In the early morning hours of July 10, 2016, 27-year-old Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich was shot several times in the back close to his Washington, D.C. home.
Rich, who was working on voter expansion efforts for the DNC at the time, died several hours later at a hospital — and D.C. police have said they believe he’s the victim of a botched robbery attempt.
Almost immediately after the shooting, conspiracy theories sprang up. On May 16, 2017, Fox News published a story it then retracted, claiming Rich was the one who provided DNC emails to WikiLeaks — not Russian hackers, as has been determined by the intelligence community.
On Tuesday, Rich’s family filed a lawsuit obtained by PEOPLE against Fox News, a Fox reporter, and a Trump supporter who is one of the network’s frequent guests, over the story about Rich. The suit claims writers and editors knowingly and maliciously spread “false and fabricated facts” about Seth and his death.
“No parent should ever have to live through what we have been forced to endure,” Seth’s parents, Joel and Mary, said in a joint statement sent to PEOPLE. “The pain and anguish that comes from seeing your murdered son’s life and legacy treated as a mere political football is beyond comprehension.”
The suit details how Fox reporter Malia Zimmerman and Trump supporter Ed Butowsky allegedly worked together to mislead Seth’s parents and create a fiction about his death. They recruited former homicide detective turned private investigator Rod Wheeler “to assist in their scheme,” the lawsuit says.
After the story was published, Fox host Sean Hannity gave particular attention to the piece on his TV and radio shows and on Twitter, court documents say.
Fox retracted the story about a week later, stating the article did not meet their editorial standards.
Despite the retraction, Fox and Butowsky continued to perpetuate the false story, the suit claims.
“Joel and Mary Rich have brought this case to hold Fox News, Fox reporter Zimmerman, and political operative and Fox News contributor Butowsky, accountable for their reprehensible actions,” said the Rich’s lead attorney, Leonard A. Gail of Massey & Gail LLP, in a statement.
“Whether motivated by party politics, ratings, corporate profit, or personal gain, we hope to help prevent this kind of malicious and reckless behavior in the future so that others can be spared the hell the Riches have had to endure.”
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Butowsky told ABC News, which first reported on the lawsuit, that it was “one of the dumbest” things he’d ever seen.
“Nobody’s benefited from anything,” Butowsky told ABC. “To file a lawsuit to say that anybody has benefited just smells weird.”
Fox News declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
A lawsuit filed last August by Wheeler, the private investigator, alleges that Fox worked in concert with Trump and the White House to release the story about Rich to deflect attention from concern about the administration’s ties to Russia. Fox has filed motions to dismiss the case and the motions are pending.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders addressed that lawsuit last summer, stating in part that “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.