The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Alleged gunman tells police he wanted to rescue children at D.C. pizza shop after hearing fictional Internet accounts

Here's what we know about Comet Ping Pong shooter Edgar Maddison Welch so far. (Video: Deirdra O'Regan/The Washington Post, Photo: The Washington Post)

For 45 minutes, police said, Edgar Maddison Welch, cradling an AR-15 assault-style rifle, roamed the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant looking to prove an Internet conspiracy theory that the popular D.C. restaurant harbored juvenile sex slaves.

The few patrons had fled before Welch shot off the lock to an inside door, sending a bullet into a computer tower. The North Carolina man then turned the gun on an employee who emerged from the back holding pizza dough. The worker ran out, unharmed.

With D.C. police amassing outside on Sunday afternoon, Welch finally walked out with his hands up — but not before he finished his search.

He had come to rescue the children, court papers say he later told police, and now was convinced that none was being harmed there.

D.C. Magistrate Judge Joseph E. Beshouri on Monday ordered Welch — known to his friends by his middle name, Maddison — jailed until his next hearing on Thursday. He faces several gun-related charges, including assault with a dangerous weapon.

Comet Ping Pong customers came out to support the restaurant after a gunman entered it with an assault rifle, firing it at least once. (Video: Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Assistant U.S. Attorney Sonali Patel said Welch was a danger to the community and a flight risk based on the notoriety of his alleged crimes. His lawyer with the Public Defender Service argued that her client should be released because he had no prior violent offenses.

Welch, bearded and dressed in a white plastic jail jumpsuit for the D.C. Superior Court hearing, said only his name when asked to identify himself.

Family and friends said they are struggling to understand how Welch apparently became so fixated on a fake news story that he drove from North Carolina with a Colt long rifle, a .38-caliber revolver and a shotgun, determined to take action. The viral Internet tale, which emerged shortly before the presidential election, falsely linked Hillary Clinton, her campaign chairman and the owner of Comet to the alleged sex-slave conspiracy.

At a D.C. pizzeria, the dangers of fake news just got all too real

Welch, described by some friends as a devoted father to two young girls, toyed around with filmmaking and writing, and he had attended a community college. He is an avid hiker. He and his wife are separated. They both are involved in raising the children, a family member said.

See the reaction after gunman enters D.C. pizzeria to investigate conspiracy theory

WASHINGTON, DC: DECEMBER 6: Signs of support hang on the building at Comet Ping Pong in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, December 6, 2016. The business is set to reopen after Edgar Maddison Welch from North Carolina, discharged his assault rifle at the popular Chevy Chase restaurant claiming he was there to investigate a fake news story on the Internet about a child sex ring. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

One of Welch’s closest friends of the past eight years said she does not think he intended to shoot anyone.

“He most likely really believes the conspiracy theory,” said Kathy Sue Holtorf, who produced one of his films and appeared with him in another. “He’s a good guy with the best of intentions. He probably saw himself as more on a hero mission to save children than anything else.”

The call about a man carrying an assault rifle into a pizza joint popular among teens and their parents frightened many D.C. residents and created a standoff that closed streets. In and beyond the nation’s capital, it also raised fears about hoax stories proliferating the Internet and whether they are stoking new dangers from society’s fringe.

Even the White House weighed in on Welch’s alleged crimes.

“Even without knowing precisely what the motives were, there’s no denying the corrosive effect that some of these false reports have had on our political debate,” said Josh Earnest, press secretary for President Obama. “That’s concerning in a political context. It’s deeply troubling that some of those false reports could lead to violence.”

Loyal patrons to Comet Ping Pong are organizing an event Friday to urge people to stand with the owner and employees, even as it appears that Sunday’s incident will not quell the stories.

A new Internet conspiracy theory emerged Monday. Citing Welch’s minor background as an actor, some claimed the gun incident was either staged or even a hoax altogether. And on Sunday night, Michael Flynn Jr., the son and top aide of retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for national security adviser, tweeted that the Comet Ping Pong conspiracy theory might still be true.

“Until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it’ll remain a story. The left seems to forget #PodestaEmails and the many ‘coincidences’ tied to it,” Flynn Jr. tweeted. He later posted images of direct messages from CNN host Jake Tapper imploring him to stop spreading the rumors.

As the story spread, Comet and other establishments along Connecticut Avenue have been subject to threats and vile social media banter, business owners said.

Dustin Sternbeck, the D.C. police spokesman, said the department became aware last month of the fictional allegations about Comet. “However, despite postings of offensive language, we did not receive reports of any specific threats. Officers advised the staff to immediately report to police any threats made against the establishment or individuals.”

