Edgar Maddison Welch, who fired a gun inside Northwest DC restaurant Comet Ping Pong last December after being convinced by an internet conspiracy theory claiming the pizza parlor was the hub of a child-trafficking ring run by associates of Hillary Clinton, will spend four years in prison.
US District Judge Ketanji Jackson handed down the sentence after federal prosecutors asked Welch, who pleaded guilty in March to two felony counts, to receive a sentence stiff enough that it would “deter other people from pursuing vigilante justice” based what they view on the internet. Along with his prison term—six months shy of what prosecutors argued for—Welch will also sign a public letter of contrition, pay a fine, and be supervised for three years after being released.
Welch, 28, drove from his home of Salisbury, North Carolina, to DC last December 4 after being convinced by the online conspiracy theory known as “Pizzagate,” which originated when Comet Ping Pong was referenced in emails stolen from account of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and published by Wikileaks. While every claim made by the theory could be easily discredited by law enforcement and public records, it was amplified by would-be amateur sleuths who congregated on Reddit, Twitter, YouTube, and other online platforms. In the process, Comet Ping Pong’s owner, James Alefantis, his staff, and other businesses on a family-friendly block of Connecticut Avenue have endured public smears, death threats, and, in the case of Welch, actual violence.
According to court documents, Welch was motivated to “self-investigate” Comet Ping Pong after viewing several YouTube clips promoting the conspiracy theory. He attempted to recruit friends to join him, but wound up going alone. He entered the restaurant carrying an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle on a Sunday afternoon when it was full of customers. The restaurant’s staff evacuated the patrons, while Welch moved toward the back in search of a non-existent basement the Pizzagate theory claims is located beneath the dining room. After failing to pry open a commercial freezer with a butter knife, Welch fired his gun into the floor, causing several thousand dollars’ worth of damage.
Although no one was injured in Welch’s visit to Comet Ping Pong, the incident “literally left psychological wreckage,” Jackson said during the sentencing hearing, according to the Associated Press. “Other people will see what you did and be inspired by it to take up arms,” she added.
But while Welch will serve time for acting on his wholly misguided beliefs, the people who provoked him face little recourse for creating a false narrative. It took the threat of a lawsuit from Alefantis for Alex Jones, whose website Infowars was a leading proponent of Pizzagate, to apologize and back down. Leaders of the so-called “alt-right” movement who built up their followings by promoting it, like California blogger Mike Cernovich or pro-Donald Trump activist Jack Posobiec, haven’t had to recant.
Perhaps Welch’s case will be startling enough to begin pushing back toward reality. While Jackson received letters from Welch’s friends and family seeking lenience, the judge also received at least one note urging a longer sentence. “This was such a stupid and reckless act, that I believe no amount of ‘I am sorry’ will fix this,” reads the letter, which was entered into the court record. “As an example to other dumb people who believe such ignorant internet conspiracies, there should be a mention of the stupidity during sentencing, and Mr. Welch should get maximum penalties and fines, and he should be prohibited from ever owning firearms again under penalty of prison time. This person has clearly demonstrated he has no sense to distinguish reality, and as such is a serious danger to the population at large.”
For his part, Welch did appear regretful in the letter he signed as part of his plea deal. “[I am] truly sorry for endangering the safety of any and all bystanders who were present that day,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, I cannot change what I did, but I think I owe it to the families and the community to apologize for my mistakes.”
But Welch’s contrition for buying into an empty conspiracy theory that has made life miserable for people who work at and frequent a popular neighborhood restaurant might not extend beyond the courtroom. A quick search of “#pizzagate” on Twitter shows plenty of users who are convinced that Welch was an actor or CIA plant hired to cover up some dastardly scheme.