The story lit up conservative news outlets and social media: A private investigator working with the family of a late Democratic National Committee staffer said he could confirm long-simmering conspiracy theories that the 27-year-old was killed after sending emails to WikiLeaks.
Less than 24 hours later, the investigator told BuzzFeed News that he couldn't confirm anything at all.
On a television news segment that aired in Washington, DC, on Monday, private investigator Rod Wheeler was interviewed by a reporter. "You have sources at the FBI saying that there is information that could link Seth Rich to WikiLeaks?" she asks.
"Absolutely," Wheeler responds. "And that's confirmed."
"My investigation up to this point shows there was some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks,” Wheeler also said, according to a Fox News report.
But on Tuesday, Wheeler told BuzzFeed News that he had no personal knowledge of whether Rich sent emails to a contact at WikiLeaks.
"That story on Fox 5 last night was inaccurate," said Wheeler, a former DC homicide detective. "I don't even know where the computers are."
Fox 5 in Washington first reported on Monday night that Wheeler had learned of emails linking the slain staffer, Seth Rich, to WikiLeaks. The story was picked up nationally by Fox News on Tuesday as well as by right-wing outlets that linked Wheeler's statements to conspiracy theories that claim Rich's death was ordered by the Clintons as retribution for leaking emails to WikiLeaks.
Fox News also reported that an unnamed federal investigator claimed Rich had provided more than 40,000 DNC emails to a WikiLeaks contact.
Late Tuesday, Wheeler told BuzzFeed News he knew about possible emails linking Rich and WikiLeaks because of a FoxNews.com story by reporter Malia Zimmerman. Wheeler, who is also a Fox News contributor, said he doesn't know who her source is and hadn't personally seen any evidence suggesting that Rich leaked emails to WikiLeaks.
Wheeler told the same thing to CNN, adding that the comments he made to Fox 5 in DC were intended to promote the Fox News story.
"I only got that [information] from the reporter at Fox News," Wheeler told CNN.
Fox 5 and Fox News did not immediately respond to inquiries from BuzzFeed News late Tuesday.
Rich's family has strongly rejected reports that the DNC staffer 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,” family spokesperson Brad Bauman told BuzzFeed News in an emailed statement.
Wheeler said family members have seemed to accept what Metropolitan Police have said: that Rich appears to have been killed in a botched robbery, that there was no apparent link to his work in politics, and that there is no identified suspect in the murder.
"That's possible. That's very possible," Wheeler said. "I don't know, but as an investigator you have to look at every possibility."
He added that his only focus has been to find out who killed Rich. Though he is a Republican, he said that has had no influence on his investigation. "I'm not into politics," Wheeler said.
As for those spreading conspiracy theories around Rich's death, Wheeler said it wasn't helpful. "I'm disappointed," he said. "It doesn't help catch the bad guy."
Shortly after that conversation, Wheeler appeared on Fox News.
"I don't know for sure, I don't know as a matter of fact if the emails went out to the WikiLeaks or anybody else," Wheeler told Sean Hannity. "But it sure appears that way."
Claudia Koerner is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.
Contact Claudia Koerner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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