While Donald Trump defied almost every prediction by winning the presidential election last week, his diehard supporters rejoiced on Trump-friendly forums like Reddit’s “The_Donald” page.
They thanked the obvious people—Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, Breitbart News president turned Trump campaign CEO Steve Bannon. They praised Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder who published Democratic National Committee emails suspected to have been obtained by Russian hackers.
But some of the most effusive praise went to a Democrat. Seth Rich, a 27-year-old DNC employee whose July murder in D.C.’s Bloomingdale neighborhood remains unsolved, has taken on a surprising martyrdom among Trump supporters. In their telling—based on zero evidence—mysterious forces allied with Hillary Clinton killed Rich as payback for leaking DNC emails to Wikileaks.
“I know we’re in the middle of celebrating, but it’s important to remember: His name was Seth Rich,” wrote one Reddit user.
As Trump’s lead grew, his supporters continued celebrating Rich with the slogan they’ve attached to him: “His name was Seth Rich.” Reddit threads posted about Rich earned hundreds of comments and thousands of positive “votes,” as users imagined Rich cheering Trump’s 290 electoral votes from heaven.
“I know your (sic) looking down at us,” wrote another poster. “Love you bro.”
What at first looked like a tragic robbery-gone-bad has attracted attention across the globe. It’s been discussed in Assange’s London embassy hideout and within the Chinese Communist Party.
Even for a campaign plagued by fake online news and rumors, the ideas about Rich’s murder stand out. The Snopes page debunking the rumors about his death has been shared more than 40,000 times. A Google search for Rich’s name and “Clinton” returns 186,000 results. People across the right, from former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich to conspiracy theorist godfather (and Trump ally) Alex Jones, champion “solving” the murder.
This is what happens when a murder victim becomes a pro-Trump meme.
ShotSpotter, the high-tech listening devices that are installed across the city to alert police to gunfire, first detected Rich’s shooting.
A system alert sent police racing to the 2100 block of Flagler Pl. NW. It also recorded the exact time Rich was shot: Sunday, July 10, at 4:19 a.m.
By the time police officers reached Rich less than four minutes later, he was on the ground with bruises on his hands and face and a bullet lodged in his spine. The killer was gone.
Rich survived long enough to make it to a hospital, but died less than two hours later.
“Everybody was surprised that he didn’t make it,” says Seth’s father Joel Rich.
By 6 a.m. that morning, Seth Rich had become the District’s 68th murder victim of 2016. The killing of the enthusiastic DNC voting data director from Omaha, Nebraska, looked set to become just another high-profile example of the random violence touching the District’s professional class—like the 2006 murder of British activist Alan Senitt in Georgetown, the 2015 Shaw shooting of Deloitte analyst Matt Shlonsky, or the 2015 still-unsolved murder of reporter Charnice Milton.
There had already been a string of armed robberies in Bloomingdale leading up to Rich’s murder. In fact, police officers reached the scene so quickly in part because they had been posted nearby after the robberies.
“Over the last weeks before [the murder], they had just been on a steady incline,” Bloomingdale Civic Association president Teri Janine Quinn says.
All that lends credence to the theory that Rich’s murder was just an armed robbery that went too far. Instead, his death has become perhaps the most intensely watched D.C. murder since the 2001 killing of congressional intern Chandra Levy.
That’s because no other recent murder in the District could be tied, however tenuously, to the “Clinton Death List”—the lengthy, decades-old list of casualties attributed to Bill or Hillary Clinton that has become right-wing folklore.
Within two days of Rich’s murder, Your News Wire—a website that typically traffics in “scoops” about the Illuminati—vaguely declared that Rich was a “campaign fraud whistleblower.” A month after Rich’s death, far-right website World Net Daily added Rich to its “Clinton Death List” alongside the likes of Vince Foster, the Clinton administration deputy counsel who committed suicide—or “suicide,” depending on which sites you believe—in 1993.
There is still no evidence that the Clintons or anyone else in politics was involved in Rich’s murder. According to the Metropolitan Police Department, there’s no proof Rich’s tragic demise was linked to his job.
