The armed North Carolina man who commandeered a pizza restaurant in Northwest Washington apologized to his victims and residents in the nation’s capital Tuesday in a letter to a federal judge seeking leniency at his June 22 sentencing.
Writing in his own hand, Edgar Maddison Welch, 28, said he was “truly sorry for endangering the safety of any and all bystanders who were present that day. Unfortunately, I cannot change what I did, but I think I owe it to the families and the community to apologize for my mistakes.”
Federal prosecutors countered in their own memo to the judge that it was “entirely the product of good luck” that no one was shot when Welch entered Comet Pizza carrying a fully loaded AR-15 military style rifle and revolver seeking to investigate a viral Internet rumor known as “Pizzagate.”
False stories propagated am unfounded conspiracy theory that linked Hillary Clinton to an alleged child-trafficking ring run from the family restaurant, where Clinton’s presidential campaign chairman, John Podesta, occasionally dined.
Welch pleaded guilty in March to a District assault and a federal firearms charge in the Dec. 4 incident, which drew national headlines and lured other gawkers to the commercial block where the restaurant is located.
In court filings, assistant federal defender Dani Jahn asked for an 18-month prison sentence for Welch, saying Welch “does not seek to minimize the impact his reckless and frightening actions had on those who encountered him . . . Rather, Mr. Welch is hopeful that those victimized by his actions can forgive him.”
Welch, whose neat cursive handwriting on ruled paper was excerpted and cited by his lawyer, said he “came to D.C. with the intent of helping people,” and to relieve suffering, “especially the suffering of a child.”
He expressed “sincere regret for any emotional trauma I might have caused, especially to the families who were present.” Welch added, “It was never my intention to harm or frighten innocent lives, but I realize now just how foolish and reckless my decision was.”
U.S. prosecutors called for a 4-1/2 year prison term, urging U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to send a strong message to deter those who would commit violence based solely on “malicious and misguided” Internet rumors.
Welch “was lucid, deadly serious, and very aware” that he would end up dead or in jail, prosecutors wrote, on the drive from his home in Salisbury, N.C., in a Toyota Prius.
“Beyond Pizzagate, the Internet is full of wild conspiracy theories where people urge members of the public . . . to take action,” wrote assistant U.S. attorneys Demian Ahn and Sonali Patel.
“A significant sentence is required to deter other people from pursuing vigilante justice based only on their YouTube feed,” prosecutors wrote. “The fact that no one was shot was entirely the product of good luck . . .”
Both sides filed unusually lengthy and detailed sentencing documents, which included Welch’s letter for the defense. Prosecutors included transcripts of interviews with several witnesses with whom Welch communicated, online files he downloaded, wrenching victim impact statements and additional disturbing threats made by people fixated on fake news accounts.
Prosecutors included the arrest warrant of a Shreveport, La., man, Yusif Jones, who pleaded guilty to telephoning a copycat threat to nearby pizza shop on Dec. 7, saying, “I’m coming to finish what the other guy didn’t. I’m coming there to save the kids, and then I’m going to shoot you and everyone in the place,” according to court charging documents.
Welch “traumatized the employees and customers at the restaurant, and his crimes affected an entire community, leaving many people feeling threatened,” prosecutors wrote. The defendant “made clear that he had no respect for the public institutions of the District of Columbia, telling detectives that everyone in D.C. is ‘crooked,'” and did not trust the FBI to investigate the truth, prosecutors wrote.
Shortly before 3 p.m. Dec. 4, Welch parked and left a loaded 12-gauge shotgun and box of shells in the car, then walked into the restaurant carrying a loaded, six-shot revolver on his hip, and holding the 9mm long rifle with about 29 rounds of ammunition across his chest.
After a panicky evacuation by workers and customers, including children, Welch fired the rifle multiple times at a locked closet door, striking computer equipment inside, court documents said. He also pointed the rifle toward an unwitting employee retrieving pizza dough who entered at the back of the restaurant, then immediately turned and ran for his life, according to the government’s evidence signed off on by Welch.
Welch agreed to forfeit the rifle, revolver, a shotgun and ammunition he carried with him that day and to pay restitution of $5,744.33 to the restaurant for damaged computer systems, a door, lock and ping-pong table.
In March, conservative radio host and Infowars website operator Alex Jones apologized for promoting the Pizzagate conspiracy. Jones posted a six-minute video on his website in which he read a prepared statement stating that neither the restaurant nor its owner, James Alefantis, had anything to do with human trafficking. The statement came after Alefantis’s attorneys had requested a retraction.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Spencer S. Hsu