Pro-MAGA D.C. Cop Secretly Worked to Undermine Seth Rich Investigation

·19 min read
kroll-maga-cop_final kroll-maga-cop_final.jpg - Credit: Illustration by Brian Stauffer
kroll-maga-cop_final kroll-maga-cop_final.jpg - Credit: Illustration by Brian Stauffer

It was the headline that made federal prosecutor Deborah Sines sit up straight in her chair.

For nearly a year, she’d been investigating the murder of 27-year-old Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich. During that time, she had watched as viral conspiracy theories and fantastical speculation about Rich had spread beyond anyone’s imagination, overshadowing the facts about Rich’s life and death. The theories had spun so out of control that they’d interfered with Sines’ own investigation, forcing her to run down bizarre tips and rule them out. But she had never imagined what she now saw before her eyes: A pro-Trump blogger and vocal Rich conspiracist had published the name of the closest thing she had to a witness in the case.

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Until that moment, the witness’s identity wasn’t public. That was by intent. Sines knew how dangerous it could be for a potential murder witness to have their identity revealed. A decade earlier she had prosecuted a notorious D.C. serial murderer who specifically targeted people in his neighborhood who had cooperated with the police and U.S. attorney’s office. Now her quasi-witness in the Rich murder had been outed, which sent the rampant speculation and conspiracy theorizing about Seth Rich into overdrive.

Sines was a veteran of the Homicide Section in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. People who worked there called the office “Triple Nickel” for its location at 555 Fourth Street Northwest, not far from the U.S. Capitol. By virtue of its location, the office attracted more than its share of ambitious litigators on their way to bigger things. Robert Mueller, the future FBI director, did a stint as a line prosecutor in the Homicide Section. Eric Holder ran the office in the 1990s on his way to becoming the first Black U.S. attorney general under President Obama.

This is an adapted excerpt from A Death on W Street: The Murder of Seth Rich and the Age of Conspiracy, by Andy Kroll (PublicAffairs), which comes out on September 6, 2022.

Sines had worked with Mueller and Holder. She had no plans to follow in their footsteps. She had little patience for playing office politics to land a more powerful job. “Deb,” Holder had said to her when he left the office, “you’re a great lawyer and a lousy revolutionary.” What she cared about most was solving murders.

Over nearly two decades in Homicide, Sines had taken on some of the toughest cases involving the grisliest crimes. She was something of a legend in the halls of the Triple Nickel, adored by some and loathed by others. She had a closet full of Converse high-tops in her cluttered office, and each day she picked out a pair to wear that matched her Brooks Brothers pantsuit. She listened to 50 Cent before trials and smoked Marlboro Golds afterward. She talked like a character out of Law & Order or The Wire. “I used to know a drug dealer named Perfect,” she liked to say. “Nothing about him was perfect. He wasn’t even good at drug-dealing.”

Her office’s unique jurisdiction meant Sines worked closely with Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). The homicide detectives loved to hang out in her office because she talked like they did and she wasn’t afraid to take cases where the evidence wasn’t great and a conviction wasn’t a sure thing. On the walls of her office she displayed a framed Washington Post story about her work. When detectives interviewed potential witnesses in Sines’s office, they used that story — “Killers Fear This Woman” was the headline — to flip witnesses. She also hung a plaque engraved with a Nietzsche quote: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”

But the Rich investigation would test Sines like no other before it. She would have to wade through a morass of online lies and political chicanery in search of Rich’s killer. She didn’t yet know that someone on the inside was leaking information about the investigation itself.

A DETECTIVE HAD WARNED SINES when she took the case that it had turned into a circus. In pro-Trump circles, an unproven theory had gone viral that claimed Rich — not hackers working on behalf of Russian military intelligence, as determined by U.S. intelligence agencies and cybersecurity experts — had hacked the DNC, stolen tens of thousands of documents, and given those pilfered files to WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign. The theory went on to speculate that Rich had been killed not in an attempted armed robbery, as the police suspected, but in a hit job by allies of the Clinton family or covert federal agents as revenge for his supposed leaking.

Sines had spent nearly a year searching for Rich’s killer when she stumbled across the blog post outing her witness. In that time, she had encountered more conspiracy theories and viral disinformation than a normal person might in their lifetime. One of the loudest voices pushing baseless claims about Rich and his brother, Aaron, was also the person who had authored the blog post — an Arkansas man named Matt Couch.

Sines doubted the conspiracy theorists had gotten the information from the woman’s neighbor — that seemed implausible. That left one explanation: the name had come from someone on the inside.

