A Lobbyist Detective’s Strange Quest to Find Seth Rich’s Murderer

How Jack Burkman became an unlikely central figure in a world of conspiracy theories.

Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich, and Julian Assange have all helped fuel conspiracy theories about the murder of Seth Rich, right.James West/Mother Jones

Seth Rich was dead, and Jack Burkman was thinking of his mom. Back in the ’80s, when Burkman got to Georgetown Law School after growing up near Pittsburgh, she’d warned him to be careful in his new city. Now he pictured her getting a call from the police, informing her that her son had been shot to death near his Washington home. It tugged at his heart. Most people would have stopped there. Burkman decided to find the killer.

He wasn’t a cop or a private eye—just a 51-year-old Republican lawyer and lobbyist—but he didn’t care. If he didn’t solve the case, he thought, no one else would.

The facts seemed relatively straightforward. On July 10, 2016, Rich, a 27-year-old Democratic National Committee staffer, was murdered, shot in the back. His night had started with drinks at Lou’s City Bar and ended with a long walk home, during which he talked on the phone with his girlfriend, Kelsey. Around 4:20 a.m., Kelsey heard voices in the background, and Rich calmly told her that he needed to go. Almost immediately afterward, the police department’s gunfire detectors reported shots fired near Rich’s home. When officers found him, he was still alive. Later that morning, he died at a local hospital.

In the year since, people from Julian Assange to Newt Gingrich to the Finnish-German hacker Kim Dotcom have suggested they know what really happened: Rich leaked the DNC emails that helped sink Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and he got killed in retaliation. There is no evidence to support these claims, but it hasn’t mattered. The Seth Rich conspiracy theory has been splashed across the home pages of Fox News and Breitbart and remains a fixture of the alt-right imagination.

And Burkman has managed to put himself at the center of it all. He stood next to Rich’s parents and offered $100,000 of his own money to find the killer. He was cited as a family ally and investigator in the Washington Post and Newsweek. And as some of the other leading conspiracy theorists in the Rich case have lost interest and moved on, Burkman still hasn’t.

From the beginning, the police said they believed the murder was a robbery gone wrong. There had been a string of armed robberies in the area, and there were bruises on Rich’s hands and legs that suggested an altercation. He still had his wallet on him, but his watch wristband was damaged. Most important, no one had any reason to murder him. Rich was an amiable kid from Omaha. On the Fourth of July, he mugged for the camera in an American-flag button-up and star-spangled slacks. In his free time, he scoured Reddit to find memes to send his older brother, Aaron.

A day or two after Rich’s death, Aaron noticed that Reddit users were drawing strange conclusions. On July 12, a “staunch supporter of Senator Sanders” on Reddit combed through Rich’s LinkedIn profile to build a 1,400-word case for why Rich may have been on the verge of exposing election fraud perpetrated by the Clintons. His conclusion: “I believe that Hillary Clinton’s team or the DNC could have colluded to dispose of this young man who happened to be exposed to a little too much information.”

At first, Aaron says, it was funny, a distraction from the grief. The news stories, he says, started as “‘a DNC staffer was killed.’ And then it was a DNC official that was killed. Then it became a top DNC official that was killed.” He adds, “Hell, by the end of the day he could have been Hillary’s running mate.”

The conspiracy kept getting more bizarre. In August, Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, announced that he was offering a $20,000 reward for information leading to Rich’s killer. On a Dutch TV show, an incredulous host asked Assange what he was implying.

“I am suggesting that our sources take risks and they become concerned to see things occurring like that.”

“But was he one of your sources then?”

“We don’t comment on who our sources are.”

Burkman respected Assange’s ability to “make news,” but he didn’t think his theory added up. Rich worked with polling place data at the DNC. He wasn’t the IT guru of Redditors’ imagination.

