'No facts, no evidence' supporting claim slain DNC staffer tied to WikiLeaks, family says
New developments in the investigation of the 2016 murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich appear to be raising more questions than they answer about why he was killed and what, if any, contact he had with WikiLeaks.
Who was Seth Rich?
The 27-year-old data analyst who grew up in Omaha, Nebraska was working for the DNC developing software to help voters locate their polling places.
What happened to him?
Rich was shot around 4:19 a.m. on July 10, 2016 in the 2100 block of Flagler Place NW near his home in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of DC. According to a police report, he was still conscious and breathing when officers arrived, but he died soon afterward at an area hospital.
Two new media reports claim Rich was in contact with WikiLeaks before his death. Less than two weeks after his murder, the group posted tens of thousands of internal DNC emails that escalated tension within the party and led to the resignation of DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
Rod Wheeler, a former DC police officer and private investigator hired on behalf of Rich’s family, told Fox 5 DC Monday that his sources confirmed that Rich’s laptop showed he was communicating with WikiLeaks. Wheeler also claimed that officers had been ordered to “stand down” on the investigation.
A Fox News report Tuesday went even further, citing an unnamed federal investigator to tie Rich to the DNC leak. The investigator claimed a forensic report generated days after Rich’s murder revealed that he made contact with Gavin MacFadyen, who was director of WikiLeaks at the time and later died of cancer.
According to the unnamed investigator, 44,053 emails and 17,761 attachments between DNC leaders were transferred from Rich to MacFadyen before May 21, 2016. This is exactly the number of documents posted by WikiLeaks in late July.
Wheeler also told Fox News that “someone within the DC government, Democratic National Committee or Clinton team” is blocking the investigation. Wheeler is a Fox News contributor.
What do police say about all of this?
Not much. They have consistently declined to discuss details of the investigation since last summer, and Tuesday was no exception.
They did, however, dispute Wheeler’s claim that that the investigation is being obstructed.
“The Metropolitan Police Department’s (MPD) Homicide Branch is actively investigating Mr. Rich’s murder and we continue to work with the family to bring closure to this case as we do with all homicide investigations,” police said in a statement.
“If there are any individuals who feel they have information, we urge them to call us at 202-727-9099 or text us at 50411. The department is offering a reward of up to $25,000 for information on this case that leads to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible.”
Fox 5 is standing by the story, but several federal and local law enforcement sources told the Washington Post they were unaware of Rich sending any DNC information to WikiLeaks. Nothing in their examination of Rich’s computer and email activity connected him to WikiLeaks.
“There is nothing that we can find that any of this is accurate,” police spokesman Dustin Sternbeck told the Post.
How is Rich’s family reacting?
They are not thrilled that Wheeler took the information to the media before talking to them, and their spokesman is blasting media outlets for promoting “conspiracies” without proof.
“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,” said Brad Bauman, a Democratic political consultant who is serving as family spokesman.
According to Bauman, Wheeler was hired and paid by a third party, not the Rich family, and his contract barred him from speaking to the press without authorization. He also cast doubt on any potential future evidence that might support Wheeler’s claims.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Bauman told Business Insider there is “a special place in hell” for media outlets that “would try and manipulate the legacy of a murder victim in order to forward their own political agenda.”
On Facebook Tuesday, he said the Rich family was desperate for answers and put their trust in people who turned out to have ulterior motives.
“They accepted the help not knowing that their sons legacy would be contorted and manipulated so that every time there is a flare up in the Trump/Russia story, that their son would be used by Russia and allies to try and distract everyone, and guess what...it's working,” he wrote.
Who else has responded to the latest news?
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said during a press gaggle Tuesday that it would be “highly inappropriate” to comment on the case.
The DNC told NBC News and the Washington Post that it is not aware of evidence supporting the allegations.
WikiLeaks did not respond to a request for comment, but its Twitter account and the account of founder Julian Assange have retweeted the Fox reports.
Jack Burkman, a Republican lobbyist who has offered his own reward in the case and has launched an independent investigation, urged Wheeler to make his evidence available for review.
“If such 40,000 emails between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks exist, I’m calling on the private investigator to release them so our team can independently verify the emails and determine how and if they connect Russia and WikiLeaks to Seth’s murder,” he said in a statement.
So why was Rich killed?
We don’t know yet. Police initially indicated his death may have been the result of a botched robbery, but his wallet and jewelry were still on his body when he was found. There had been numerous armed robberies in the neighborhood where Rich was killed in the weeks and months before the crime.
Rich had been on the phone with his girlfriend in the moments before he was shot. According to Fox News, she heard voices in the background before he hung up on her. He reportedly had bruises on his hands and face when he was found.
Police have security camera footage from the street where Rich was killed, but they have not released it. Sources told Fox News the video shows the legs of two possible suspects.
Police have not revealed what, if anything, Rich said to officers before he died. Nearly a year later, there are no suspects in the case.
What does WikiLeaks have to do with it?
Last summer, Assange obliquely indicated Rich may have been the source for the DNC emails the group posted.
"Whistle-blowers go to significant efforts to get us material and often very significant risks," he said in an interview with a Dutch TV station. "As a 27-year-old, works for the DNC, was shot in the back, murdered just a few weeks ago for unknown reasons as he was walking down the street in Washington.”
The group also took the unusual step of offering a $20,000 reward in the case.
WikiLeaks later insisted that the reward and Assange’s statements should not be taken as evidence that Rich provided the emails.
While multiple U.S. intelligence agencies have pointed fingers at hackers associated with the Russian government as the source of documents posted by WikiLeaks that damaged Hillary Clinton’s campaign, Assange has maintained that his source was not affiliated with Russian intelligence.
Why is this generating so much attention?
Seth Rich’s name was trending on Twitter for much of the day Tuesday as Trump supporters claimed a Washington Post article about the president giving classified information to Russia was published to distract from this story. Liberals, meanwhile, argued the Rich story was a distraction from the Trump/Russia controversy.
Rich’s murder has been a subject of fascination and speculation among conspiracy theorists on the right and left since the DNC emails were released.
Some believe he was a Bernie Sanders supporter killed for revealing the DNC’s machinations to keep him from winning the party’s presidential nomination. Others claim, without evidence, that he is one of many people the Clintons have had murdered for getting in their way.
If true, Rich being WikiLeaks’ source would undercut the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia hacked email accounts linked to Clinton to hurt her campaign. It would also refute Democrats’ allegations that Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia to release and promote this information.
It is unclear how Rich would have gotten his hands on thousands of emails belonging to other DNC staffers. This theory also would not explain how WikiLeaks obtained emails from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s account that were released in October.
Fox News host Sean Hannity, popular conspiracy sites like InfoWars, and right wing blogs have fanned the flames of the Rich mystery for months, and they pounced on the latest developments.
However, Wheeler himself warned against careless speculation about the Rich case earlier this year. In a late March interview with Fox 5 DC, he dismissed suggestions by Burkman that Russia was somehow involved in the murder.
“You have to be careful when you start throwing out these conspiracy theories,” Wheeler said at the time. “They actually don’t help the investigation at all.”
So what now?
Wheeler told Fox 5 he would release more information Tuesday to substantiate his allegations, but so far nothing has been posted. He did not respond to a request for comment.
DC police are urging anyone with information about Rich’s murder to contact them directly by phone at 202-727-9099 or by text at 50411.