The speculation started within days of Seth Rich being gunned down in what D.C. police believe was an attempted robbery near his townhouse in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Northwest Washington.
Some on the Internet wondered if Rich was killed because of his work as a staffer with the Democratic National Committee, even suggesting he had handed WikiLeaks the 20,000 emails that embarrassed the DNC and forced the ouster of its chairwoman. Others suggested he was helping the FBI expose wrongdoing in the presidential election, and that made him a target.
On Tuesday, WikiLeaks shoved those conspiracy theories into the mainstream when it announced on Twitter a $20,000 reward for information leading to a conviction in Rich’s killing on July 10 in the 2100 block of Flagler Place NW. It adds to a $25,000 reward offered by D.C. police, customary in all District homicides.
Rich’s father, Joel I. Rich, said he was offended by what he termed “bizarre” reports that are circulating on Internet discussion and message boards. Rich and his wife, Mary Ann, who live in Nebraska where their son grew up, visited the location of the shooting last week and appealed for help in finding the killer.
On Tuesday, Joel Rich said that the WikiLeaks reward seemed to legitimize the rumor mill. “I don’t think I want to comment,” he said at first, then added, “I hope the additional money helps find out who did this.” But, he said, “I don’t want to play WikiLeaks’ game.”
Assistant D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham said that “at this time we don’t have any information to suggest” a connection between Rich’s killing and the WikiLeaks data or other theories raised online.
Newsham also said, “We are very pleased if anyone is going to assist us with the giving of reward money.”
Rich was shot twice in the back as he walked to his townhouse about 4:20 a.m. Nothing was taken, but police have said attempted robbery is their leading theory for a motive, noting a spike in robberies in the neighborhood in the preceding weeks. WikiLeaks released the trove of emails later that month, on July 22.
Rich, 27, had worked for the DNC for two years and helped develop a computer program to make it easier for people to find polling places on Election Day. After his death, the DNC’s then-chairwoman, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), attended a vigil for Rich in front of his home, and Hillary Clinton, before she was nominated in her run for president, evoked his name during a speech in which she advocated for limiting the availability of guns.
A spokesman for the DNC did not comment on WikiLeaks or the speculation about Rich. Wasserman Schultz, who was ousted as DNC chair after the embarrassing emails became public on July 22, did not respond to questions given to her spokesman. An official with Clinton’s campaign and some cybersecurity experts have said Russia may be behind the email hack.
The editor of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, said in a statement issued through an intermediary that he would not confirm or deny whether Rich or any person was a source for the organization, which over the years has obtained and released massive amounts of internal emails and other documents from the military, the State Department and other agencies. The statement says that policy “also covers alleged sources who were deceased.”
“We treat threats towards any suspected WikiLeaks sources with extreme gravity,” the statement says. “This should not be taken to imply that Seth Rich was a source to WikiLeaks or that his murder is connected to our publications. We hope our efforts will contribute to the family’s calls for information and to the separate reward issued by police. We have a history of obtaining information that has significantly contributed to many legal proceedings, including successful prosecutions.”