WASHINGTON — On a summer evening two years ago, a film crew and actors gathered on a street in northwest Washington to stage a reenactment of an event that had captured the imagination of “alt-right” activists and allies of President Trump: the murder of former Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich.
Hour after hour, the actors — one playing Rich, two others pretending to be hired assassins — played out a fabricated death scene. The Rich character pleads for his life, offering up his wallet and cellphone. The assassins refuse the items. “We don’t want your damn watch. We’re not here for that,” one says.
Then they gun Seth Rich down.
“I don’t think it really clicked how truly bizarre this was until they were doing that death scene,” said journalist Ben Freed, who reported on the made-up Rich assassination movie for Washingtonian Magazine. “Take after take after take, neighbors are coming out. They’re getting really angry, they’re yelling, ... ‘This is f***ing disgusting, get out of here!’ I mean, they’re really agitated and offended that this live production of some crackpot conspiracy theory is happening across the street from them.”
It was, says Freed, “like Fake News Theater.”
The filmed reenactment was the production of Jack Burkman, a veteran D.C. lobbyist and political gadfly, who had launched a high-profile campaign to investigate and publicize the Rich murder. His controversial involvement in the case – including attention-getting gimmicks and press conferences filled with wild and completely unsubstantiated claims — would ultimately lead to a real-life shooting: of Burkman himself.
His role in promoting the bogus Seth Rich conspiracy theory is the subject of Episode 3 of Yahoo News’ “Conspiracyland” podcast, released Tuesday.
Burkman, an irrepressible Washington fixture for years, is among a number of quirky characters who seized on the Rich case, seeing it as a vehicle to promote their theories about dark conspiratorial figures embedded in the country’s law enforcement community determined to destroy Donald Trump by committing dastardly crimes.
“I’m a big believer in the deep state,” says Burkman, in one of many interviews he did for the podcast. “I used to think it was all nuts. But the more you look into that stuff, the more real it becomes.”
Burkman’s involvement also came during a season in which conspiracy theories were flourishing like never before — a phenomenon that is also explored in the new “Conspiracyland” episode. The same fall that the Rich conspiracy meme — originally planted by Russian intelligence agents — was first popping up on alt-right websites and internet chat rooms, another conspiracy theory about a Washington, D.C., restaurant called Comet Pizza was getting widespread traction on social media.
The essence of “Pizzagate,” as it came to be called, was that associates of the Clintons were abusing and trafficking small children in the basement of the pizzeria — and that clues to these crimes could be found in obscure references buried in Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails that had been released by WikiLeaks.
The wild claims — promoted on Twitter and YouTube by Trump supporters like Jack Posobiec — eventually inspired an unemployed volunteer firefighter from North Carolina to burst into Comet Pizza, armed with an assault rifle, and fire a shot at a back door, intending to free the nonexistent children in the nonexistent basement.
As the police saw it, the conspiracy claims about Rich’s murder were also nonsensical. The cops had concluded from the start that his shooting in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Washington — about 30 blocks north of the U.S. Capitol — was likely the result of a botched street robbery. There had been seven armed robberies in the same neighborhood in the six weeks before Rich, a data director at the DNC’s voter protection division, was walking home from a night of drinking when he was shot and killed early Sunday morning on July 10, 2016.
The police reported that Rich had bruises on his knuckles and face, a sign he had resisted his assailants. When he fought back, the police theorized, his assailants had shot him, panicked and fled.
But Burkman was determined to prove there was more to it than that. So, in the fall of 2016, he personally offered a $105,000 reward for information about Rich’s killers — dwarfing the standard $25,000 reward put up by the Washington police. He then reached out to Rich’s parents, Joel and Mary, in Omaha, Neb., and encouraged them to fly to Washington to participate in a press conference.
What motivated him to do so?
“Like most things, it was driven by my own animal desires for a better image,” said Burkman. Then he added: “And, uh, my desires to do good.”
At first the Rich family was receptive, grateful for any help they could get to find their son’s killers. But Burkman turned them off soon enough. At a joint press conference he had with the family on Nov. 16, 2016, Burkman at first falsely claimed he was there to “represent” the Rich family. Joel and Mary Rich say Burkman never represented them.
Then he declared he was planning to conduct a reenactment of the murder, an announcement that stunned the Riches.
“It’s like, ‘Why?’” recalled Joel Rich. “We went through one death.” Their view of Burkman, he said, was that he was a publicity seeker. “You’re doing your own thing to try to get your name out,” said Joel about Burkman. “So we stopped talking to him.”
