Salisbury man pleads guilty to federal and local charges in ‘Pizzagate’
A North Carolina man accused of commandeering a Washington pizza restaurant with an assault-style rifle in December pleaded guilty Friday to a federal charge of interstate transport of firearms and a local charge of assault with a dangerous weapon.
Edgar Maddison Welch, 28, allegedly came to D.C. intent on investigating the viral conspiracy theory known as “Pizzagate,” which falsely linked Hillary Clinton to an alleged child sex trafficking ring. The fake stories said the ring operated in the basement of Comet Ping Pong, where Clinton’s presidential campaign chairman, John Podesta, occasionally dined.
Welch, who is from Salisbury, N.C., pleaded not guilty Dec. 16 to a federal charge of interstate transportation of a firearm and ammunition and to two D.C. offenses: assault with a dangerous weapon and possessing a firearm during the commission of a crime of violence.
Each count carries a maximum statutory penalty of 10 years in prison, but both sides said nonbinding advisory guidelines would call for a sentence of 18 to 24 months on the federal charge and 18 to 60 months on the D.C. charge.
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson scheduled sentencing for June 22. Welch has been in custody since his arrest on the day of the incident.
Welch also agreed to forfeit three firearms and a box of ammunition, pay restitution of $5,744.33 to the restaurant for damaged computer systems, a door, lock and ping-pong table.
The criminal complaint said Welch had grown increasingly angry about reports he read online about the supposed sex ring. And early in December, he drove to Washington in a Toyota Prius.
In charging documents, an FBI agent said it appeared that Welch contemplated “a violent confrontation” at the restaurant, citing text messages, call records and other information retrieved from his phone.
Welch prompted a panicked evacuation by customers on a Sunday afternoon, Dec. 4, police said, when he walked into the restaurant with a .38-caliber Colt revolver and a Colt AR-15 rifle strapped across his chest.
Welch fired the assault-style weapon two or three times inside the restaurant, police said. They said he also pointed the rifle toward an employee who had emerged from a back area of the restaurant after everyone else fled.
Welch did not shoot anyone and surrendered after he found no evidence of hidden rooms or sex trafficking, police said. Friends and family members had said they thought Welch was on a mission to save children, not to hurt anybody.
At Friday’s hearing, Jackson asked Welch, “Did you in fact transport these firearms from North Carolina to the District of Columbia and … enter the Comet Ping Pong restaurant openly carrying [an AR-15 rifle] and point it in the direction of a person?”
“Yes ma’am,” said Welch, wearing eyeglasses and an orange jail shirt and pants.
Police said in charging documents that Welch anticipated that his efforts could end in violence, and tried to recruit two co-conspirators, citing text and calling records.
“Raiding a pedo ring, possible [sic] sacrificing the lives of a few for the lives of many,” Welch texted a friend days before the incident, according to federal prosecutors. The text continued: “Standing up against a corrupt system that kidnaps, tortures and rapes babies and children in our own backyard.”
Dana Hedgpeth contributed to this report.
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