Still, there was enough to get conspiracy-hungry minds rolling. If Rich had been murdered in a botched robbery—the only theory MPD has publicized—why did his murderer leave behind his phone, wallet, and watch?
There was a timeline question, too. An investigation of the hours before Rich’s death by Britain’s right-wing Daily Mail tabloid found that he had spent much of the night at Columbia Heights’ Lou’s City Bar, which he visited frequently. Bar employees told the Daily Mail that Rich had left around closing time at 1:45 a.m., leaving questions about where he had been in the nearly three hours between then and the shooting just one block from his Bloomingdale house. The employees said Rich had possibly planned to go to another bar—the nearby Wonderland Ballroom—but it was all enough to raise questions in the internet’s most fevered minds.
Joel Rich put his son to rest three days after the murder, following a packed service in their Nebraska synagogue. The mourners at the service included Seth’s friends and professors from his alma mater Creighton University, and former Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, for whom Rich had campaigned.
For Joel Rich, it was a crushing end for the big-hearted son who regularly watched C-SPAN for fun and never met a stranger he didn’t treat as a friend.
“He was a special kind of person who people wanted to be around, because they knew he would treat everybody fairly,” he says.
Clinton mentioned Rich’s death in a speech on gun violence. The DNC would later include him in the “In Memoriam” part of its convention. Interim DNC chairwoman Donna Brazile, who says she cried for hours after hearing of Rich’s death, remembers him as a “cheerleader” for the DNC’s voter registration efforts.
“Everyone around here loved Seth,” Brazile says. “His ideals, his commitment.”
Still, Joel Rich and his wife Mary Rich began to notice the theories surrounding their son’s murder build just days after his death. On July 13, the same day as Rich’s funeral, conspiracy theory website Whatdoesitmean.com claimed Rich had been murdered by a Clinton “hit team.” Joel Rich soon saw acquaintances complaining on Facebook about the budding conspiracy theories surrounding his death.
He told them to just ignore it. Then came Wikileaks.
On July 22, 12 days after Rich’s murder, Assange and Wikileaks began publishing emails obtained from DNC email accounts. The revelations in the emails, which showed some opposition within the DNC to Clinton primary challenger Bernie Sanders, would eventually force the resignation of DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz just days before the Democratic convention.
For the conspiracy-minded and Clinton-averse, the connection was clear: Clinton allies murdered Rich because he leaked the emails to Assange. Others, including Trump associate Roger Stone Jr., claimed that Rich had been planning to meet with the FBI before he was killed.
“Coincidence?” Stone tweeted. “I think not.”
Assange himself helped promote the idea in August, when he gave an interview with a Dutch news agency from the London embassy where he has sought asylum for four years. In the interview, Assange hinted that Rich worked with Wikileaks.
“Whistleblowers often take very significant efforts to bring us material and often at very significant risks,” Assange said cryptically. “There’s a 27-year-old who works for the DNC and who was shot in the back, murdered, just a few weeks ago, for unknown reasons as he was walking down the streets in Washington.”
Wikileaks has offered $20,000 for information about Rich’s murderer. Assange, who is notorious for promising bombshell revelations that never come, has repeatedly declined to offer proof that Rich was behind the leak or even to say explicitly that he worked with the group.
Assange’s implications brought new attention to the growing rumors. Commenters on right-wing blog posts regularly mention Clinton’s role in Rich’s death as if it’s a proven fact.
“It was a tragedy that occurred at a time when a rumor like that could really get legs,” Snopes fact-checker Kim LaCapria tells City Paper in an email.
The Chinese Communist Party’s youth wing even posted on social media about Rich’s death as an example of the evils of American politics.
“The sources of the Hillary leaked emails were murdered, one after another?” the post reads, according to a BuzzFeed translation. “This is the truth of Western democracy!”
In Nebraska, the Riches’ home phone line became flooded with media requests.
“We stopped answering the home phone for about three weeks,” Joel Rich says.
