U.S.

Seth Rich: Inside the Killing of the DNC Staffer

09_16_Rich_01
09/16/16
In the Magazine
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange fueled the conspiracy theories by offering a $20,000 reward for information leading to a conviction in the Seth Rich case. Mikhail Voskresenskiy/Sputnik/AP

It was closing time at Lou’s City Bar when Seth Rich drained the last of his Bell’s Two Hearted Ales and started walking into the muggy night in a trendy neighborhood of northwest Washington, D.C. At 2:30 a.m. on July 10, the torrid heat that had gripped the city for weeks had eased slightly, with temperatures slipping into the low 70s. Maybe it was the relative cool that prompted him to walk through several dark, dicey blocks to his apartment in Bloomingdale, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood a mile away. Or maybe he thought the walk would do him some good after venting to his longtime bartender about his unsuccessful efforts to reconcile his love life with his 12-hour days at the Democratic National Committee.

Whatever the reason, Rich, 27, a normally upbeat computer-voting specialist at the DNC, would soon leave family and friends grieving. And his decision to walk that night would become part of a wild election-year conspiracy theory that once again portrays Hillary Clinton and the Democrats as murderous criminals.

At 4:19 a.m., police patrolling nearby responded to the sound of gunfire in Bloomingdale and found Rich lying mortally wounded at a dark intersection a block and a half from a red-brick row house he shared with friends. He had multiple gunshot wounds in his back. About an hour and 40 minutes later, he died at a local hospital. Police have declined to say whether he was able to describe his assailants.

The cops suspected Rich was a victim of an attempted robbery, one of many that plague the neighborhood. Strangely, however, they found his wallet, credit cards and cellphone on his body. The band of his wristwatch was torn but not broken.

sethrich Seth Rich, a 27-year-old computer-voting specialist at the DNC, was murdered in July near Bloomingdale, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in a once-blighted area of Washington, D.C. Seth Rich

And that was enough to fire up the right-wing Twitterverse with yet another round of Clinton conspiracy theories, this one claiming that Rich was murdered—at dawn—as he was on his way to sing to the FBI about damning internal DNC emails.

Such sinister notions might have evaporated had not Julian Assange hurled a thunderbolt into the affair a few weeks later. The WikiLeaks impresario, still penned up in Ecuador’s London embassy as he dodges a rape allegation in Sweden, announced he was offering a $20,000 reward for information leading to a conviction in the Rich case. He hinted darkly that the slain man had been a source in his organization's recent publication of 30,000 internal DNC emails. The fallout from that embarrassment had led to the firing of several top Democratic Party officials.

“What are you suggesting?” a startled interviewer from Dutch television asked him.

“I am suggesting,” Assange said, “that our sources, ah, take risks, and they, they become concerned to see things occurring like that.” His organization later “clarified” on Twitter that “this should not be taken to imply that Seth Rich was a source for WikiLeaks or to imply that his murder is connected to our publications.”

But Assange had already lit the fire. No matter that the Metropolitan Police Department issued a statement saying there was "no indication that Seth Rich's death is connected to his employment at the DNC.” Right-wing media outlets continued to churn up sludge from the tragedy. Police Chief Cathy Lanier, normally cautious, may have inadvertently aided their cause during a crime-scene press conference on August 5, when she said, “Right now, we have more questions than answers.” No suspects have been arrested, despite the MPD’s $25,000 reward for information.

The slain man’s parents, Mary and Joel Rich of Omaha, Nebraska, are distressed by the apparent political exploitation of their son’s death by Clinton’s opponents. Seth Rich had just accepted a promotion from the DNC to a position in her campaign, they say, and he was devoted to getting her elected. “It’s unfortunate and hurtful,” his parents say, in a statement to Newsweek, “that at the moment a murderer remains at large, there remains unfounded press speculation about the activities of our son that night. We should be focusing on the perpetrator at large.”

Terror in the Neighborhood

Residents of Bloomingdale, which is about 20 blocks north of D.C.’s Union Station, had long been complaining about a surge in crime. One area resident tells Newsweek her house had been burgled a few years ago while she and her husband were inside. Two other residents who would volunteer only their first names, Jonathan and Kevin, say there were “definitely a lot of muggings and robberies” in the area. Another resident complained on the neighborhood blog about “a small group of guys with a silver handgun terrorizing this neighborhood for weeks with minimal response from public officials.” Residents were particularly incensed about a deterioration in security over the past two years related to a massive D.C. water department tunnel construction project just steps from where Rich was slain. High fences around it left the street occluded, with “hiding places for criminals and [no] sight lines for neighbors,” one resident wrote.

Meanwhile, sources involved with the DNC’s investigation of a foreign hack of its files last year rule out the notion that Seth Rich had any role in the affair. “There was no indication that any insider was involved in this,” says one source, demanding anonymity in exchange for discussing the sensitive and ongoing investigation. “Every indication is this was a remote attack from a foreign government—the Russians. There is no indication that…there was any nefarious action taken by any employees in that environment.”

Nor is there any evidence Rich downloaded and printed out the DNC’s internal emails, the source says: “This is a very sophisticated actor. This is not some kid coming in and downloading documents and handing them to somebody.”

The Kremlin has denied any involvement in the DNC hack. Assange has declined to discuss who gave him the material. He has also threatened to release far more material in the coming weeks and months.

Assange has an agenda here, the source adds: to damage Hillary Clinton, which tracks with Moscow’s apparent desire to see Donald Trump elected. “This is a match made in heaven,” he says. “Assange has the vehicle to leak it, and the Russians have the vehicle by which to provide him with the data.”

‘I Never Saw Him Drunk’

In the weeks since Rich’s killing, the police presence in Bloomingdale has been beefed up “a lot more,” a local resident tells Newsweek, asking that her name not be used because she is a reporter herself. But “the biggest difference” in the improved security situation, she adds, was the addition of lights along the D.C. water department tunnel construction site.

All of that is too late, of course, for Rich, his family, his colleagues and his friends, who gathered August 3 at Lou’s City Place to honor his memory.

“We had a microphone,” Joe Capone, the general manager, said at Lou’s. “His parents were here. They brought a video that we played. People got up and said some words about Seth and what a great guy he was and how they missed him.”

Capone pointed to Rich’s usual seat at the corner of the L-shaped bar. “He was a great guy,” he said. “Just a couple-of-beers kind of guy.” One news account describing Rich as despondent and drunk the night he was killed, penned by an avowed right-wing journalist in the conservative London Daily Mail, missed the mark, he said. “That was just not Seth. I never saw him drunk or even tipsy.”

As he spoke, Capone gazed at the corner seat and smiled sadly. It was now occupied by somebody else.