The charges against Edgar Maddison Welch, the North Carolina man accused of firing a gun inside the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in upper Northwest DC on December 4, were dismissed from DC Superior Court on Tuesday and will instead be turned over to federal court.
Welch, 28, is accused of walking into the restaurant on an otherwise ordinary Sunday afternoon armed with multiple guns, including a semi-automatic rifle, and firing multiple shots, which caused no injuries but at least $1,000 in damage. Upon his arrest, Welch told police he went to Comet Ping Pong to “self-investigate” “Pizzagate,” a fictitious online conspiracy theory that accuses the restaurant of being the hub 0f a child-trafficking ring led by John Podesta, the chairman of Hillary Clinton‘s 2016 presidential campaign. The completely baseless and repeatedly debunked rumors originated from misreadings of emails that were hacked from Podesta’s personal account and published by Wikileaks, and later popularized by far-right social-media users and websites that publish “fake news.”
Comet Ping Pong’s customers and staff evacuated after Welch entered, and other businesses on its block of Connecticut Ave., Northwest, were locked down while police responded. According to court documents, Welch “had read online that the Comet restaurant was harboring child sex slaves and he wanted to see for himself if they were there.” He surrendered to police after he found no evidence supporting the “Pizzagate” rumors, a criminal complaint reads.
Welch was charged with seven violations of DC law, including assault with a dangerous weapon, carrying a pistol without a license, unlawful discharge of a firearm, and destruction of property. The impending federal charges against him may be more serious.
The “Pizzagate” conspiracy-mongering has caused the restaurant’s owner, James Alefantis, and his employees to become the recipients of phone and online harassment, some of which has spilled over to neighboring businesses. Comet Ping Pong itself has had to start hiring private security to guard the restaurant. The unwanted attention hasn’t appeared to drive business away though; last weekend, the restaurant was jammed with people who wanted to show their support for the business and eat its pizza.
An FBI agent’s affidavit included in the federal complaint against Welch goes into greater detail of the sequence of events that allegedly led to the shooting at Comet Ping Pong. After arresting Welch, DC Police searched the Toyota Prius he had driven to the restaurant and retrieved, among other items, Welch’s phone.
According to the FBI agent, Welch fell down the “Pizzagate” hole just days before he showed up at Comet. On December 1, Welch texted his girlfriend to tell her he had been watching YouTube videos about the conspiracy theory, and that it made him “sick,” the agent writes. Later that evening, Welch texted another friend, identified only as “B.” with a link to a “Pizzagate” video and the message, “Watch PIZZAGATE: The Bigger Picture on YouTube,” the affidavit reads.
Shortly after his text with “B.,” Welch exchanged text messages with a third friend identified as “C.,” the affidavit continues. “Tell me we r going to save the Indians from the pipeline,” “C.” wrote, a possible reference to the protest over a proposed oil pipeline that would run a Native American community in North Dakota. Welch replied, “Way more important, much higher stakes,” and “Pizzagate,” the affidavit reads. “C.” wrote back, “Sounds like we r freeing some oppressed pizza from the hands of of an evil pizza joint.”
“YouTube tonight, talk in AM,” Welch wrote back, according to the affidavit. “C.” then replied with “I’m in.”
The following afternoon, the affidavit reads, Welch got back in touch with “C.” asking if he wanted to meet in person and whether “C.” had any “Army buddies.” “C.” said he had one in mind, prompting Welch to ask “he down for the cause?” the document states. When “C.” wrote that it depended on the cause, Welch explained. According to the affidavit, he texted:
“Raiding a pedo ring, possibly sacraficing [sic] the lives of a few for the lives of many. Standing up against a corrupt system that kidnaps, tortures and rapes babies and children in our own backyard… defending the next generation of kids, our kids, from ever having to experience this kind of evil themselves[.] I’m sorry bro, but I’m tired of turning the channel and hoping someone does something and being thankful it’s not my family. One day it will be our families. The world is too afraid and I’m too stubborn not to[.]”
Welch and “C.” then spoke by phone and made plans to meet at “C.’s” house, with the other friend, “B.” also planning to come, court documents state.
About 6:42 AM on December 4, “B.” texted Welch asking to meet. When Welch replied a few minutes later that he was on the way, “B.” responded, “Hell moths Fucking yeq [sic].” Welch and his girlfriend, whom he had left at home with his children, started exchanging text messages a couple hours later. The affidavit states that the girlfriend’s texts became “increasingly concerned as the day progressed.”
According to the affidavit, Welch told police he walked into Comet Ping Pong carrying an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, with a .38 revolver holstered on his hip. Welch told officers he searched for “hidden rooms or tunnels,” consistent with the fake stories and social-media rumors that allegedly motivated him. When he came upon a locked door, he attempted to wedge it open with a butter knife before shooting it with the rifle, the affidavit reads. Welch also told police that while still holding the rifle, turned toward an employee emerging from the back of the restaurant, but denied aiming it at the individual. Welch then told police he left the restaurant and surrendered after finding no evidence of child trafficking inside the restaurant.
In searching Welch’s phone, police also found a video he appeared to record while he was driving that day. In the video, Welch tells his family he loves them and that he hopes he had “showed it.” “And if not, don’t ever forget it,” he says, according to the affidavit. The video was timestamped at 11:06 AM. A bit more than four hours later, Welch was in handcuffs outside Comet Ping Pong.
Welch has been turned over to the custody of the US Marshals Service, who obtained a federal arrest warrant for him. The office of the US attorney for the District of Columbia is charging Welch with interstate transportation of a firearm with intent to commit an offense, which is punishable by up to ten years in prison.
Read the criminal complaint filed against Welch in US District Court for DC.