At just past 10 p.m. on May 16, 2017, the cameras went live for the latest episode of Hannity. The words “Murder Mystery” flashed onscreen. Looking directly into the camera, Sean Hannity teased “explosive developments” in a “massive breaking-news story.” He had for months told his audience about the forces lined up to take down President Trump: the “propaganda media,” the “never-Trumpers,” the “Washington deep-state establishment,” and all the other fifth columnists. And now one of the biggest crimes in American politics since the Watergate break-in had been revealed to be an inside job. If in fact a young staffer named Seth Rich had leaked the Democratic National Committee’s emails to WikiLeaks shortly before he was shot and killed in an apparent armed robbery gone wrong, it would not only expose the press, the intelligence agencies, and members of Congress as liars, Hannity told his viewers. It could also suggest that Rich was murdered “under very suspicious circumstances.”
The source for Hannity’s claims was Fox’s own newsroom. According to a story published earlier that day by a Fox News journalist named Malia Zimmerman, an unnamed federal investigator who had reviewed an “FBI forensic report” about Rich’s computer claimed he was the source for the leaked DNC emails, not Russian-backed hackers, as the U.S. intelligence community and cybersecurity experts had concluded. The supposed federal investigator went on to assert that Rich had initially contacted WikiLeaks through Gavin MacFadyen, an American documentary filmmaker and associate of Assange’s. (MacFadyen had died in October 2016 and couldn’t corroborate this claim.) To support the anonymous federal investigator’s claims, Zimmerman turned to a second, on-the-record source: a former D.C. cop named Rod Wheeler. “My investigation up to this point shows there was some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks,” Wheeler was quoted as saying. “I do believe that the answers to who murdered Seth Rich sits on his computer on a shelf at the DC police or FBI headquarters.” Zimmerman identified Wheeler as a private investigator “hired by Rich’s family to probe the case.” Who could be a better authority on the details of the murder investigation than the person hired by Rich’s family to help solve it?
Zimmerman’s story quickly went viral, spawning dozens of follow-ups in the U.S. and international media. “Not Russia, But an Inside Job?” asked Breitbart News. “Dead DNC Staffer ‘Had Contact’ With WikiLeaks,” declared the headline of the Drudge Report. During an appearance on Fox, Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker turned conservative pundit, would say Rich had been “assassinated.” Gingrich added, “It turns out it wasn’t the Russians. It was this young guy who, I suspect, was disgusted by the corruption of the Democratic National Committee. He’s been killed, and apparently nothing serious has been done to investigate his murder.”
But no one amplified the story with quite the same zeal as Hannity. The prime-time host devoted three segments of that May 16 show to Rich and WikiLeaks. First, he showed footage of an earlier interview he’d done with Julian Assange in which the WikiLeaks founder denied that Russia had given him the stolen DNC emails. Next, he interviewed two prominent advisers to Trump and frequent guests on the show, the lawyer Jay Sekulow and the political operative Dave Bossie. Was it possible, Hannity asked Sekulow, “that the leaks really came from a DNC staffer and that the media’s been wrong for almost a year now?” Sekulow called the timeline of events around Rich’s murder and the DNC hack “troubling, to say the least.”
And finally, for his third segment, Hannity introduced Wheeler as if the two men were old friends (they weren’t), praising him as “a man of honor and integrity.” But anyone hoping Wheeler would set the record straight was in for a letdown. He looked nervous. He rambled. He’d “checked out” the key source in Zimmerman’s story, the anonymous federal investigator, and found the person “very credible.” But then he said he hadn’t seen any emails between Rich and WikiLeaks, didn’t know where Rich’s computer was, and couldn’t say if the murder had any connection to Rich’s DNC job. “I don’t know as a matter of fact if the emails went out to WikiLeaks or anybody else,” he added, “but it sure appears that way.”
By the time Hannity signed off that night, a cloud of doubt hung over the entire story. Rich’s family, the D.C. police, and the FBI had all challenged the central premise of the report. Zimmerman was under growing pressure to defend her work. And Wheeler, whom the Riches had indeed hired to help find Seth’s killer, was accused of violating his contract with the family, which prohibited him from talking to the media. He also began to back away from his quotes in the Fox story, claiming he hadn’t said what he’d been quoted as saying. Now the news side of Fox News was facing questions about whether its blockbuster story was accurate or a catastrophic blunder.
In the middle of the fallout from the Fox story, Seth’s older brother Aaron did what he had done for months — monitor what people were saying online about his younger brother. Aaron was seven years older than Seth, and in many ways they were opposites. Whereas Seth talked as if he were paid by the word, Aaron spoke with maximum economy. He was a gifted engineer, someone who spent so much time thinking in code that he and the English language “aren’t friends,” he liked to joke. Unlike Seth, who must have watched The West Wing a dozen times start to finish, Aaron never cared much for politics. On the few occasions when they debated over the dinner table, Aaron played the role of needling contrarian, taking the opposite position of whatever Seth said, no matter how absurd it was, just to get a rise out of his brother.
