Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant is seen in Washington, D.C., on December 5, a day after a man with a rifle who claimed to be "self-investigating" an online conspiracy theory story about a child sex ring inside the restaurant fired his weapon and threatened employees and patrons. The suspect was sentenced Thursday to four years in federal prison. File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo
June 23 (UPI) -- A North Carolina man was sentenced to four years in federal prison after firing a gun inside a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant where he believed Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring -- part of an Internet conspiracy theory known as "pizzagate."
Edgar Maddison Welch, 29, was sentenced Thursday after District Judge Ketanji B. Jackson ripped the defendant as a reckless vigilante who could have gotten someone, including himself, killed.
"The extent of recklessness in this case is breathtaking. It is sheer luck that no one, including [Welch], was killed," Jackson said, adding, "I've never seen anything like the conduct we see here today."
The rumor, which law enforcement officials said was entirely unfounded, became emblematic of the "fake news" that flooded the Internet during and after the presidential campaign and gave fodder to conspiracy theorists that populated some far-right blogs and talk radio.
Radio host Alex Jones, who has called 9/11 an "inside job" and suggested the Newtown, Conn., school massacre was staged, helped peddle the pizzagate story, which began online after hacked emails of Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta showed he knew the owner of the restaurant, Comet Ping Pong, in Northwest Washington. That casual relationship turned into rumors Podesta and Clinton were running a child sex ring at the pizzeria.
That's when, in December, Welch drove more than 4 hours from his home in North Carolina, armed with an AR-15 rifle and a .38-caliber handgun and stormed into the restaurant to rescue the children he thought were inside. After firing off three shots in the building, he surrendered to police.
The owner of the restaurant, James Alefantis, told CNN he hoped people would remember the incident as a cautionary tale of what can happen when Internet rumors take on a life of their own.
"I do hope that one day, in a more thoughtful world, everyone of us will remember this day as an aberration ... when the world went mad, and fake news was real," Alefantis said.