I know that that's not Michael. That's this person now that has drunk the Kool-Aid.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I know Michael was depressed. I think he felt like he had lost everything. He lost his family. He lost his business.

O'SULLIVAN (on-camera): So we wanted to understand a bit about who Michael Protzman was before he became Negative 48 and involved in all this JFK stuff. We came here to Washington state where he grew up, where he lived.

(Voice-over): Most of Michael's family didn't want to speak on camera except for his mother who agreed to talk to us if we didn't show her face.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He was just your average good kid. His friends would make fun of him because as he got older, you know, he was the one that didn't drink, didn't smoke, didn't do any of that stuff. He was just a good kid.

O'SULLIVAN: She told us how Michael was a loving dad, had two kids, and now has grand kids. He ran a demolition business and was anything but a diehard Republican.

(On-camera): Voted for Obama.




O'SULLIVAN: Hard to comprehend.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's just why I'm saying is that he is not -- he's not Michael Protzman.

PROTZMAN: An N plus four plus eight plus seven.

O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): Michael's mom says around 2015 her son was stressed and was worried about his family's financial future.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This kind of all started because he wanted to figure a way to invest for the future. And he started investigating buying silver. You know, going on the computer.

O'SULLIVAN: The world of online silver and gold goes hand in hand with the world of conspiracy theories.

ALEX JONES, INFOWARS: The real economy is imploding. The banks are looting us. People need to get into silver and gold.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That our money isn't going to be any good fairly soon. The world market is going to crash.

O'SULLIVAN: Eventually it became all Michael could talk about.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: As time went on, you know, family and friends didn't want to hear that anymore so I think he became more isolated. And the more isolated he became, the more he needed his family to agree with him, to believe everything that he believed. And we didn't. It had been evolved into Alex Jones and Infowars and Sandy Hook and the conspiracy of 911.


O'SULLIVAN: For a time Michael was sleeping in his car. He had lost his family. He had lost his business. But then he found Telegram.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I remember him telling his friends, I'm on Telegram. And all of a sudden I have these followers. He had been trying to convince us that he was right for years, and these people said, you're right. Like they say, if your family isn't with you, make your own family.

PROTZMAN: John Kennedy, 174, I am Jesus Christ 174.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: People are looking at him as this bad person, this possibly this intentional cult leader. Michael is just a lost person that felt like he had lost everything.

O'SULLIVAN: We listened to a recording of one of Protzman's Telegram streams where he outlined one of his theories.

PROTZMAN: The family tree goes like this. John-John and General Flynn and Trump are cousins.

O'SULLIVAN: Of course this is nonsense. And there is no evidence Michael Flynn or Donald Trump are attached to Protzman's group or believe in its theories.

PROTZMAN: And Trump's uncle is JFK, Sr. and Joan Kennedy who is also not dead.

O'SULLIVAN (on-camera): So when you hear that kind of thing --


O'SULLIVAN: It's not the Michael you knew.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, God, no. I mean, yes. Because it's not logical. It doesn't make sense. My heart breaks for the people that have been with him. I want them to know that he is a victim just like they were because three years ago he didn't have a group. He didn't have a following. He didn't start out to have a cult. He is complicit in now what is happening.

O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): What Protzman and his followers believe is objectively wacky but it's also dangerous.

(On-camera): Is there a cabal?

ABOULHOSN: You can call them cabal, you can call them the mafia, you can call them whatever you want. There is a group of people that run us all.

BYRD: And they go back all the way to the very beginning of the bible. And they sacrificed children.

O'SULLIVAN: When you say people run them all, are you talking about the Jews?

BYRD: There is a difference. There are traditional Jews and there are Zionist Jews. They were Khazarian Mafia. O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): What's being said here about this so-called

Khazarian Mafia is not true but it's a hugely popular antisemitic theory that emerged on QAnon forums after Russia invaded Ukraine. It's an example of how Americans who go down the rabbit hole can become submerged in a world of hate and extremism.

COOK: QAnon is rooted deeply in antisemitism that dates back centuries, all the way to Medieval blood libel, which was the false accusation that Jewish people were gathering and kidnapping Christian children and drinking their blood or using their blood to make matzah for Passover.

PROTZMAN: If you talked about Jews you're antisemite but you show me who I can't talk about, I'll show you who my enemy is. They didn't kill six million. They weren't gassing them. There was no chimney at Auschwitz when it started.

VIGRASS: This was when I went to meet Jason and I wanted to meet all of his friends.

O'SULLIVAN: In an attempt to get her brother to come home Erica Vigrass went to a Trump rally with him and other Protzman followers.

VIGRASS: When he introduced me to everybody he said to them, he goes, this little girl is the reason I'm going home in June. I thought that he was coming back. And he didn't. I'm sorry.

O'SULLIVAN: Michael Protzman's mom wanted her son home, too.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Maybe he thinks he doesn't have anything to come back to which is wrong.

