A North Carolina man was arrested Sunday after he walked into a popular pizza restaurant in Northwest Washington carrying an assault rifle and fired one or more shots, D.C. police said. The man told police he had come to the restaurant to “self-investigate” an election-related conspiracy theory involving Hillary Clinton that spread online during her presidential campaign.
Sunday afternoon’s incident at the Comet Ping Pong restaurant caused panic, with several businesses going into lockdown.
Police said Edgar Maddison Welch, 28, of Salisbury walked in the front door of Comet Ping Pong and pointed a firearm in the direction of a restaurant employee. The employee was able to flee and notify police. Police said Welch then fired the rifle inside the restaurant.
He has been charged with assault with a dangerous weapon.
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Police initially said it was unclear what the motive for the shooting was but many in the neighborhood had suspected it might be related to “pizzagate.”
The popular family restaurant, near Connecticut and Nebraska avenues NW in the Chevy Chase neighborhood, was swept up in the onslaught of fake news and conspiracy theories prevalent during the presidential campaign. The restaurant, its owner, staff and nearby businesses have been attacked on social media and received death threats.
The owner of Comet Ping Pong, James Alefantis, released a statement that said, in part, “What happened today demonstrates that promoting false and reckless conspiracy theories comes with consequences.”
What happened today demonstrates that promoting false and reckless conspiracy theories comes with consequences.
James Alefantis, owner of Comet Ping Pong
Startled patrons rushed out of the restaurant onto Connecticut Avenue, taking shelter in nearby businesses that remained locked down for more than an hour.
Vivek Jain, of Potomac, Md., was eating lunch inside Banana Leaf, a nearby Indian restaurant, when Comet patrons came rushing inside. He said Banana Leaf was locked down for about 90 minutes.
“A bunch of people ran in from Comet and said a man walked in with a gun,” Jain said.
About 45 minutes later, he said, he saw a man walking backward out into the street with his hands in the air.
“He laid down on Connecticut Avenue and he was immediately picked up by the police and taken away,” he said.
Police said in addition to the assault rifle, they also recovered a handgun; the man may have had an additional weapon in his car. Bomb-sniffing dogs and at least one armored vehicle were present at the scene.
The restaurant’s owner and employees were threatened on social media in the days before the election after fake news stories circulated claiming that then-Democratic presidential nominee Clinton and her campaign chief were running a child sex ring from the restaurant’s back rooms. Even Michael Flynn, the retired general who has been tapped by President-elect Donald Trump to advise him on national security, shared the stories.
None of the stories were true. But the fake stories and threats persisted, some even aimed at the employees’ children. The restaurant’s owner was forced to contact the FBI, local police, Facebook and other social media platforms in an effort to remove the articles.
James Alefantis, the owner of Comet Ping Pong, did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment Sunday.
Last month, citing its policy against posting the personal information of others, Reddit banned the “pizzagate” topic.
But it didn’t stop the harassment, and nearby businesses have received threats as well, according to police.
On Sunday, after spending more than an hour on lockdown with employees and customers, Matt Carr, the owner of the Little Red Fox market and coffee shop, said his business started getting threats last weekend. They got 30 to 40 calls before they stopped answering calls from blocked numbers, he said. “One person said he wanted to line us up in front of a firing squad.”
The threats were all tied to the Comet Ping Pong accusations online, he said. “There’s some old painted-over symbol on the marquee that they claim is an international symbol of pedophilia, and that there are underground tunnels. … There’s some video on YouTube that has almost 100,000 views and talks about me, the owner of the Little Red Fox, by name.
“This was our worst fear,” he said, “that someone would read all this and come to the block with a gun. And today it happened.”