On Nov. 12, Neely Petrie-Blanchard set out from Pensacola, Florida, on a 300-mile road trip to meet a man she told family members could help her regain custody of her three daughters, her family said.
Petrie-Blanchard, 34, had been engaged in custody battles for more than 10 years, with her mother having recently served as guardian of her twin daughters. In that time, her behavior had become increasingly erratic, according to interviews with her mother and her sister, and she had begun to espouse conspiracy theories about child abuse including QAnon — an internet-born conspiracy theory that baselessly claims there is a secret war between President Donald Trump and a cabal of elites who abuse children.
Her efforts to find a way to regain custody led her to Chris Hallett, the man she drove to see, the family said. His company, E~Clause Loss Prevention, offered online tutorials that encouraged followers to broadly question government authority and often disregard laws altogether.
Hallett and Petrie-Blanchard met online around four years ago, and she became a devotee, even fastening an “ECLAUSE” license plate to the back of her car at one point, her family members said. She often appeared in his livestreamed legal theory sessions. The two also found common ground in QAnon.
On Nov. 15, authorities found Hallett, 50, dead from multiple gunshot wounds inside his Ocala, Florida, home. Five days later, the Marion County, Florida, Sheriff’s Office charged Petrie-Blanchard with second-degree murder.
According to the police report, witnesses told authorities that she shot Hallett because she said he was conspiring with the government to keep her children from her.
“You’re hurting my children, you bastard,” she said to Hallett the night of the shooting, according to a probable cause affidavit NBC News obtained from the sheriff's office.
Petrie-Blanchard told NBC News from the Marion County Jail a public defender advised her not to discuss any specific details about the night Hallett was killed.
Petrie-Blanchard's mother, Susan Blanchard, said she received a call from her daughter on Nov. 15, shortly after authorities say the shooting took place.
Petrie-Blanchard’s half sister, Savannah Hendricks, said she was also on the call, in which Petrie-Blanchard alluded to allegations of child trafficking.
There is no evidence that Hallett was involved in child trafficking, though his purported legal advice sometimes did encourage people to abduct their own children, according to Petrie-Blanchard’s family. Instead, the circumstances around the shooting echo other acts of violence that have been linked to the QAnon community, particularly mothers who have tried to regain custody of their children. Hallett is not a licensed lawyer in the state of Florida.
Hallet's son and his wife did not respond to a request for comment.
Two women in Utah and Colorado who are accused of kidnapping their own children appeared to be motivated by the baseless QAnon belief that child welfare officials are deep-state pedophiles, according to court records.
Emily Jolley in Salt Lake City, Utah, who is facing a third-degree felony charge for custodial interference across state lines, claimed on Facebook the warrants for her arrest were falsified and denied abducting her son. Cynthia Abcug, the Colorado woman, has pleaded not guilty to second-degree kidnapping. Both cases are still pending.
The Daily Beast has reported the E~Clause philosophy — a fringe legal theory that encourages followers to broadly question government authority and often disregard laws altogether — may have inspired several other noncustodial parents to take the law into their own hands.
Officials say Petrie-Blanchard fled to Georgia after the killing and invoked Hallett’s sovereign citizen teachings when they arrested her the morning after the shooting.
“She implied that the laws of the United States didn’t apply to her because of her beliefs in the sovereign nation, that we shouldn’t arrest her,” Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk said. “Of course, that doesn’t work too well.”
Petrie-Blanchard’s family said they believe Hallett’s death may have been preventable, had she consented to mental health treatment and not been released on bail from a separate criminal charge. Petrie-Blanchard had been out on bond at the time Hallett was shot after allegedly abducting her twin daughters, 8, from their grandmother, Susan Blanchard, in March. A Kentucky grand jury recently indicted Petrie-Blanchard on kidnapping charges stemming from the alleged abduction. Blanchard had legal custody of the twins at the time.
Petrie-Blanchard said she was placed on suicide watch while in custody at the Marion County Jail, although she’s since been released into the general population. According to the Marion County clerk of courts, she will be arraigned on a second-degree murder charge Dec. 22.
"They knew she was mentally unstable,” Hendricks said of her half-sister. “And then something horrible has happened and now she’s gone forever.”