Couch called himself a “Conservative Truth Slinger” and “Investigative Journalist” who hosted a website called the America First Media Group. Couch’s Twitter handle, @RealMattCouch, also paid homage to the president. Couch sent dozens of tweets a day, and he also broadcasted live on Periscope, the free livestreaming app. He posted videos sitting inside his car or from an oversized leather chair in what looked like a home office. He’d take a swig from a Powerade Zero bottle and tell his viewers, “Lots and lots of information to talk about.”

A lot of what Couch wanted to talk about was Seth Rich. Couch endorsed the conspiracists’ primary assertion that Seth, not Russia, had leaked the DNC emails to embarrass the Clintons. But Couch was the progenitor of a new twist in that story: Seth had stolen all those DNC emails with the help of his older brother, Aaron. Throughout the summer and fall of 2017, Couch churned out videos and tweets accusing Aaron of not just one but multiple crimes — hacking into the DNC’s computer network, stealing emails and other property, and obstructing the official investigation into Seth’s murder. “We’ve been trying to say for some time that Aaron and Seth leaked together,” Couch said on one Periscope. “There is no Russia story. Russia is dead. Guccifer 2.0 was fake. The leak was an inside job. We have proven that.”

Couch claimed — without any evidence — that Aaron had gotten paid by WikiLeaks for supplying the stolen emails and called on the D.C. police or the FBI to investigate Aaron and search his bank records for evidence. “The money trail will tell everything in this investigation,” he said. He accused the entire Rich family — Seth’s parents Joel and Mary as well as Aaron — of perpetrating a cover-up. “They know about the money,” Couch said. “They know about the leaks. They know Aaron and Seth did the leaks together. They know all of this information.”

“I don’t have any remorse for the family,” Couch said in a different Periscope. His tone was indignant. “Because the family, the Seth Rich family has had every opportunity in the world to come forward. They are involved. They are 100 percent involved in this cover-up.”

Then, on November 11, 2017, Couch wrote a blog post for one of his websites declaring that he’d learned about a witness to the Rich murder. He said he had tried to contact her, calling her and then visiting her home. When she didn’t respond to him or his team, he said, it was “appropriate to take the next step” — namely, dox her.

death on w street andy kroll
death on w street andy kroll

He claimed that the witness had worked in the intelligence community and was possibly a “plant.” Couch said the witness had “worked for the CIA for a decade,” which there was no publicly available evidence to support. The post went on to say that this onetime intelligence agent now worked as a veterinary technician, but even that run-of-the-mill job carried a sinister undertone. He suggested there was something sinister about her job as a vet tech, attempting to link it to the death of a D.C.-area process server.

Sines could hardly believe it when she read Couch’s post. The woman listed in the post was indeed the only quasi-witness to the crime. According to Sines, the woman said she’d been out walking her elderly dog when she heard loud bang sounds and then saw two Black men running away from the direction of the sound.

Sines hadn’t told anyone about the witness. Neither had the detective on the case. Yet Couch had too much specific information — down to the correct spelling of the woman’s name — to have made an educated or lucky guess. Apart from the police, the witness had apparently told one neighbor what she’d seen and no one else. (The witness did not respond to requests for comment.) Sines doubted the conspiracy theorists had gotten the information from the woman’s neighbor — that seemed implausible. That left one explanation: the name had come from someone on the inside.

NOT LONG AFTER Sines stumbled across Couch’s blog post outing her only witness, she got a tip about a member of Couch’s America First Media Group investigators.

There was a person listed as a member of Couch’s America First team whose Twitter account was @ThinBlueLR, a nod to the “thin blue line” slogan used by police officers and their supporters as a statement of solidarity. The bio for @ThinBlueLR showed a photo of a middle-aged man in running gear and described him as a “Reagan Conservative,” “Blue Collar,” and an “LEO,” shorthand for law enforcement officer. This person had also appeared on several podcasts with Couch. Couch took pains to not use the man’s actual name, instead referring to him as “Blue.”

The tipster who contacted Sines had combed through Blue’s tweets under the @ThinBlueLR account. Blue tweeted at a prolific clip. Judging by his posts, Blue loved President Trump and Fox News’s Tucker Carlson. But what caught the tipster’s attention was what he wrote about the Seth Rich case. He said Seth was the source of the WikiLeaks emails and accused Mayor Bowser and Cathy Lanier, the D.C. police chief at the time of Seth’s murder, of engaging in a “cover-up” and telling the detectives to “stand down”:

Does anyone have a clip of @MayorBowser attending or speaking at a press conference after #SethRich was gunned down in her city in cold blood? I don’t recall . . . Maybe it’s because she was instructed by the DNC to sweep it under the rug? Bowser spoke today at a murder presser.

Blue had also tweeted about a “witness”:

What MPDC never told the public is that a witness was interviewed the night of the #SethRich murder. She gave a description of 2 suspects . . . Their clothing and race. They were seen fleeing the area. A BOLO [Be On the Lookout] was never voiced over the radio nor posted on the police Twitter feed.