In the view of some, that assessment of Burkman wasn’t far off. Burkman had been a regular Republican talking head on cable shows in the 1990s. But in recent years, he had become increasingly prone to taking up outrageous causes guaranteed to get him publicity, such as the time in 2014 he launched a crusade for legislation to ban gay athletes from playing for the NFL.
“Dude, are you serious?” Freed, the journalist, said he reacted when he saw Burkman’s press release announcing the antigay project. “Jack Burkman’s agenda is Jack Burkman. He’s a slick talker, and he is in an environment where if he throws out the craziest bait imaginable, he will get people to bite.”
Burkman’s first venture on the Rich case was to launch the Profiling Project — a group that recruited George Washington University graduate students to investigate Rich’s shooting by looking for patterns of behavior through “link analysis.” Under the direction of a security specialist Burkman hired named Kevin Doherty, the group ultimately announced its conclusion: Rich’s shooting was likely done by hired assassins who had “some level of proficiency in killing.”
That’s nonsense, says Deborah Sines, the former assistant U.S. attorney and veteran homicide prosecutor who was in charge of the Rich case. “These are amateur detectives, wannabes, that just don’t know what they’re talking about, and they’re just ignorant,” she told “Conspiracyland.”
Sines noted that Rich was shot twice in the back and was alive for more than an hour and a half after his assailants fled. “If you are assassinated, it’s a rule: You get a headshot and you are not left alive to talk to the police and the ambulance attendants,” said Sines.
“Homicide 101: Assassinations — they do not leave their people alive.”
Burkman’s most ambitious project was his Seth Rich reenactment — a film for which the lobbyist hired actors, a director and a production crew. He then spent weeks staging scenes throughout Washington. The five-minute film is filled with entirely fictional scenes that contradict each other. In one, “Seth Rich” calls up Julian Assange and offers to sell him the DNC emails. In another, he walks into a supposed Washington office of Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya (a central figure in the notorious Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 with top Trump campaign officials) and offers to sell her the DNC emails.
“I know where you work,” says the actor playing Veselnitskaya, seated behind a desk with a Russian flag, as the Rich character walks into her office. “What do you have for us?”
“Confidential DNC emails,” the Rich actor replies.
“And what you do want in return?”
“Payment,” says Rich.
As Burkman himself acknowledges, these scenes were completely fabricated — with no evidence to suggest that anything like these conversations ever took place.
“No, we do not,” Burkman confirmed when asked if he had a shred of evidence that Rich ever called Assange. “No evidence in that direction.”
So what was his purpose in making a film filled with scenes that are completely made up?
Burkman at first said his film was merely a “hypothesis” about events “that could be true.” But then he suggested his mini-movie was akin to the wildly successful FX movie about O.J. Simpson and the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Simpson.
That, it was pointed out to Burkman, was entertainment.
“Everything is entertainment, Michael,” Burkman replied. “Everything is entertainment.”
Burkman’s efforts to expose the so-called deep state conspiracies didn’t stop there — and would lead to an even wilder adventure. In 2017, smack in the middle of his Rich investigation, Burkman offered yet another reward, this time $25,000, for information that would show corruption inside the FBI.
He got a response — from an anonymous would-be whistleblower offering explosive internal FBI emails purportedly showing that then-acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe had told his agents to doctor evidence presented to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Taking a page from the Watergate movie “All the President’s Men,” his informant instructed Burkman to retrieve the material under a cone in the parking garage of a Marriott hotel in northern Virginia.
Burkman did as instructed. And when he returned for more material, accompanied by his chocolate dachshund, Jack Jr., he suddenly heard two booming gunshots and felt like he’d been hit in the butt by a major league pitcher’s fastball. Bleeding profusely, he grabbed his dog and started to run. A car came swirling down the parking garage ramp and headed right for him in an unsuccessful attempt to finish him off.
“I should be dead,” Burkman recalled. “There’s no way in hell I should be sitting here talking to you. Not even a small chance.”
He reported all this to the police, and the cops soon arrested the assailant: Kevin Doherty, the very same security specialist he had hired to oversee the Seth Rich murder investigation for the Profiling Project. Doherty, who apparently was upset about a dispute he was having with Burkman over who owned the copyright to the project, was convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison.
Burkman is chastened — somewhat. “There were red flags I should have seen,” he said. As for those supposedly explosive FBI emails that Doherty had slipped him under the parking garage cone, he now realizes they were fake.
“I wanted to see what I wanted to see,” Burkman said. “We all do that. I’ll just tell you right out, I was hungry for it. That’s life.”
Cover thumbnail photo: Jack Burkman and the late Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos; Joshua Roberts/Reuters, via Twitter)
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