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'Pizzagate' Suspect Faces Federal Charge

The Dec. 4 incident, in which Edgar Welch is accused of entering the Comet Ping Pong restaurant and firing a rifle, has unnerved politicians and Washington locals alike. (AP Photo/Jessica Gresko)

Federal prosecutors have charged the man who allegedly fired a rifle inside a D.C. pizzeria after fake news sites circulated a story of the restaurant harboring a politically-linked child sex ring.

Edgar Welch faces one charge of interstate transportation of a firearm with intent to commit an offense in connection with his alleged firing of an AR-15 rifle inside the Comet Ping Pong restaurant earlier this month.

If convicted, the 28-year-old could see up to 10 years in prison along with financial penalties, The Associated Press reports. Welch could have faced local charges, but prosecutors opted instead to leave his case to federal courts.

Police say Welch had driven to Washington from his North Carolina home intending to investigate a baseless conspiracy theory spread along fake news sites and far-right channels of popular social networks such as Reddit and Youtube. The story alleges that the pizzeria and popular music venue is a front for a child sex ring linked to prominent Democrats, including Hillary Clinton.

Earlier this month, NPR's Camila Domonoske explained #Pizzagate's genesis for the Two Way:

"One of the key pieces of 'evidence,' for example, comes from the emails WikiLeaks says came from Clinton campaign manager John Podesta. The emails include references to pizza. The conspiracy theory holds that based on how frequently pizza comes up, "pizza" must be code for pedophilia.

"Comet Ping Pong owner James Alefantis told NPR that the entire theory is 'an insanely complicated, made-up, fictional lie-based story' that people in the 'reality based' community quickly dismissed as an 'insane sort of joke."

"But on the fringes of the Internet, some people have been taking it seriously. The restaurant has received hundreds of death threats. Now it has had an actual armed assault."

Stories of Comet Ping Pong had been gaining traction online at least a month prior to the Dec. 4 incident, but the true-to-life case of an armed man firing into a busy restaurant unnerved many. Hillary Clinton mentioned it at an event for retiring Senator Harry Reid earlier this month.

"The epidemic of malicious fake news and fake propaganda that flooded social media over the past year, it's now clear that so-called fake news can have real-world consequences," Clinton said at the time.

Local business owners say they felt an immense shock over how a neighborhood eatery ended up in the crosshairs of such rancor. Prior to the shooting, Comet owner Alefantis spoke to NPR:

"They would go into our social media accounts and they would take photographs that were on my Instagram of my friends' children or of my associates' children and post them around thousands and thousands of fake news sites and on Reddit and on YouTube and use these images of happily playing, innocent children as proof of some kind of human trafficking scheme led by the Clintons. ...

"In the case of Comet Ping Pong, we're a beloved neighborhood institution. And so we're very strong in a way. We have great community support. If this kind of attack were leveled at an individual or a less strong small business, it would be - I think could be potentially devastating to some of these people."

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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