News & Politics

A “Pizzagate” Believer Disrupted a Christmas Mass

Photograph by Evy Mages

The real-world effects of the online conspiracy theory known as “Pizzagate” continue to ripple beyond Washington. A believer in the repeatedly disproven conspiracy recorded himself interrupting a Philadelphia cathedral that was celebrating Mass on Christmas with screams of “Pizzagate is real!” and shared the video on social media.

The video was first reported Thursday morning by the New York Daily News, which identified the man as 47-year-old Howard Caplan. In the 90-second clip, Caplan can be heard standing up in one of the rear pews and yelling, “Pizzagate is real! Pizzagate is real! The Catholic church has been sexually abusing children—thousands of them for decades.”

Caplan, who was quickly escorted from the cathedral by a security guard, told the News his outburst was his “Christmas gift to the people at the church.” On Twitter, he called it his “#xmas gift to the #pizzagate community,” addressing his fellow believers in a baseless conspiracy theory that the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in Northwest DC is the hub of a child-trafficking ring led by advisers to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. “Pizzagate” has been promoted largely by far-right social media users and websites that publish “fake news.”

A quick read of Caplan’s Twitter account suggests he is one of the firmest adherents, full of posts reiterating his belief in the conspiracy theory. His name on the social-media network is “FullyAwake12/4/16,” an apparent reference to the incident in which another “Pizzagate” believer—North Carolina resident Edgar Maddison Welch—entered Comet Ping Pong carrying several firearms in order to “self-investigate” the fictitious rumor. Welch is currently in jail awaiting trial after pleading not guilty to federal and local charges, including assault with a dangerous weapon.

Caplan himself appears to have made at least one visit to Comet Ping Pong—his Twitter account’s image is a photo of him standing in front of the restaurant holding a sign reading “#Pizzagate.” He has also told other Twitter users that he entered Comet Ping Pong. And unlike Welch, who according to court records told police he surrendered after finding no evidence of the “Pizzagate” claims, Caplan appears to be as convinced as ever. “Knew right away that both [Politics &] Prose & Comet were not viable businesses,” he wrote in a December 20 tweet. (Comet Ping Pong’s neighboring businesses, including the Politics & Prose bookstore, have been bunched into the conspiracy theories.) He has also tweeted about visiting the restaurant again.

Caplan appears to have not yet followed up on his plans to come back to Comet Ping Pong, but his Christmas outburst—and his subsequent bragging about it—is just more unfortunate evidence that a conspiracy theory that has been wholly dismissed by law enforcement refuses to dissipate. In a poll released earlier this week by the Economist and YouGov, 38 percent of respondents said they believed “Pizzagate” was “definitely” or “probably” true, including 49 percent of Republicans, 43 percent of independents, and 24 percent of Democrats.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.