Seth Rich was an innocent man who in death became swept up in a number of conspiracy theories.
Sitting pretty in Netflix’s top 10 trending bar is docu-series of the moment Web of Make Believe: Death, Lies and the Internet. The gripping six-parter co-produced by Ron Howard has opened audiences’ eyes to the dark and criminal side to the Internet – with a different episode exploring a new cyber case.
Episode 1 introduced us to Tyler Barriss (opens in new tab) and the 2017 Wichita swatting, whilst episode 4 heard from victims of sextorter Ryan Vallee (opens in new tab). But it’s episode 2 and the murder of Seth Rich we’re unpicking here. From who the police believe killed him to the MAD conspiracy theories that followed, we’ve broken down the need to know details.
Who killed Seth Rich?
The murder of Seth Rich remains an open and unsolved case. But Washington D.C. police who investigated his death still maintain that Seth died at the hands of two unknown men who shot him during an armed robbery turned bad.
“Police say they believe Seth Rich’s killing was the result of a botched robbery at gunpoint,” reports the NPR’s David Folkenflik, who also contributed to the Web of Make Believe documentary.
Keith L. Alexander of the Washington Post agrees: “They believe – according to their sources and investigations – that Seth Rich was part of another random robbery. A random robbery that went bad,” he said in a video report (opens in new tab).
“They believe that as Rich had been drinking, when these individuals approached him with a gun to rob him – he fought back, instead of giving up his wallet or his watch or his valuables. And because he fought back, the attackers shot him and then they fled.”
Several robberies had taken place in the Bloomingdale neighbourhood – where Seth lived and was shot – days, weeks and even a month prior to his death. He died as a result of two gun shot wounds to the back fired around 4:19am on July 10, 2016. He had been walking home after drinking late in a bar.
Authorities at the Metropolitan Police Department immediately linked Seth’s murder to these incidents. “We are aware of the robberies from that particular area. And we are looking to commonalities with the robberies and our case,” Capt Anthony Haythe of the Metro Police Homicide Branch said during a press conference one day after the shooting.
Detectives are still actively working on the case of Seth Rich and continue to appeal for leads or any relevant information.
Who was Seth Rich?
27-year-old Seth Conrad Rich was an employee at the Democratic National Comittee (DNC). Originally from the city of Omaha, Nebraska, he moved to Washington D.C. shortly after he graduated college to start his career in politics.
According to Vox (opens in new tab), Seth’s first role in DC was at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner (opens in new tab) – a consultant polling firm that carries out opinion and market research. After this he joined the DNC, where his job involved helping people to understand how to vote.
“His whole heart and soul was into voter registration and getting the registration right,” Seth’s mum Mary said in the Netflix documentary. “For him, every person should vote.”
Politics was always a huge passion for Rich. Vox reported that growing up Seth also volunteered to help at two Democratic Senate campaigns.
“At a very, very young age, he could tell me every congressperson, every senator, every governor, what they stood for, what the policies were,” Mary Rich said in Web of Make Believe.
Why the conspiracy theories?
Seth Rich’s career as a staffer for the Democratic National Committee is what ultimately led to conspiracy theorists alleging that Seth’s death was a pre-mediated attack linked to his political role.
The timing of Seth’s murder in July 2016 coincided with the race for US Presidential Office that year. Donald Trump (and future President) was the frontrunner for the Republicans, whilst Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders battled it out as representatives for the Democrats.
Theory 1. Hillary Clinton
According to a US federal officer in the Rich case (opens in new tab), a Russian foreign intelligence service – called SVR – sent a bulletin out three days after the murder. It alleged that Clinton’s ‘hit squad’ was behind his death. This was notably the first conspiracy theory to arise.
“The purported details in the SVR account seemed improbable on their face: that Rich, a data director in the DNC’s voter protection division, was on his way to alert the FBI to corrupt dealings by Clinton when he was slain in the early hours of a Sunday morning by the former secretary of state’s hit squad,” explains Yahoo News’ investigative correspondent (opens in new tab) Michael Isikoff.
Several investigations and federal prosecutors have concluded that this claim is unfounded and untrue.
Theory 2. WikiLeaks and Fox News
Nearly a month after his death, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange speculated that Seth Rich was working as a source for the anti-secrecy website. In an interview with Dutch TV programme Nieuwsuur on 9 August 2016, Assange brought up the murder of Seth Rich. When pressed by a reporter as to what the relevance was, Assange replied: “We don’t comment on who our sources are”.
That same day, WikiLeaks went on to post a tweet announcing a $20,000 reward for any information linked to Rich’s murder.
Publicly Assange was falsely suggesting that Seth had some part in the thousands of leaked Democratic Party emails WikiLeaks had obtained and published to the public.
Assange wasn’t the only one to claim links between the two. Enter former DC Metropolitan Police Detective Rod Wheeler – who was also hired by the Rich family to invest Seth’s death. He told the Fox affiliate channel WTTG-T (opens in new tab) that there was “tangible evidence on Rich’s laptop that confirms he was communicating with WikiLeaks prior to his death.”
Wheeler also added that he had spoken to someone in the police department who had also been told to stand down on the Rich investigation. It’s worth noting here that Wheeler never reviewed information on Seth’s laptop – given that it was in police custody as part of the murder investigation.
Nevertheless, the same theory was later reported by Fox News‘ Malia Zimmerman (opens in new tab). The piece published May 16, 2017 cited an anonymous federal investigator who told Fox News: “I have seen and read the emails between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks.” The far right News organisation later retracted the story – seven days later. In the statement (opens in new tab), they admitted the story “was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting.”
Reacting to the retraction, Brad Bauman, a representative for the Rich family told Business Insider (opens in new tab): “The family would like to thank Fox News for their retraction on a story that has caused deep pain and anguish to the family and has done harm to Seth Rich’s legacy.”
In November 2020, Seth’s parents Mary and Joel accepted a private settlement from Fox News (opens in new tab) after suing over the May 2017 article. In a statement they shared that they “sincerely hope that the media will take genuine caution in the future.”
As for those leaked Democratic Party emails via WikiLeaks? The Mueller Report (opens in new tab) – which looked into Russian interference during the 2016 election – found that these emails came from a persona known as ‘Guccifer 2.0 GRU’. These were sent four days after Seth’s murder on July 14.
In a statement following the published report, Aaron Rich said that this provided “hard facts that demonstrate this conspiracy is false.”
New: Seth Rich’s brother, Aaron Rich, releases statement after Mueller findings: “I hope that the people who pushed, fueled, spread, ran headlines, articles, interviews, talk and opinion shows…will take responsibility for the unimaginable pain they have caused us.” pic.twitter.com/88HfFGlN2zApril 19, 2019
Fact vs Fiction
“Detectives have gone through Seth Rich’s laptop computer, looking for information because of all these conspiracy theories,” says Keith L. Alexander (opens in new tab) of the Washington Post. “They found nothing. They found nothing on that computer that at all suggested that Seth Rich might have died as a result of anything more than a random robbery.”
He added that some conspiracy theorists continue to question the robbery claim because items like Seth’s wallet and watch remained on his body. But he has an answer for this: “It was a failed robbery because he fought back.”
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