AUSTIN — It was the winter of 1997 and Alex Jones couldn’t stop getting punched in the face.

Out on the cracked asphalt of Austin Public Access Television’s parking lot, under the sprawling Texas live oaks, Jones was very much losing a fight to a man known affectionately in Austin’s alternative media scene as "SpaceHitler."

According to multiple reports and interviews with two eyewitnesses, for months, SpaceHitler (real name: Clayton Counts) had been prank-calling Jones’ largely unsuccessful public-access TV show and mocking the exasperated host as "Jarhead Jones" until his call was disconnected. On this particular day, Counts and a gaggle of friends showed up to an ACTV open house with the intention of taunting the 22-year-old host in person.

According to one witness, Counts’ crew traded insults with Jones for a few minutes until one of Counts’ friends started back in with Jones’ least favorite barb: Jarhead.

That’s when Jones asked them to “step outside.”

It's not entirely clear just what happened next — a police report tells only Jones’ side of the story — but witnesses to the brawl said the broadcaster bolted to his car, rummaged under his driver’s seat, and mimed tucking something in the back of his waistband while muttering about using a gun for self-defense.

"Go ahead and shoot me," one of Counts’ friends said, before knocking Jones square in the face with a surprise haymaker.

“Alex tried to fight back but was throwing wild punches with no form,” one witness, Charlie Sotelo, said recently. “The guy is no fighter.”

Eventually, someone called the police. Counts and his friends left before they arrived. Sotelo stayed behind with a bleeding and increasingly belligerent Jones, who was pacing back and forth, raving about “counterculture Generation X types” and spinning up the sort of conspiracy-soaked rant that would decades later make him famous and rich. “Alex is hopped up on adrenaline and he couldn't compose himself,” Sotelo said. “He's claiming to everyone there are more people than there were and that one of them had a knife. Total lies.”

Sotelo — who'd so far managed to stay out of the scuffle — told Jones he was full of shit. Jones kept ranting, the blood from his busted lip misting onto Sotelo's brand-new shirt. Jones threw a punch and missed; Sotelo threw a punch and did not. Police soon had to separate the two, leading Sotelo back into the studios.

“When I came out, Jones was unhinged,” Sotelo recalled. “He just can't help himself — he can't shut it off and he starts yelling at the police." At some point, Jones' father showed up. He calmed his son down and wrote Sotelo a $100 check for the ruined shirt. (Sotelo later gave the shirt away on his own public-access show: “The joke was that you could use the dried blood to clone Alex,” he said. “It went fast.")

“He just can't help himself — he can't shut it off."

In the end, no one pressed charges. Later, when he spoke about the incident to a local reporter, Jones first suggested he’d been the one who was attacked, and then denied the incident ever took place. In a statement to Austin Police Detective Dusty Heskew, Jones said he was unfairly “taunted” by four to five men, one of whom had “eyes that look like a goat’s...and pasty white green skin” and wielded “a double edged military type killing knife.” According to Jones, Counts was dangerously “obsessed” with him. “I am not an easy person to scare, but I believe that he bears me incredible malice,” he said at the time. “I am in fear of losing my life.”

Though that statement predates by decades the Infowars media empire Jones would later create, it now looks like an early playbook for his wildly successful libertarian- and conspiracy-news juggernaut: Take a kernel of truth, warp it and its context in a funhouse mirror, and set it against a heavy backdrop of conspiracy, while raising the stakes with a generous dose of fear. The strategy has made Jones — a stocky central Texan with a penchant for clamorous outbursts, fanciful digressions, and meandering stream-of-consciousness monologues — a celebrity. It's also made Infowars — his broad kingdom of media properties, including a website, webstore, and four-hour daily broadcast — a required part of the far right's media diet.

In 1997, it was a statement to Detective Heskew. Post-9/11, it became a daily broadcast to an audience of millions with a singular message: There’s an imminent war for your mind. Evil, powerful forces have rigged the system. And Jones — blustering, outrageous, utterly captivating — is the one who will stop it, if only Americans would wake up and stop dismissing him as a jester.