As the months passed with no breakthroughs in the search for Seth’s killer and as the conspiracy theories multiplied, Aaron felt he had no choice but to track what people were saying about his brother. Most nights, usually after his wife had gone to bed, he searched for Seth’s name on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook. As he scrolled through the results, his face bathed in the white glow of his oversize computer monitor, he wondered, What new ridiculousness have they come up with now?
This time, a Reddit post caught his eye. A horde of self-anointed sleuths had discovered a post of Seth’s dated November 15, 2015. “Hey y’all, I don’t live in Omaha anymore so not sure the best ways to get this out, but just got word from my folks that their dog got out,” he wrote in Reddit’s r/omaha forum under the name MeGrimlock4. “Please circulate as much as possible.” He posted a photo of the dog, Ella. If anyone found Ella, he asked them to contact him or his dad and included their email addresses. Oh, no, Aaron thought. The lost-dog post gave the sleuths a way to attempt to find their way into Seth’s devices and online accounts. “Hey, this used to be my number. You may have gotten a reset code. Will you send it to me?” one asked.
Given what he did for a living, Aaron knew more than the average person about digital security. He moved quickly to secure Seth’s accounts before someone broke in, changing passwords and activating two-step verification. And if Seth’s accounts were targets, Aaron had to assume he and his parents were targets, too. A friend who worked in cybersecurity helped his parents, Joel and Mary, lock down their devices. For nearly a week, he remained on vigil. He slept so little that his wife, Molly, worried about his health, and friends pulled shifts tracking the conspiratorial sleuths so Aaron could get some rest. New posts on 4chan published phone numbers of Seth and Joel, email addresses, and long strings of letters and numbers that purported to be their passwords. The mood among the sleuths was jubilant. One wrote:
I TAKE GREAT PLEASURE IN KNOWING THERE IS SOME CUCK IN THE DEEP STATE RIGHT NOW THAT HAD TO GO INTO THEIR BOSS’S OFFICE AND NERVOUSLY SAY … SIR, R/THE_DONALD HAS UNCOVERED SOME NEW INFO IN THE SETH RICH CASE. IT’S SIGNIFICANT AND WE CAN’T CONTAIN IT.
Mary, Seth’s mother, didn’t think her grief could sink any deeper — until Hannity amplified the lies. She felt scared beyond anything she could imagine. She studied the cars that rolled down her block, the drivers who pulled up next to her at red lights. The familiar sights of West Omaha, the wide streets and the sprawling shopping centers, the lush parks and the local high school, all dissolved into a tear-streaked blur. Since the Fox story appeared, crippling migraines and crying jags had come upon her without warning at all hours of the day. It was all she could do to stay upright when they gripped her. Sometimes she retreated to the couch or climbed up the stairs and crawled into bed until the moment passed. Now she was alone in her car, a few blocks from the house, with Aaron on the phone, and she could feel the emotion building inside her.
You cannot imagine the loss of a child. That’s what she wanted to tell people. It was different from losing a parent, a friend, or even a spouse. Mary had never expected to outlive one of her boys. It was a weight that never lifted, a malign presence that never left her side. And it tortured her to lose her little boy and not know who did it. She’d promised him at his funeral that she would find out. But if they ever found who shot Seth, she also wanted to talk to that person. She wanted to tell that person who Seth was and why he cared so much about politics, that he’d wanted to help people, that maybe the policies he’d fought for would’ve touched the life of that person, whoever they were.
Speaking to Aaron over the phone, she could tell from the sound of his voice that he was exhausted. Watching the online chatter about his brother surge to the highest levels he’d ever seen, Aaron imagined the day when his future son or daughter would be old enough to Google his brother’s name. Staring at page after page of strange articles and videos, that child would inevitably ask, “Did my uncle do such a terrible thing?”
As they talked, Mary felt so overcome with emotion that she pulled her car to the side of the road. A moment passed in silence.
“This is worse than when we lost Seth,” Aaron said. Both of them started to cry. Aaron was right: The Fox story and everything that had come afterward made her feel like Seth had been murdered again, and somehow this felt worse than the original crime. They were torturing her dead son’s memory. He couldn’t defend himself, and Joel and Mary couldn’t defend him, either. They had lost Seth’s body the first time, but now it felt as if they had lost his soul.