Burkman had reached out to Rich’s parents in Omaha, Joel and Mary, who appreciated his offer to provide a six-figure reward for information leading to the killer. They hoped it could get a friend or family member to incriminate the culprit, according to a source close to the family. In November, Joel and Mary came to Washington to speak at a press conference where Burkman announced his reward. Mary thanked Burkman for helping even though he was a Republican who knew nothing about them. She said Seth was smiling, knowing that people were coming together, across party lines, to solve a problem.

The Riches found the conspiracy theories repulsive, an insult to their son’s memory. They told reporters that Rich was a good guy who followed the rules. He would never betray the Democratic Party. If the police said it was an attempted robbery, it probably was. “How can people stoop so low?” they asked.

But one question kept nagging at Burkman: Who robs someone and leaves a wallet?

Initially, he was happy to set aside his doubts and focus on searching for clues. It was unusual work for a man who bills himself as Washington’s top Republican lobbyist (citing an article from the Hill reporting that he signed up more clients in 2013 than any other lobbyist). Solving a murder may not have been Burkman’s specialty, but that didn’t stop him from letting a reporter tag along. In February, he suggested we meet in the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel before canvassing the area where Rich had been killed.

Burkman arrives in his standard uniform: black athletic pants and a puffer jacket. He grips my palm for a few seconds longer than most people would consider normal and apologizes for being late. He wastes no time hailing a cab. During the ride, he explains that he has a great working relationship with the Riches. They do what he and his PR team tell them, and they send Omaha Steaks, too.

Noah Lanard

We get out on U Street, once DC’s “Black Broadway” but now a jumble of upscale bars and glassy apartment buildings. He approaches a woman standing by the corner. “Hi, I’m Jack Burkman. I’m a lawyer. I represent the family of Seth Rich.”

“I’m not interested, okay?”

The next stop is a basement-level incense shop staffed by a group of profoundly unoccupied men. This time he gets to finish his spiel. “Do you know Seth Rich?” he says. “I’m looking for anybody who knows anything.” The men think hard but come up with nothing.

Back on the street, Burkman acknowledges that the murder, already six months past, occurred a mile away. But he says he’s investigating a series of expanding concentric circles. At this point, he’s probably canvassed the area more than a dozen times. “I’ve gotten a sense of who would know and wouldn’t know,” he says as we approach the Why Not Boutique, where he’s greeted by a man in a sequined jacket and a woman wearing a magician’s hat. They don’t know anything either.

After stopping into a plant shop, a dry cleaner, and a soul food joint—all fruitless—Burkman decides it’s time to go. To where is unclear. Before there’s time to ask, he takes off alone in a cab.

Burkman started off on a fairly conventional path in Washington. After law school, he landed a job in New York Republican Rep. Rick Lazio’s office. In 1996, he cashed in as a lobbyist at the Smith-Free Group. Six years later, he formed his own shop, J.M. Burkman & Associates. But media was his true passion.

Burkman started speaking regularly on TV about the Whitewater scandal that Lazio investigated on the House Banking Committee. He appeared on Fox News and Bill Maher’s show, but he never broke though. He wistfully recalls the talking heads who did: Dan Abrams, Joe Scarborough, Rush Limbaugh. His tone evokes a major league player sent to the minors and never called back up. In college, Burkman says, he landed a job at Newsweek, but his mom made him go to law school.

Before it went defunct, Burkman’s website was mostly a compilation of his TV hits. He let it go offline because he prefers to steer traffic to the page for his radio showBehind the Curtain, which he bills as the only talk show in America hosted by a registered lobbyist. He says he pays Radio America for the airtime. The segments are also on YouTube, where some have gotten a single view or none at all.

The compulsion to make news has frequently gotten the best of him. After Michael Sam became the first openly gay player drafted into the NFL in 2014, Burkman, as a private citizen, proposed legislation to ban gay players from the league. Burkman’s brother, who is gay, told the Huffington Post that Burkman had crossed a line. “It is just an attention grab and a media grab to pander to those folks who pay him to lobby on their behalf,” he said. Burkman says he “was opposed to gay marriage and needed something to dramatize it.”

