Pizzeria Gunman Faces 4 Charges, Says He Was Investigating Conspiracy Theory - NBC Chicago
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Pizzeria Gunman Faces 4 Charges, Says He Was Investigating Conspiracy Theory

Edgar Welch told police he needed to investigate "pizzagate," a fake news conspiracy theory involving Hillary Clinton

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    We're learning more about the man accused of opening fire in Comet Ping Pong, a pizza restaurant in DC. His run-ins with the law date back nearly a decade and he has a pending case against him in North Carolina involving a child. News4's Jackie Bensen reports. (Published Monday, Dec. 5, 2016)

    Comet Ping Pong is expected to reopen Tuesday, two days after police say a gunman opened fire because he believed a fake news story claiming that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of the business.

    Edgar Maddison Welch of Salisbury, North Carolina faces felony charges after he entered the family-friendly restaurant on Sunday afternoon with an AR-15 rifle and a handgun, D.C. police say. Witnesses told investigators he fired three shots with the rifle and pointed it at an employee.

    The employee was able to escape and call police. The shots sent patrons and employees scrambling out of the restaurant on the 5000 block of Connecticut Avenue NW.

    Welch's gunshots possibly struck the walls, door and a computer, police said. 

    No one was hurt during the ordeal, which drew a heavy police presence in a normally quiet neighborhood. 

    Signs expressing support for the restaurant were on display outside on Tuesday. Comet Ping Pong was closed Monday but expected to reopen Tuesday evening.

    Welch appeared before a judge Monday on three felony charges -- assault with a dangerous weapon, unlawful discharge of a firearm, and carrying a rifle or shotgun outside a home or place of business -- and a misdemeanor gun possession charge. Authorities previously said Welch would face seven charges.

    He was not required to enter a plea and was ordered to be held without bond. Another hearing was scheduled for Thursday.

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    Comet bartender Lee Elmore, who said he didn't see a gun himself, told News4 everyone at Comet started to panic as the man walked to the back of the restaurant.

    "His demeanor was bizarre, in that if you come in to a place to eat, you ask for a host or grab a seat at the bar," he said. "Didn't make any eye contact, didn't talk with anybody."

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    Dozens of officers were called to the area, seen with guns drawn in the streets. A helicopter circled above the scene.

    Officers arrested Welch after a 45-minute standoff and recovered two weapons inside the restaurant and a third from Welch's vehicle, they said.

    Welch Said He Was Investigating Fake News Story Known as "Pizzagate"

    After his arrest, Welch told police he was there to investigate a fake news conspiracy theory known as "pizzagate" involving the pizzeria. Posts to Facebook and Reddit claimed Comet was the home base of a child sex abuse ring run by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her presidential campaign chair, John Podesta.

    "It's a result of anyone can post anything on the internet and people take it as truth," said Scott Talan, a professor of communications at American University.

    Welch said he wanted to free child sex slaves he thought were being held at the restaurant, and he surrendered when he didn't find any, according to court documents.

    "What happened today demonstrates that promoting false and reckless conspiracy theories does come with consequences," Comet Ping Pong owner James Alefantis said.

    Twitter accounts drew connections between Podesta's emails, which were hacked and then published by WikiLeaks, and the pizzeria. Users of the online message board 4Chan saw that Podesta had emailed Comet Ping Pong about hosting a Clinton fundraiser, then speculated that Comet Ping Pong was part of a Democratic child trafficking ring, according to The New York Times.

    Politifact, a Tampa Bay Times project dedicated to uncovering the truth in Washington, found the conspiracy theory presented without documentation or named sources "fails to rise above rumor or hoax."

    "People reading through these emails take nuggets of truth and put these together with other things they've heard and come up with these new fake conspiracy stories like this," Talan said.

    People convince themselves that the fake stories are true because they don't trust government leaders or reputable media outlets, Talan said.

    But for those who want to know the truth there are ways to fact check, he said. First, a gut check: Does it really seem like it could be true? Second, if you haven't heard of the source of the story before, look it up on Google.

    Alefantis told the Times he received hundreds of death threats after the conspiracy theory surfaced.

    "We should all condemn the efforts of some to spread these malicious and utterly false accusations about our restaurant, Comet Ping Pong," Alefantis said.

    "What happened today demonstrates that promoting false and reckless conspiracy theories comes with consequences," Alefantis said in a statement early Monday morning. "I hope that those involved in fanning these flames will take a moment to contemplate what happened here today, and stop promoting these falsehoods right away."