An unsolved Washington, D.C. murder from 2016 gets some clarity with a fresh look at victimology and criminal profiling.
Timeline & Victim
Seth Rich, 27: July 10, 2016
Victim & Homicide Narrative
At around 4:20am, and one block from his apartment building in the Bloomingdale area of Washington, D.C., Seth Rich was shot to death with a handgun on the sidewalk while walking home from a bar. He had been talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone when the shooting occurred. Earlier in the evening, Seth had been drinking at a sports pub located just under 2 miles from his home. Within one minute of the shooting, police were on the scene. Seth was conscious and breathing. He was transported to a nearby hospital where he subsequently passed away.
An autopsy showed that Seth had been shot two times in the back. His hands, knees, and face were bruised, possibly from a struggle. Another indicator of a struggle: Seth’s watchband was torn. None of his personal effects were missing, including his watch, wallet, cell phone, and gold necklace. When found, Seth was unaware he had been shot, indicating that he was taken by surprise by his killer/s.
Seth was an employee for the Democratic National Committee and had just accepted a position on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Following his murder, theories about a possible connection between his political job and his murder proliferated. To date, no substantiative evidence has surfaced that suggests Seth was murdered in relation to his job or politics. Seth’s computer and email account were examined by detectives and they found no evidence of communication between Seth and WikiLeaks. Additionally, Seth’s position did not afford him access to a trove of private, political emails which he could have then leaked to a WikiLeaks source.
The Profiling Project’s Proposed Offender Profile
The Profiling Project, located in Arlington, Virginia, is comprised of approximately 20 volunteers who either are currently, or were formerly, students or faculty of George Washington University’s forensic-psychology graduate program. This group authored an 80-page report that concluded Seth’s murder “does not appear to be a random homicide” or “a robbery gone bad,” as suggested by law enforcement. Rather, Seth’s murder “was more likely committed by a hired killer or serial murderer.” The report goes on to theorize that:
- The murder was not a random homicide nor was it a robbery that got out of hand
- The murder was committed by a hired killer or serial offender: “With such a sanitized crime scene and no emotional indications, this is not [the offender’s] first kill.”
- The killer was not a robber because most robbers don’t kill and Seth still had valuable items on his person when he was found
- The offender “brought a most likely unregistered firearm to the crime scene, utilized the firearm and most likely carried the firearm away from the scene.”
- “The crime scene appeared to be almost sanitized (no firearms casings were reported to be found, no physical evidence was reported).” The Profiling Project theorizes some possibility that this was a drive-by shooting which would explain the lack of evidence and shell-casings. If so, how did Seth receive the injuries to his hands, knees, and face? And why was his watch band torn? Also, it stands to be noted that the crime scene was not thoroughly investigated or contained by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner because Seth was alert and conscious when he was first transported from the scene; it was not a murder. If the offender/s lived in close proximity to the crime, they may have had the opportunity to slip back in and retrieve any spent shell casings once medical personnel and the initial police investigating left the scene.
- “There does not appear to be excessive use of force (as only two shots were reported). Offender did not display excessive emotion at the crime scene, did not appear to act from hate, anger, fear, gain, jealousy or revenge, all motivations for murder — the offender does not appear to be psychotic.”
- It was a lone shooter.
- One of the authors of the report, GWU graduate Kevin Doherty, stated “The person folks [should be] looking for and considering isn’t a robber who kills, but really is a killer, and maybe a killer that doesn’t rob. The fact that this person has gotten away with it shows a real level of proficiency.”
- Conspiracy theories around Seth’s job are unfounded. “If this were a professional hit person, they failed” says Doherty. “Nothing we’ve seen supports [the theory of] an assassin.”
- “For the offender to complete this crime, they would have had to both appeared natural in the Bloomingdale neighborhood, and gone to significant lengths to ensure a safe escape route, as 4a, though early, is not outside the scope of a potential dog-walker or post-night clubber returning home. Offender appears to have displayed moderate-risk in the commission of the crime.”
- “If offender was not aware who Seth was, offender may have taken risk in targeting a young, healthy male. It is possible Seth was intoxicated, making him a more-desirable victim.” I would also add that Seth was talking on his cell phone at the time he was approached. Appearing distracted by his phone call (and likely inebriated given that he had been drinking at a bar for hours and had a history of heavy drinking) would have made him a more desirable target than the average healthy male.
