Of all the bizarre turns in the 2016 presidential race, few top Pizzagate. The conspiracy theory, spread across alt-right media, centered on the idea that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta, one of her top aides, were running a secret child-trafficking ring out of a pizza place, Comet Ping Pong, in Washington, D.C. The story was ludicrous, but for Comet's owner, James Alefantis, the nightmare was real and terrifying--from the first virulent posts online to the day a gunman stormed the pizzeria. --As told to Burt Helm
It was about 9:30 or 10 on the night of November 5 when I saw I had a voice mail from
Will Sommer, a reporter at the Washington City Paper: "Do you know about this online conspiracy theory that you're running a child-slavery ring out of Comet with Hillary Clinton?"
It was right before the election. A lot of crazy things were happening. A lot of talk about conspiracies was being thrown around, and John Podesta's emails had been hacked and were being leaked. Over the years, I had had email exchanges with Podesta about cooking for fundraisers. At first, I was like, "Oh, this is so funny. I'm in WikiLeaks." We started getting weird comments on Comet's Facebook and Instagram posts and on my personal accounts. I just deleted them and set my account to private.
When Donald Trump won, I thought, now, finally, at least this crazy conspiracy theory will
go away. But the opposite happened. It grew and grew and became more and more focused on Comet. I got a call from a friend who works at MIT's Media Lab. He told me, this thing is out of control.
Messages and comments poured in. At one point, I was getting about 75 personal messages on social media a day. My response was to shut everything down--delete the comments, try not to respond. I thought, obviously this has to end eventually.
But it only kept escalating. Many of the messages were violent--"I have a gun. I want you to die"--and gory--"I pray that someone comes in with an assault rifle and kills everyone inside Comet. I want to cut open your guts and watch them spill out on the floor." I'd just shut my laptop and go on with my day.
It got scary when users started performing what I'll call "citizen's investigations." Users sifted through my social media profiles and started messaging everyone who'd ever liked or commented on a post of mine. I started getting calls from friends, family, and customers who said they were getting harassed online as well.
The phone started ringing all day long. You can't ignore phone calls when it's part of your business. People call the pizza place to ask, "How busy is it? Can we get a table? We want to order food." Now my staff was hearing "We know what's going on! You should turn James in! You're going to go to jail too if you don't." Or screaming "You're sick!" Some people I knew were like, "This is stupid." Others were terrified. I had to learn how to get these posts taken down, the steps you can take to reclaim your privacy. Mostly, there's nothing you can do.
The stress does weird things to your body. I was exhausted every day but never tired. I was on full alert, full of adrenaline. It was very intense. Then I'd go to the restaurant, and everything was normal. I'd feel fear, but there'd be all these families and kids happily eating. It was like a parallel universe.
Later, Cecilia Kang, a reporter for The New York Times, asked to write a piece about what was happening. At the time, I'd been denying media requests. Once the Times piece came out, it wasn't a dirty secret--everyone knew about Pizzagate. Employees and I talked every day about how to field questions from customers.
The community really rallied around us. Online, a movement started--"We'll all go to Comet at 6 p.m. Sunday to show our support!" It was like, thanks, people, but can't you just come in several waves--400 people showed up at once. The managers were saying, "We are going to be hugged to death!" From that point on, every day was like our busiest day of the year.
The gunman arrived on the afternoon of December 4. I wasn't in. I was at a church fair when I got the call from one of my managers. She was crying and said, "A guy came in with an assault rifle."
The man with the gun, Edgar Welch, had decided to "self-investigate" Comet. He rushed in through the front door and walked toward the back, and shot open the only locked door in the restaurant, a closet, damaging computer systems inside. My manager told me everyone was safe and evacuated to a firehouse across the street. When I got there, the police had locked down the block. That night, we went back. It was so weird. The tables were empty, but you could see full beers and half-eaten pizza on the table--the moment when time stopped.
At that point, I was ready to close temporarily. The next day, the phone never stopped ringing--"When are you open? Are you open tonight?" Basically, the community said, "We're coming. Open your doors." From Sunday until Tuesday evening, I did everything I could to get security in order. And we opened. The way people came out to support us, it was incredible, an overwhelming sensation.
From that point on, though, I was fearful. I was still receiving death threats. I started wearing a hat and sunglasses to leave the house. And the security people were like, "Yeah. You're in danger."
In the days just before the gunman drove to Comet, he was texting with a friend and told
him he'd been inspired by videos made by Alex Jones, the online conspiracy theorist who runs Infowars. It's one thing if rumors swirl on 4chan or Reddit. But Jones has an audience of millions. He has influenced other gunmen. We're still figuring out our legal strategy, but we're keeping our options open. I was heartened to see Jones retract his stories about us and apologize.
We continue to see protesters, people who still believe Pizzagate is real. On the day of the Women's March, the day after Trump's inauguration, these guys came with giant signs. They had megaphones and were screaming, "Your neighborhood is Sodom and Gomorrah, with your rainbow flags. And you're pedophiles." They were yelling at people going into the restaurant.
What happened next was beautiful. People got up from their seats and poured out onto the street and rushed them, drowning out their protests. We had a PA and put on dance music, and everyone started dancing around them. We had a big dance party in front of the restaurant until they got weary and left. It was like, "Bring it on."