Man angered by fake news story fires assault rifle inside Washington 'pizzagate' eatery

Police shut down Connecticut Avenue outside Comet Ping Pong after a man with an assault rifle entered the pizzeria in Washington, DC.
Police shut down Connecticut Avenue outside Comet Ping Pong after a man with an assault rifle entered the pizzeria in Washington, DC.PHOTO: EPA

WASHINGTON (AFP/NYT) - A man has been arrested after firing an assault rifle inside a popular pizzeria in Washington that was the target of a fake news story during the US presidential election campaign, police said.

No one was injured in the incident at the Comet Ping Pong restaurant in the upmarket Chevy Chase neighbourhood.

The man, Edgar M Welch, 28, of Salisbury, North Carolina, told police he had come to the restaurant, Comet Ping Pong in northwest Washington to "self-investigate" what is being called "Pizzagate," an online conspiracy theory asserting, with no evidence, that the restaurant is somehow tied to a child abuse ring.

Welch entered the restaurant shortly before 3 pm on Sunday (4 am Singapore time Monday) with a rifle and fired it at least once inside, the police said.

The gunfire sharply escalated in what had already been a tense period for the restaurant, its employees and the quiet neighbourhood since the fake stories began spreading. Dozens of threats against employees had been made via email and social media.

People inside the restaurant fled and the police locked down the area, ordering patrons of a nearby bookstore and cafe called Politics & Prose to remain locked inside. Officers with rifles and protective gear surrounded the restaurant and apprehended Welch. Two additional firearms were found, one on Welch himself and the other in his vehicle, the police said.

The police closed down a normally busy Connecticut Avenue, which runs in front of the restaurant, for several hours Sunday, as they searched the area for other potential threats.

In a statement, Comet Ping Pong's owner, James Alefantis, condemned the people who had been spreading the bogus stories about child abuse.

"What happened today demonstrates that promoting false and reckless conspiracy theories comes with consequences," he said. "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."

Bradley Graham, co-owner of Politics and Prose, said the incident was a worrisome event during an uneasy time for the neighbourhood.

"This is one of the things we feared," Graham said as the police surrounded his bookstore, with rifles and weapons drawn. "That this could go from a social media attack to something much more dangerous and physical."

Graham said he and others had been disappointed that local law enforcement officials had not previously responded more aggressively to try to stop the harassment related to the fake claims, particularly after one supporter of the Pizzagate theory shot a live video from within the restaurant during a busy dinner shift.

The misinformation campaign about Comet began when the email account of John D Podesta, an aide to Hillary Clinton, was hacked and his emails were published by WikiLeaks during the presidential campaign. Days before the election, users on the online message board 4chan noticed that one of Podesta's leaked emails contained communications with Alefantis discussing a fundraiser for Clinton.

Sabrina Ousmaal, owner of a French restaurant called Terasol, which is across the street from Comet, said other businesses in the area had also been targeted by threats, and that the response from officials had been insufficient.

"The FBI and the police were notified repeatedly of these death threats and calls, emails, online posts," she wrote in an email Sunday, after the rifle blast. "Nothing was done. I am appalled and horrified. Do people need to die for something to be done?"