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How Seth Rich’s death became an Internet conspiracy theory

Two weeks before the Democratic National Convention in July, Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich was shot and killed in his Washington neighborhood. His family and Metropolitan D.C. police have said his death was the result of a botched robbery. But conspiracy theories have circulated in right-wing and conservative social and news media spheres fueling unsubstantiated rumors that Rich's killing was political in nature.

Ten months later, the unsolved homicide and the conspiracy theories attached to it reached their biggest audience yet when they aired on Fox News, bringing fringe speculation about Rich’s death into the mainstream.

Here’s how the rumors took off.


July 10, 2016

Seth Rich is killed

Before dawn, 27-year-old Rich spoke to his girlfriend, Kelsey Mulka, over the phone as he walked home from a bar. Just days before, Hillary Clinton’s campaign had offered him a new job that would bring him to New York.

As the couple talked, Mulka heard voices on the other end. Rich abruptly ended the call.

Then gunshots rang out.

There had been a rise in street robberies that summer in the northwest D.C. neighborhood of Bloomingdale. Some blamed a lack of lighting surrounding a vast construction project that had turned much of the area into a dark maze. Residents were troubled.

When police got to the scene, they found Rich had been shot multiple times, and his credit cards, wallet and watch were still on him. He was later pronounced dead at a hospital.

Police ruled his death a homicide — an attempted robbery turned deadly.

But questions loomed.

"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," Rich's mother, Mary, told NBC shortly after his death.

With no suspects or witnesses to the crime, it remained one of 65 unsolved cases in the District of Columbia that year.

Aug. 9, 2016

Julian Assange fuels conspiracy rumors

“Our sources take risks,” WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said in an interview with a Dutch television program, just after addressing Rich’s murder.

When asked if he was implying that Rich was a source for WikiLeaks, which on July 22 released thousands of emails from DNC accounts — centering around Clinton, her campaign and the DNC's treatment of Sen. Bernie Sanders — Assange cryptically responded.

“We don’t comment on our sources,” he said. “We have to understand how high the stakes are on the case.”

Julian Assange seems to suggest on Dutch television program Nieuwsuur that Seth Rich was the source for the WikiLeaks-exposed DNC emails and was murdered.

The comments fueled a growing conspiracy theory on Twitter, and later on message boards Reddit and 4chan that Rich’s death was connected to the DNC. Despite police statements and Rich’s family concluding that his death was the result of an attempted robbery, the rumor spread within the same circles that churned out the bogus “PizzaGate” story — a theory that a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor was at the center of a child sex-trafficking operation that involved Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta.

WikiLeaks has stated that it doesn’t confirm or deny whether any person has ever been a source as a matter of policy.

But the site has offered a $20,000 reward for information leading to a conviction in Rich’s slaying.

September-November 2016

Republican lobbyist offers his assistance to Rich family

After police came up empty-handed in solving Rich’s case, Republican lobbyist Jack Burkman offered his public relations services, pro bono, to Rich’s family. He increased the reward for information to $130,000 and plastered posters throughout the Bloomingdale neighborhood and its surrounding areas that asked “Do you know who murdered Seth Rich?”

In late November, he held a joint news conference with Rich’s family.

“None of us can solve this. Only you can solve this,” Burkman said. “It’s only through the media that this can be solved.”

When asked to address the conspiracy theories about Rich’s slaying, it was clear that Burkman and the Rich family were on different pages.

“There is no politicization here. There are no ulterior motives here. There is no conspiracy theory here. This is a genuine attempt to get to the facts of the case,” Brad Bauman, a spokesperson from the family, said.

But Burkman contradicted.

“I don’t believe there’s much evidence of a robbery.”

Rich’s father, Joel, interjected.

“There are signs of a struggle,” he said. “There’s no other evidence to show anything else.”

Jan. 10

Rich’s father tries to quell conspiracy theories

Six months after his son’s death, Joel Rich tried to dispel the rumors that followed Assange’s statements.

“Anyone who knew Seth knew that wasn’t the way he would have handled the problem," he told Fox News. "He would not go outside the system.”

Rich continued to reiterate what police and his family had said before, that his son was in the “wrong place at the wrong time.”

“There are all kinds of scenarios, but until something else is proven, these are just scenarios,” he said.

March

Burkman pushes another conspiracy theory

Conspiracists theorized that the Clinton campaign and the DNC were connected to Rich’s slaying. Burkman didn’t believe that the Clinton campaign was involved in Rich’s death. But he did think someone, beyond random robbers, was behind it.

During an interview with the local Fox News affiliate, Burkman said he was approached by a man he believed to be “the first credible lead” in the case.

“Seth discovered that the Russians had been hacking [the DNC], and therefore the Russian government did away with Seth,” Burkman theorized.

Meanwhile, the Rich family distanced themselves from the lobbyist’s statements. Rich’s brother Aaron set up a GoFundMe page in an attempt to raise money for the investigation into Rich’s slaying, seemingly separate from Burkman’s initial funds.

