The mysterious nature of Russian oligarch Mikhail Y. Lesin's death in 2015 still bothers many intelligence and law enforcement officials because of concerns that it might have actually been a Kremlin assassination on U.S. soil. Here's the last installment of WTOP's "Assassins Inc.: The Kremlin’s secret squad of killers" series.
In March 2016, WTOP national security correspondent J.J. Green began investigating the suspicious deaths of Russian diplomats and others around the world linked, in some way, to the Kremlin. Some of them died in the U.S. — in New York and D.C. The deaths of some were deemed “natural.” Others were obviously murdered. The investigation, which also examined failed assassination attempts, revealed a persistent pattern and a recurrent scheme, involving money, power and revenge. In the WTOP series “Assassins Inc.: The Kremlin’s secret squad of killers,” dozens of people, including victims, their family members, diplomats, journalists, U.S. intelligence, U.S. law enforcement officials and sources, members of Congress, and experts were interviewed to gain a better understanding of how this deadly ring of killers operates.
Kremlin critic Bill Browder escapes hotel kidnappers in Madrid, but another Putin enemy dies in Dupont Circle hotel.
WASHINGTON — Russian oligarch Mikhail Y. Lesin was found dead in a Dupont Circle hotel room on Nov. 5, 2015. The mysterious nature of his death, declared “accidental,” still bothers many intelligence and law enforcement officials because of concerns that it might have actually been a Kremlin assassination on U.S. soil.
On Nov. 7, 2015, D.C. police released a statement about his death. Two days before, they had responded to a report of an unconscious person around 11:30 a.m. on the 1500 block of New Hampshire Avenue in Northwest D.C. They found a man who was unconscious and unresponsive. He was dead.
Lesin’s body was taken to the medical examiner for an autopsy. But, for months, there was no word on what happened to him.
He died during a wave of suspicious deaths of prominent Russians around the world, linked to the Kremlin. All of them, as was the case with Lesin, had either fallen out with Russian President Vladimir Putin or they were open, harsh critics of him.
Read the complete “Assassins Inc.: The Kremlin’s secret squad of killers” series
Lesin served as an adviser to Putin for mass media relations from 2004 until 2009. Known as the “Bulldozer” for his take-no-prisoner style of operating, he was co-founder of the Russia Today (RT) television news network — the objective of which was to be a Kremlin counterweight to CNN and BBC.
But, his relationship with Putin allegedly soured. It’s not clear how or why.
News of Lesin’s death became known immediately because of who he was and his close connection to Russian power brokers, including Putin. And, speculation that he was murdered spread quickly in Washington.
On Nov. 9, 2015, WTOP contacted the FBI to inquire about reports of an investigation, saying in an email:
“As you may know, former Russian government spokesman Mikhail Lesin died in the last week. It came to my attention he might have been under investigation by the FBI for allegations of corruption. Can you shed any light on that? Specifically, was he under investigation? Please advise.”
Twenty-nine days later, an FBI spokesperson responded, saying:
“I was sent your request from [name redacted]; we cannot confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.”
Digging further, after the FBI’s standard, noncommittal position, WTOP discovered a letter sent to then-Attorney General Eric Holder, from Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, in July 2014.
In it, Wicker said, “I write to request that the Department of Justice investigate whether certain individuals residing in the United State have violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) and Anti-Money Laundering (AML) statutes.”
“One such individual,” the letter went on to say, “is Mr. Mikhail Yurievich Lesin, who serves as Director General of Gazprom Media Holding, Russia’s largest media group.”
The letter revealed Wicker’s concerns about Russian money laundering in the U.S.
His communiqué further read, “I understand that Mr. Lesin, who led the Kremlin’s effort to censor Russia’s independent television outlets, acquired multimillion dollar assets in Europe, including a an estate property purchased through a company registered in the British Virgin Islands, during his tenure as a Russian civil servant.”
The civil servant part is what troubled Wicker. How was Lesin able to amass so much wealth? His disquiet was exacerbated by his understanding that “following his government service, Mr. Lesin moved his family immediately to Los Angeles, California, where he acquired multiple residences at a cost of over $28 million.”
As a result of the inquiry, Lesin allegedly was in Washington at the time of his death for a series of events, one of which was a rumored meeting with U.S. law enforcement officials.
