WASHINGTON — A 28-year-old North Carolina man who is accused of shooting a firearm inside a well-known Northwest D.C. pizzeria on Sunday has another court appearance Thursday morning.
Edgar Maddison Welch of Salisbury, North Carolina, went to Comet Ping Pong to investigate an online conspiracy theory about the restaurant, falsely claiming it housed a child sex ring connected to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. The story was posted on fake news sites and magnified on social media, pulling other neighboring businesses on the block south of Chevy Chase into its seemingly inescapable gravity.
Besta Pizza, French bistro Terasol, and popular bookstore Politics and Prose are among several businesses — neighbors of Comet Ping Pong — under increased security after the gunman disturbed the Sunday afternoon calm on Connecticut Avenue Northwest.
“Anybody who drives by now will likely see a patrol car or two and also a policeman walking the block,” said Bradley Graham, co-owner of Politics and Prose.
Even before Welch walked into the pizzeria, nearby businesses had been in touch with police and the FBI about threats they had received because their names had surfaced in strange, online postings involving Comet with bogus reports of hidden tunnels and nefarious doings in the neighborhood.
“It took on a life of its own and the next thing we knew, we were getting threatening messages on social media and menacing phone calls,” Graham said.
D.C. police say if businesses receive specific threats, they should contact police; these businesses should also expect additional patrols through the holidays.
Welch’s actions brought into sharp relief the potential for violence that could be sparked by groundless conspiracy theories spread online.
“We’ve become a kind of test case for local and federal authorities to focus on in terms of how to deal with this growing phenomenon of fake news,” Graham said.
Welch has a preliminary hearing scheduled at 9 a.m. Thursday in D.C. Superior Court. He faces several charges that include assault with a dangerous weapon, carrying a pistol without a license and unlawfully discharging a firearm.