May

Mass media publications, retractions

On May 15, Fox 5 DC – the local Fox News affiliate – aired a story that cited Rod Wheeler — a man claiming to be a private investigator in Rich’s death. Wheeler said he had evidence that Rich’s slaying was connected to the DNC. Fox 5 DC said it corroborated the claims with an unnamed “federal investigator” who said an FBI analysis of Rich’s computer showed he had transferred more than 44,000 DNC emails to someone connected with WikiLeaks.

The national Fox News website prominently featured the local report, and Sean Hannity gave the story attention on his show that same night.

But a law enforcement official said the FBI wasn’t involved in Rich’s case, and Wheeler walked back his claims.

The Rich family called for Fox, both local and national, to retract the stories. Though the local affiliate did so two days after the story aired, the national news network waited one week, until Tuesday.

By then, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich had already discussed the unsubstantiated claim on “Fox and Friends,” citing it is as proof that Russia was not involved in the DNC email leak.

“We have this very strange story now of this young man who worked for the Democratic National Committee, who apparently was assassinated at four in the morning, having given WikiLeaks something like 23,000 — I’m sorry, 53,000 emails and 17,000 attachments. Nobody is investigating that. What does that tell you about what was going on? Because it turns out, it wasn’t the Russians. It was this young guy,” he said.

And Hannity refused to stand down.

“I am not Fox.com or FoxNews.com. I retracted nothing,” he said on his nationally syndicated radio program Tuesday.

Hannity refuses to back down

Hannity insisted there was more to Rich’s death, despite his network pulling its initial report. He continued to cite tweets made by Kim Dotcom, the founder of the piracy website Megaupload, who has claimed that Rich passed DNC emails to WikiLeaks.

“I knew Seth Rich. I know he was the @WikiLeaks source. I was involved,” Dotcom tweeted on Saturday.

Dotcom issued a statement on his website Tuesday elaborating on his claims, saying that in 2014, he was contacted by an individual going by the name “Panda” who said he was working on voter analytics tools and other technologies that would be useful in starting a branch of the Internet Party in the U.S.

“I now know that Panda was Seth Rich,” said Dotcom. He added that he communicated with Panda on a number of topics including corruption and the influence of corporate money in politics.

Dotcom said he believes a full statement “should be provided to the authorities and I am prepared to do that so that there can be a full investigation.”

https://twitter.com/seanhannity/status/867183190137593856

Hannity — a Trump booster and quasi-advisor during his presidential campaign — has also been a longtime critic of the media’s coverage of Russia’s possible collusion with the Trump campaign. Like Gingrich, he implied that Rich’s death is bigger than that issue, which has dogged Trump’s young presidency.

“This issue, it’s so big now that the entire Russia collusion narrative is hanging by a thread,” he said on his radio show.

“If in fact, take Seth out of it, there was a whistleblower within the DNC, a truth-teller that actually [was] the source for WikiLeaks, and not Russia, working with the Trump campaign, these are questions that I have a moral obligation to ask. And I will do the mainstream media’s job, like I have most of my career.”

Rich family calls for end to conspiracy theories

As Hannity tweeted out conspiracy allegations surrounding Rich’s death and stood by his assertions on radio and T.V. broadcasts on Tuesday, Rich’s parents penned a Washington Post op-ed titled “We’re Seth Rich’s parents. Stop politicizing our son’s murder.”

In it, they addressed the unknown factors surrounding their son’s death.

“The circumstances of what happened next are still unclear. We know that Seth was abruptly confronted on the street, that he had been on the phone and quickly ended the call. We also know that there were signs of a struggle, including a watchband torn when the assailants attempted to rip it off his wrist. Law-enforcement officials told us that Seth’s murder looked like a botched robbery attempt in which the assailants — after shooting our son — panicked, immediately ran and abandoned Seth’s personal belongings. We have seen no evidence, by any person at any time, that Seth’s murder had any connection to his job at the Democratic National Committee or his life in politics. Anyone who claims to have such evidence is either concealing it from us or lying.”

They pleaded with media and online commentators to stop fueling conspiracy claims.

“Conservative news outlets and commentators continue, day after painful day, to peddle discredited conspiracy theories that Seth was killed after having provided WikiLeaks with emails from the DNC. Those theories, which some reporters have since retracted, are baseless, and they are unspeakably cruel,” the wrote.

On his show Tuesday night, Hannity said he would respect the Rich family’s wishes and refrain from discussing the case, with the caveat, “for now.”

But he doubled down on his belief that there’s more to Rich’s death than what police, and Rich’s family, have already said.

“I promise you I am not going to stop doing my job. I am not going to stop trying to find the truth.”

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Times staff writer David Ng contributed to this report.

Questions? Comments? Tweet @cshalby or email colleen.shalby@latimes.com.



UPDATES:

1 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information about the crime scene and comments from Seth Rich’s parents on what was found and what they were told.

This story was originally published at 11:10 a.m

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