Part 1: The Early Years (1946-1970)
May 18th, 2012: Seven months before the Sandy Hook shooting, the man who would become the most notorious denier of that tragedy, Wolfgang Halbig, age 65, enters an office building in Orlando. He takes the elevator to the fifth floor, where some attorneys are waiting for him with a tape recorder, and a series of questions. Some of the questions will be about the facts surrounding the lawsuit he was pursuing against the city of Apopka — over responsibility for some cracked sidewalk that he had allegedly tripped over near his home in 2010 — but they would also be scrutinizing his life in general, the entire path that had brought him there. Practically everything he’d ever done, professionally or personally. And he knows that this time, he has to tell the truth. Or there would be consequences.
Wolfgang sits down at the table. The court reporter begins their recording. Wolfgang raises his right hand, and is sworn in. Then, the attorney begins his questions.
Wolfgang Halbig takes a deep breath.
In the Beginning
Wolfgang Walter Halbig was born somewhere in Germany—probably Heidelberg—on August 10th, 1946. (Making him a Leo, for those interested).
His mother, Gertrude, left him in the custody of her parents immediately after giving birth to him, and then apparently up and left town for the next twelve years. Similarly, whoever his father was, he seems to have already disappeared completely before Wolfgang was even born.
Very little is known about Wolfgang’s father. Wolfgang himself claims the man had been “in a concentration camp for three years” (sometimes four) before the war ended, one located in Posen, Poland. Posen was the site of POW camp Stalag XXI-D, while Heidelberg would be the site of a US troop garrison after the war, having been spared the destructive bombing campaigns that left many neighboring towns a smoking rubble by the time of the German surrender in May 1945. And Wolfgang’s birthdate suggests he was conceived sometime in December of that year. So, this all sounds credible.
(SIDE NOTE: Immediately, it’s necessary to explain something about the subject of our story: As we will soon see, Wolfgang Halbig develops into a prolific and shameless liar by the time he reaches adulthood. And while we will have plenty of official documents and contextual info to check his answers against in future entries, for these early years, we mostly have just Wolfgang’s word to go on. Furthermore, even if Wolfgang relates these details with sincerity, the fact is he was a small child at this point, and so presumably is only repeating things his mother or grandparents told him, and these relatives could very easily have been spinning stories of their own. So, pretty much everything in this post should be taken with an asterisk next to it, except for a few instances where it’s documented by a third party.)
If Wolfgang’s biological father was simply an allied soldier reluctant to accept responsibility for his child, it is known that the occupying US forces would have backed him up, as they did so even in cases of rape (which was tragically common in Germany after the war). As historian Miriam Gebhardt reports in Crimes Unspoken: The Rape of German Women at the End of the Second World War:
Of course, the men committing the rape didn’t leave an address, but it sometimes happened, especially when occupying troops were billeted in the houses of German civilians, that the women knew the name, rank and company of the perpetrator and child’s father, or had at least sufficient fragmentary information to find out who had made them pregnant. This did not mean that they were able to obtain financial support from them. Even after 1955, there was still a yawning gap between the legal situation and the reality. The headquarters of the US Army in Heidelberg, which was meant to serve the summonses of the guardianship courts – the army refused to serve the soldiers directly – often failed to fulfill its duty and even advised the soldiers in writing that they were not obliged to pay child maintenance and that coercive measures by the German courts were not supported or followed up by the US headquarters.
In many cases the German courts were unable even to ascertain whether a summons or order to pay had been served at all. Or they received a curt reply that, in spite of the precise details of his identity, the accused soldier had not been found by the headquarters. Or the cases were terminated summarily because the soldier concerned had been posted. Once he had departed to the USA, for example, it was impossible to follow up maintenance claims. Legal assistance, even between states within the USA, was unusual. There was no compulsory registration or poor people’s courts that might have paid for an insolvent father.
Whatever the case, Wolfgang claims to have never met his biological father, and no further information about the man is known.
His grandparents were Catholics, and raised him so. But he would not be a practicing Catholic as an adult.
According to a forum post Wolfgang wrote in 2009, he attended public school in Germany starting at age six, and “learned discipline and respect for my teachers and grandparents” during these years.
