DC police arrested a man who allegedly walked through the Comet Ping Pong restaurant in Chevy Chase with a gun on Sunday afternoon. The man, who police identified Sunday night as Edgar Maddison Welch of Salisbury, North Carolina, entered the pizza restaurant a little before 3 PM and proceeded to walk toward the back room where some patrons were playing table tennis. Other businesses in the neighborhood, including Politics & Prose, were locked down as police swarmed the block.
A witness described the alleged gunman as a tall blond male. Police said Welch pointed his weapon toward a restaurant employee, who was able to flee. Welch then allegedly fired at least one shot into the ground. No injuries were reported. The restaurant’s staff moved quickly to call the police and evacuate the restaurant. In a tweet, police described the weapon as an “assault rifle.”
Welch told police Sunday evening that he went to Comet Ping Pong in order to investigate “Pizzagate,” a fictional conspiracy theory that popped up during the election season and made the restaurant the unlikely center of far-right outrage predicated on hacked emails from Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. The restaurant, which also hosts music shows, announced last Thursday it would add security to its music shows following intense, mostly remotely conducted harassment of the venue and its employees.
“There have been no hostile situations at the venue, and we do not anticipate any altercations as much of the harassment has occurred online, but as a precaution we now have security and police present at every show,” Comet wrote on its Facebook page. Last week the DC police said they were “monitoring the situation and aware of general threats being made against this establishment” and had “directed the staff to notify MPD should they receive specific threats or have concerns about their safety.”
The venue did not have any music events scheduled for Sunday.
“A lot of us saw he had a gun and we all started getting our families out,” says Sharif Silmi, a Maryland lawyer who was at the restaurant with his wife and three children. “The staff came and got us.”
Matt Carr owns Little Red Fox, a cafe and coffeeshop next door to Comet. Carr was making sandwiches when a couple of Comet Ping Pong waiters rushed in his cafe and market and told him to lock the doors. They’d seen the man with a gun blow past the host stand and head to the back of the restaurant. He didn’t say a word to anyone from what they could tell.
With two to three minutes, Carr saw at least seven to nine police cars swarm the restaurant. Twenty to 30 people huddled in the center of his store away from the glass windows.
“There was a dad with his three-year-old daughter. I was just trying to monitor the situation, and I saw police officers hiding behind their cars waiting to see what was going to happen,” Carr says.
Carr estimates they were on lockdown for about an hour. He got a text from Comet Ping Pong owner James Alefantis saying everyone was okay next door.
Silmi says his family stopped by Comet Ping Pong as part of a day trip to Chevy Chase that also included plans to stop by Politics & Prose and the Little Red Fox bakery, Comet Ping Pong’s neighboring businesses on its homey block of Connecticut Ave., Northwest, which have caught some spillover flak from Pizzagate conspiracy theorists.
Police, who Silmi says arrived about two to three minutes after the gunman entered the restaurant, have not released the suspect’s name.
Silmi says that since the November 8 election, he and his family, who are Muslim, have felt a bit more cautious.
“You’re a little bit more on guard, ” he says. “We stick to areas that are fairly progressive, multicultural. I’ve been overseas quite a bit in the Middle East. You’re on guard there. Chevy Chase, You don’t expect it.”
Acting DC Police Chief Peter Newsham told reporters Sunday evening that Welch walked into Comet Ping Pong and did fire at least one shot into the ground. Police added that the Welch’s car is registered in North Carolina.
Welch made no vocal threats or demands during the incident inside Comet Ping Pong, police say.
Little Red Fox and other neighboring businesses have been harassed by online conspiracy theorists along with Comet Ping over the last few weeks. Carr has been constantly blocking people on Twitter and trying to report attacks on Google reviews. He says he recently had to remove from Instagram a photo of his 2-year-old son eating a scone after receiving distressing comments.
Last weekend, he started to receive threatening phone calls, too. One caller told him he “wanted to line us up in front of a firing squad.” Carr called the police and FBI and has stopped answering calls from blocked numbers. He has considered hiring a lawyer to help remove some of the false information online, including YouTube videos that mention him and Little Red Fox by name. “It’s just a lot of money to spend for a little small business,” he says.
Little Red Fox is closed on Mondays, but bakers will be going in tomorrow to continue production, and the shop will be open as usual on Tuesday.
“I really hope the FBI can do something about all what’s online. I think it’s really dangerous to have all this false information out there,” Carr says.
Welch was accused last month of hitting a 13-year-old boy with car in his hometown of Salisbury last month, according to WBTV, a Charlotte-area television station. One witness told the station Welch did not appear to try to steer out of the way of a group of teenagers that included the victim. Welch stayed at the scene of the collision and waited for police, WBTV reported at the time. A local police report obtained by Slate confirms a 28-year-old Salisbury resident named Edgar Maddison Welch as the driver.
Alefantis told reporters Sunday night that his entire staff will be getting a day off Monday, and that the restaurant will likely reopen Tuesday. He also said, as he already has many times, that the rumors being spread about him and his business are completely false. In a statement, he said “there will be a time and a place to address how and why this happened in greater detail.”
Here’s Alefantis’s statement in full:
Comet Ping Pong has been a beloved institution in Washington for the past decade. We are heartened by the support and loyalty of our customers and our community. They are our lifeblood and we will continue to serve them joyfully for the decade to come and beyond.
Tonight, I want to say we are deeply grateful to the local law enforcement officers who responded swiftly to our call. Thanks to their good work I am confident we will continue to operate safely and securely, as we have for the past decade. We also honor our employees tonight, who went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure they and our customers left safely and were taken care of. Given everyone’s extraordinary efforts, we’re going to give all our folks a day off tomorrow, and we will look forward to being able to serve pizzas very soon—probably Tuesday.
Let me also say, in addition, there will be a time and a place to address how and why this happened in greater detail. For now I will just say we should all condemn the efforts of some people to spread malicious and utterly false accusations about Comet Ping Pong, a venerated and beloved DC institution. Let me state unequivocally: these stories are entirely false. What happened today demonstrates that promoting false and reckless conspiracy theories do come with consequences, and I hope those who are involved in fanning these flames will take a moment to contemplate what happened here today and to stop right away.
I want to thank everyone for their concern. As mentioned, we will open again very soon, and I am confident that Comet Ping Pong will continue to be a safe, happy, and hospitable place for this community for decades to come.