Fox News sued by parents of murdered DNC staffer Seth Rich

WASHINGTON — The parents of murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich have sued Fox News over a retracted story based on a conspiracy theory about his killing.

The suit, filed by Joel and Mary Rich, names Fox News, Fox reporter Malia Zimmerman, and a Texas businessman and contributor to the news network as defendants.

The suit claims the news network and employees exploited the 27-year-old’s murder, falsely reporting Rich was murdered in connection with a massive WikiLeaks release of 44,000 DNC emails days after his death.

Rich was shot several times in the head, at approximately 4:20 a.m., on July 10, 2016. D.C. police have said their working theory is Rich was murdered in a botched robbery. No suspects or witnesses have been identified, according to police spokesman Dustin Sternbeck.

Fox’s May 16, 2017 article contained “false and fabricated facts,” according to the suit, contradicting U.S. intelligence that Russia was behind the WikiLeaks email release.

Despite the intelligence findings, “a conspiracy theory emerged among fringe political groups that Seth had leaked the DNC emails,” according to the suit.

Reporter Zimmerman and Fox contributor Ed Butowsky enlisted the aid of private investigator and Fox contributor Rod Wheeler “to have Wheeler plausibly corroborate the sham story,” the suit alleges.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, purports Zimmerman and Butowsky convinced Rich’s parents to hire Wheeler to help investigate Seth’s murder.

The original Fox story, published May 15, 2017, on the local Fox 5 website, reported:

“Rod Wheeler, a private investigator hired by the Rich family, suggests there is tangible evidence on Rich’s laptop that confirms he was communicating with WikiLeaks prior to his death.”

Fox News published its own story the next day, entitled: “Slain DNC Staffer Had Contact with WikiLeaks, Say Multiple Sources.”

On May 17, 2017, Fox’s D.C. affiliate issued “an important clarification” on the claims Wheeler made in the original article.

“Specifically, in the past 48 hours, Rod Wheeler has told other media outlets that he did not get his information from FBI sources,” the clarification stated.

The story quickly fell apart.

Within days, NBC reported that the FBI refuted the Fox article that claimed the agency’s analysis of Rich’s computer showed it contained thousands of emails to and from WikiLeaks.

The suit claims intentional infliction of emotional distress, as well as conspiracy, aiding and abetting, interference with the contract between Wheeler and the Riches, and negligent supervision of employees.

According to the suit, Fox News has never apologized, and the online story continues to be republished.

Meanwhile, the suit says, the parents of Rich were devastated.

“Joel and Mary Rich, grieving parents of a murdered child, seek justice for having become collateral damage in a political war to which they are innocent bystanders.”

Fox, Zimmerman, and Butowsky “intentionally exploited this tragedy — including through lies, misrepresentations, and half-truths — with disregard for the obvious harm that their actions would cause Joel and Mary.”

The suit goes on: “Imagine that every single day, with every phone call you hope that it’s the police, calling to tell you that there has been a break in the case. Instead, every call that comes in is a reporter asking what you think of a series of lies or conspiracies about the death.”

As a result of the story, the suit claims, the parents are demonstrating symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and obsessive compulsive behavior.

“They feel compelled to review the news stories, tweets, and internet material falsely stating that Seth was WikiLeak’s source for the DNC emails,” the suit states. “Joel and Mary feel that in order to protect and defend their son against attacks on his character, they must read and understand what is being said about him, which has been overwhelming.”

The suit does not specify the amount of damages sought.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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