O'SULLIVAN (on-camera): Michael has a family to come home to.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Definitely. Always has. Always will.

O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): But a few months after we spoke to Protzman's mom --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wabasha County 911.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's a guy been out for like three or four minutes. He's breathing but struggling with it. He's out, though. He's out cold.


O'SULLIVAN: Tragedy.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I want you all to know that this is real. Michael is in a hospital, he's in an ICU. He has been critically injured.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you know what happened?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, I didn't see it. But it's kind of -- have them hurry if you can because he's out.

O'SULLIVAN: On Friday, June 23rd, 2023, Michael Protzman was in a serious accident at this motocross track in Minnesota.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Michael has been in an accident. It's serious. He has an injury, potential brain injury is what we're looking at right now.

O'SULLIVAN: He was rushed to a hospital, never regained consciousness, and a week later, Michael Protzman was dead.


(On-camera): So what we know was he was in some kind of I think motocross accident.

SHELLY MULLINAX, PROTZMAN FOLLOWER: So they say. There's no proof of that.

O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): But even before it was made public Michael had died, there were conspiracy theories about his accident. Some believe he was murdered. Some suggesting he might have faked his death, like they believe JFK, Jr. did. Some even believe Michael Protzman was JFK, Jr. and that he'd gone back into hiding.

(On-camera): You don't believe he was in an accident?

MULLINAX FOLLOWER: I'm questioning it actually.

O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): Shelly Mullinax is a long time Negative 48 follower. We spoke to her at a Trump rally in South Carolina a few days after Protzman's accident.

(On-camera): You believe that JFK, Jr. didn't die.


O'SULLIVAN: And that he presents himself as different people?

MULLINAX: He's an actor. So actors play different parts, you know, like Madea.

O'SULLIVAN: Right. You do think it's possible that Michael is JFK, Jr.?

MULLINAX: I know that, yes.

O'SULLIVAN: It's been about a month since Michael Protzman died. It's been about five months since we were last here in Seattle, when we spoke to Michael Protzman's mom. Now back then, she didn't want to show her face on screen, not because she was embarrassed or ashamed, but because she thought it might upset Michael and she really still wanted her son to come home. Now things are very different.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm Colleen, Michael's mom. He really, truly got to the point where he believed that he was doing something that was going save people somehow. I mean, he truly believed it.

O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): Her message to the people who don't believe Michael is dead.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, his kids got to take his ashes home. I'm sorry that they feel -- you know, that they might want to believe that. But I feel that that's -- those are the people that want to keep stirring things up.

O'SULLIVAN (on-camera): They should stop?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They should really stop, yes. It's very harmful. And I -- our family just hopes and prays that some of these people that have, you know, followed Michael that they'll think twice and hopefully their families can help them back.

O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): Michael Protzman may be gone, but his followers are sticking together, still traveling to Trump rallies, still blinded by conspiracy theories.

COOK: You know, maybe QAnon gives them a sense of purpose. They can go from being a nobody to a digital soldier engaged in this battle to save humanity from all these forces of evil. Maybe they are looking for a sense of community.

O'SULLIVAN: All of this isn't just affecting families. It's affecting our society, our democracy. The January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol was inspired by conspiracy theories about the election, theories promoted from the very top levels of government.

BENSCOTER: I think we're at a real crisis situation. I think that we could lose democracy.

O'SULLIVAN (on-camera): What's your advice to somebody who has someone in their life who's coming to the kitchen table every night talking QAnon?

VIGRASS: Take it seriously. Know that it's far more insidious than it might seem in a conversation.

COOK: It's happening at the dinner table. It's happening over the phone with your grandmother. It's this damage that happens slowly and quietly where people get sucked deeper and deeper and deeper into these alternate realities.

BENSCOTER: You have to get empathy before you can be helpful to them. You want to help them be able to walk away from this with their dignity. And the further you argue with them and tell them they're stupid for believing this, the more their dignity is at stake. They're thinking, I have to stay with this and prove that it's right because they don't see a way out.

O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): Someone of Michael Protzman's followers have accepted that he is gone, but some still cling to the belief that he isn't really dead. And many of them continue to believe the conspiracy theories Michael Protzman preached.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And that's probably one of the reasons that I'm willing to do this is because if they think that I will come on here and tell them that my son is dead, and it's a lie, then really there's no hope for them.

O'SULLIVAN: But for those she can convince her son is dead --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Maybe they can put this behind them, you know, and realize that whatever they were following or looking for, at least this part is done.


COOPER: In the months since Michael Protzman's fatal motorcycle accident, his followers have attended some Trump rallies but seem to be spending much of their time at their own homes. It remains to be seen if they'll once again gather in Dallas in November on the anniversary of the assassination waiting for JFK.

Thanks for watching. I'll see you next Sunday.