It was about 10 p.m. Dec. 4 when Harry Welch Jr. received a phone call at his North Carolina home. A friend asked Welch whether he knew his son was in Washington. Welch didn’t. Check the news, the friend said.
It was the first time that the couple heard the term “Pizzagate.” The first time that they heard about a false conspiracy theory linking Hillary Clinton to a child sex-trafficking ring supposedly hidden in the basement of Comet Ping Pong. Their son, they said, didn’t tell them about his apparent concerns about the viral fake-news story.
“We were stunned. And my heart just stopped and stomach just dropped,” Terri Welch said in an interview Monday.
The Welches traveled to Washington this past weekend so that they could attend their 28-year-old son's hearing Tuesday in D.C. Superior Court. Maddison Welch, who goes by his middle name, faces multiple gun-related charges in connection with the incident. No one was hurt, but police say Welch fired a gun in the restaurant and pointed a rifle at an employee.
Harry and Terri Welch said they have not been able to talk to their son. He has tried to reach them, but with the media calling nonstop, they stopped answering the phone.
They declined to talk about guns, and about the specifics of the case.
The Welches were hesitant to talk publicly at all, Terri Welch said, because the news reports have been “very harsh.” They wanted to help people understand their son as they know him — loving and responsible, an affectionate father to two young girls. “I want people to know he’s not the monster he’s portrayed to be,” Terri Welch said.
She added later: “Fear can alter your perspective, and I think this has driven a lot of the misconceptions about our son. We want to dispel those misconceptions so people will really know our son.”
Sitting in the offices of the D.C. Public Defender Service, the Welches said that their son had never shown much interest in politics, and that he did not vote in the presidential election.
Maddison Welch had expressed enthusiasm online for some websites that spread conspiracy theories, apocalyptic topics and fake news on his Facebook page.
He didn’t talk about that with his parents, who live at the other end of a long driveway in rural Salisbury, N.C., they said; all they knew was that he sometimes played video games and watched movies online.
Interviews with friends and North Carolina court records suggest that Maddison Welch has had trouble with alcohol and drugs in the past. Asked about that after their interview, his parents responded through an attorney with a statement: “As far as we know, our son drinks alcohol socially. We are not aware of any problems with alcoholism or substance abuse presently or in the past.”
But his parents said they noticed a change in his personality after a car crash in October. Maddison Welch was driving to work at the Food Lion warehouse one evening when he hit a 13-year-old boy, who had to be airlifted to a hospital with broken bones and a head injury. No charges were filed in the crash. The Welches and Tajuana Tadlock, Terri Welch’s sister, said that Maddison Welch, who hopes to become an emergency medical technician, stayed with the teen until help arrived.
Their son felt a lot of guilt about it and worried about the long-term effects for the child, they said. They said Maddison Welch began having nightmares but declined to seek help.
Harry Welch said that after the incident, his son’s outgoing and energetic personality shifted; he became melancholy and quiet. Welch said his son began showing signs of what he believes is post-traumatic stress disorder.
“He was very traumatized. We feel that accident changed him,” Harry Welch said, and his wife said they have wondered whether it could have been a catalyst.
They had not seen signs, before that, that would raise concerns. His nephews and nieces adored him because he was so much fun, Tadlock said, building blanket forts, skateboarding, fishing, crabbing and surfing with them. His daughters loved to hike with him; one time he ended up carrying one tired daughter and one tired dog on his back.
Maddison Welch has always been adventurous — whether jumping off a barn roof as a kid or, as an adult, surfing in deep water despite a shark warning, they said. The family hunts some, but he was more into target shooting and skeet shooting.
Children are very important to him, family and friends said. He is deeply religious, with two Bible verses, Isaiah 40:30-31, tattooed across his back. And he has very strong convictions as a father, Tadlock said. “The Bible says you don’t treat people wrong, you don’t do wrong by people, you don’t hurt children. That’s how we were raised,” she said.
After the earthquake in Haiti, Welch spent weeks there building houses with a church. He is always ready to step in, Tadlock said — someone’s back porch needs repairs, a neighbor needs a hand, “Maddison will come and help.”
“We are a family of rescuers, and Maddison has been a part of that his entire life,” Terri Welch wrote in a statement that she shared with The Washington Post on Monday, explaining that she and her husband have run a no-kill dog rescue on their family land for more than a decade, have taken in foster children and have sent money to needy children abroad. After their oldest son was killed in a car accident, Terri Welch, a nurse, wanted to give back to those who had tried to save him, and she became a volunteer firefighter.
Maddison Welch, working to follow his mother’s lead, had finished firefighter training in the spring. He began working as a volunteer firefighter in May, according to the Spencer, N.C., fire chief, Gray Grubb, but he became inactive and was removed from the roster at the end of November. Tadlock said Welch had trouble responding to fire calls because he cared for his daughters during the day while his estranged wife was at work, and he worked 12-hour night shifts at the Food Lion. She said he planned to get his EMT training next year, when the girls are both in school.
“He’s a dad first,” she said.
Terri Welch said that not talking to her son in the days since his arrest has been difficult. In Washington, Maddison Welch’s attorneys gave the Welches a letter from him, which Terri Welch declined to discuss.
Asked what the couple would say to the people at Comet Ping Pong, Terri Welch’s hazel green eyes filled with tears.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “And I am sure he is sorry for any heartaches he has caused.”