FBI and other law enforcement officials are privately knocking down a conspiracy theory today, fueled by conservative commentators on Fox News, that seeks to divert attention from Russia’s involvement in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee last year by suggesting a DNC staffer was murdered to cover up his involvement in passing the information to WikiLeaks.
According to officials with knowledge of the matter, the FBI is not investigating the unsolved murder of Seth Rich last year in what agents have determined was “a possible attempted robbery” gone wrong. Asked about the possible connection between Rich and WikiLeaks, one official told ABC News that “the only place I've seen that is through the conspiracy theories online."
The Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., continues to investigate his death as a homicide.
On July 10, 2016, the 27-year-old voter outreach coordinator was shot multiple times near his home in Washington, D.C., a few weeks before WikiLeaks published thousands of hacked emails from several DNC staff members.
Investigators determined that Rich had been the victim of an attempted robbery, but theories to the contrary first took hold when WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange suggested Rich might have had a role, and WikiLeaks offered a $20,000 reward for information about his murder.
“Whistleblowers go to significant efforts to get us material, and often very significant risk,” Assange said in an interview with the Dutch television program Nieuwsuur. “There's a 27-year-old who works for the DNC, who was shot in the back, murdered.”
When pressed to explain his suggestion, Assange refused to identify Rich as a source, saying “we don't comment on who our sources are.”
The theory resurfaced last week when a private investigator named Rod Wheeler who claimed to have been hired by the Rich family told Fox 5 DC that his sources within the FBI had told him that there was evidence suggesting Rich had contacted WikiLeaks before his death. He repeated the story in an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity the following day.
"There was a federal investigator that was involved with the inside, a person that is very credible," Wheeler told Hannity. "Very credible, and he said he laid eyes on that computer and he laid eyes on the case file. And he came across very credible. When you look at that with the totality of everything else that I found in this case, it's very consistent for a person with my experience to begin to think, ‘Well, perhaps there were some email communications between Seth [Rich] and WikiLeaks.'"
Wheeler’s story changed in subsequent statements to other media outlets, prompting the local station to attach an editor’s note to its original story, acknowledging that Wheeler has “backtracked” on his claim that his information came from FBI sources.
That didn’t stop former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, however, from spreading the conspiracy theory in an appearance on Fox News Sunday a few days later.
“At the same time we have this very strange story now of this young man who worked for the Democratic National Committee who apparently was assassinated at 4:00 in the morning having given WikiLeaks something like 23,000, I'm sorry, 53,000 emails and 17,000 attachments,” Gingrich said. “Nobody is investigating that, and what does that tell you about what was going on, because it turns out it wasn't the Russians, it was this young guy who I suspect was disgusted by the corruption of the Democratic National Committee. He's been killed and apparently nothing serious has been done to investigate his murder.”
The family, meanwhile, has sent Wheeler a cease and desist letter, and Brad Bauman, a family spokesperson, told ABC News that this latest report is just further proof of what the family already knows.
“So much of the conspiracy theory has been dependent on the allegation of federal investigators being involved, and the fact that the FBI has not and never had been involved with this investigation is critical to understanding just how false these conspiracy theories are,” Bauman said.