WASHINGTON - A North Carolina man was arrested Sunday after he walked into a popular pizza restaurant in northwest Washington, D.C., carrying an assault rifle and fired one or more shots, D.C. police said.
The man told police he had come to the restaurant to investigate "PizzaGate," a false conspiracy theory related to Hillary Clinton that spread online during her presidential campaign.
The incident caused panic, with several businesses going into lockdown as police swarmed the neighborhood after receiving the call shortly before 3 p.m.
Police said 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch, of Salisbury, North Carolina, walked in the front door of Comet Ping Pong and pointed a firearm in the direction of a restaurant employee. The employee was able to flee and notify police. Police said Welch proceeded to discharge the rifle inside the restaurant.
He has been charged with assault with a dangerous weapon.
Police initially said it was unclear what the motive for the shooting was but many in the neighborhood had suspected it might be related to "PizzaGate."
The popular family restaurant was swept up in the onslaught of fake news and conspiracy theories that was prevalent during the presidential campaign. The restaurant, its owner, staff and nearby businesses have been attacked on social media and received death threats.
Startled patrons rushed out of the restaurant, taking shelter in nearby businesses that remained locked down for more than an hour.
Vivek Jain, of Potomac, Maryland, was eating lunch inside Banana Leaf, a nearby Indian restaurant, when Comet patrons came rushing inside. He said Banana Leaf was locked down for about 90 minutes.
"A bunch of people ran in from Comet and said a man walked in with a gun," Jain said.
About 45 minutes later, he said, he saw a man walking backward out into the street with his hands in the air. He said the man lay down on the street, and "he was immediately picked up by the police and taken away."
Police said in addition to the assault rifle, they also recovered two firearms inside the restaurant; an additional weapon was recovered in Welch's car. Bomb-sniffing dogs and at least one armored vehicle were present at the scene.
The restaurant's owner and employees were threatened on social media in the days before the election after fake news stories circulated claiming that then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief were running a child sex ring from the restaurant's back rooms.
Even Michael Flynn, a retired general who President-elect Donald Trump has tapped to advise him on national security, shared the stories. None of them were true.
But the fake stories and threats persisted, some even aimed at the employees' children. The restaurant's owner was forced to contact the FBI, local police, Facebook and other social media platforms in an effort to remove the articles.
James Alefantis, the owner of Comet Ping Pong, did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment Sunday.
Last month, citing its policy against posting the personal information of others, Reddit banned the "pizzagate" topic.
But it didn't stop the harassment and nearby businesses have received threats as well, according to police.
On Sunday, after spending more than an hour on lockdown with employees and customers, Matt Carr, the owner of the Little Red Fox market and coffee shop, which is located next to Comet Ping Pong, said his business started getting threats last weekend.
They got 30 to 40 calls before they stopped answering calls from blocked numbers, he said. "One person said he wanted to line us up in front of a firing squad."
The threats were all tied to the Comet Ping Pong accusations online, he said. "There's some old painted-over symbol on the marquee that they claim is an international symbol of pedophilia, and that there are underground tunnels. ... There's some video on YouTube that has almost 100,000 views and talks about me, the owner of the Little Red Fox, by name.
"This was our worst fear," he said, "that someone would read all this and come to the block with a gun. And today it happened."
Nearby bookstore Politics and Prose was in the midst of a book event when they saw police converging on the block, said Bradley Graham, a store co-owner.
Like other businesses on the block, they had gotten threats recently, he said, and were planning to meet with police Monday afternoon "because we had feared that what, up to now, had been simply despicable menacing verbal attacks online or on the phone might escalate."
He said the businesses are hoping to get more police protection, "and we would also hope that law enforcement authorities will be prompted to take additional measures to shut down the sites where this hateful material is being spread, and also measures to try to trace the menacing phone calls.
". . . We're all rather shaken," he said.
"Political figures have the means to deal with conspiratorial allegations and threats, but your neighborhood mom and pop shop does not," Carr said later in an email. "I make coffee and breakfast burritos for a living. This is out of our league."
On Sunday, Gareth Wade, 47, and Doug Clarke, 50, were sitting down for pizza and beer at Comet when they spotted a commotion. All of a sudden, "the server said someone just walked in with a shotgun," Wade said.
"A man had just walked into the building, passed us into the back of the building, he seemed to have a shotgun or a rifle-type of [gun] and said we ought to vacate the building," Wade recalled the server saying.
They rushed out of the restaurant and had planned to head to Politics and Prose, where Clarke's wife and 5-year-old took shelter, but they got separated.
Clarke and Wade were met by a heavy police presence when they attempted to join up.
"Police said you can't go to the bookstore," Wade said. They ended up behind a nearby police barricade.
Meanwhile, Clarke was trying to reunite his son with a present he'd received for his fifth birthday this weekend, a stuffed lion that they were forced to leave inside the restaurant.
"He's kind of shaken up about the whole thing," Clarke said. "We've been talking a lot about it and trying to help him understand. That he was a man with a weapon, weapons are bad — he was not a nice person."