Seth Rich’s parents are “hopeful” a new lawsuit against Fox News will put an end to the “evil,” fake conspiracy surrounding the Democratic National Committee staffer’s murder.
On Tuesday, paid Fox News commentator and former detective Rod Wheeler filed a defamation lawsuit obtained by PEOPLE against the network and its parent company, 21st Century Fox, claiming that President Donald Trump pressured the cable channel to release a since-retracted piece linking Rich’s death to the 2016 WikiLeaks dump of DNC officials’ emails in order to distract from reports of collusion with Russia.
Responding to the suit, Rich family spokesman Brad Bauman tells PEOPLE, “I am just so hopeful that this really once and for all gives them the space that they need in order to grieve and gives the police the space that they need in order to actually find the killers.”
“This has been the most emotionally troubling time that this poor family has ever gone through, and the constant spate of conspiracy theories that have followed them every step of the way has really impeded their ability to grieve for their son and to find the new normal that is really being deprived of them in a way that other people get a chance to mourn the loss of a loved one,” he added. “And it has been so depressing to have to watch as these poor people are tortured over and over and over again every few months as a different weird story has arisen.”
Rich was a 27-year-old DNC aide when he was fatally shot in Washington, D.C., last summer. In May of this year, Fox News reporter Malia Zimmerman claimed in a story that Rich was tied to the DNC email dump – rather than Russian hackers. Fox News further suggested that the DNC had thwarted the police investigation into Rich’s death, which authorities believe was actually a botched robbery, per NPR.
Much of Zimmerman’s story weighed on quotes allegedly from Wheeler, whom wealthy Trump supporter and unpaid Fox News commentator Ed Butowsky reportedly hired to investigate the death on behalf of the Rich family. Zimmerman and Butowsky were also both named as defendants in Wheeler’s suit.
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Now, in the lawsuit, Wheeler claims that Zimmerman, Fox News and Butowsky “created fake news to advance President Trump’s agenda.”
Wheeler alleges that the story attributed two fake quotes to him in order to push the rhetoric tying Rich to WikiLeaks, and claims that, through Butowksy, the president pressed to get the story out.
According to the court documents, Butowsky allegedly texted Wheeler just 36 hours before the story was released and wrote, “Not to add any more pressure but the president just read the article. He wants the article out immediately Its now all up to you. But don’t feel the pressure.”
Further, Wheeler claimed that he and Butowsky met with former Press Secretary Sean Spicer at the White House to review the story a month before it ran.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed that Spicer did meet with Wheeler and Butowsky about the story before it was published.
“It doesn’t bother me that the press secretary would take a meeting with somebody involved in the media about a story,” Sanders said during a Tuesday press conference, further denying any involvement by Trump.
“The president had no knowledge of the story and it’s completely untrue that he or the White House had involvement in the story. Beyond that, this is ongoing litigation and I’d refer you to the actual parties involved, which are not the White House,” she said.
Bauman told PEOPLE on Tuesday that the Rich family was “surprised” by Wheeler’s suit, adding that they would not address the specific allegations.
“The family understands that this is a moment to remind everyone that what’s at issue here is that their son was senselessly murdered on the streets of Washington D.C. and that the killer or killers are still at large,” said Bauman.
In an Washington Post op-ed earlier this year, Rich’s parents – Mary and Joel Rich – condemned the “unspeakably cruel” series “of lies or conspiracies about” their son’s death.
“We have seen no evidence, by any person at any time, that Seth’s murder had any connection to his job at the Democratic National Committee or his life in politics,” they wrote. “Anyone who claims to have such evidence is either concealing it from us or lying.”
The piece continued, with the Riches adding, “Every day we wake up to new headlines, new lies, new factual errors, new people approaching us to take advantage of us and Seth’s legacy. It just won’t stop. The amount of pain and anguish this has caused us is unbearable. With every conspiratorial flare-up, we are forced to relive Seth’s murder and a small piece of us dies as more of Seth’s memory is torn away from us.”
DNC spokesperson Xochitl Hinojosa also released a statement about the lawsuit, per NBC News, stating, in part, that “if these allegations are true, it is beyond vile.”
In response to Wheeler’s lawsuit, Fox News’ Jay Wallace told Deadline in a statement, “The accusation that FoxNews.com published Malia Zimmerman’s story to help detract from coverage of the Russia collusion issue is completely erroneous.”
Wallace also told NPR that there is no “concrete evidence” that Wheeler was misquoted by Zimmerman.
Butowsky told CNN that the allegations are “bulls–t.”
He further offered his side of the story during an appearance on CNN Tonight Tuesday, and claimed Wheeler’s suit was just an attempt to profit.
“I’ve never talked to President Trump in my life,” Butowsky said, denying that the White House had “anything to do with any of this.”