After two decades, they have. Jones has today found a place in a United States he helped create, led by a president he helped push into office. From the beginning, Donald Trump was a human distillation of Jones’ anti-establishment, anti-globalist, pro-libertarian, massively paranoid worldview; Jones, meanwhile, was an enthusiastic messenger for Trump’s campaign. There was Trump’s appearance on Jones’ show, in which he praised the host’s reputation as “amazing”; Infowars’ “Hillary For Prison” T-shirts, ubiquitous at campaign rallies; Jones’ championing of WikiLeaks’ emails dump and his characterization of Hillary Clinton as, among other things, “a complete wanton power-tripping self-worshipping devil worshipper”; and finally, on in the earliest hours of November 9, a tearful Jones outlining Trump’s plan to “build a better world” while clinking champagne glasses with Trump advisor Roger Stone and listening to Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way.”

After 15 years of obscurity, Jones has the audience and the influence he always wanted. And yet, he is, somehow, off his game. He spent the first 100 days of the Trump administration — what should have been the honeymoon period — apologizing for his role in promoting the "Pizzagate" conspiracy theory, retracting his claims to stave off legal action, and, perhaps most unexpectedly, trying to convince a jury that some of his most salacious on-air diatribes were really just "performance art" all along.

Jones, an unwavering professional conspiracy theorist, is being interrogated about his true beliefs just as his golden age of conspiracy is ascendant. But conversations with 25 people in Jones’ orbit indicate that his troubles don’t stem from a split between the character and the human, but from the fact that Jones is eminently and unquestionably himself at all times. Jones has been this way since he was brawling among parked cars. It’s made him a fortune, but now that his moment is finally here, it could be his undoing.

Alex Jones appearing on one of his early shows on Austin Public Radio.

Austin History Center / YouTube / Via youtube.com

The son of a homemaker and prominent dentist, Jones moved from Dallas to Austin as a teenager. In the early '90s, the city was a dirt-cheap home to artists, musicians, and zine makers living in an estuary of bohemian and honky-tonk influences. It was, according to Shannon Burke, a local talk-radio host, “the perfect incubator for him. It’s that libertarian and weirdness blend that wouldn’t have worked had he been born in Milwaukee.”

And nowhere was that weirdness better showcased than Austin Public Access, the TV station where Jones got his first big break. In the '90s, ACTV “was wild and unmoderated — like the YouTube of its time,” Brian Blake, the station’s longtime producer and IT director, explained. For Jones, then just out of high school, it was a huge opportunity — a chance to spend an hour in front of a camera saying pretty much anything he wanted to Austin’s night owls.

From his first broadcast, Jones targeted the threat of the New World Order, which he had first encountered in the book None Dare Call It Conspiracy, discovered on his father’s bookshelf. His earliest monologues were stark and raw; Jones would deliver his homilies from a bare table, surrounded by stacks of newspaper and often fumbling with his words. But the message and the intensity were indistinguishable from the Jones on the air in 2017.

“He just walked into the booth, sat down, and started in on a rant cold — I never saw anything like that.”

Jones was a modest public-access success, but he owes his first real media job to his dentist father, who solicited a station manager at the Austin talk radio station KJFK during a routine teeth cleaning. “He said, ‘My son’s got some out-there ideas but I think he’d be perfect,'" Daryl O’Neal, the KJFK manager who brokered the deal, explained. "The next week he brought Alex in for a meeting." To secure Jones a spot on the station, Jones’ father became his son's first on-air advertiser.

Jones was a natural. “He just walked into the booth, sat down, and started in on a rant cold — I never saw anything like that,” Ryan Schuh, Jones’ former studio engineer, said of his first broadcast. Other early co-workers said that Jones’ famous, and often disorienting, theatrics have been there from the start. Burke described a moment when a caller attacked Jones on air as a soft, buttoned-up media type. Jones, according to Burke, erupted into tears, yelling, ‘My name is Alexander Jones and I played football, man, and my parents are still married and I'm a damned American!' The caller was stunned.