The family’s attempts to discourage the conspiracies only seemed to agitate the theorists. In August, they asked for an end to the speculation. That didn’t convince right-wing pundit Tomi Lahren, who hosts an online show for Glenn Beck’s The Blaze network.
“His family doesn’t want to be in a body bag either!” Lahren said on a podcast for Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller site, after broaching the idea that Rich had been murdered over politics.
When the Riches asked Brad Bauman, a Democratic-affiliated crisis consultant, to be their spokesman, Wikileaks tweeted about the development. At Infowars, the far-right 9/11 truther site run by excitable conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, Bauman’s hiring was just further proof of a cover-up.
“Has Brad Bauman been tasked by the Democratic establishment with silencing uncomfortable questions about Seth Rich’s murder?” Infowars writer Paul Joseph Watson asked.
On Aug. 27, Infowars’ online talk show devoted more than 10 minutes to speculating about Rich’s death.
“This might be the first robbery on record where nothing was taken,” Infowars reporter Margaret Howell marvelled.
Jones’ ideas may be on the fringe, but he’s no outsider when it comes to the Trump campaign. Trump appeared on Jones’ radio show last December. After Trump’s election, Jones claimed that the president-elect called to thank him.
In October, U.S. intelligence agencies issued a joint statement blaming the release of the Wikileaks emails not on an internal DNC leaker but on hackers operating with the Russian government. For Joel Rich, the idea that his son leaked the emails is absurd. He points out that his son worked on voter access tools, not on an email server. He wouldn’t have had access to the DNC’s email system. Besides, Joel Rich says, his son was so averse to rule-breaking that he was reluctant to jaywalk.
The utter absence of connections between Rich’s murder, Wikileaks, and Clinton didn’t stop Trump supporters and the campaign’s surrogates from propagating the theories while stopping just short of endorsing them. In an August appearance on talk radio host Mike Gallagher’s nationally syndicated show, Gingrich typified the campaign’s approach to the conspiracy theory.
“If someone is gunned down in our national capital, we ought to have a pretty passionate interest in knowing why,” Gingrich said. “And if it clearly wasn’t a mugging and it wasn’t for money, what was it for?”
Rich isn’t even the only recent D.C. death blamed on Clinton. The August death of Shawn Lucas, a process server who had delivered a lawsuit to the DNC, had also been attributed to the spurious “death list.” (A statement from the District’s Medical Examiner blamed Lucas’ death on a combination of the opioid fentanyl and other drugs).
With Seth Rich entrenched as an unlikely martyr for the fringes on the right, even his clothing became a subject of fascination on the right-wing internet.
Joel Rich says that his son loved to dress up for July 4, or any date he considered significant for the United States, like the day the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. One of the most circulated pictures of Rich after his death featured him in full patriotic gear, wearing an American flag shirt, blue pants with stars, American flag shoes, even red-and-white striped socks. In his hand: a drink in, naturally, an American flag koozie.
One Reddit user posted a picture of himself dressed as Rich for Halloween, complete with an American flag shirt. When people asked who he was supposed to be, the user wrote, he had an answer: “I honor a hero, and his name was Seth Rich!”
Joel Rich says the online speculation that his son helped to leak the emails to the DNC makes him “swallow hard.”
“How do you counteract that?” he adds. “You can’t disprove a lie.”
If you think Republican lobbyist Jack Burkman got involved with solving Seth Rich’s murder just to promote himself, he doesn’t mind. Burkman can take it—he says he’s made of “alligator skin.”
That’s not to be confused with his shoes, which are made of crocodile skin.
“Other than the presidential election itself, it’s probably the top news story online,” Burkman told City Paper in an October interview, after comparing the effort to find Rich’s killer to the search for the Lindbergh baby.
Burkman doesn’t shy away from media attention. In 2014, he unsuccessfully promoted legislation attempting to ban gay players from the NFL. Last year, he tried to host an early general fundraiser for Trump, before eventually disowning the candidate. And in September, Burkman committed $100,000 of his own money to the reward for information about Rich’s murder.