However, there are also signs that his upbringing involved exposure to domestic abuse. In a 2014 post to his Facebook account, Wolfgang writes “My grandfather beat the hell out of my grandmother because he was an alcoholic and I will never ever forget those days.”
One day, when Wolfgang was twelve years old, everything changed. His mother suddenly reappeared at his doorstep. And she wasn’t alone: she’d remarried, and she had Wolfgang’s new stepdad with her.
As if this wasn’t earthshattering enough for young Wolfgang, they also had some news: his time in Germany was over. Gertrude had married an American, and they were going to reclaim custody of Wolfang, bringing him with them back to the states. Wolfgang relates this milestone day in his life early in his 2012 deposition:
“Well, I never knew my mother till age 12. The week that I was confirmed in the Catholic Church, she shows up with this military guy. They’re married, and she tells me and my grandparents, who raised me up to this point, that “You’re going to the United States;” so I saw my grandparents having a huge fight. And the next thing I know, I’m headed to Rammstein Air Base and I’m coming to the United States. I got my shots and I was displaced from my grandparents and I was not very happy about it, ‘cause I never knew her. I didn’t know what the hell I’m doing with her, you know?”
Wolfgang didn’t know a word of English, and this state of “Florida” he’d be living in must have sounded as alien as Jupiter to him at the time. But he had no choice in the matter.
The newly-formed Halbig family thus arrived stateside in the summer of 1958, shortly after Wolfgang’s 12th birthday. But whoever his new stepfather was, he didn’t stick around long; he pulled much the same disappearing act as his biological father not long after the relocation, and is never heard from again.
(Some followers of Wolfgang’s story have speculated that this “stepfather” was actually his biological father, given that both of his parents disappeared shortly after his birth, and that his mother was mysteriously apt to relocate to the United States after spending twelve years in an unknown location — possibly Florida — where she happens to have met another man who had been in the United States military, and whom was also apt to disappear the moment his child appeared. But, that mindset also describes a lot of military veterans. They indeed picked up Wolfgang like he was luggage to bring along for their second attempt at a union, in the states. But we just don’t know.)
Wolfang’s mother, Gertrude, was a stranger to him up to this point, but she would raise him as a single parent until he reached adulthood. And she was also the only person in his new life who could understand German, which made immediately him reliant on her, despite this sense of alienation.
Not much is known about his teenage years; in one comment he posted to a CNN article in November of 2012, Wolfgang claimed “I picked fruit at age 12 all through High School to help my mother and I liked it because I got paid for my work.”
According to Wolfgang’s recollections of this part of his life, he did not learn to speak English fluently until well after high school. But meanwhile, his body was developing into that of an athlete; he was muscular, with a large frame, qualities that the sports coaches in his district were on the lookout for. By high school, he was six feet tall, and excelling at football in particular—enough for him to get by academically, regardless of his inability to understand the language anyone at the school was speaking. He describes his recognition of this dynamic in an interview with Dave Gahary from 2014:
“I gotta tell you, when I came to this country at age twelve, I mean, I was scared to death. I’m in public schools, I remember being in fifth grade, I couldn’t speak a word of English. They didn’t have [English as a Second Language instruction]. I sat there in the back of the room every day, EVERY day, and eventually I got a scholarship to play football out in Texas, and it sorta changed my life. Athletics changed my life.”
In his 2012 deposition, Halbig recalls that he was first asked to play football “because they thought I was so big; the first thing they had me playing was center…because I was German and didn’t understand the game of football. They told me all I had to do was bend over and snap the ball whenever the guy said a certain number.”
But despite his size, Wolfgang soon found that he was not up for the physical rigors of playing that position — “I got tired of getting beat up all the time,” as he would put it in 2012 — and he requested the team move him to halfback. The team obliged. And the thrived in his new position.
His aptitude for playing sports would define his life’s path for the next few years. Although he could “barely” speak a word of English by his senior year at Avon Park High School, he was on the fast-track for graduation. In his 2012 deposition, Wolfgang would struggle to explain how.
