SALISBURY, N.C. — He slipped out of bed before sunrise and started driving, spurred by the conspiracy theory he would soon help make famous. As he sped the 350 miles from his hometown in North Carolina to the nation’s capital, Edgar Maddison Welch tilted his cellphone camera toward himself and pressed record.

“I can’t let you grow up in a world that’s so corrupt by evil,” he told the two young daughters he had left sleeping back in Salisbury, “without at least standing up for you and for other children just like you.”

So on he drove, to the supposed center of that corruption: Comet Ping Pong, a popular pizzeria in Northwest Washington where, according to the false conspiracy theory known as Pizzagate, powerful Democrats were abusing children. And Welch, a struggling 28-year-old warehouse worker, intended to rescue them.

Four years later, thousands of people would follow Welch’s fevered path to Washington, drawn from across the country by an ever more toxic stew of disinformation and extremism, including Pizzagate’s successor: QAnon.

This time, instead of a pizzeria, they would target the U.S. Capitol.

The Jan. 6 siege would lead to five deaths, more than 200 arrests and the second impeachment of Donald Trump. Its brazenness would shake faith in American democracy.

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Above all, it would reveal how conspiracy theories had spread under a president who often promoted them, growing from Welch’s trip to Washington shortly after the 2016 election to the hundreds who stormed the Capitol to keep Trump in office, some proudly wearing T-shirts with the QAnon motto: “Where we go one, we go all.”

Pizzagate was an early warning of how misinformation can lead to violence, said Joan Donovan, a scholar of media manipulation, social movements and extremism.

“The big difference between 2016 and Pizzagate and QAnon [now] isn’t the themes … it’s the scale,” said Donovan, research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. “Four years later it has reached so many more people.”

The big difference between 2016 and Pizzagate and QAnon [now] isn’t the themes … it’s the scale.”
— Joan Donovan, research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School

Welch was alone on Dec. 4, 2016, when he parked in front of Comet Ping Pong, where children were playing table tennis while their parents enjoyed a slow Sunday afternoon of pizza and beer.

Then he walked into the restaurant with a loaded assault rifle.

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The conspiracy evolves

The email arrived on Nov. 21, 2019, as Comet’s owner, James Alefantis, was preparing for a busy weekend.

“This notice is to inform you that EDGAR WELCH has been approved for placement in a Community Corrections Center (CCC), otherwise known as a halfway house, and will transfer from this institution on March 3, 2020,” said the message from a federal prison in Ohio. “The inmate is scheduled to release on May 28, 2020.”

It had been almost three years since Welch had entered Alefantis’s restaurant and transformed a fake online conspiracy theory into something frighteningly real. The death threats hadn’t stopped since, and one Pizzagate believer had even set a fire inside Comet.

Now Alefantis realized Welch would be getting out in a few months.

What, he wondered, should he tell his still traumatized employees?

Their ordeal began a few days before Trump’s election, when Alefantis’s Instagram account was suddenly deluged with comments calling him a pedophile.

WikiLeaks had released the hacked emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, a few weeks earlier. In an eight-year-old email, Alefantis had asked Podesta about a fundraiser at Comet. In others, Podesta talked about getting “cheese pizza.” On internet message boards, anonymous users falsely claimed that “cheese pizza” was code for “child pornography,” and that Comet was the site of a vast Democratic child sex ring.

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Promoted by far-right media personalities such as Alex Jones and amplified by automated social media accounts, or bots, Pizzagate went viral.

In Welch, it found a receptive host.

His life had been shaped by the death of a child. When Welch was 8, his 16-year-old brother was killed after losing control of his car and crashing.

The accident devastated his family but underscored their urge to protect the vulnerable. His parents ran a no-kill dog rescue, took in foster kids and sent money to needy children abroad. After the accident, his mother, a nurse, became a volunteer firefighter.

In 2010, Welch — who goes by his middle name, Maddison — went to Haiti with a church group to help orphans after the earthquake.

“The last week his calls were pleas to let him bring three or four of the children home and let them live with us,” his father, Harry, wrote in a letter to the court.

