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Unproved Claims Re-Emerge Around DNC Staffer's Death: Here's What You Should Know

Mary Rich, the mother of slain DNC staffer Seth Rich, gives a press conference in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 1, 2016. Seth Rich was gunned down walking through a D.C. neighborhood in July 2016. Some have theorized, without proof, that his death was related to his DNC work.
Michael Robinson Chavez
The Washington Post/Getty Images
Mary Rich, the mother of slain DNC staffer Seth Rich, gives a press conference in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 1, 2016. Seth Rich was gunned down walking through a D.C. neighborhood in July 2016. Some have theorized, without proof, that his death was related to his DNC work.

Updated on May 23 at 6:40 p.m. ET

When Seth Rich was killed in July 2016, police suspected it was a botched robbery.

This week, sparked by a report from a TV station in Washington, D.C., that crime took over conservative media.

The reason: Seth Rich was a Democratic National Committee staffer, and some have theorized that his work was connected to his murder.

There is no hard evidence that is true. In fact, further reporting has blown large holes in Fox 5 DC's Monday report.

As with many other conspiracy theories, like the assertion that a Washington pizza restaurant was at the center of a child sex ring tied to top Democrats, this kind of assertion in part functions by trying to shift the burden of proof. Rather than proving with hard evidence that there was a conspiracy surrounding Rich's murder (or that the owners of Comet Ping Pong, the pizza restaurant, were harming children), the people making the unproved claims end up pushing the other side to try to disprove it.

With that disclaimer in mind, here's a roundup of the news surrounding Rich and why reports about the circumstances of his death suddenly resurfaced again this week.

Who is Seth Rich?

Seth Rich was a 27-year-old DNC staffer when he was shot to death while walking home from a bar in the early hours of the morning in July 2016. In an initial report from The Washington Post, D.C. police and Rich's father said they believed that he had been the victim of a robbery attempt. The neighborhood suffered a rash of robberies around the same time.

However, it appeared that the killer (or killers) took nothing from Rich; he still had his credit cards, wallet and watch, the Post reported.

Rich's father later reported that his son had been on the phone with his girlfriend when the murder took place. The father told an Omaha CBS affiliate that she "asked [Seth] if he was home yet and he said just about, and then she heard some noise, he said he had to call her back."

The incident became fodder for conspiracy theories that alleged Rich's death was related to his DNC work — the general idea being that he had leaked emails to WikiLeaks or had been ready to talk to the FBI, and that the DNC and/or Hillary Clinton herself had arranged for his killing to keep him quiet.

Less than a month after Rich's death, WikiLeaks offered $20,000 for information about the murder.

Founder Julian Assange also implied in an interview that Rich had supplied the emails to WikiLeaks. But the day after offering that reward, WikiLeaks released another statement clarifying that it was not saying that Rich was its source.

"As a matter of policy we do not confirm or deny whether any person has ever been a source for WikiLeaks," the organization wrote. It later added, "This should not be taken to imply that Seth Rich was a source to WikiLeaks or to imply that ... his murder is connected to our publications."

That wasn't the only reward offered; in September, a GOP lobbyist offered $100,000 for information on the murder.

Washington's Metropolitan Police Department, meanwhile, maintained that the DNC did not appear to be involved in the murder.

"At this time, there is no indication that Seth Rich's death is connected to his employment at the DNC," an MPD spokeswoman told Business Insider in August 2016.

The murder happened last summer. Why is this coming up now?

On Monday, Washington, D.C.'s Fox 5 reported that Rod Wheeler, a former D.C. homicide detective who acted as a private investigator in this case, believed Rich had communicated with WikiLeaks before he died.

The Fox 5 piece caused the Rich story to explode on social media, particularly among conservatives — Michael Flynn Jr., son of President Trump's fired national security adviser, was among those sharing it. Flynn had previously also tweeted credulously about #Pizzagate, as that false news story came to be called.

Within a day of the Fox 5 report, Google searches for Rich had overtaken searches for James Comey, even amid continuous news about the former FBI director's conversations with Trump.

What did Fox 5 report?