Aaron said he had to go, and Mary gathered enough strength to finish her drive home. At home in Denver, Aaron got back to monitoring Seth’s accounts. Not long after, he noticed for the first time some strange activity in Seth’s Gmail inbox.
As lawyers and editors and executives at Fox News scrambled to understand what had happened with Zimmerman’s story, the opinion side of the network continued to push it with abandon. But Hannity still had no evidence to back up his breathless speculation. Then, on the evening of May 19, almost four days after Zimmerman’s story appeared, a tweet got his attention:
“If Congress includes #SethRich case into their Russia probe I’ll give written testimony with evidence that Seth Rich was @Wikileaks source.”
The account that sent the tweet belonged to a man named Kim Dotcom — born Kim Schmitz — a hacker and internet entrepreneur in his early 40s who was best known as the founder of Megaupload, a hugely popular file-sharing platform for downloading movies, music, pornography, games, and just about anything else you could imagine. In 2012, the Justice Department indicted him and six others for operating “an international organized criminal enterprise” allegedly responsible for $175 million worth of pirated works. But because he lived in New Zealand, which had a weaker extradition treaty with the U.S., he had remained at home, where on Twitter he railed against the U.S. government’s prosecution of him, the Democrats he believed were behind that prosecution, and the virtues of the new president, Donald Trump, who had vowed to rein in the Justice Department.
Hannity was intrigued. “You have that evidence?” he tweeted at Dotcom.
“I’m the evidence!!” Dotcom responded.
Hannity pushed harder: “Can you explain that further?”
What Dotcom said next left nothing to the imagination: “I knew Seth Rich. I know he was the @Wikileaks source. I was involved.”
Just when it seemed as if Fox’s story was falling apart, Dotcom’s tweet gave it new life. He vowed to “find the political hitmen who murdered him for doing the right thing” and called on Google to release the contents of three email accounts. One of them was the personal Gmail account Rich had included in the old Reddit post about his parents’ lost dog, the same one Redditors and 4chan sleuths had discovered and tried to break into.
Aaron sensed something was wrong. He had watched someone with a Megaupload account try to plant an email in Seth’s Gmail inbox, perhaps to make it look as if Seth had corresponded with Megaupload when he had not.
Hannity, for his part, was more energized than ever. He called on Congress to investigate Rich’s murder. He claimed that “complete panic” had set in at the “highest levels of the Democratic Party” — an assertion that had previously appeared in a viral, unsourced, anonymous 4chan post. “Is it possible,” Hannity tweeted, “that one [of the] greatest lies ever told is soon exposed?” He even suggested that someone might kill him for his truth telling. On Twitter, he issued a public invitation to Dotcom to appear on his Fox show or radio show.
As he watched the fallout from Fox’s Rich-WikiLeaks story and Hannity’s hyping of it, a lawyer named Mike Gottlieb couldn’t escape a feeling of déjà vu. He was a partner at the vaunted law firm Boies Schiller Flexner, where he represented multinational companies and other high-powered clientele. He had also helped bring lawsuits in 2016 against the Trump campaign and the Republican dirty trickster Roger Stone for alleged voter-intimidation tactics. After Trump’s victory, Gottlieb worked on behalf of the owner of Comet Ping Pong, the D.C. pizzeria targeting by the viral Pizzagate smear, eventually securing a retraction and an apology from one of Pizzagate’s loudest proponents, Infowars host Alex Jones. During those lawsuits, he encountered the conspiracy theories about Rich, and based on what he’d seen so far, Fox’s debacle was possibly more egregious than Pizzagate. He offered to help the family, and everyone in the family was relieved to have the assistance of an experienced lawyer.
With the help of Brad Bauman, a PR consultant who had worked in Democratic politics for years and who was helping Seth’s parents pro bono, the Riches had been working tirelessly to shoot down Fox-inspired rumors and correct the record. As the public face of the family’s counteroffensive against Fox, Bauman, too, had become a target. On Twitter, he was called a “hitman,” a member of the “modern-day mafia”; the DNC had “assigned” him to the Riches to bury the truth about Seth. (Bauman had never worked for the DNC or gotten paid as a contractor by the group; the decision to help the family was his alone.) His phone lit up with alerts from people who appeared to be trying to gain entry into his email account. A stranger with an unknown number called him late at night. “We know what you did,” the voice said before hanging up.
Despite mixed success on other fronts, the Riches felt powerless to stop Hannity and the rest of the Fox News talking heads. And now, sometime in the next several days, Hannity was planning to interview Dotcom on his daytime radio program, his Fox show, or both. The way Bauman saw it, they needed to stop Dotcom from going on Hannity’s show. “Otherwise,” he would later say, “we were just going to be chasing this thing down forever and ever.” All the work they had done — not just in the previous week but in the previous months — to push back on the lies would fail and those lies would just metastasize. They settled on a two-part strategy: Joel and Mary would write an op-ed about the effect of the conspiracy theories on them, which Bauman would place in the biggest news outlet possible. Aaron, meanwhile, would make a direct appeal to Hannity, highlighting Dotcom’s lack of credibility and urging Hannity not to put him on the air. Bauman would help Joel and Mary with the op-ed, and Gottlieb would help Aaron with the letter to Hannity.