Welch had always been a bit “manic,” said Toni Koontz, a high school friend.

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After moving to Wilmington to attend community college, Welch struggled with addiction and emerged from rehab even more devout, Koontz told The Washington Post in 2016.

By the fall of 2016, the once adventurous Welch was back in the hometown he derisively called “Smallsbury.” His marriage had fallen apart. He tried being a firefighter like his mother but gave up, the local fire chief said.

Welch was driving to work at a Food Lion warehouse one night in October when he hit a 13-year-old boy, who had to be airlifted to a hospital with broken bones and a head injury. Welch, who had some emergency medical training, tried to help the teen until paramedics arrived.

Welch wasn’t charged in the incident, but he was badly shaken.

It was a little over a month later when Welch texted his girlfriend to say he had seen something disturbing on the internet, according to court records of their conversations.

“Looking up on pizza gate and it makes me [expletive]sick,” he wrote on Dec. 1, 2016.

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“Stop it!” she replied.

Instead, Welch dived deeper, spending hours watching Pizzagate videos and visiting Comet Ping Pong’s website, according to records later presented in court.

Welch sent one friend a Pizzagate video made by Alex Jones’s Infowars. He tried to recruit another friend who was an Afghanistan war veteran.

“Raiding a pedo ring, possibly sacraficing [sic] the lives of a few for the lives of many,” Welch described the mission. “Standing up against a corrupt system that kidnaps, tortures and rapes babies and children in our own backyard.”

But when the veteran suggested doing reconnaissance on Comet instead of going in “guns blazing,” Welch decided to go it alone, court records show.

Two days later, Welch entered Comet Ping Pong with an AR-15 in his hands and a Colt revolver on his hip.

As he walked slowly through the restaurant, startled servers guided customers away from their plates and toward the exits.

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Welch wandered the pizzeria, searching for a dungeon that didn’t exist. When he found a door he couldn’t open, he fired at the lock. But beyond it was just a computer closet. He eventually set down his guns, put his hands on his head and walked outside, where dozens of police officers were waiting for him.

“I came to D.C. with the intent of helping people I believed were in dire need of assistance,” Welch wrote later in a letter to the judge in his case. “It was never my intention to harm or frighten innocent lives, but I realize now just how foolish and reckless my decision was.”

I came to D.C. with the intent of helping people I believed were in dire need of assistance … I realize now just how foolish and reckless my decision was.”
— Edgar Maddison Welch

The entire incident lasted a matter of minutes. But it would haunt Alefantis and his employees for years.

At a court hearing on June 22, 2017, in which Welch would be sentenced to four years in prison, a Comet employee broke down as he described his struggles with insomnia and depression.

“After this, I just wanted to sink into the ground,” he said, choking up. “I wasn’t able to leave my house. I couldn’t sleep. I had violent nightmares with all types of outcomes of the situation replaying over and over and over again for weeks.”

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Alefantis spoke of the “lasting damage” Welch had inflicted, yet was optimistic.

“I do hope that one day, in a more truthful world, every single one of us will remember that day as an aberration, a symbol of a time of sickness when some parts of our world went mad, when news was fake and lies were seen as real and our social fabric had frayed,” he told the court. “I am hopeful that those who provoke fear, that traffic in lies and perpetuate conspiracy will awake to the tangible harms that result from their actions. I am hopeful that one day reason will prevail before a shot rings out again in a place of warmth and love and community gathering.”

But online, reason was not prevailing.

Some Pizzagate followers quickly turned on Welch, claiming he was a “crisis actor” involved in a “false flag” operation, or hoax, to hide the truth. Others declared their support for him on a Facebook page called “Edgar Welch Saves The Children.”

“They just found another senator In a hotel room with a under age boy!” one man wrote. “It’s just sick how one guy goes to help and the country puts him in prison!”

A woman asked how she could write Welch in prison. Another posted cartoon hearts.

But as Welch was leading Bible study groups in prison, the conspiracy theory that had put him there was rapidly mutating into something else.

