It’s been almost six months since Seth Rich was gunned down on a dark Washington street. His father, Joel Rich, still says Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, every day. The rabbi says he shouldn’t stop until he’s ready.
But Joel and Mary Rich are grieving for their son, a 27-year-old staffer at the Democratic National Committee whose murder remains a mystery, under circumstances that most mourning parents do not have to consider.
From their home in Omaha, Nebraska, they follow closely the barrage of conspiracy theories, lies and allegations thrown out about their son’s death. Theories falsely trying to tie his murder to e-mail leaks from the Democratic Party sprouted shortly after Seth Rich was killed; they spread quickly in the overheated atmosphere of the presidential campaign.
“I thought after Trump got elected they’d sort of go away, because that was the whole point of them, against the Clintons,” Mary Rich said, “but they’re not going to go away, they’re still at it.”
The persistence of these rumors, and their cyclic re-emergence, has made healing all that harder for Rich’s parents, who spoke to the Forward by phone December 21. “There’s grieving and then there’s trying to defend your son’s legacy,” Joel Rich said. “And that’s where in a way we’re fighting two or three battles.”
Seth Rich’s murder is still an open case for police homicide investigators in Washington, who are no closer now to solving the mystery than they were in the days following the July 10 murder. The lack of suspects and the absence of clear motivation have created fertile ground for conspiracy theorists reveling in the new world of fake news. For them, the key to understanding this tragic event rests on searching the presumed dark political motives of powerful players who, for some reason the theorist will surely ferret out, sought to silence Rich.
The family, private investigators, and the D.C. police flatly rejected these theories as false.
“There is no indication that Seth Rich’s death is connected to his employment at the DNC,” the D.C. police said in an August 10 statement aimed at debunking the conspiracy theories.
Rich worked as director of voter expansion data at the DNC, in charge of developing computer applications that would help bring more voters to their polling stations. Not only was he liked by all for his caring, inclusive and idealistic character, he was also well appreciated for his professional work and had just gotten an offer to join the Clinton campaign to work on advancing the voter data operation.
The murder took place not far from Rich’s home in Washington’s Bloomingdale neighborhood. Rich, according to police, suffered multiple gunshot wounds after fighting with his attackers. He died in the hospital.
The police investigation focused on robbery as the likely motive for the attack; the area had been plagued by similar incidents. A broken watch strap on Rich’s wrist supported this direction, but the fact that none of his belongings were taken raised doubts on whether it was indeed a clear case of a robbery gone wrong.
Mary and Joel Rich believe that the murderers wanted to rob their son, who was talking on his cell phone minutes before the attack. “He was at the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Joel Rich, who believes that the attackers didn’t expect their victim to fight back and so they pulled a gun. “When Seth turned and fought both of them, I’m sure that shook them to the core and they brought out the gun,” Mary Rich added. “They have no scruples, they have no care that they took a life.”
The investigation, however, has all but hit a dead end. With doubts about the exact circumstances, no eye witnesses to the event, which took place at 4:20 a.m., and very little surveillance video available, investigators have found only a few leads, none of which has yet developed into a possible breakthrough.
Rich’s parents, while still expressing their full trust in the D.C. police investigation, have also explored alternative routes to reach the truth about their son’s death.
Jack Burkman, offered one such alternative route. A Washington Republican lobbyist and lawyer, Burkman offered his help with a financial reward for anyone who could offer new information on the case. The reward, $105,000 donated by Burkman in addition to the initial $25,000 put up by the police, was meant to convince neighbors, bystanders or anyone who holds information on the case to come forward and use the money for relocating from D.C. if in danger.
This effort has yet to yield any result, as is the case with a door-to-door canvassing drive last month that brought Mary and Joel Rich to Washington] but did not help with gaining any new leads.
Now Burkman is relying on the work of two private investigators he hired in hope of casting a wider net than that of the police and spending more time and energy in pursuit of possible clues. “I promised Mr. and Mrs. Rich that we will solve it, and we will solve it,” Burkman told the Forward. “I’ll be on it as long as it takes.”
Though working closely with Rich’s parents, Burkman holds a different approach when looking at possible motives behind the murder. “It’s not a robbery gone wrong and it’s no kind of happenstance,” he stated. “This was a premeditated homicide.” But Burkman does not believe that this motivation was political or that the conspiracy theories surrounding the case carry any weight.
Anonymous internet trolls and right-wing bloggers were not the only ones who spun and spread these theories. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich backed them, and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange repeatedly suggested that Rich’s murder could be tied to the leak of DNC emails to WikiLeaks. In late October, weeks before the elections, right-wing television personality Tomi Lahren sought to revive the story, suggesting the Clintons may have had a hand in the murder.
Rich’s parents vehemently rejected the logic behind these speculations, saying that even if their son would have come across information alleging wrongdoings in the DNC, he would never have leaked it to an outside source. “They didn’t know Seth,” said Joel Rich, who argued that his son would have “worked within the system” to achieve justice.
“We lost our son, our 27-year-old son, and that just rips your heart out, and you’re trying to go through the process and live your life and do things that he would have been proud of, and foster his desires, his beliefs, and then you hear criminals like Assange who are making money and are making shots at him, you can’t defend,” said Mary Rich. She and her husband have publicly pleaded with those spreading the conspiracy theories regarding their son’s death to put an end to the rumors, but to no avail.
The Riches, hoping for answers that could move them toward achieving a sense of closure, are also working to commemorate their son’s memory. A scholarship fund named after Seth Rich was set up at his hometown synagogue, Beth El of Omaha, which his grandfather founded. His father served as president. Another endowed scholarship was established at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, and another in Creighton University, where Rich studied.
“He wanted to make a difference,” Joel Rich said, trying to sum up his son’s mission in life.
Mary Rich believes that if her son were alive today, he would speak out against the hatred she sees spreading across the country.
“Seth would look out at the world and write posts, and I really think that right now he’d look out at all the craziness and the hatred and he would tell people to stop the hatred, stop the viciousness and the lies and get back to democracy,” his mother said. “I could see Seth typing out a little something about this.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.