The spokesman said police have contacted Comet’s owner and others “to address their concerns. We want to ensure the community that their safety is our priority as we have committed additional police resources to that area.”

A portrait of Welch based on interviews with his friends suggests he is an adoring father to his children but also someone unable to claim interest in a career, including following his father, who is a filmmaker, or his mother, who volunteered as a firefighter.

He was a prolific hiker, profiled in 2009 by his local newspaper, the Salisbury Post, for hiking the 500-mile Colorado Trail. He attended Cape Fear Community College in 2008 and 2009, pursuing an associate of arts degree.

“Maddison is a sweet young man with a big heart,” said Tajuana Tadlock, his aunt. “We are all in shock right now. We are still trying to get our minds around what happened. This is totally out of character for him.

“We are all worried about him. He comes from a family that cares.

“We all just want to put our arms around him and ask him, ‘Why baby? What made you this upset? This isn’t you.’ ”

Tadlock described her nephew as “passionate, tenderhearted. Loves his family. Loves his children, he is always concerned about his parents and children. We have not been able to talk to him yet, so we do not know what got him to this level.

“He is a loving person, a loving dad. He has friends, church, family and friends. He is anybody’s son.”

Other relatives, including his parents, Harry and Terri Tadlock Welch, did not respond to interview requests or could not be reached for comment. No one answered the door at the address listed for Welch in court records. The home is in a pocket of sparsely arranged ranch-style houses five miles outside of downtown Salisbury, a county seat along Interstate 85, about 50 miles north of Charlotte.

Aaron Christie, a friend from West Rowan High School in North Carolina, said he hadn’t talked to Welch recently but that he had strong political convictions and had faith in the Constitution. “It didn’t matter whether it was Democratic or Republican,” he said. “If you had the ability to do something good for the people, you knew it was your responsibility to do something good for the people.”

But Welch was laid-back and happy, he said; he had never seen an angry moment with his family.

“I’ve never seen him hostile toward anybody. He was always levelheaded and calm, took a minute to think things over before he said or done things,” Welch said. “But I haven’t seen him in three years. A lot can change over time.”

At community college, Welch wrote his first screenplay, “Mute,” about a unique boy who meets a unique girl — a nine-minute short that was posted to YouTube and was produced by Holtorf when she was part of the area’s independent film scene. He and Holtorf appeared as victims of vampires in a slasher movie, and he worked as a production assistant on a movie about a small-town sheriff pitted against a bootlegger.

Holtorf said Welch dabbled but “never wanted to become an actor.” His mother worked for the Locke Volunteer Fire Department on the outskirts of Salisbury, and for a time her son tried that job, too.

“He hardly came around, hardly ran any calls,” said Locke Volunteer Fire Chief Dusty Alexander. “It just wasn’t for him and he got out of it.”

Interviews with other friends and court records shows he also had trouble with drugs and alcohol, and in the past several months went on a rant about religion that offended his girlfriend's best friend.

Danielle Tillman, 23, a friend of Welch’s girlfriend, recounted meeting Welch for the first time several months ago. Tillman said a group had gathered for a party. She said she had taken acid and others were using drugs as well. The account was backed by Tillman’s boyfriend at the time, Jacob Stephens.

Tillman said Welch and his girlfriend began talking about religion.

“They were preaching about Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” Tillman said. “It was super weird.”

Welch’s Facebook page contains pictures of his children, of himself brandishing an assault-style weapon and of lists of psalms and proverbs from the Bible. “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up,” one reads.

Welch has one conviction, for driving while impaired in 2013 in Salisbury. He has been arrested several times in North Carolina, once on a drug charge, in 2007, and he was in a police report when his name appeared on a forged prescription, according to records from Salisbury police. He was twice a victim of assault by someone with a gun, though details were not immediately available.

In October, police said, he was the driver of a car that struck and critically injured a 13-year-old boy. His most recent job is noted in 2013, in the impaired-driving case, where his grandmother wrote the court that he worked for his father’s film company, Forever Young Productions, making daily deliveries and pickups of film prints.

“He’s not a nut,” said Holtorf, 29, who lives in California and works as a film producer. “He talked about his two little girls, how proud he was of them, how he liked going to the park with them. He’s not a conspiracy-theory nut. He’s a well-educated man. Our conversations were normal, about kids and about his family and our friends in North Carolina.”

Jennifer Jenkins, John Woodrow Cox, Keith L. Alexander, Rachel Weiner, David Nakamura, Aaron Blake, Greg Lacour, Clarence Williams contributed to this report.