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On Oct. 28, 2017, someone calling himself “Q” and claiming to be a high-ranking intelligence officer began posting on 4chan. The messages expanded on Pizzagate by claiming satanic pedophiles controlled not only Comet but the world, drinking children’s blood to stay young. Q promised that Trump and other government insiders would bring them to justice.

QAnon quickly migrated to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, where it found millions of new adherents.

By the time Welch was released from prison on March 3, QAnon had become inescapable. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican who had endorsed QAnon beliefs, was on her way to winning a seat in Congress.

Days after arriving at the halfway house in North Carolina, Welch posed for a photo with one of the friends he had tried to recruit for his ill-fated mission.

Squinting as if he hadn’t seen the sunlight in a long time, he threw an arm around his friend, looked into the camera and smiled.

Coming back to society

Almost unnoticed, Maddison Welch quietly slipped back into his old life. On March 27, the girlfriend who had once said she was leaving him over his Pizzagate obsession now announced on Facebook she had married him. And in September, she posted a photo of them embracing on the beach, their hands on her pregnant belly.

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“It’s been a whirlwind of a year for him,” said Dane Granberry, a close friend who exchanged letters with Welch when he was in prison. “But he came home his happy self.”

She saw Welch in December at a Christmas party, where the man whose arrest had cost him custody of his girls gushed with excitement over having a boy. His wife and Granberry compared their pregnant bellies.

It seemed so normal — except for all the questions Granberry couldn’t ask.

Did he still believe in Pizzagate?

Did he follow Q?

And now, what does he think of the attack on the Capitol?

“Everybody wants to know,” she said. “But when we’re around friends, nobody brings it up.”

Welch and his wife didn’t respond to repeated requests for an interview, and several friends said they couldn’t speak without his permission. His father, Harry Welch, who lives in a house at the end of a long wooded lane with a sign that reads “Grandkids spoiled here,” shook his head when asked if his son could speak.

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“He needs to get off papers first,” he said, referring to probation. Then he shut the door.

More than eight months after returning home, Welch remains largely out of sight in Salisbury. His former pastor said he hadn’t seen Welch since his arrest. Local media haven’t mentioned his release.

Few people in this town of 33,000 between Charlotte and High Point say they remember Pizzagate.

“For us here, it was just a blip on the radar,” said Mayor Karen Alexander, who boasts that Salisbury — which she calls Paris of the Piedmont — has its own symphony. “It was an anomaly. And it was a tragedy in terms of the young man. I don’t know what his mental state was.”

Part of the reason Pizzagate didn’t grip Salisbury like it did Washington was because of what happened to A’yanna Allen.

On the same morning Welch drove to D.C. on a mission to save children, the 7-year-old girl was slain just seven miles from Welch’s home.

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What was real wasn’t the children Welch thought were being tortured inside Comet Ping Pong; it was the bubbly girl who was sleeping in her grandma’s bed when someone drove by and sprayed bullets.

It was her small body, struck more than a dozen times.

It was her mother, crying in the funeral home as she braided her daughter’s hair one last time, while trying not to look at what a bullet had done to A’yanna’s beautiful face.

“I just remember her lying on the table,” Shequita Woodberry said. “She was shot so many places.”

A’yanna’s death preoccupied the town for weeks. Police partnered with the sheriff’s department to work the case, but no one was ever charged. The reason was no grand conspiracy, Woodberry said. Witnesses refused to talk.

Almost evenly divided between White residents and people of color, Salisbury has grappled with the same racial and political divisions roiling so many places across the country.

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Its Confederate monument, known as “Fame,” became a source of contention in 2017, after the deadly “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville, Va. The statue of an angel carrying a wounded Southern soldier to heaven had stood downtown since 1908.

Alvena “Al” Heggins, who had just become Salisbury’s first female African American mayor, said she was careful not to weigh in on what to do with the Confederate monument. She had already provoked outrage by proposing a resolution apologizing for the 1906 lynching of three Black men.

