The time I tangled with the Fox News reporter behind the Seth Rich murder conspiracy theory

Where his story comes from.
Where his story comes from.
Image: Reuters/Mike Segar
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Last week, Fox News anchor Sean Hannity reheated the long-cold conspiracy theory connecting the murder of Seth Rich, a 27-year-old staffer at the Democratic National Committee, to WikiLeaks’ publication of stolen DNC emails. As the controversy around the cruel, debunked story has swirled, most coverage has focused on Hannity, who aggressively promoted the story before retreating on May 23.

Less well known is Malia Zimmerman, the FoxNews.com reporter who wrote the now-retracted May 16 investigative report that fueled Hannity’s crusade. Zimmerman has covered a wide gamut of right-wing boogiemen since joining FoxNews.com in 2015, from potential voter fraud by undocumented immigrants in California to the federal government allegedly confiscating firearms. Fox News uses her stories to lend editorial heft to broadcast segments, and conspiracy-minded outlets like InfoWars and The Blaze stoke paranoia among readers with her reporting. Still, while her byline is a semi-regular sight for readers on the conservative and conspiratorial fringes of the web, it is unfamiliar to most mainstream journalists.

Except me.

In June 2016, I had been at work for more than a year on a long-form story for The Atavist Magazine about the Forty Thieves, a black Muslim gang in early-1990s Brooklyn that robbed banks and post offices and had tangential ties to the first World Trade Center bombing. Their leader was Marcus Dwayne Robertson, a Brooklyn native and former Marine. He armed his men with assault rifles, bulletproof vests, and pipe bombs, and together they stole more than $400,000 from post offices and banks in New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania.

Robertson’s post-gang life was busy: he testified against the Forty Thieves, did a short stint in prison, entered Witness Protection, moved abroad to learn Arabic and, he claimed, worked as a covert CIA operative after 9/11. By 2016, Robertson was living in Orlando, where he went by the name Abu Taubah, enjoyed a minor YouTube celebrity for his religious preaching and ran an online seminary. He and I spent several days together rehashing the past for my story.

On the morning of June 12, just hours after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, the FBI identified 29-year-old Omar Mateen as the suspected shooter. That night, in Brooklyn, I was walking home when I felt my phone vibrate. I had three missed calls and a voicemail from Steve Korinko, the retired US postal inspector who had brought down the gang and was a main character in my forthcoming Atavist story.

“Check out Fox News,” he said. “They just reported that this guy was a follower of Marcus. You better get your story out quick.”

I raced home and ripped open my laptop. On FoxNews.com, a banner headline read: ORLANDO MASSACRE GUNMAN CONNECTED TO RADICAL IMAM. In the story, Malia Zimmerman cited anonymous law enforcement sources alleging that Mateen had enrolled in Robertson’s online seminary and received “spiritual guidance” from the imam. The Daily Beast and CBS News followed up with their own pieces, and narrative quickly slipped into the right-wing internet’s bloodstream, including Breitbart, The Blaze, The Daily Caller, and Townhall.

Fox News frequently uses Zimmerman’s reporting as a sort of feedback loop to establish a patina of credibility to on-air segments: after her story last month about intelligence “unmasking” during the Trump transition, for example, she appeared on The O’Reilly Factor. Sean Hannity did the same last week, when he used her investigation to reopen the long-debunked Seth Rich murder conspiracy. (Zimmerman did not immediately reply when I contacted her for comment on this piece.)

The Orlando shooting was no different. Two days after the attack, producers for Greta Van Susteren’s show On the Record invited Robertson onto the program to defend himself. In a wide-ranging interview, he insisted that he had not been arrested, had never met Mateen, and had not enrolled him in the seminary. Van Susteren herself was satisfied by his explanation and moved on to ask him about his thoughts on the presidential campaign. (He was for Bernie.) The Intercept’s Murtaza Hussain took a big step toward debunking Zimmerman’s story soon after.