- The report notes statistically unusual circumstances involving Seth’s murder: “‘We may never know why Seth was targeted for attack, but we do know that so many nonroutine events had to take place prior to the interaction that it was not statistically random,’ the researchers write. Those anomalies include Rich being out at around 4 a.m. and the fact that he was white, since only 6 percent of unsolved homicides in D.C. in 2016 involved non-African-Americans, according to the report.” (source: Max Kutner, Newsweek)
- The report also asserts that Seth was a “low-moderate risk” victim. “Seth lived in the gentrified neighborhood of Bloomingdale. He rode his bicycle as his primary means of transportation, and would ride despite of weather conditions. We were unable to ascertain if Seth used drugs, but he did seem to be a heavy drinker. His Reddit profile indicates that he had in-depth knowledge of sports betting metrics and may have engaged in sports betting. Reportedly, in his last Facebook posting prior being shot, Seth posted ‘I have family and friends on both sides of the law’ which may indicate an understanding of the criminal system. Seth’s residence location, drinking habits and possible betting activities led to an assessment of a low-moderate risk.”
Essentially, the report suggests that this was not a murder for hire and not a robbery gone wrong. They propose that this was some kind of serial offender/thrill kill similar to the Phoenix/Maryvale serial shooter — a lone wolf who, for psychological reasons, committed a planned execution, surprise attack, via drive-by or quick approach/quick exit on foot.
It stands to be noted that The Profiling Project states in their report that they were “given no special access to any materials, evidence or persons, and due to case sensitivity, conducted only informal, limited interviews.” They did not consult with Seth’s family and did not provide the Rich family a copy of their report. I question how accurate The Profiling Project’s report can be when they did not have unfettered access to all information that would have been pertinent to their assessment of victimology. Interviewing his family would have been the first base to cover in this regard. I also note that the report flies in the face of what law enforcement — who have access to all of the evidence to date — believes happened.
If The Profiling Project’s proposed offender profile is to be believed, then we must better understand what they are suggesting the motive to be. Assuming a serial killer or hired hitman, the motive would either be a thrill kill or some kind of revenge/silencing motive where another person hired someone to kill Seth. Both of these are rather unlikely scenarios and there is no evidence to suggest them to be true. No other “thrill kill” shootings happened in the vicinity of Seth’s murder and we know serial killers to be highly-tied to their geography. This would also be a highly-unusual “thrill kill” — it was an up-close-and-personal murder yet Seth was killed by a gun and shot in the back. If the thrill motive was to kill, why shoot him? Why not something more personal such as knife attack, beating, or strangulation? If the motive was kill to thrill, why shoot him in the back and leave before watching him die? It just doesn’t make sense.
Even when “thrill killers” shoot their victims and the victims are strangers, they tend to either be from a distance as in the case of the D.C. sniper or they shoot them face-to-face (not in the back, as Seth was shot) as in the case of Aaron Saucedo, the Serial Street Shooter (who actually primarily shot his victims in a drive-by, again underscoring the distancing factor of using a gun when killing strangers). People just don’t tend to use guns in thrill killings unless they are shooting strangers from a distance. The fact that Seth was shot up close suggests murder was not the original motive, it was the byproduct of whatever the original motive was gone awry. Further, no legitimate evidence has surfaced that someone wanted to revenge against Seth or to silence him. Sometimes, the simplest answer is the most likely: this was a botched robbery. Something happened, the gun went off, the robber/s freaked and fled the scene quickly.
The fact that they believe the crime was “sanitized” is neither here nor there in my opinion. The casings could have fallen somewhere such as through a drain cover, never to be found. Or, the gun used may not have produced shell casings (as in the case of a revolver). Additionally, the offender/s didn’t really have time to sanitize the scene — police arrived in one minute’s time. They only had time to flee. I agree with the assessment that the offender was likely not psychotic and that there was not excessive use of force which indicates this murder was not rage-motivated or intended to humiliate or degrade the victim.
The Profiling Project is funded by GOP lobbyist Jack Burkman who announced in September 2016 that he was offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in Seth’s murder. That reward amount in now up to $250,000. On May 31, 2016, a lawsuit was filed by The Profiling Project against the city of Washington, D.C. The lawsuit demanded that the city turn over all records related to the crime, including an officer’s body camera footage, the autopsy report, and ballistics reports. When asked about the reason for the suit, Burkman stated: “Mismanagement, in that I think, how tragic…it soon went into the cold case file. They released no new information since October 16, 2016. That’s a long time. Why is it left to a private citizen to do what they should be doing? I set up an entire organization and we have interviewed people they haven’t interviewed.” A volunteer with the Profiling Project, Kevin Zhang, noted: “What we found is there actually is possibly another surveillance camera that may have been missed in the initial investigation so we have turned that over to the police.”
My Proposed Offender Profile
- Young, male. Possibly two males. Seth’s parents report seeing a surveillance video that showed the legs of two people who may have been involved in Seth’s murder.