“I took a lot of flak as mayor,” said Heggins, who was still accused of leading a campaign to remove the Confederate monument. “A lot of that was not because of my position but because I am Black.”

I took a lot of flak as mayor. A lot of that was not because of my position but because I am Black.”
— Alvena “Al” Heggins, Salisbury’s first female African American mayor

And then, on May 25, 2020 — three days before Welch’s release from his halfway house — a White police officer in Minneapolis killed George Floyd.

In Salisbury, rumors began flying online that protesters would target Fame.

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“We had people saying that if we see any n—— by the statue, kill them on sight,” recalled Gemale Black, president of the Salisbury-Rowan NAACP. “It was to the point where we had a police watch night and day, making sure nobody was around the statue.”

Black was at a protest in front of the monument on May 31 when a White counterprotester named Jeffrey Alan Long pulled out a gun and fired two shots in the air, close to Black’s face. Long was charged with felony inciting a riot, but was allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and given a suspended sentence of 30 days.

City council members, including Heggins, voted unanimously to remove the monument and struck a deal with the United Daughters of the Confederacy to put Fame in a city-owned cemetery where there were scores of Confederate graves.

The council received a flood of hate mail. A pickup truck began driving around town with Confederate flags and a sign saying “PUT AL HEGGINS IN THE CEMETERY.”

The presidential election only intensified the divisions. While Salisbury residents supported Joe Biden, Rowan County went heavily for Trump. The area’s congressman, Republican Ted Budd, refused to accept Trump’s defeat.

Don Vick was dismayed to see fellow Republicans reject the election results.

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“I lead the party from the standpoint of ‘let’s get on with our lives,’ ” said the 72-year-old Rowan County Republican Party chairman. “The people have spoken, whether I like it or not.”

He said he was “appalled” by the Capitol siege, but equally shocked to realize afterward that QAnon was spreading in Rowan County.

“Having spoken to [many] women in the county, they are into it,” said his wife, Nancy. “They are religious about it.”

Welch’s actions seemed like the work of someone “a bit unbalanced,” Don Vick said, so the couple hadn’t taken it very seriously. But now the country itself seemed to be coming unhinged.

His term is up in March, Vick added. He won’t be running again.

Full circle

On the night before Biden’s inauguration, Erika Mendoza was delivering a check to customers on Comet Ping Pong’s patio when she saw a dozen angry people approach.

It had been two weeks since the Capitol siege and the city was still full of soldiers and concertina wire and fear of what would happen next.

The 29-year-old ran back inside and texted Alefantis.

“Hi so we have pizza gaters protesters,” she wrote.

When Alefantis arrived a few minutes later, he saw a small crowd waving signs saying “Hell is Horrible” and “Repent or Perish.”

The Trump presidency was ending how it had begun: with people targeting Comet Ping Pong.

Alefantis had spent the past four years trying to understand Welch and the conspiracy theorists who have continued to bombard him with online threats.

“Pizza pedo,” said one recent message.

“Hey sir Rothschild,” said another. “Judgment is coming.”

“You’re sick. Go kill yourself,” urged a third.

“James! Ready to die?” asked a man in France.

Alefantis had hoped Pizzagate would be the end of the conspiracy theories, but it had been only the beginning. The sickness had spread to members of Congress. The fraying social fabric had snapped completely.

He still believed that the country would get through the madness. But he was no longer surprised when people came to Comet, screaming hate and searching for something, as Welch had, that did not exist.

“It’s not just a pizza place,” a male protester shouted into a megaphone on Jan. 19. “It’s a pedophilia place as well.”

And so Alefantis did what he had done four years earlier, when the same group first showed up. He pumped music from Comet’s outdoor speakers to drown them out, and customers began to dance.

As Lady Gaga’s “Perfect Illusion” boomed, Alefantis greeted the picketers with a tray of Champagne. A protester stepped forward, grabbed a couple and poured it onto the sidewalk.

Then he tipped over the tray, and all the Champagne came tumbling down in a riot of broken glass.

The Washington Post’s Julie Tate contributed to this report.