How the Murder of a D.N.C. Staffer Fueled Conspiracy Theories

How the Murder of a D.N.C. Staffer Fueled Conspiracy Theories

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A spokesman for Mr. Rich’s family, Brad Bauman, said Mr. Rich had been on a long walk after returning from a bar and was talking with his girlfriend on the phone at the time of his death.

He said the family believes that Mr. Rich may have been murdered during a failed robbery attempt; his watch strap was damaged, but his wallet and other possessions were still on him.

What are the allegations being made about Mr. Rich’s murder?

In an August interview, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, discussed Mr. Rich’s death, and hinted that he had shared material with WikiLeaks.

“Whistle-blowers go to significant efforts to get us material and often very significant risks,” Mr. Assange said in the interview, with a Dutch television station. “There’s a 27-year-old who works for the D.N.C., who was shot in the back, murdered, just two weeks ago, for unknown reasons as he was walking down the street in Washington.”

Pressed by the host to be more direct, Mr. Assange said, “I’m suggesting that our sources take risks and they become concerned to see things occurring like that.”

He would not answer when asked directly whether Mr. Rich was a source, but he said that WikiLeaks was investigating what he called a “concerning situation.” Later, WikiLeaks offered a $20,000 reward for information about Mr. Rich’s murder.

In January, American intelligence officials released a report showing their belief that a Russian military intelligence unit had given WikiLeaks access to stolen material from the Democratic National Committee in an effort to influence the election, something that Mr. Assange has consistently denied.

Mr. Assange’s comments about Mr. Rich have allowed some to spin an alternative narrative, in which Mr. Rich was the source of the leaked emails. No credible evidence has emerged, however, that Mr. Rich was in contact with WikiLeaks.

What happened this week?

On Monday, Rod Wheeler, a Washington private investigator who was hired by the Rich family to look into the death of their son, suggested in an interview with a Fox station in Washington that there was “tangible evidence” that Mr. Rich had communicated with WikiLeaks before his death.

On Tuesday afternoon, CNN reported that Mr. Wheeler had said in an interview he had “no evidence” that Mr. Rich had contacted WikiLeaks and that he had “only learned about the possible existence of such evidence” through a reporter at Fox News.

The Metropolitan Police Department issued a statement on Tuesday saying that “the assertions put forward by Mr. Wheeler are unfounded.”

Later on Tuesday, Mr. Wheeler, who was a Washington police officer from 1990 to 1995, repeated his allegations in an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News on Tuesday night. He told Mr. Hannity that he had talked to a federal investigator who said he had seen Mr. Rich’s case file.

An image from a YouTube video of Rod Wheeler on his investigation into Seth Rich’s murder.

Credit
Fox News, via YouTube

But in that interview, Mr. Wheeler clarified that he had never seen such emails directly, nor was he willing to say definitively to Mr. Hannity that Mr. Rich had emailed WikiLeaks, though he concluded that “it sure appears that way.”

“Is there any evidence that he might have been disgruntled by the treatment of Bernie Sanders and the unfairness and that the fix was in to put Hillary in that position and maybe he had evidence of that?” Mr. Hannity asked of Mr. Rich. Mr. Wheeler said that he had not found any.

Mr. Wheeler, who has made outlandish comments on the air in the past, did not respond to emails and return phone calls on Wednesday requesting clarification of his account.

What is the family saying?

The Rich family regrets hiring Mr. Wheeler and has objected to his many public comments.

Mr. Bauman, a communications professional who often represents Democratic causes and has worked as a pro bono spokesman for the family since last summer, said Wednesday afternoon that the family was asking that Fox News and the Fox affiliate retract their reports and apologize for damaging their sons legacy.

Mr. Bauman said that the Riches had retained Mr. Wheeler on the advice of Ed Butowsky, a Dallas businessman and conservative commentator who offered to pay for the investigator’s services.

Aaron Rich, Mr. Rich’s brother, said in an email Wednesday that Mr. Wheeler had “discredited himself as an objective investigator” and had lost the confidence of the family. He said that the politicization of his brother’s death had been “painful” and “debilitating.”

“Why everyone feels the need to use his death for their own motives is beyond us,” he wrote. “We simply want to find his killers and grieve. Instead, we are stuck having to constantly fight against non-facts, baseless allegations, and general stupidity to defend my brother’s name and legacy.”

He continued, “This only prevents us from moving forward in our grieving and distracts from answering the only question that matters — Who murdered my brother and my parents’ son, Seth?”

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