WASHINGTON — The man who stormed into a Washington, D.C., restaurant with an assault rifle Sunday afternoon told police he was searching for child sex slaves whom he believed to be hidden there, that he was armed to help rescue them, and that he surrendered after he found no evidence of child sex trafficking, according to court records.
Edgar Maddison Welch surrendered peacefully after 45 minutes of searching inside Comet Ping Pong, which had become the site of a viral conspiracy theory tied to Hillary Clinton's campaign that falsely suggested that the restaurant's owner and powerful political allies were hiding a child sex trafficking ring. Welch told police he had read about the claims online.
An employee told police that Welch gestured at him with the assault rifle and he fled, according to court documents Monday. Police said Welch fired at least one shot. No one was injured.
Welch, 28, who lives in North Carolina, was ordered held in jail after a Monday court hearing. He faces numerous weapons charges, including assault with a dangerous weapon.
Welch's actions paralyzed the northwest Washington neighborhood Sunday afternoon, as nearby businesses were told to lock down and police searched for weapons. And it quickly became a symbol of the powerful and dangerous potential impact of rumors and conspiracy theories have taken on during a volatile election.
On Monday, some of Welch's friends and family said they were struggling to understand how the sweet and caring man they knew could be driven to this.
Welch dabbled in film, writing in one short movie and acting in another. He is a father of two young daughters, whom friends said he adored. And he is a religious man, frequently quoting passages from the Bible on his Facebook page.
On his Facebook page, Welch posted affectionate photos with his children, triumphant shots from solo hikes, and a screaming snap from a roller-coaster ride. He attended a community college. Friends said he loved the outdoors, hiking, fishing. He once hiked the Colorado Trail, and his parents told the local newspaper they hoped to one day follow their son in a Winnebago and meet him at trail heads.
He also expressed enthusiasm for conspiracy theories and sites such as "End Times Headlines, news and headlines from a prophetic perspective."
Police said Welch fired one or more shots — a neighboring business owner said that was apparently to force open a locked door — and was inside Comet Ping Pong 45 minutes alone before surrendering to police. He was armed with a Colt AR-15 assault rifle, and had a Colt .38 caliber, a shotgun, and a folding knife as well, according to police.
"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.'
"He is a 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."
The conspiracy theory, which began shortly before the election after emails were released by WikiLeaks, quickly gained believers on sites such as Reddit, which banned the community in late November, citing its policy against posting the personal information of others.
But another website offered more than $2,500 for proof of underground tunnels within 800 feet of Comet Ping Pong.
Kathy Sue Holtorf, an actress and film producer, met Welch about eight years ago when he was working in film, mostly by helping his father with a small production company.
"He's a good guy and a great dad and has always been the best kind of friend I could ever hope for," Holtorf said.
When she talked to Welch two weeks ago, she said he didn't mention any conspiracy theories.
"Whatever was going through his mind at the time, I'm sure it had to do with saving lives of children," Holtorf said. "He most likely really believes the conspiracy theory. Knowing Maddison and knowing the good man that he is, I would say he believed he was doing something right." She added, "He told people to get out. ... He probably saw himself as more on a hero mission to save children than anything else."
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, believing in the Constitution. "It didn't matter whether it was Democratic or Republican. 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. But I haven't seen him in three years. A lot can change over time."
His father, Harry Welch, got his sons interested in the film industry and Holtorf acted in one of his father's productions.
"He talked about his two little girls, how proud he was of them, how he liked going to the park with them," Holtorf said. "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."
She produced one of Welch's films that he wrote while attending Cape Fear Community College, called Mute, which came out in 2011 and debuted on YouTube as a nine-minute short. He also wrote The Mill for his father, a horror film about college kids at a party in an abandoned mill.
Welch and Holtorf were vampire victim extras in a horror film called The Bleeding and Welch was a production assistant a movie about a small town sheriff and his battle against bootleggers.
Holtorf said Welch was never serious about acting but got involved to help his father. "He wasn't trying to be an actor," she said.
Now, she said friends and others are rallying to support Welch as he starts his way through the District's criminal justice system.
Welch's parents could not immediately be reached for comment Monday. His mother, Terri Tadlock Welch, was a member of the Locke Volunteer Fire Department, which worked the outskirts of Salisbury, N.C. Welch volunteered some, but left four years ago.
"He hardly came around, hardly ran any calls," said Fire Chief Dusty Alexander. "He joined really because his mother was there," Alexander said. "He said he wanted to see if was something for him. He decided it wasn't for him."
Welch's alleged actions concerned both neighbors walking their children to the nearby bus stop and people at the highest levels of political power.
Donald Trump's pick for national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, tweeted about another false claim of pedophile connections to the Clinton family early last month, and his son and top aide, Michael Flynn Jr., commented on social media Sunday about the Comet Ping Pong conspiracy theory.
— Michael G Flynn���� (@mflynnJR) December 5, 2016
At the White House, spokesman Joshua Earnest was asked about the incident on Monday. "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. That's concerning in a political context. It's deeply troubling that some of those false reports could lead to violence."
Earnest was asked about the White House efforts to combat violent propaganda online from overseas extremists and asked why the White House has not done more to combat online threats more broadly like the ones faced by Comet and other businesses on Connecticut Avenue.
"Over the course of the last year or two you've heard the president speak quite bluntly about the rhetoric that's being used in the context of this political campaign and the impact that could have in the broader political debate and the political climate in the country," he said. "I do think this is something that we've talked about. And it's something the president is concerned about — that that kind of harsh, sometimes violent rhetoric, obscures the kind of legitimate policy debates we should be having in this country."