Several former law enforcement and intelligence officials WTOP spoke with speculated he was about to talk, meaning he may have been here to strike a deal to cooperate on a wide-ranging probe into Kremlin-linked money laundering in the U.S.
Before the alleged meeting, Lesin checked into the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown on Nov. 2, 2015.
That’s where the spiral that led to his death began.
According to a heavily redacted, 58-page Metropolitan Police Department Death Report released on Dec. 8, 2017, mini fridge sensors in room 266, where he checked into at 3:45 p.m., electronically tagged Lesin removing bottles of Coke and vodka “after being in the room for 5 minutes.” Lesin was reputed to be a heavy drinker.
“About 10 minutes later,” the report continues, “he takes out a bottle of whiskey and a bottle of scotch.”
The report said Lesin removed more bottles from the fridge about 4 a.m. on Nov. 3. He eventually emptied the mini bar in his room.
Hotel video shows him downstairs in the lobby area “taking a bottle of Tequila from the bar,” according to the police report.
In all, between his 3:45 p.m. check-in on Nov. 2 at the Four Seasons and when he was kicked out on Nov. 4 because of his drunken behavior, he “drank 14 bottles of beer, wine or liquor out of the mini fridge, along with a bottle of a bottle of Tequila and a bottle of Johnnie Walker,” the report said.
The tequila and Johnny Walker bottles were not the small, mini fridge-type bottles.
Lesin then went to The Dupont Circle Hotel on New Hampshire Avenue Northwest. Within hours, he was dead.
A little more than four months later, on March 10, 2016, D.C. police and the medical examiner’s office released a statement:
Cause of Death: BLUNT FORCE INJURIES OF THE HEAD Other Contributing
Causes: BLUNT FORCE INJURIES OF THE NECK, TORSO, UPPER EXTREMITIES AND LOWER EXTREMITIES
Manner of Death: UNDETERMINED
After seven more months of probing, D.C. police, the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office in a joint statement on Oct. 28, 2016, ruled Lesin’s death an “accident” with acute ethanol intoxication as a contributory cause of death. “The investigation has now been closed.”
The statement went on to say, “After review of the video footage and new evidence developed from the investigation, the Chief Medical Examiner has determined that Mr. Lesin died as a result of blunt force injuries to his head, with contributing causes being blunt force injuries of the neck, torso, upper extremities, and lower extremities, which were induced by falls, with acute ethanol intoxication.”
The law enforcement and intelligence sources WTOP spoke with expressed serious doubts that he died after getting drunk and falling.
A development that seemed to challenge the determination that his death was an accident was a report that former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who became known after providing the so-called Trump dossier to FBI investigators, also provided a separate report about Lesin.
A source, who has seen the report, told WTOP it supports the idea that Lesin was accidentally murdered in his hotel room by enforcers sent by a fellow Russian oligarch with close ties to Putin.
According to Steele’s report, the source said the thugs wanted to convince Lesin not to talk to U.S. authorities about Wicker’s questions and to punish him for failing to repay a large loan he had taken out to purchase properties in Los Angeles and New York.
The FBI declined to comment on whether it received a report from Steele or not.
This year, on Oct. 25, WTOP contacted the Department of Justice to ask about the alleged meeting. A Justice Department employee referred WTOP to D.C. police, saying, “They are handling the case.”
On Oct. 9, a D.C. police spokesman said, “Please refer questions regarding this investigation to the U.S. attorney’s office.”
The U.S. attorney’s office for Washington, D.C. said on Oct. 16, “The statement we issued still stands.”
Nonetheless, the disquiet among U.S. investigators and criminal experts remains, especially after the poisoning of Russian former military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and the reopening of other Kremlin-linked cases abroad where accidental deaths were involved.
Former CIA covert operative Robert Baer, with deep experience on Kremlin issues, told WTOP, he’s skeptical about Lesin’s official cause of death, “which suggests he got drunk, fell and died.” Baer said, “he had injuries all over his body. It doesn’t fit any experience I’ve had with hard drinking and people who’ve died from it.”
For Baer, it fits the profile of someone who was beaten to death and leaves him with a disturbing conclusion.
“There are no barriers that Vladimir Putin has in front of him to stop him from committing as assassination in the United States.”
Listen to the entire “Assassins Inc.: The Kremlin’s secret squad of killers” series