WASHINGTON — A 28-year-old North Carolina man armed with an assault rifle who police say traveled to a popular D.C. pizzeria to “self-investigate” a fake news story about a child sex ring being run there by Hillary Clinton campaign operatives was ordered held without bond at his first court appearance Monday.
Edgar Maddison Welch, of Salisbury, North Carolina, is accused of carrying an AR-15 assault rifle into the Comet Ping Pong at the corner of Connecticut and Nebraska avenues Sunday afternoon, pointing it at an employee and firing shots inside the restaurant. Employees and customers fled the restaurant and no one was injured, but the incident shut down parts of Connecticut Avenue and led to a heavy police response.
Welch has been charged with assault with a dangerous weapon and three other weapons-related charges. D.C. Magistrate Judge Joseph Beshouri ordered Welch held without bond during his court appearance Monday. Welch’s next court appearance is Thursday.
Welch told police he came to the restaurant armed after reading online conspiracy theories about the restaurant, according to charging documents presented in court Monday. Welch told police he had read online that the pizzeria “was harboring child sex slaves and that he wanted to see for himself if they were there,” the documents state. Welch “stated that he was armed to help rescue them.”
Police said they received a call about a man with a gun at the Comet Ping Pong restaurant shortly after 3 p.m. Sunday. An employee told police he had briefly left the restaurant to retrieve pizza dough from a freezer in the back when he heard “three loud bangs” coming from inside. When the employee went back inside, the gunman “began to turn the AR-15 rifle toward his direction,” and the employee ran out of the restaurant, according to the police documents.
About 20 minutes later, police said Welch exited the restaurant with his hands in the air and followed the commands of police officers who had set up a perimeter around the restaurant.
Welch told police he decided to surrender peacefully to authorities “when he found no evidence that underage children were being harbored in the restaurant,” the charging documents stated.
Earlier Monday, D.C. police identified the firearm Welch carried into the restaurant as a black Colt 9mm carbine and said they also recovered a black Colt .38 caliber revolver and shotgun.
The restaurant was closed Monday. Employees inside the restaurant had described a “bizarre,” terrifying ordeal.
Bartender Lee Elmore told news outlets that people in the restaurant started to panic as the man walked to the back of the restaurant.
“One of the hosts runs up and says did you see that guy? He had a big gun,” Elmore said. “His demeanor was bizarre, in that if you come in to a place to eat, you ask for a host or grab a seat at the bar,” Elmore said. “Didn’t make any eye contact, didn’t talk with anybody.”
The owner of the pizzeria said the incident shows there are consequences to spurious online conspiracy theories that swirled around social media during the presidential election and continue online.
The D.C. restaurant attracted national attention after fake news stories falsely claimed Clinton and her presidential campaign chief ran a child sex ring out of the restaurant.
“We should all condemn the efforts of certain people to spread malicious and utterly false accusations about Comet Ping Pong, a venerated D.C. institution,” restaurant owner James Alefantis said in a statement Sunday evening. “Let me state unequivocally: These stories are completely and entirely false, and there is no basis in fact to any of them. What happened today demonstrates that promoting false and reckless conspiracy theories comes with consequences.”
Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine, the co-owners of Politics and Prose, an independent bookstore a few doors down from Comet Ping Pong, said they and other businesses on the block also received threats and menacing phone calls in recent weeks.
Graham said the store has taken the threats seriously, reporting them to police. He expressed frustration that police seemed uninterested before Sunday’s shooting in investigating more thoroughly.
Still, at least one person clinging to the conspiracy theories is prominently connected to President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team. Michael Flynn Jr. is an adviser to his father, Michael Flynn, whom Trump selected to serve as national security adviser.
Flynn Jr. has sent numerous posts on Twitter about the Pizzagate conspiracy theories. Flynn Jr., who has accompanied his father to presidential transition meetings inside Trump Tower and lists the presidential transition website as part of his Twitter bio, tweeted Sunday night that, “Until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it’ll remain a story.”
Trump’s team had no immediate response to questions about the conspiracy theory or the younger Flynn’s role in the transition.
WTOP’s Megan Cloherty and The Associated Press contributed to this report.