D.C. Police arrest suspect with an assault rifle at Comet Ping Pong restaurant
A North Carolina man was arrested Sunday after he walked into a popular pizza restaurant in Northwest D.C. carrying an assault rifle and fired one or more shots, D.C. Police said, prompting patrons and employees to flee.
The incident caused panic, with several businesses going into lockdown as police swarmed the neighborhood after receiving the call shortly before 3 p.m.
Police Chief Peter Newsham said the lone suspect in his late-20s walked in the front door of Comet Ping Pong and appears to have fired one or multiple shots into the ground after employees and patrons had fled. The suspect, who police say is from Salisbury, N.C., has not been identified and his motives were not clear. Police said charges were pending.
“We do have employees and guests of the restaurant who, of course, were extremely frightened by this incident,” Newsham said. “At this point we do not believe that it was terrorist related. And it’s unclear right now what the motive is.”
But the popular family restaurant, near Connecticut and Nebraska avenues NW in the Chevy Chase neighborhood, was swept up in the onslaught of fake news and conspiracy theories that was prevalent during the presidential campaign. The restaurant, its owner, staff and nearby businesses have been attacked on social media and received death threats.
“We’re aware of that and right now we have nothing to tie it into those concerns that have been raised on social media,” Newsham said.
Startled patrons rushed out of the restaurant onto Connecticut Avenue, taking shelter in nearby businesses that remained locked down for more than an hour.
Vivek Jain, of Potomac, Md. was eating lunch inside Banana Leaf, a nearby Indian restaurant, when Comet patrons came rushing inside. He said Banana Leaf was locked down for about 90 minutes.
“A bunch of people ran in from Comet and said a man walked in with a gun,” Jain said.
About 45 minutes later, he said, he saw a man walking backward out into the street with his hands in the air.
“He laid down on Connecticut Avenue and he was immediately picked up by the police and taken away,” he said.
Police said in addition to the assault rifle, they also recovered a handgun; the man may have had an additional weapon in his car. Bomb-sniffing dogs and at least one armored vehicle were present at the scene.
The restaurant’s owner and employees were threatened on social media in the days before the election after fake news stories circulated claiming that then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief were running a child sex ring from the restaurant’s back rooms. Even Michael Flynn, a retired general who President-elect Trump has tapped to advise him on national security, shared the stories. None of them were true. But the fake stories and threats persisted, some even aimed at the employees’ children. The restaurant’s owner was forced to contact the FBI, local police, Facebook and other social media platforms in an effort to remove the articles.
James Alefantis, the owner of Comet Ping Pong, did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment Sunday.
Last month, citing its policy against posting the personal information of others, Reddit banned the “pizzagate” topic.
But it didn’t stop the harassment and nearby businesses have received threats as well, according to police. On Sunday, after spending more than an hour on lockdown with employees and customers, Matt Carr, the owner of the Little Red Fox market and coffee shop, said his business started getting threats last weekend. They got 30-40 calls before they stopped answering calls from blocked numbers, he said. “One person said he wanted to line us up in front of a firing squad.”
The threats were all tied to the Comet Ping Pong accusations online, he said. “There’s some old painted-over symbol on the marquee that they claim is an international symbol of pedophilia, and that there are underground tunnels….”
“There’s some video on YouTube that has almost 100,000 views and talks about me, the owner of the Little Red Fox, by name.
“This was our worst fear,” he said, “that someone would read all this and come to the block with a gun. And today it happened.”
At Politics and Prose, the bookstore that has been a Washington institution and neighborhood fixture for more than 30 years, they in the midst of a book event when they saw police converging on the block, said the store’s co-owner Bradley Graham.
Like other businesses on the block, they had gotten threats recently, he said, and were planning to meet with police Monday afternoon “because we had feared that what, up to now, had been simply despicable menacing verbal attacks online or on the phone might escalate.”
Graham said he was told that the gunman walked into the kitchen at Comet Ping Pong, “presumably looking for the alleged tunnels” where children were hidden and tortured. He believes that information came from an employee at the restaurant.
He said the businesses are hoping to get more police protection, “and we would also hope that law enforcement authorities will be prompted to take additional measures to shut down the sites where this hateful material is being spread, and also measures to try to trace the menacing phone calls.
“… We’re all rather shaken,” he said.
“Political figures have the means to deal with conspiratorial allegations and threats, but your neighborhood mom and pop shop does not,” Carr said later in an email. “I make coffee and breakfast burritos for a living. This is out of our league.”
D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) was getting gas down the street from Comet Ping Pong and saw what she described as intense police activity around the restaurant. Cheh said she spoke with Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who had been briefed by police, and learned that the man taken into custody is apparently from North Carolina. He had an assault rifle and another weapon on him in the restaurant and “another weapon or weapons” in his vehicle. She didn’t know if his actions could be connected the false rumors surrounding Comet Ping Pong.
“It’s very, very worrisome,” Cheh said. “I’m just very worried that [the rumors] may have unleashed people who are unstable to pursue violent action, as has happened before.”
She praised the speed of the police response that may have prevented an attack. “It all looked so efficient and professional. I was very pleased it was locked down so quickly.”
On Sunday, Gareth Wade, 47, and Doug Clarke, 50, were sitting down for pizza and beer at Comet when they spotted a commotion. All of a sudden, said Wade, “the server said someone just walked in with a shotgun.”
“A man had just walked into the building, passed us into the back of the building, he seemed to have a shotgun or a rifle-type of [gun] and said we ought to vacate the building,” Wade recalled the server saying.
They rushed out of the restaurant and had planned to head to Politics and Prose, the nearby bookstore, where Clarke’s wife and five-year-old took shelter, but they got separated.
Clarke and Wade were met by a heavy police presence when they attempted to join up.
“Police said you can’t go to the bookstore,” Wade said. They ended up behind the police barricade at Connecticut Avenue and Fessenden Street. Clarke’s wife and son were forced to remain inside the bookstore. Meanwhile, Clarke was trying to reunite his son with the stuffed lion he’d received for his fifth birthday this weekend, which they were forced to leave inside the restaurant.
“He’s kind of shaken up about the whole thing,” Clarke said. “We’ve been talking a lot about it and trying to help him understand. That he was a man with a weapon, weapons are bad — he was not a nice person.”
Steve Hendrix contributed to this report.