The family of murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich on Tuesday strongly rejected reports claiming he had been in contact with WikiLeaks.
"As we've seen through the past year of unsubstantiated claims, we see no facts, we have seen no evidence, we have been approached with no emails and only learned about this when contacted by the press," spokesperson Brad Bauman told BuzzFeed News in an emailed statement.
Fox 5 in Washington, DC, first reported last night that the "family's private investigator" had found "tangible evidence" on Rich's laptop showing he was in touch with WikiLeaks before he died last summer. Then this morning, Fox News reported that Rich "had leaked thousands of internal emails to WikiLeaks," citing a "federal investigator."
Yet Rich's family said in its statement that the private investigator was "paid for by a third party" and under his contract had been "barred from speaking to press" without explicit authorization from the family. And the investigator told CNN that he was only repeating the Fox News story — he didn't personally have evidence showing communication with WikiLeaks.
"I only got that [information] from the reporter at Fox News," Wheeler told CNN.
Rich, 27, was shot and killed early one morning in Washington in July of last year. He had been working on a DNC project trying to make it easier for people to find where to vote on Election Day.
WikiLeaks published thousands of hacked DNC emails soon after Rich's death, and conspiracy theories began to swirl after the organization offered a $20,000 reward for help solving his case. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange then raised further eyebrows when he spoke of Rich's death, saying, "Our whistleblowers go to significant efforts to get us material."
WikiLeaks backed off the claim, saying his statement "should not be taken to imply that Seth Rich was a source for WikiLeaks," nor that his death was connected to the leaked emails.
Police said in response that they believe there is no connection between his death and "his employment at the DNC." Since that time, Rich's family have also said publicly that they believe his death wasn't connected.
But the story picked up again this week with the two reports by Fox outlets. Both stories quoted Rod Wheeler, a former homicide detective at Washington's Metropolitan Police Department, saying he had learned that there were emails between Rich and WikiLeaks before his death.
Wheeler is a Fox News contributor. In April he tweeted an apparent picture of himself at the White House. A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police Department said that Wheeler had been "dismissed from the agency" after working there from 1990 to 1995.
Both reports said that Rich's family had hired Wheeler as a private investigator — which Rich's family responded to in its statement by noting he had been paid by a third party, and had not been authorized to speak with the press.
The Fox 5 story from last night quoted Wheeler as saying that a local police officer in Washington had "looked me straight in the eye" and told him they had been ordered to "stand down" on Rich's case. Fox added an update this morning that local police had denied that claim.
This morning's Fox News story added a further source, an unnamed "federal investigator" who said, “I have seen and read the emails between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks.” The investigator said that the FBI is in possession of the emails.
Rich family spokesman Brad Bauman, a Democratic political consultant by trade, told BuzzFeed News that the Wikileaks story just doesn't add up. Rich's job at the DNC had nothing to do with IT or internal cybersecurity, so the hack wouldn't have been in his domain. “He wouldn’t have had access to any of those emails," Bauman said.
Bauman said that evidence tying Rich to Wikileaks has been “nothing but hearsay or the insane rantings of conspiracy theorists.” He accused people pushing the idea of a "political agenda that is wholly un-American" who had denied a grieving family "the chance to mourn."
"Frankly," Bauman said, "I believe there’s a special place in hell for the folks who are pushing the story.”
BuzzFeed News reporter Jason Leopold contributed reporting.