The key quotes, as reported by Fox 5's Marina Marraco:

" 'The police department nor the FBI have been forthcoming,' said Wheeler. 'They haven't been cooperating at all. I believe that the answer to solving his death lies on that computer, which I believe is either at the police department or either at the FBI. I have been told both.'

"When we asked Wheeler if his sources have told him there is information that links Rich to WikiLeaks, he said, 'Absolutely. Yeah. That's confirmed.'

"Wheeler also told us, 'I have a source inside the police department that has looked at me straight in the eye and said, "Rod, we were told to stand down on this case and I can't share any information with you." Now, that is highly unusual for a murder investigation, especially from a police department. Again, I don't think it comes from the chief's office, but I do believe there is a correlation between the mayor's office and the DNC and that is the information that will come out [Tuesday].' "

Wheeler also told Fox's Sean Hannity on Tuesday that he had never personally seen the emails but that there was a federal investigator who was "very credible" who had said he had seen Rich's computer and the investigation's "case file." He also said he found FBI involvement in the case to be suspicious.

A Rich family spokesman later confirmed to Fox 5 that financial adviser and Fox News contributor Ed Butowsky was the person who had paid for Wheeler's investigation services.

(Wheeler has also contributed to Fox News for years. The Fox News website has clips of Wheeler dating to 2008, and a LinkedIn page appearing to be Wheeler's says he has been a contributor there since 2002. The Southern Poverty Law Center flagged Wheeler in a 2007 blog post for a Fox News report on "violent lesbian gangs," which Wheeler said were victimizing children.)

Fox News on Tuesday quoted an anonymous federal investigator who said an FBI investigation found that Rich had been in contact with Gavin MacFadyen, whom Fox identified as a "director of WikiLeaks."

That Fox News report also noted that Rich's family had said Wheeler was "not authorized to speak for the family." [Update on May 23: Fox News has retracted this story, and posted a statement saying it was not subjected to "the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting."]

Weaknesses emerge in the latest news reports

Several large holes have developed in these reports since Fox 5's story.

In a CNN interview on Tuesday, Wheeler indicated that Fox 5 had presented his quotes misleadingly and that some of that information had come from the Fox 5 reporter herself.

"Wheeler told CNN he had no evidence to suggest Rich had contacted WikiLeaks before his death.

"Wheeler instead said he only learned about the possible existence of such evidence through the reporter he spoke to for the story. He explained that the comments he made to WTTG-TV were intended to simply preview Fox News' Tuesday story. The WTTG-TV news director did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

" 'I only got that [information] from the reporter at Fox News,' Wheeler told CNN.

"Asked about a quote attributed to him in the Fox News story in which he said his 'investigation up to this point shows there was some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks,' Wheeler said he was referring to information that had already been reported in the media."

Newsweek further reported on Wednesday that Wheeler now says he had never spoken to the federal investigator directly.

Moreover, the publication reported that the FBI is not involved in the investigation. That doesn't square with the federal investigator's claim that an FBI analysis of Rich's computer revealed he had been in contact with WikiLeaks.

Wheeler also told Newsweek that he had "been told that a couple of times, that [the FBI is] not involved."

And NBC News reported this week that a current FBI official said that D.C. police never gave Rich's computer to the FBI.

WikiLeaks, of course, did get its hands on thousands of DNC emails. However, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security reported in October that they believed Russia had been behind the hacking of the DNC.

What does Rich's family say?

Ever since last summer, Rich's family members have spoken out against people politicizing his death. This is the statement they provided to Fox 5 this week:

"As we've seen through the past year of unsubstantiated claims, we see no facts, we have seen no evidence, we have been approached with no emails and only learned about this when contacted by the press. Even if tomorrow, an email was found, it is not a high enough bar of evidence to prove any interactions as emails can be altered and we've seen that those interested in pushing conspiracies will stop at nothing to do so. 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 services of the private investigator who spoke to press was offered to the Rich family and paid for by a third party, and contractually was barred from speaking to press or anyone outside of law enforcement or the family unless explicitly authorized by the family."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Corrected: July 18, 2018 at 11:00 PM CDT
In a previous version of this story, we say that the 17 spy agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community reported in October that Russia was interfering in the American presidential election. The announcement was issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security.
Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.
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