Joel wanted to issue a challenge to the Hannitys and Dotcoms of the world: Prove it. That had been his gut reaction from the start: If someone had evidence of Seth’s involvement with the DNC hack or anything to do with WikiLeaks, then show it. And if not, then shut up. But Aaron argued that if you said that to someone like Dotcom or a conspiracy theorist with enough technical know-how, they were going to falsify the proof and pass it off as real. Instead, Joel and Mary used the op-ed to describe what they had gone through since July 2016: a son murdered and his life and death twisted into a cruel lie. “Every day we wake up to new headlines, new lies, new factual errors, new people approaching us to take advantage of us and Seth’s legacy,” they wrote. “The amount of pain and anguish this has caused us is unbearable. With every conspiratorial flare-up, we are forced to relive Seth’s murder and a small piece of us dies as more of Seth’s memory is torn away from us.” The Washington Post said it would publish the op-ed.
Aaron’s email was addressed to Porter Berry, the longtime executive producer of Hannity’s prime-time Fox show, but it would be copied to a top lawyer at Fox. “Think about how you would feel losing a son or brother,” Aaron wrote. “And while dealing with this, you had baseless accusations of your lost family member being part of a vast conspiracy.” He went on, “We appeal to your decency to not cause a grieving family more pain and suffering … We urge you not to do the interview.” He signed the letter, “Seth Rich’s family.”
On the morning of May 23, Aaron read the letter one last time and hit “Send.”
Later that day, Fox retracted Zimmerman’s story about Rich and WikiLeaks, removing the story from foxnews.com. In its place, a brief, unsigned statement said the story “was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting” and had fallen short of Fox’s “standards.” The statement ended with a cryptic one-line disclaimer: “We will continue to investigate this story and will provide updates as warranted.”
Did Fox plan to continue investigating what had gone wrong with Zimmerman’s story — or to continue investigating Seth’s murder and any connection to the 2016 election? It wasn’t clear from Fox’s statement, which media critics panned as “woefully inadequate” and “downright cowardly.” Still, that Fox had retracted the story sent shock waves through the media business. “Retracted. Wow,” one former Fox executive told a reporter for the Daily Beast, adding that Fox News founder Roger Ailes “would brag at meetings how he was proud Fox never had to print a retraction.”
Hannity now found himself in the untenable situation of trying to defend a story his own network had retracted. He was also the target of the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America, which had published a list of Hannity’s advertisers to get them to cut ties as long as Hannity promoted unproven theories about Rich. Hannity refused to back down. “All you in the liberal media,” he said on his radio show that day, “I am not fox.com or foxnews.com. I retracted nothing.” He played clips of Assange and Dotcom on the show and vowed he would not back away from his “moral obligation” to ask questions about Rich.
A few hours after Hannity’s radio show, the Washington Post published Joel and Mary’s op-ed. “We’re Seth Rich’s parents,” the headline read. “Stop politicizing our son’s murder.” Hannity was unmoved. He shared a clip from his radio show on Twitter with the message, “I stand by everything I said & have said on this topic. More at 10pm tonight.”
With mounting anticipation, millions of viewers tuned in to Hannity’s show, hoping for some explosive revelations in the Rich story. Instead, he said he had just spoken with his lawyers. There would be no interview with Dotcom.
“Out of respect for the family’s wishes, for now, I am not discussing this matter at this time,” he said at the opening of the show. However, he did not apologize to the family or retract anything he had said. Afterward, Hannity sent Aaron an email. “I care a lot about decency and truth,” he wrote. “I also believe I can help you and your family if you want. I will always be available if you would like to talk. Always in my thoughts and prayers, Sean.”
Aaron wasn’t sure what to do with this. Decency and truth? Thoughts and prayers? If Aaron needed any further reason to doubt Hannity, all he had to do was check his Twitter feed. Before he went off the air that evening, Hannity sent a message to his 2.4 million followers, a tease that kept the Rich conspiracy theory alive: “Ok TO BE CLEAR, I am closer to the TRUTH than ever. Not only am I not stopping, I am working harder. Updates when available. Stay tuned!”
This is an adapted excerpt from A Death on W Street: The Murder of Seth Rich and the Age of Conspiracy, by Andy Kroll (Bold Type Books; September 6, 2022.