Burkman’s lobbying record includes its own theatrics. When the Hill reported that his firm signed up 70 clients, Burkman admitted that his desire to be “squeaky clean” may have led him to register more clients than he needed to. Two clients I spoke with said they paid Burkman less than the amount he reported to the government, and a similar discrepancy involving a third client appears in a court document. (Burkman says he doesn’t personally prepare the reports but tells everyone he works with to be “100 percent accurate.”)

Few of his clients have worked with a Washington lobbyist before. Desert Lakes University, which like many of Burkman’s clients lacks a working phone number, boasts on its Facebook page that it provides “education for individuals to prepare them for the future without charging the for tuition [sic].” Desert Lakes’ website went offline several years ago. Burkman calls the school a startup. Another client, the Black Moon Corporation, hopes to build a repository of genetic material akin to the library of Alexandriainside a crater on the moon.

Ralph Palmieri, Burkman’s part-time lobbying partner, says their typical clients are middle-aged and older businessmen who are not afraid to take a chance with their money. “They’ve made some good decisions over the course of time,” he says. “And they’ve made some terrible ones.”

Burkman mostly focuses on getting his clients federal grants and contracts. They rarely do, according to government spending records. Palmieri says going for government money, like other investments, involves risk. He compares it to gambling in Vegas. The odds aren’t great, but the payoff can be.

Burkman hasn’t done much to increase his clout through donations and fundraising, as many Washington insiders do. Over the years, his federal political contributions have come to $3,980. Last May, Burkman canceled his plans to host an unauthorized fundraiser for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign after a campaign lawyer sent him a letter “formally disavowing” his efforts, or in Burkman’s words a “bully” letter. Five weeks later, Burkman hosted an unofficial fundraiser for Free the Delegates’ campaign to stop Trump at the Republican National Convention. Burkman told Rolling Stone that the event raised a little more than $500,000. Beau Correll, a Virginia lawyer and a founder of Free the Delegates, said in an email that he was informed that the event had raised $600 from two or three attendees. Correll calls Burkman a modern-day “Flim Flam Man,” adding that his research into Burkman “raised more red-flags than a Chinese military parade.”

In 2015, one of Burkman’s former clients, SouthWind Capital Partners, sued him for $1 million for allegedly violating an agreement that barred him from signing up its clients. Burkman’s deposition in the case started out on a confident note: “There is no person Jack Burkman. My name is John Burkman.” He became less sure of himself from there.

“About how many employees do you have?” he was asked.

“That’s a good question,” Burkman replied. “We have a lot of subcontractors. I would put it that way.”

When presented with a copy of the agreement that appeared to have his signature, Burkman claimed to have no memory of signing it. “That doesn’t mean I didn’t sign it,” he added before congratulating his interlocutor for forcing him into a corner. “You’re going to go far in the legal profession.”

The questions later turned to a grant request for one of Burkman’s clients. “So you, on behalf of Waste to Energy, requested $525 million from the Department of Energy through the Bioenergy Technologies Office?”

“Right. Correct.”

But the agency “could not award that money because, among other reasons, the amount you requested was more than double the annual budget for the entire office. Correct?”

“That’s what it says here.”

After the request was rejected, Burkman had told his client he would do it through a congressional spending bill instead. “Did you ever do that?” he was asked.

“No.”

“Did you ever attempt to do that?”

“I don’t remember. That I don’t remember.”

Burkman says he paid SouthWind a settlement last year. Bryan Nowak, SouthWind’s CEO, declined to comment, citing a confidentiality clause in the settlement. Burkman is less reticent, saying the case was a question of who introduced whom to whom.

The lawsuit hasn’t stopped him from bringing on more clients. Global Strategic Alliance’s founder, Kevin Jessip, says a friend introduced him to Burkman. His group works to preserve Judaeo-Christian values by, among other things, providing Syrian refugees with temporary shelter. Everything he saw online about Burkman checked out, so he decided to hire him and go for a $20 million federal grant. In the meantime, he’s “prayerfully standing by” as he waits to move forward “with the help of Burkman.” Burkman says he is helping him with other priorities like getting a National Day of Prayer written into law.