“We went to break right after that, and he puts his head in hands and is rubbing his eyes all sheepish,” Burke recalled. “He turned to me and said, ‘Was I crying too much? I just turn it on sometimes and I don't know how to stop!'”

Jones wouldn't confirm or deny this anecdote, or any others. He responded to BuzzFeed News' list of questions with a short statement: “Most of the information below is pure fiction.” Pressed for clarification, he offered this: “Make up what ever you want, don't use me as a prop in your piece to pretend its not fiction.”

Jones speaks during a rally in support of Trump near the 2016 Republican National Convention.

Brooks Kraft / Getty Images

On a sweltering, cloudless morning last month, Jones sat in a stuffy third-floor courtroom watching the persona he’d spent two decades building stand trial. He was fighting for custody of his three children in what would be a grueling two-week ordeal, and his lawyers were making the case that Jones' 20-year career propagating outlandish conspiracy theories shouldn't be considered an indictment of his parenting skills. It was "performance art," and nothing more. A typically ordinary matter of family law had thus come to hinge on a more extraordinary question: Where does Jones the character end and Jones the person begin?

Jones’ lawyers argued, essentially, that there are two Alex Joneses: the staid family man and the professional provocateur. But over nearly 10 hours on the stand, the testimony of Jones the man revealed a volatile, restless, and sometimes charming personality that closely resembled the Jones that presides over Infowars’ video and radio broadcasts.

A typically ordinary matter of family law had come to hinge on a more extraordinary question: Where does Jones the character end and Jones the person begin?

Jones shifted in his chair like a child enduring a long sermon, his round, deeply expressive face a cartoon reel of exasperation and incredulity. Many of Infowars’ greatest hits made their way to the court record: Questioned about his marijuana use, Jones denied being a regular user, claiming he simply tests the drug yearly “to monitor its strength like law enforcement does." (He also blamed billionaire political donor George Soros for increasing its potency.) Later, during a brutally personal line of questioning about his sex life, Jones erupted. “You have just no decency — how you spin this — I’ve never seen anything like it on TV or in movies,” he bellowed.

“Do you think that’s an appropriate way to behave in this court, sir?” the opposing attorney countered.

“It’s been said before in federal court — ‘Have you no decency?!’” Jones shot back through gritted teeth.

It was a perfectly Jonesian moment: earnest but performative, nakedly emotional, and completely courageous in its conviction, no matter the cost. As is usually the case when Jones takes the floor, the room was rapt.

People who worked with Jones during his early career describe him as perpetually "on" and ceaselessly focused on rooting out conspiracy of all kinds. “It was 24/7,” O’Neal recalled. On days when the crew would gather at a house or bar after work, Jones would sometime show up with a pile of documents in tow, touting it as evidence of some globalist threat. “He’d come over and go into his spiel and we’d tell him to be cool and he'd yell, 'THIS IS SERIOUS STUFF,'” Matthew Hobley, a KJFK employee, recalled. “We’d be like, ‘Damn, Alex, it’s our day off.’ But he’d go and go and by the time he was finished there were papers everywhere.”

Others who knew him at this time remembered Jones as volatile, easily bruised, and prone to vengeance. One associate recalled Jones tearing down bulletin board memos from fellow station producers who’d criticized one of his more controversial segments. And an Austin Chronicle article from July 2000 cites multiple public-access producers who claimed “that Jones has used both ACAC policy and legal maneuvers to intimidate them or get them thrown off the air.”

“Being on TV or radio has a way of changing you,” Austin Chronicle founder Louis Black, an early Jones critic and frequent target of Jones’ early rants, said. “And for Alex it was always, always about ego. When he got that validation, there was no going back.”

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