WASHINGTON (CN) – Federal prosecutors asserted jurisdiction Tuesday over the bizarre "Pizzagate" plot involving a Washington, D.C., pizzeria where election-inspired conspiracy theories ended in gunfire.
Edgar Welch, 28, was arrested on Dec. 4 outside the Comet Ping Pong restaurant in Northwest Washington, which baseless internet rumors described as the front of a child-sex ring with ties to Clinton campaign chair John Podesta and other Democratic Party players.
Convoluted even by conspiracy standards, the theory is primarily built on Wikileaks' massive release of Podesta's emails leading up to the November election. From internet forums like 4chan, the theory quickly gained currency on the largest Reddit community of Donald Trump supporters.
According to the criminal complaint, Welch arrived at the pizza shop, armed with a rifle in the style of an AR-15, to liberate the children he believed were being held captive.
After firing three shots into the floor, Welch allegedly pointed his gun at an employee, and surrendered to police after finding no evidence of the sex ring.
Facing four gun charges, Welch had been scheduled for a preliminary hearing Tuesday in D.C. Superior Court, postponed by Welch’s attorneys from last week.
Now, however, there is a federal warrant, Judge Sherry Trafford told the defendant, who had buzzed down his sandy-blond hair and shaved his beard.
In light of this warrant, prosecutors moved to dismiss the initial gun charges without prejudice.
Welch, who resides in North Carolina, now faces a federal charge of interstate transportation of a firearm with intent to commit an offense, or with knowledge or reasonable cause to believe that an offense would be committed. He could receive up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
At his first appearance in federal court on Tuesday afternoon, Welch told U.S. Magistrate Judge G. Michael Harvey he had completed "some college" and did not have a stable job or own a home.
Welch is scheduled to be in court again on Friday morning for a combined detention and preliminary hearing. Harvey sided with the government's requested date over the earlier hearing sought by Welch’s court-appointed federal public defender, Dani Jahn.
Dated Dec. 13, the affidavit in support of the federal criminal complaint tracks last week’s Superior Court complaint, with slightly more detail.
Special Agent Justin Holgate says cellphone evidence shows that Welch had tried to recruit two friends to join him on his trip. To expose the fictional child-sex ring he had learned about on YouTube, Welch allegedly spoke about his willingness to use violence or even die.
"Raiding a pedo ring, possibly sacraficing [sic] the lives of a few for the lives of many," Welch texted one friend, according to the affidavit. "Standing up against a corrupt system that kidnaps, tortures and rapes babies and children in our own backyard ... defending the next generation of kids, our kids, from ever having to experience this kind of evil themselves[.] I'm sorry bro, I'm tired of turning the channel and hoping someone does something and being thankful it's not my family. One day it will be our families. The world is too afraid to act and I'm too stubborn not to[.]"
Holgate said Welch also recorded a video while driving to Washington, telling his family he loved them and that he hoped he would be able "to tell [them] again."
Welch told police he fired his AR-15 in an attempt to blow the lock off of a door he found after employees and customers fled the restaurant. When that didn't work, Welch climbed up on a piece of furniture to look into the room, which he found empty.
Tweeting support of the Pizzagate theory is credited with jettisoning Michael Flynn Jr. from the Trump transition team.
Flynn’s father, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, is Trump's choice for national security adviser.