Burkman claims he’s not putting up the reward to promote himself. Instead, he says Rich’s murder just reminded him how his family would have reacted to his death as a young man living on Capitol Hill.
“I wondered how my mother would have felt,” Burkman says.
He is quick to formulate theories about what was behind the killing. Maybe a rival, jealous of the young man’s career success. Or maybe it really was a botched robbery. But there’s one theory he dismisses out of hand: the idea that Seth Rich was working with Wikileaks. The notion that Clinton ordered Rich’s murder, Burkman says, is promoted by “the same sickos in my party that wanted to talk about Vince Foster.”
“I think he’s using it for free advertising for himself,” Burkman says of Assange. “I think it’s sad.”
Between Wikileaks, Burkman, and the $25,000 reward MPD is offering, anyone who could provide information could potentially receive $145,000. Burkman says he offered the money so that a tipster could afford to move out of the District.
“They may have to go to Seattle or something to save their life,” Burkman says.
Money and continued media attention may be some of the last things going for a successful conclusion to the Rich investigation. With no witnesses and no surveillance footage, the investigation is likely left to rely on a tipster. Joel Rich says that a nearby surveillance camera captured two men leaving the scene, but not the crime itself. The Riches and Burkman are planning a news conference for this Monday, Nov. 21 in Bloomingdale’s Crispus Attucks Park to publicize the reward.
“The people who know something probably don’t watch the 10 o’clock news,” Joel Rich says.
In October, Reddit user “EmpireofWin” printed the picture of Rich in his American flag outfit on a T-shirt with the tagline “His name was Seth Rich.” He promised to wear the shirt regularly until Rich received “justice.”
“EmpireofWin” concedes that he doesn’t know whether Rich leaked the DNC emails to Assange. Still, he says it was a harmless way to promote the Rich investigation—at least until he lost the T-shirt.
“The man was a total patriot,” he writes in a message to City Paper. “I don’t know a single person who can wrap themselves in flags and say they hate this country.”
Rob Burkman and Wikileaks aren’t the only ones donating to the Rich case—or capitalizing on it, depending on your point of view. Alt-right figure Mike Cernovich, whose prominence among Trump supporters recently earned him a New Yorker profile, has contributed a $20,000 reward through a bounty-styled website run by controversial right-wing journalist Chuck Johnson. Other, anonymous users on the site have contributed $101.
Via email, Johnson has a simple explanation for why Rich’s murder stands out: “People like a good mystery, particularly one that involves suspected foul play.”
DNC staffers gathered in October outside its Capitol Hill headquarters to dedicate a bike rack to Rich.
“Fierce fighter for voting rights,” the plaque reads in part. “Devoted Democrat.”
Rich’s girlfriend locked his bike to the rack in a nod to his frequent cycling around the District. Brazile urged the attendees at the memorial to help register voters for an election that would, a month later, become a landmark disaster for the Democratic Party.
“I wanted a part of Seth to remain here at the building,” Brazile says.
For the people who knew Rich, the fact that he and his murder are being exploited as pro-Trump propaganda hurts. Brazile calls the efforts “despicable.”
“I hope that when someone publishes a lie like this that they think about the impact that it has on the victim’s family and on the loved ones,” says Pratt Wiley, the DNC’s National Director of Voter Expansion and Rich’s former boss.
Online, Trump supporters who claim that Rich paid for Trump’s win with his life memorialize him in different ways. One Reddit user used image-editing software to turn Rich’s face green, morphing him into a version of the alt-right’s “Pepe” frog mascot. Another sold shirts with Rich’s face and the slogan adopted by his misguided supporters: “His name was Seth Rich.” In one post-election thread, Reddit users even pondered commissioning a bust of Rich to stand outside the DNC’s headquarters.
Joel Rich says he often enters his son’s name on Google, only to see conspiracy theories. When told that Trump supporters were imagining Seth cheering Trump’s victory from the afterlife, he’s stunned.
“How can people stoop so low?”