The man who fired an assault rifle inside a Washington, D.C. pizzeria in December was sentenced to four years in prison on Thursday after pleading guilty to assault with a dangerous weapon and transporting a firearm over state lines. At the time of the incident, the North Carolina resident, Edgar Maddison Welch, said he was “self-investigating” a claim that Hillary Clinton and her then-campaign chief, John Podesta, were running a pedophilia ring out of the restaurant’s back rooms. The conspiracy theory was likely generated by a white supremacy Twitter account before gaining traction across various online message boards and fake news sites leading up to the 2016 presidential election.
In what he believed was an attempt to rescue child sex slaves, Welch entered the restaurant, Comet Ping Pong, before 3:00 p.m. on December 4, 2016 and fired multiple shots. Court documents later revealed that Welch was intent on “[sacrificing] the lives of a few for the lives of many.” Upon finding no evidence to support his theory, Welch ultimately surrendered to police without causing any injuries. The story, which earned the nickname “Pizzagate,” was later cited as a cautionary tale of the gravity of fake news.
“What happened today demonstrates that promoting false and reckless conspiracy theories comes with consequences,” the restaurant’s owner, James Alefantis, said following the incident. “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.” But, in the hours after the shooting, Michael Flynn Jr., the son of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, continued to tweet about it. “Until #Pizzagate [is] proven to be false, it’ll remain a story,” Flynn Jr. said, adding: “The left seems to forget [the] #PodestaEmails and the many ‘coincidences’ tied to it.” At the heart of the conspiracy theory was the idea that Podesta’s many references to “pizza” in the WikiLeaks emails were code for pedophilia.
In a letter addressed to the court, Welch claimed he “came to D.C. with the intent of helping people” and was “truly sorry for endangering the safety of any and all bystanders who were present that day.” In addition to his 48-month sentence, Welch is scheduled to serve 36 months of probation and pay a fine of more than $5,700. While similar cases have resulted in less severe sentences, the judge, Ketanji Jackson, stressed the large-scale consequences of Welch’s actions. “The extent of recklessness in this case is breathtaking,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like the conduct we see here today.”
According to Jackson, the incident had the potential to inspire similar “ill-conceived plots” in the future. She also argued that the shooting “literally left psychological wreckage” by traumatizing Alefantis and his employees. While serving as a witness at Thursday’s hearing, Alefantis implied that the damage ran even deeper, stating: “I do hope that one day, in a more thoughtful world, every one of us will remember this day as an aberration … when the world went mad, and fake news was real.”