But it was an appearance by Blue on an episode of Matt Couch’s podcast that offered the best clue as to his identity. When the subject of the 2018 midterm elections came up, Blue was adamant that Republicans had to show up and vote en masse if they wanted to defend Trump and beat back the Democratic Party.

As Couch saw it, the Democrats would do anything necessary, legal or illegal, to take control of Congress and regain power. “They’ll cheat, they’ll lie, they’ll steal,” Couch said.

“They will kill people!” Blue interjected. “They killed Seth Rich. They’ve killed a lot of other people.” He went on, “They will fucking assassinate people.” Democrats, Blue said, will stuff a ballot box and steal an election “right in front of you and say, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ They will do that fucked-up shit in every Democrat-run city.”

Sines’ tipster had noticed something strange. More than an hour into the podcast, Couch’s co-host slipped up and used an actual name — Doug — when he meant to say Blue. Later, Couch let slip another detail: Blue was once named officer of the year. It didn’t take the tipster long to piece together a convincing theory of who Blue really was. His name was Douglas Berlin, the tipster wrote. He worked as a cop for the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department.

BERLIN WAS UNLIKE most rookie cops who signed up with the D.C. police. For one, he was approaching his fiftieth birthday, which made him maybe ten or fifteen years older than some of his academy class. He had already made a career running a chain of successful Gold’s Gyms in the greater Washington area. He was also a fitness fanatic who competed in ultra-marathons. Tall, square-jawed, and muscle-bound, he won the physical skills award in his MPD officer training program despite being one of the oldest members of his academy class. As a cop he would make in a year what he had earned in a single month in the gym business, but he had always wanted to serve in the military or work in law enforcement, and now he would.

He started in 2014 as a beat cop in the Shaw neighborhood. He patrolled his small pocket of D.C. on foot and sometimes logged as many as eighteen miles a day. He responded to active shootings, secured crime scenes for detectives, and once chased down a badly injured dog that had escaped from a burning house, which led to an award from the local Humane Society chapter. He was respected enough within the department that his superiors felt comfortable sending him to local community meetings that were typically attended by higher-ranking police officials. In December 2015, he was named officer of the year for his police service area.

The following summer, when Berlin first heard about Seth Rich’s murder, something didn’t sit right with him. He was aware of hundreds of robberies, and victims rarely got killed in the process. He thought the whole thing sounded suspicious. The day after the murder, he talked with a detective that he knew in a different district. “You know what happened, don’t you,” the cop asked Berlin. “Yeah,” Berlin replied, “the DNC whacked him.”

He wasn’t joking. Berlin, who identified as a conservative and harbored a deep disgust for Democratic politicians such as Barack Obama and the Clintons, couldn’t believe that Seth’s murder was related to a robbery. He believed it had to be a political hit ordered by Democratic Party leaders or someone powerful in politics. He had no role in the investigation into the shooting, which had taken place outside of his service area and in an entirely different police district at the time. But by the summer of 2017, he believed that the D.C. police chief, the D.C. mayor, and Democratic elites had conspired to block the investigation and bury the truth about how Seth had died. He wanted to do everything he could to uncover the truth about Seth’s case. He chose to air his theories through his Twitter account, @ThinBlueLR.

This is either the most inept, disorganized, half-assed, bungled, clueless & futile murder investigation, or it’s a huge coverup. #SethRich

#SethRich was a hero. He died b/c he wanted to expose the corruption in the DNC. Regardless of your politics, he’s a hero.

This one is bigger than Watergate. You have Hillary, DNC, Podesta, Bowser, Lanier, MPDC, possibly FBI, crony D.C. Dems, Brazile . . . #SethRich

Berlin noticed one Twitter account in particular that had taken up the cause of Seth Rich with zeal: @RealMattCouch. Couch seemed to be the loudest voice on the conservative side challenging the police’s theory of the case and questioning whether there had been foul play or a cover-up by Democratic officials. One day, Berlin sent Couch a direct message on Twitter. “I said, ‘Listen, I think something’s fucked up with this thing,’” Berlin would later describe his outreach to Couch. “I just felt like the department didn’t want to solve the case.”

The two men discussed the case over the phone. Berlin shared his doubts about the official narrative and put forward his own theories about why Seth had been killed. Berlin eventually agreed to help Couch’s America First Media Group team, so long as he remained anonymous.

But Berlin had more to offer Couch than half-baked theories about the murder. As a cop, Berlin had access to case data available only to MPD employees. One day, as he was sitting in a patrol car that belonged to a friend on the force, Berlin pulled up the internal file for the Rich murder. The report laid out the basic facts of the case; it also included a section that listed witnesses and their statements to the police. There, Berlin read about the woman who had told the responding officers that she’d seen two Black men running away from the crime scene. First Berlin tweeted about the existence of this witness and what she supposedly told the police. Then, as he later recalled, he went further and gave the witness’s name to Matt Couch. (In a written statement, Couch would only say: “I have no idea what Doug Berlin told you.”)

