A 23-year-old California man pleaded guilty Tuesday to starting a fire earlier this year at a Washington pizzeria that lies at the heart of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, in a crime that appears to be linked to bizarre internet claims about the restaurant.
Ryan Jaselskis accepted a two-count deal from prosecutors that will send him to prison for four years, if it’s accepted by a judge at his sentencing in March. Under the conditions of his guilty plea, Jaselskis admitted to starting a fire on Jan. 23 at pizzeria Comet Ping Pong and assaulting a law enforcement officer near the Washington Monument days later.
Security footage taken the night of the arson showed Jaselskis lighting a curtain in the back of the pizzeria on fire before fleeing. An employee put out the fire before anyone in the restaurant could be hurt.
Prosecutors haven’t revealed Jaselskis’s motives for starting the fire, and his defense attorney declined to comment on Tuesday. But the arson appears to be related to Pizzagate, the baseless internet conspiracy theory that posits that Hillary Clinton and other top Democratic figures operate a cannibalistic, pedophile sex dungeon out of the restaurant’s nonexistent basement.
An hour before Jaselskis started the fire, someone posted a video to his parents’ YouTube account promoted Pizzagate-style claims. Jaselskis was eventually arrested in February after fighting National Park Police officers in an attempt to break into the Washington Monument.
Jaselskis wouldn’t be the first person motivated to commit violence by Pizzagate conspiracy theories, which proliferated online shortly before the 2016 presidential election. In Dec. 2016, a North Carolina man who believed in Pizzagate fired an AR-15 rifle inside the pizzeria. Welch was sentenced to four years in prison.
While no one was hurt in either incidents, the conspiracy theory has continued to bedevil the pizzeria and surrounding years after the claims first emerged. Comet Ping Pong has faced harassing phone calls and protesters, while Pizzagate itself has been subsumed into QAnon, the wider-reaching conspiracy theory that makes similarly bizarre, unfounded claims about top Democrats.