The likely explanation is that college football was — and continues to be — a major cultural force in South Florida, and while it appears that Wolfgang was perhaps not quite a future-pro player, he was at least a prospect. According to newspaper profiles from a few years later (Abilene Reporter, Sep 8 1971) he was good enough to earn a full scholarship to Florida State University as he exited high school—though he would first have to spend a year at Coffeyville College in Kansas, which he would describe as “a junior college for Florida State players who couldn’t speak English… they thought my chances in a four-year school were bad and they thought I couldn’t make it because of the English problem.”
In the one year he spent at Coffeyville, he played linebacker, and made All-Conference, helping his team to a 9-1 record for the season. Asked if the year at Coffeyville helped him learn English, he says “not fluently.” But he apparently progressed enough to satisfy Florida State University, who brought him back to their campus in Tallahassee for his second year of college. It was a big opportunity for young Wolfgang — except just four days after he arrived, he got some bad news.
…Draft? What Draft?
As it turned out, Wolfgang was still not a naturalized American citizen at this point. FSU said that was no big deal, they would just need to see his draft card, and they could proceed with enrollment. And that was the REAL problem: Wolfgang had not registered for the draft. And it was 1966. There was a little something called the Vietnam War going on. (Wolfgang would insist in interviews from the 1970s that he had “no idea the draft existed” at the time. This is a highly dubious claim, given how he was surely surrounded with draft-aged men during his year at Coffeyville.)
Wolfgang’s recollection of how this all unfolded is pretty jumbled by the time of his 2012 deposition; it sounds as though he found out that his lottery number would have already been called, if he had registered for the draft, and so they were ready to draft him right there on the spot.
Whatever the bureaucratic process was, in the end he did enlist with the United States Air Force, “rather than joining the army” (per his comments in a 1971 profile). He was first stationed at San Antonio’s Lackland Air Force Base, before a transfer to Dyess Air Force Base, in Abilene, Texas, where he would spend the next few years, primarily as a “combative measures instructor.” He describes the role as “teaching pilots — E-52 bomber pilots, C-130 tanker pilots and load testers — how to kill people in the event they had a crash or eject from the aircraft.” He never got a pilot’s license.
One part of his duties that would linger in his memory, given his later career path(s), was that he was responsible for training some of the base staff on safety measures in case of disaster:
“In the United Air Force I was trained in Disaster Preparedness in light of the fact that our base served as a B-52 Bomber base with nuclear weapons. The number one issue that confronted the base and the community on a daily bases was what if a B-52 Bomber crashed and an accident occurred triggering an explosion. How would we handle such a scenario?”
He continued playing sports while on-base, excelling in baseball, softball, and tennis.
Despite the state of the Vietnam War, he would not serve overseas at all; asked why this was the case in his 2012 deposition, Wolfgang claims it was because, again, “I was not a naturalized citizen.”
He rectified that finally in May 1968, in Abilene. This is one of the singular moments in Wolfgang’s life, a scene he would recount over and over in his various sales pitches in the decades to come: standing in the federal courtroom in Abilene, having just finished his exam, and reciting an oath of citizenship with his “right hand raised.” He considered it “earning the privilege.”
An interview Wolfgang would do with Jeff Rense from 2014 is a classic of the form:
“I’m a naturalized US citizen, I came through this country at age twelve, I couldn’t speak a word of English. But I’ll tell you what: The day I raised my right hand in a federal court, and I remember that federal judge says, ‘Congratulations, you are now a United States Citizen,’ my god I got goosebumps. My, that — that is the greatest day in your life! You know? And now, to be told you can’t ask questions…”
In 1970, a couple of years after the citizenship ceremony, Halbig got his discharge papers — honorable, at rank E-4 — and he promptly picked his life back up, right as he left it in 1966: at the start of what looked like a promising college football career, and what would in many ways be the most successful and happy period in his life… But it was also when his personality first started to become apparent to those around him. And then, the problems start.
(continued in Pt 2: Gridiron Daze)
Austin “Blade” Tompkins is a certified forklift and order-picker operator located in the province of Ontario. He was an active Sandy-Hook “hoaxer” from 2013 to 2014. He has been sober since 2015.