Burkman’s next move in trying to find Rich’s killer is to stage a live reenactment of the murder. He calls it a “California thing.” Burkman and his PR team plan to hire 6 to 10 actors. They will play Rich, his friends, potentially his girlfriend, and at least one assailant. The performance will start at Lou’s City Bar and retrace Rich’s one-and-a-half-mile walk home before arriving at “the very spot where his life ended.” Burkman hopes the publicity will lead people to come forward with new information about the murder.

He believes the reenactment has to happen when it’s warm out, which leaves a lot of downtime. Fortunately, he’s in touch with a secret source who’s leading him down a new path. In early March, at a Marriott near his Arlington townhouse, Burkman tells me about the latest development. Joining him is Jack Jr., the chocolate dachshund he calls his baby.

Throughout the conversation, Jack Jr. sits in Burkman’s arms and barks at the hotel bar’s patrons. The waitress tries to keep a straight face as Burkman orders a bowl of whipped cream for his dog. After she brings it, Burkman drops a dollop in his coffee, adds two Equals, and puts the plastic bowl on the floor. Jack Jr. drops from his lap and gets to work. (At our next interview, a different Marriott waiter will ask Burkman, apparently a regular, “Is this your boy who eats chicken and filet mignon?” before bringing over a bowl of ice cream for Jack Jr.)

But we’re not here to watch a dog eat whipped cream. After a “cloak and dagger” meeting at a restaurant in the Four Seasons, Burkman says he has concluded that Rich was killed by Russian operatives for discovering that they were behind the DNC hack. He thinks his source is the “real deal,” in part because he knows about the SAVAK, the deposed Shah of Iran’s secret police force. Burkman says hardly anyone has heard of them so he’s probably legit.

Noah Lanard

The Russia hack of the DNC was widely reported a month before Rich was killed, but Burkman says the story wasn’t out there in a significant way. “In my mind, anyway, the timeline works perfectly.”

Burkman admits that the case is getting “stranger and stranger and stranger by the week.” In fact, it’s becoming a total media circus. Television crews are knocking on the Riches’ door in Omaha, he says, and Burkman’s getting calls to work on other cases. His friends are starting to call him Colombo and Angela Lansbury, though he would prefer Steve McGarrett from Hawaii Five-0. Either way, it’s too much for him. “My life is becoming insane and I need to settle things down.”

He’s sorry that the Rich family is suffering too. He says they don’t “understand the pain involved in getting closure.” But media attention is essential to solving the murder. “This is very hard for a grieving family to understand.”

He hopes to finish in 30 days, and he says Jack Jr. does too. Burkman thinks he’s close. The “world of happenstance” is out, he says. The murder was planned: “Somebody whacked him.” Burkman isn’t worried about the “potentially huge” international ramifications if Russia is responsible. His job is to close the case.

When it’s closed, he fantasizes about going “somewhere where there are only animals and no people.” No people, he repeats. Maybe Antarctica in the summer, or Congo. “The deep Congo jungle,” he says, lingering on the thought. “The Congolese jungle. I’m ready to be done. I’m ready to be done.”

By now, Burkman’s theory about the Russians killing Rich has already made news as aDaily Mail “exclusive.” This turns out to be too much for the Rich family. An unnamed family member tells DCist that learning about the Russia theory was like “having a semi come up and t-bone you in the intersection.” The Riches’ spokesman, Brad Bauman, tells the website that “the family certainly thanks Jack for the spotlight that he has brought to this case” but that “the truth is that the family needs to have the independence to ensure that this is being investigated in a responsible way and without any particular political or conspiratorial agenda.” Aaron establishes an independent GoFundMe campaign to help solve the case.