Sines retraced the series of clues in the tipster’s email to her about Berlin. She compared the photo of Berlin in his Twitter account with a photo taken of him at an awards ceremony. It looked like the same guy. She watched a short interview he’d given to a local news station. The voice sounded similar to Blue’s voice on Couch’s podcast. Berlin had indeed won an officer-of-the-year award. There was one other place to check: the electronic database used by the US attorney’s office and the D.C. police. Sure enough, MPD found an access entry by a beat cop who worked in the Third District. The cop had nothing to do with her investigation.

Sines had to report Berlin to the police department. He’d accessed the internal file for a homicide he had no role in and leaked a witness’s identity to a conspiracy-theorist blogger. He had made incendiary comments on Couch’s podcast. His Twitter feed included a number of downright offensive statements, including tirades against “savages from BLM who murder cops” and later describing D.C. as a “criminal cesspool” and its mayor as “the head felon.”

Sines’ discovery made its way to the Internal Affairs department at MPD. Soon afterward when Berlin arrived for work, Internal Affairs said it was revoking his police powers and wouldn’t say why. Berlin knew a lieutenant who was now in Internal Affairs. When he asked her why he was being punished, she said it was based on comments on Couch’s podcast and on social media. Berlin’s union representative said he’d likely face a thirty-day suspension and told him to go along with it until the controversy blew over. But Berlin refused to do it. He resigned from the force. “I loved that job. It was my passion,” he would later say. “But I couldn’t allow this department to tell me that I can’t talk about something that’s bothering me.” He added, “It’s the First Amendment. I’ll say whatever the hell I want to say.”

Berlin said he was so convinced about his theory involving Seth Rich that he would give up his gun and badge rather than stay quiet. No amount of contradictory evidence could change his mind. And as he would later say, he was hardly the only one on the force to feel this way. Even within D.C.’s own law enforcement agency, the Rich theories had seemingly found a willing audience.

SINES WAS EXHAUSTED. In early March 2018, she had won guilty verdicts in court for a different high-profile case, a pair of murders committed by a DC teenager named Maurice Bellamy. Sines would normally go out for drinks with her colleagues after a big court victory. Instead she went home, climbed into bed, and stayed there for two straight days. The Bellamy trial had been challenging, but the exhaustion she felt ran deeper than that. “That’s when I knew I’d been doing this too long,” she would later say.

Sines had worked in the Triple Nickel long enough to know that her office had a problem with prosecutors who stuck around for too long. As they got older, they started making mistakes, but the US attorney’s office wouldn’t force them out. Sines didn’t want to be one of those old prosecutors who humiliated herself and her department. “I didn’t want to go out like that,” she’d later say. She told her superiors that she would retire at the end of April.

The timing made sense to her. The Bellamy trial had gone smoothly, and she knew she wouldn’t get a better sendoff than that. The biggest regret she felt was that she would be leaving the department without closing the Rich case. She called Aaron and Mary to tell them about her decision. “I’m too tired to keep doing this,” she told Aaron. She said she had extracted a promise from her bosses that Seth’s case would be assigned to a good lawyer.

She also made sure to share with the special counsel’s investigation run by former FBI director Robert Mueller everything she’d learned in the eighteen months she’d spent investigating Seth’s murder. On March 15, she welcomed an FBI agent and a federal prosecutor into her office to talk about Seth Rich. She explained that she had examined the contents of Seth’s computer and cell phone. She’d pored over his bank records. She’d interviewed his bosses, coworkers, friends. She found nothing to suggest he played any part at all in the stealing and leaking of DNC emails during the 2016 campaign.

Sines couldn’t say for certain what Mueller’s staffers did with the information she provided them. But given the experience and caliber of the people with whom she met, she was confident that Mueller was fully investigating the Rich conspiracy theories about the DNC hack, WikiLeaks, and the election. “There is no question in my mind,” Sines would later say. (Mueller’s final report would later conclude that Russian military intelligence orchestrated the DNC hack, and that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange had made statements in 2016 that “falsely implied” Rich was the source of the stolen emails.)

The case had led her down one conspiratorial dead end after another, and she had documented the many theories and rumors she found in a series of memos she added to the case file. But debunking them had brought her no closer to finding the killer. Still, she stood by her theory, shared by the DC police, that Seth had been murdered while being robbed. At the end of April 2018, she packed up her Chuck Taylors, Nietzsche plaque, and framed “Killers Fear This Woman” story and left the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia for the last time.

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