Like the murder of John F. Kennedy, it has already difficult to separate fact from fiction in the tragic case of Seth Rich.
Seth Conrad Rich was a 27-year-old native of Omaha, Nebraska who worked for the Democratic National Committee as the Voter Expansion Data Director. His job there entailed working on a computer applicationto help voters find their local polling place.
On the morning of Sunday, July 10, 2016, Rich was walking home in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Washington, D.C. At 4:19 a.m., police patrolling the area heard gunshots and used Sharp Spotter, a system that uses acoustics to determine to direction of shots, to locate the scene of the attack.
Multiple sources say that Rich was still alive when police arrived at the scene, which was only a block from his house. He had multiple gunshot wounds and there were signs of a struggle. Early reports, such as this one from a local CBS affiliate, state that Rich was alive and conscious when he was taken to the hospital where he died a few hours later. Police have never revealed whether he was able to provide information about his killer.
Other early reports do support the claim that none of Rich’s personal items seemed to be missing. The local NBC affiliate quoted Rich’s mother, Mary, who said, “There had been a struggle. His hands were bruised, his knees are bruised, his face is bruised, and yet he had two shots to his back, and yet they never took anything. They took his life for literally no reason. They didn’t finish robbing him, they just took his life.” Rich’s father, Joel, also confirmed to the Washington Post that nothing was taken.
The New York Daily News reported on July 11 that police had said that there was no indication of robbery, but that attempted robbery had not been ruled out as a motive for the attack. Joel Rich said that he believed that Seth had attempted to fight off his attacker before he was killed.
Many of the sources also point out the high crime rate in the neighborhood where Rich was killed. NBC’s Channel Four pointed out that robberies using guns were up 12 percent in the Metro Police Fifth District and that seven people had already been killed there in addition to Rich that year. The New York Daily News noted that armed robberies had doubled in Bloomingdale over the previous year.
Almost two weeks after Rich’s murder, on July 22, the first dump of Democrat emails from WikiLeaks was posted. Even as the emails were posted, there was immediate speculation that the source of the emails was of Russian origin. The date range of the first DNC hack was from January 2015 through May 2016, about two months before Rich’s murder. A second trove emails stolen from John Podesta was dumped by WikiLeaks beginning on October 7, 2016, three months after Rich’s death.
The conspiracy theories seemed to have started within days of the murder. On July 13, a conspiracy site called Whatdoesitmean.com cited a Kremlin intelligence report that said that Rich was preparing to meet with FBI agents in order to testify against Hillary Clinton. The story reports that the FBI agents were really a “hit team” that was then “captured yesterday after a running gun battle with US federal police forces just blocks from the White House.” There were no reports of captured hit men or “running gun battles” in other sources.
The WikiLeaks angle to the story came several weeks later. WikiLeaks founder and accused rapist, Julian Assange, appeared on Dutch television on August 9, almost a month after the murder, and hinted that Rich was the source of the pilfered emails, although he never expressly stated any connection with Rich.
On May 15, 2017, a private detective named Rod Wheeler told a local television news reporter that he had evidence that Rich had contacted WikiLeaks before his death. Two days later, Wheeler retracted his claims. NBC News reported that Ed Butowsky, a Dallas businessman and Breitbart contributor, hired Wheeler to investigate the murder on behalf of the Rich family. Butowsky initially denied being connected to Wheeler, but eventually admitted his involvement to CNN. A spokesman for the family said that Wheeler had showed them no evidence to support the allegations that Seth had contacted WikiLeaks.
Police also told the Washington Post that Rich’s computer and email had been examined and that there was no evidence that he was connected to WikiLeaks. A former law enforcement official with knowledge of Rich’s laptop told NBC News, “It never contained any e-mails related to WikiLeaks, and the FBI never had it.”
Still, the rumors keep coming. The Russian embassy tweeted on May 19 that Rich was the “WikiLeaks informer” and accused the US media of ignoring the truth about his murder. At about the same time, Kim Dotcom, a European hacker fighting extradition to the US from New Zealand on money laundering, racketeering and wire fraud charges, claimed to have known Seth Rich as the WikiLeaks source.
District of Columbia Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Kevin Donohue recently told NBC’s local affiliatethat Rich’s murder was still under investigation, but that there was no truth the WikiLeaks rumors. “This is a robbery that ended tragically. That’s bad enough for our city, and I think it is irresponsible to conflate this into something that doesn’t connect to anything that the detectives have found,” Donahue said. “No WikiLeaks connection.”
If Rich’s murder is still unsolved, the mystery of the DNC hacking is not. In January 2017, the Director of National Intelligence released an unclassified version of a report detailing the unanimous assessment of the American intelligence community that the Russian government was behind the cyberattack. The assessment echoed the findings of CrowdStrike, a private cybersecurity firm retained by the DNC.
In the case of John Podesta’s emails, investigators have identified a fraudulent email that urged Podesta to click a link and change his password. Podesta did so and compromised his email password as a result. This sort of breach is known as “phishing.”
Time reported in January that the CIA had even identified the individual Russian officials who had passed the stolen emails to WikiLeaks. The report said that the information followed a “circuitous route” to WikiLeaks so that Assange could plausibly deny Russian involvement.
At this point, there are a few basic problems with the conspiracy theory that Seth Rich was the source for the stolen Democratic Party emails. First, Rich was murdered before WikiLeaks published the emails. Second, the DNC’s internal investigation pointed to the Russians, not an internal leaker, as the source of the breach. Third, US counterintelligence has identified the real perpetrators of the theft, the Russian government. Most importantly, there is not a shred of evidence that ties Rich to WikiLeaks other than unsubstantiated innuendo. There is not even evidence that Rich had access to the emails that ended up the hands of WikiLeaks.
Conversely, it would be logical for the Russians and WikiLeaks to implicate the conveniently dead Rich in the leak to distract attention from the real culprits. Intelligence agencies agreed that the Russian covert operation that interfered with the election seemed to be partly to sow chaos and partly to help Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton. Even with Trump in the White House, Vladimir Putin seems to relish causing chaos and doubt about the US government.
Rich’s family, who have the most to gain in seeing their son’s killers brought to justice, reject the conspiracy claims. Rather than embracing the conspiracy, the family released a statement that called upon the conspiracy theorists to stop defaming their son’s reputation and distracting attention from the real killers. “We are a family who is committed to facts, not fake evidence that surfaces every few months to fill the void and distract law enforcement and the general public from finding Seth’s murderers,” the statement said.
“It’s sad but unsurprising that a group of media outlets who have repeatedly lied to the American people would try and manipulate the legacy of a murder victim in order to forward their own political agenda,” a spokesman for the family told Business Insider. “I think there is a special place in hell for people like that.”