News & Politics

A Lobbyist’s “Report” About Seth Rich’s Death Is Just More Fodder for Conspiracy Theorists

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Apparently, neither the family of slain Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich nor the police investigating his murder can get more than a few weeks’ break before getting dragged back into the conspiracy theories swirling around his killing last July. The latest: a “preliminary report” released Tuesday by a research group established by Washington lobbyist Jack Burkman, which claims that Rich’s early-morning slaying was carried out by a “hired killer or serial murderer.”

The 45-page report—the product of Burkman’s Profiling Project made up of forensics students at George Washington University—backs up its conclusions on a series of hunches, rather than actual evidence. More troubling than that is the potential effect it will have in undermining the public credibility of the ongoing investigation by DC’s Metropolitan Police Department, which has stated numerous times that Rich’s death appears to be the result of an attempted robbery that escalated into violence.

Here’s what is known, according to previous police statements: Rich was shot about 4:19 AM last July 10 outside his home in the Bloomingdale neighborhood and was taken to a hospital, where he died of his wounds. While Rich’s wallet, watch, and other belongings were on his body, bruises on his hands, knees, and face were consistent with signs of a physical struggle, as was a tear to his watch band. But the shooting went down in a poorly lit area and without much coverage by surveillance cameras, making Rich’s killing difficult to investigate.

Unfortunately, the combination of Rich’s employer, an embarrassing dump of Democratic Party emails by Wikileaks, and a tough crime scene was ripe for an emerging political wing made up of people easily convinced by unfounded conspiracy theories. Burkman says he does not subscribe to the theory that claims Rich was gunned down because he was Wikileaks’ source. Rather, he has made equally unfounded claims that Rich was killed as cover for the Russian government’s hacking of DNC computer systems.

Today’s document actually tries to knock down Burkman’s guess, saying it’s unlikely Rich was killed at hands of Kremlin goons “unless a toxin was introduced into Seth.” (It makes the same argument to discredit the claim that a DNC hit squad did it.) But even after months of reviewing media reports, Rich’s social media profiles, and the location of the killing, this privately financed and conducted report is a series of guesses that is more likely to stoke the conspiracies rather than put them to bed.

Why is that? Because the police investigation is still ongoing, and the department is not going to release any evidence into the public while it continues to investigate Rich’s death. But the police are in a tricky spot here. Showing their work before the case is closed would likely damage the investigation, while their official—and correct—refusal to comment is manna for the conspiracy theorists. This was the situation last month, when Fox News Channel and local Fox station WTTG ran reports citing a private investigator named Rod Wheeler, who claimed to have seen evidence that Rich was in communication with Wikileaks before he died. And even though the stories quickly fell apart when it was revealed that Wheeler had just repeated a Fox News staffer’s guesses back to her, it fueled the amateur sleuthing for days both online and on television, where Fox News host Sean Hannity spent the better part of a week stoking his empty guesses. Meanwhile, the police had to try to shout above the conspiracy noise to remind people that it is investigating Rich’s death as a homicide that resulted from an attempted robbery, and that murder investigations are often be long, painful, and unsatisfying processes.

Burkman might be on a different wavelength than Hannity, but he comes from the same spectrum. The lobbyist, who’s also said he’s offering a $105,000 reward for information that solves the Rich case, recently sued the District to release the police department’s initial ballistics report and a medical examiner’s report. And at a press conference Tuesday to release his report, he added that Rich’s death must not be a “street crime” because of the rewards offered by him, DC police, and other entities.

“We know these aren’t street crimes,” he said. “For God’s sake, you’ve got $340,000 in reward money. If this was a street crime people would be all over that.”

In other words, absence of evidence is the basis for one’s desired conclusion, and there’s no new evidence from Burkman’s Profiling Project.

Amid this, it’s easy to lose sight of Rich’s family, who once stood alongside Burkman when he offered his initial reward but have since distanced themselves from the lobbyist. A spokesman for the family, Brad Bauman, says the Riches have nothing to do with today’s stunt and would prefer the public to follow the police investigation.

“The Rich family was not provided a copy of the preliminary report, never saw the report or was otherwise consulted in the preparation of the report,” Bauman says. “As noted, by the report’s own methodology, ‘The Profiling Project was given no special access to any materials, evidence or persons and due to case sensitivity, conducted only informal, limited interviews. Given that fact, the family hopes that the general public takes the findings at face value—valuable experience in research collection and report writing for students at George Washington University but in no way should take any findings contained within as new, credible or otherwise lending credence to conspiracy theories surrounding the circumstances of Seth’s death. We further hope that this doesn’t continue to impede the Metropolitan Police Department’s ability to find the killers and give folks who might have information leading to their arrest cover to stay silent.”

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.