“I was immediately surprised to see Abu Taubah’s name being floated in connection to this incident, which didn’t really comport with my understanding of him or his past,” Hussain told me this week. “It seemed to be at minimum shoddy journalism to be putting out such weighty accusations against someone without more evidence or accountability for the people making the charges.”

The air came out of Zimmerman’s reporting, and the story faded, but the damage was done. Zimmerman’s story was destroying her quarry. Robertson lives with his two wives and children, and he received multiple death threats. “We will butcher you,” read an email, “one and all but not before covering you in minstrel blood and swine feces, shoving bacon down your throats and severing your penises and shoving them up Mohammed’s ass.” The email was signed “see you real soon….”

Meanwhile, Robertson lost his job teaching at a mosque near his home. His name was invoked in a congressional hearing entitled “Identifying the Enemy: Radical Islamist Terror.” The United Kingdom blocked him from entering the country due to his “controversial views on women and homosexuals,” according to the letter informing Robertson of the ban.

Zimmerman’s explosive charge upended my story too. I was no longer writing a true crime caper about a 25-year-old robbery spree, but about an aging ex-con who might be at the center of the deadliest terror attack on US soil since 9/11. When I contacted Zimmerman about her reporting, she replied, “We stand by our story,” and cautioned me not to read too much into Robertson’s denial, given his “extremely colorful history.” But nothing I found in my reporting could corroborate her allegations. When I confronted her with this lack of evidence, she said she stood by her piece, and added, “I don’t know what else you want?”

I continued digging, and then, five months later, a spokeswoman in the FBI’s Tampa division finally told me that investigators had seen the Fox News story but “found no substantive connection” between Robertson and Mateen. When I contacted Zimmerman again for comment, she did not respond. Fox has never corrected her story. (When I contacted Fox News this week, the network did not immediately reply to a request for comment.)

Robertson is a complicated figure with a violent past that includes executing a drug dealer in Queens and dozens of armed robberies. But even his some of his staunchest adversaries were shocked by Zimmerman’s piece.

“That was bull crap,” says Bill Warner, a private investigator in Sarasota, Florida, who has hounded Robertson for years, digging up court records and posting them on his website. Warner told me that Zimmerman had contacted him several times to talk about Robertson. “Yeah he’s a bad guy,” he told me, “But that was terrible. He should have sued them.”

Still, I was inclined to give Zimmerman the benefit of the doubt. I theorized that her anonymous sources might be aggrieved federal agents bitter that Robertson had avoided a terrorism enhancement (and longer prison sentence) in his recent tax evasion case. Perhaps they had sought to damage him–or even put him in danger–by leaking his name to Fox News. Murtaza Hussain, the Intercept reporter, thought the same, believing that “someone in local law enforcement or the FBI was using the Fox News reporter as an outlet to target him.” That storyline would be important for my Atavist article as well.

Robertson, though, had long insisted to me that Fox News invented the story with fake “law enforcement sources” in order to force him onto Greta Van Susteren’s program to defend himself. I contacted several of her former producers, but none would speak to me. In the end, I politely shook my head at Robertson’s suggestion, chuckled inwardly—conspiratorial thinking is not the sole domain of the right—and moved on. For my part, I suspected federal agents with a chip on their shoulders had manipulated Zimmerman, but I could never prove it.

On May 24, the Washington Post reported that Kim Dotcom, the New Zealand-based hacker, had allegedly attempted to hack into the Gmail account of the late Seth Rich. Dotcom had become a full-throated believer in the conspiracy theory and promised on Twitter to prove that Rich had been in contact with WikiLeaks, which would have corroborated Zimmerman’s charge in her original story that “emails are in possession of the FBI, while the stalled case is in the hands of the Washington Police Department.” Hannity announced, meanwhile, that he would host Dotcom for a “#GameChanger” interview. The Washington Post surmised that “Dotcom, or someone eager to prove him right, may have been willing to create a fake archive of emails from Rich.”

As the storm raged, my mind wandered back to Robertson’s belief: that Malia Zimmerman made up sources to frame him, provide fodder for Fox News’ cable broadcasts, and feed chum to its viewers.

There’s no way she would have done that. Right?