Burkman says his work will now “proceed on a parallel track.” Burkman schedules a press conference to announce the creation of the “Seth Rich Investigative War Room.” He arrives in a winter trench coat, crocodile loafers, and an uncommonly shiny suit. Behind him is a “Do You Know Who Murdered Seth Rich?” ad that he has paid for on a bus stop shelter. He says a new entity called the Profiling Project will use forensic psychology to create a portrait of the murderer. Throughout the event, reporters correct him for flubbing facts, including the size of the reward he’s offering. They ask if the Rich family is working with the investigation center. “We’ve apprised them,” he says.

Flanking Burkman are a George Washington University forensic psychology grad student who never removes his wraparound sunglasses and a former GW visiting forensic psychology professor. After the event, they stress that the Profiling Project is independent from Burkman’s war room. The grad student says he wishes the press conference never happened. Mostly, they seem confused about what they’ve gotten themselves into.

Burkman keeps trying to make news in the months that follow. But it gets harder. The Associated Press sent a reporter to the press conference but never writes anything about Burkman’s investigative center. When I ask about the status of the reenactment, initially slated for around Memorial Day, he says not to wait. Instead, he promises “some real results and findings” from the Profiling Project. (Later, he emails to say he’ll announce a reenactment date on July 12, the anniversary of Rich’s death. Rich died on July 10.)

Then Burkman is pushed further from the spotlight. In May, Washington’s Fox 5 unleashes a startling exclusive. Rod Wheeler, an investigator working with the Rich family who is also a Fox News contributor, says he has sources at the FBI tying Seth Rich to WikiLeaks. Breitbart and Fox News lead with the story, and hundreds of thousands of tweets follow.

The police say the story is “unfounded,” and the Riches’ spokesman says there is a “special place in hell” for the people promoting it. Joel and Mary Rich write in the Washington Post, “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. Imagine that instead, every call that comes in is a reporter asking what you think of a series of lies or conspiracies about the death. That nightmare is what our family goes through every day.”

Amid the backlash, Wheeler changes his story and tells CNN he doesn’t actually know anything about the murder. But it’s already too late. Seth Rich is the story of the week. Gingrich and Sean Hannity raise doubts about the police’s version of events, and Sean Spicer has to respond to a question about Rich at a White House briefing. A week later, Fox News retracts its story after concluding that it didn’t meet the network’s editorial standards.

While Wheeler appears on Hannity’s show, Burkman puts out a statement that almost everyone ignores. He is an afterthought at the saga’s most covered turn.

He keeps pursuing his investigation. In June, the Profiling Project puts out an 83-page report concluding that Rich was probably killed by a hired or serial killer, not robbers. The evidence for the finding boils down to the lack of clues at the scene. Newsweek writes that the report seems to be “more credible, given the academic backgrounds of the volunteers.”

At a press conference unveiling the report, Burkman says he’s just following the “tributaries” of evidence. He is “anything and everything but a conspiracy theorist,” and this isn’t “Sean Hannity’s program.”

“This will continue,” he says. “And we will fight on until we know the cause of Seth’s death. There will be no stopping.”

“We’re not going away anytime soon. If ever.”

As things wrap up, Burkman is asked about his relationship with the Riches. He says he loves them, but they’re going through a tough time. “They didn’t understand what they were getting into.”

Update 7/10: On the anniversary of Rich’s death, his family released a statement that appeared to include indirect references to Burkman’s investigation. “We are compelled to address those who are claiming to help by undertaking private ‘investigations’, staging reenactments, or traveling to Seth’s old neighborhood to perform citizen interviews,” the family said. “Our request is that anyone with information about Seth’s murder share such information with MPD, which is the law enforcement agency authorized by law to perform this investigation.”

Image credit: Hannity: Brian Cahn/ZUMA; Gingrich: Efrem Lukatsky/AP; Assange: Dominic Lipinski/ZUMA; Rich: LinkedIn; background: littleclie/Getty