SALISBURY, N.C. – Before he was charged with firing an assault rifle inside a Washington restaurant, where he had been drawn by an online hoax, Edgar Maddison Welch was known as a well-meaning father of two girls who unnerved some with his religious fervour and sometimes had trouble detaching himself from the internet.
Police say he came to the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant Sunday on a self-imposed mission to investigate a false account of a child sex ring that had spread through fake internet news stories.
For years, he had appeared to lead an aimless life of things left unfinished: jobs, college and even marriage. Along the way, he was convicted of drunken driving and minor drug charges.
And in the weeks before his Washington arrest, there were signs of turbulence.
In late October, the 28-year-old struck a teenage pedestrian with his car in his hometown of Salisbury, requiring the boy to be airlifted to a hospital, according to a police report that said he wasn’t immediately charged. More recently, days before he drove to Washington, he was dropped from the rolls of a volunteer fire department.
But the one constant, friends and family say, was his love for his two young daughters.
“He’s a father and a very loving man, very concerned about children,” said his aunt Tajuana Tadlock, adding: “He’s not a vigilante, by no check of the words.”
Tadlock said Welch’s parents haven’t been able to talk to him to ask what he was thinking, and the family’s only information comes from the news and the public defender.
“He left Sunday morning with no indication of where he was going or going to do,” she said.
In Washington, court documents say Welch fired an AR-15 rifle multiple times inside the restaurant but later exited with his hands up. He told police “he had read online that the Comet restaurant was harbouring child sex slaves,” and he wanted to investigate. He said he surrendered when he found no signs of children being held. Welch faces charges including assault with a dangerous weapon.
In recent years, Welch often mentioned his Christian faith. Interspersed with Facebook posts about his daughters are the registered Republican’s musings on the Bible and religion.
Danielle Tillman of Raleigh said she met Welch a few months ago and has known his current girlfriend for years. She recalls Welch made her uncomfortable while talking at length about religion. At one point, he grabbed her hand and prayed, asking for “the demons to come out of me,” she said.
Welch’s family has roots in the Salisbury area, where his father and grandfather served in local government, according to the Salisbury Post. A woman at the family’s property declined to answer questions this week.
At West Rowan High School in the mid-2000s, Welch was part of the “BMX-type crowd,” said Tremayne Smith, who also attended the school.
Welch “was always with the ones who were little more edgy and maybe the skateboarding type, which was a different flavour for West Rowan, which is very rural,” said Smith, now an aide to a North Carolina congressman.
Around age 18, Welch pleaded guilty to misdemeanour drug possession charges in neighbouring Cabarrus County, according to online records of the January 2007 offence.
Welch enrolled at Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington, but court records say he didn’t graduate.
A friend, Kathy Sue Holtorf, said he wrote a screenplay for a short film, “Mute,” while at the college and she produced it. She described the nine-minute film as a “sweet coming of age story.” Court records from 2013 say he worked for a film production company linked to his family, but at the time of his Washington arrest he listed a grocery store as his employer.
“He’s a fantastic, intelligent, heartfelt, caring man,” said Holtorf, who moved to California and has kept in touch with Welch.
On a break from college in 2009, Welch was interviewed by the Salisbury Post after he made it halfway through a hike of the 500-mile Colorado Trail. He told the newspaper the hike helped him overcome an addiction to the internet.
“It’s a good feeling, going solo,” he told the newspaper. “There’s something spiritual about it.”
In April 2013, Welch was charged with impaired driving with a blood-alcohol content of .09, court records show. He pleaded guilty, was sentenced to probation and community service and underwent alcohol counselling.
Rowan County records show that after a short marriage, his wife filed for divorce in November 2014. The thin file doesn’t say why they split up. The divorce complaint was dismissed in 2015 after neither attended a scheduled hearing. Documents related to his arrest say they remain separated, and his two children live with him.
Welch twice served briefly as a volunteer firefighter, and his aunt said he was recently taking classes needed to get a paying job as a firefighter.
Locke Fire Chief Rusty Alexander said Welch barely showed up at the fire station after joining in 2012, and lasted about six months.
In May 2016, Welch became a volunteer firefighter in the town of Spencer, Chief Gray Grubb said.
“When we interviewed him, he seemed like a good guy,” Grubb said.
Grubb said Welch stopped attending training sessions and didn’t answer alarms, so he was removed from the active roster Nov. 30.
The same day, Welch posted a video on Facebook of the Christian rock song “Lift Your Head Up Weary Sinner.” Quoting one of the lyrics, he added the caption: “If your lost and wandering.” Within days, he was arrested in Washington.
Gresko reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Tom Foreman Jr., Sarah Brumfield in Washington and Martha Waggoner in Raleigh contributed to this report.