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Nearby bookstore owners describe scary ‘Pizzagate’ episode

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The sign for the Comet Ping Pong restaurant is seen in Washingon, DC, on December 5, 2016. An assault rifle-wielding gunman's appearance at a Washington pizzeria that was falsely reported to house a pedophile ring has elevated worries over the unrelenting rise of fake news and malicious gossip on the internet. No one was injured when 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch strode into the Comet Ping Pong restaurant, packed with families on a Sunday afternoon, and fired off a round from his AR-15. / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The owners of beloved DC bookstore located on the same block as the “pizzagate” pizza restaurant recounted their experience Thursday when a viral conspiracy theory drew a man to fire a gun on their street.

In an interview on “New Day,” Lissa Muscatine and Bradley Graham — who own the “Politics and Prose” book store — described how many of the nearby businesses got caught up in the frightening fake news controversy.

“We had become aware of it in the weeks before then, in kind of fits and starts really, and we knew from the owner of Comet (pizza) that he had been receiving weird things on his social media,” Muscatine said. “And then we ended up consulting with other businesses on the block, and it turned out we all, over the weeks of November, started to receive phone calls, things on social media, complete fantastical assertions about all of our businesses that attempted to connect all of our business, in totally preposterous ways.”

“Pizzagate” spun up on 4chan, Reddit, Twitter and other web sites in the final days before the 2016 presidential election. It was a made-up story incorporating fake leaks from “police sources” and misinterpreted Wikileaks emails about an alleged pedophilia ring supposedly being run out Comet Ping Pong — a pizza shop next door to Politics and Prose — that somehow involved Hillary Clinton and her campaign chairman John Podesta, among other Democrats.

It was an anti-Clinton narrative — just one of many — spread by online commenters who described themselves as Donald Trump supporters.

The conspiracy theory apparently motivated the shooting suspect, Edgar Welch, to drive from his home in North Carolina to Washington. He allegedly walked inside Comet, pointed one of his weapons, and caused a panic. He apparently fired at least one shot at some point before being apprehended.

Graham said that the two “were in the store on Sunday afternoon” for an event, when “all of a sudden, we saw and heard police converging on the block, closing off the block, monitoring everybody to get off the sidewalks and inside. So we had to lock down the story.”

The bookstore owner said he and Muscatine had “most definitely” become worried in the weeks before the incident. They had received messages that “were quite, quite threatening, including a threat of death” and that “we were bracing for something like that, was what ultimately happened on Sunday.”

Following the disturbing series of events, Graham and Muscatine expressed concern over the growing trend of fake news stories spreading conspiracy theories.

“Look, on one level, we get it,” Graham said. “Some of this is reflective of eroding confidence in the conventional sources of information that people have to turn to. And so, as a result, people are looking for other sources, and they’re fastening on some of these really outlandish tales. But I think one answer is for people to — I mean, exercise good judgment and common sense about what they believe.”

“I think that’s right,” Muscatine agreed. “The public square is now in part the internet. So hopefully over time, people will recognize the consequence of these sorts of things, and be able to move us in a more positive direction.”

Welch, 28, appeared in DC Superior Court Thursday morning. Welch entered the courtroom in handcuffs at the waist and an orange jumpsuit. He told the judge “good morning” softly.

His attorney requested to continue the preliminary hearing until Tuesday, citing the need to conduct additional “investigation.” The government objected and then Magistrate Judge Sherry Trafford held a brief bench conference with the defense. After hearing from the defense, the judge granted the continuance request. Before the hearing ended the prosecutor did indicate that the government intends to proceed against Welch on all of the charges.