- Local, very familiar with the environment and streets, able to flee and evade law enforcement easily because they knew the terrain well
- Financially-motived. This was a robbery that went sideways. This map shows that there were a number of armed robberies committed in this exact location in the months prior to Seth’s murder. The Profiling Project suggests that a robber would not have brought a firearm to the scene given D.C.’s incredibly strict gun laws. This graphic appears to demonstrate otherwise.
- Relatively inexperienced and criminally-unsophisticated. It appears the killer or killers panicked. They fled without the goods they originally came for when Seth put up a struggle and the gun went off.
- While The Profiling Project suggests that the offender came to the scene prepared to commit murder, as evidence by the firearm they brought with them, I believe they brought the firearm to aid in the commission of the robbery and gain compliance from their intended victim, not to kill. They shot the firearm when the situation got out of their control.
- Offender/s may have had minor injuries visible at the time of the murder as a result of an altercation with Seth.
- It is unlikely this was a ‘hit for hire’ situation. A skilled hitman would have ensured that his target was dead before fleeing the scene, not left Seth breathing and conscious. A skilled hitman would also not have chosen a public D.C. sidewalk — in a highly-patrolled area — to commit the murder. This would have been way too high risk for someone proficient in targeted hits. Police were able to arrive at the scene in one minute’s time because they were alerted to gunfire by an automated gunfire locator.
- This was not a low-risk situation for the offender/s which means that their cost/benefit analysis of whether or not it would be worth it to follow through with the crime was either flawed (they assumed it was lower risk than it was, indicating lack of experience, young age, and lack of criminal sophistication), the risk was worth the benefit (i.e. if it was an intended robbery, the goods were so needed that the offender was willing to risk arrest to obtain them), or that things did not go to plan (i.e. the offender assessed that a robbery was worth the risk but did not count on things getting out of hand and turning into a shooting — which would have not been worth the risk — and alerted police nearly immediately).
Unanswered Questions That May Shed Light On This Case
- Was Seth’s watch band torn prior to night of his murder?
- Did Seth pay at Lou’s City Bar in cash or credit?
- How intoxicated did Seth appear when he left Lou’s City Bar?
- What was Seth’s blood alcohol level at the time of autopsy?
- Was anything missing from Seth’s body that may have been overlooked? Yes, he had his wallet, necklace, watch, and cell phone. But, was anything else missing?
- Were the bullets found consistent with one, or two, firearms?
- Was the kind of firearm used the kind that would dispense shell-casings (i.e. a revolver or over-under pistol)?
Update: August 5, 2017
On August 1, 2017, private investigator and Fox News reporter, Rod Wheeler, filed a lawsuit in the Southern District of New York against Fox News, Malia Zimmerman (a writer for the network), and Ed Butowsky (a GOP donor that hired Wheeler in February 2017 to investigate the murder of Seth Rich). The complaint alleges that Fox News and the White House conspired together to publicize a false narrative regarding Seth’s death. Specifically, the complaint alleges that a story published by Zimmerman on May 16th — which was retracted 7 days later — attributed false and inaccurate quotes to Wheeler that erroneously tied Seth’s death to the DNC email hacking incident. Wheeler claims that Zimmerman and Butowsky had already developed the false narrative prior to hiring him to investigate the murder.
The lawsuit claims that the motivation behind Zimmerman’s article was to “establish that Seth Rich provided WikiLeaks with the DNC emails to shift the blame from Russia and help put to bed speculation that President Trump colluded with Russia in an attempt to influence the outcome of the Presidential election.” It goes on to further claim that “According to Butowsky, the statements were falsely attributed to Mr. Wheeler because that is the way the President wanted the article.” The complaint further alleges that Butowsky texted Wheeler regarding President Donald Trump’s enthusiasm to see the story published: “Not to add any more pressure but the president just read the article. He wants the article out immediately. It’s now all up to you. But don’t feel the pressure.”
The same day the lawsuit was filed, DNC spokeswoman, Xochitl Hinojosa, released the following statement on behalf of the DNC: “If these allegations are true, it is beyond vile that the White House — and possibly even Trump himself — would use the murder of a young man to distract the public’s attention from their chaotic administration and Trump’s ties to Russia.” The Rich family maintains that Seth was murdered by two unknown assailants during a botched robbery.
The White House, for their part, denies any involvement in the false reporting as does Fox News. Butowsky has called the claims “bulls***.” The Rich family has requested privacy and has stated through their family spokesman that “Since Seth’s passing last July they have done nothing but try to maintain a sense of loss and to grieve the way a family is meant to grieve and that, over and over again, because of conspiracy theories that have popped up, they have been deprived of that opportunity to move forward.”
The Profiling Project’s Full Report: https://www.scribd.com/document/351805646/The-Profiling-Project-Seth-Rich-Report