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Blunt Force: Key Facts About The Mysterious Death Of Ex-Putin Adviser Mikhail Lesin

Mikhail Lesin was a former Russian press minister, Kremlin adviser, and central player in President Vladimir Putin's consolidation of state control over the media. (photo: July 2013)
Mikhail Lesin was a former Russian press minister, Kremlin adviser, and central player in President Vladimir Putin's consolidation of state control over the media. (photo: July 2013)

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By Carl Schreck and Mike Eckel

WASHINGTON -- On November 3, 2015, hundreds of guests gathered at the swanky Ritz-Carlton hotel in the U.S. capital for a dinner honoring Russian billionaire and philanthropist Pyotr Aven and Susan Lehrman, a Washington socialite, investor, and patron of the arts.

On the guest list that evening, RFE/RL has confirmed, was Mikhail Lesin, a former Russian press minister, Kremlin adviser, and central player in President Vladimir Putin's consolidation of state control over the media.

Lesin never showed up. And less than 48 hours later, on November 5, his battered body was discovered in his 9th-floor suite at Washington's Dupont Circle Hotel.

His death sparked months of fervent speculation about what -- or who -- might have killed the former Kremlin insider, what he was doing in Washington, and the wall of silence that both city and federal authorities had erected around the matter.

Exactly who invited Lesin to the dinner, organized by the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center's Kennan Institute, could not be immediately established. The research center, which focuses on the study of Russia and the former Soviet Union, said he was slated to sit at the table of one of the event's sponsors but declined to say which.

Lesin's empty seat at the dinner is among a scant handful of details about his final days that have emerged in the four months since his death, which has spawned theories that he was killed for spilling Kremlin secrets to the U.S. government -- or even that he entered witness protection.

The chief city medical examiner in Washington on March 10 shed new light on the circumstances surrounding Lesin's death, saying he died of "blunt-force injuries to the head."

This has fueled further speculation about foul play and contradicts initial reports by Kremlin-funded media that quoted an unidentified family member as saying that Lesin had died of a heart attack.

Here are answers to five questions about Lesin's death.

Was Lesin Murdered?

The March 10 joint statement by the District of Columbia's chief medical examiner and police department says his "manner of death" is "undetermined." The statement says that in addition to the "blunt-force injuries to the head" that caused Lesin's death, he also suffered "blunt-force injuries" to his neck, torso, and upper and lower extremities." The statement gives no indication how these injuries were sustained.

The New York Times on March 11 quoted an unidentified official as saying that the injuries to his neck, torso, arms, and legs were the result of what the paper described as "some sort of altercation" that occurred before he returned to his hotel room.

There were no obvious signs of foul play in the room, but surveillance video showed that Lesin appeared "disheveled" upon his return to the hotel, the Times quoted a law enforcement official as saying.

Why Did Police Launch A Homicide Investigation?

Days after Lesin's death, local police said detectives from its homicide branch were investigating the case. A source at the homicide branch indicated to RFE/RL in November, however, that it was being handled by the branch's natural-death unit. The Washington Post has descried this unit as "assigned to investigate deaths that are not suspected homicides."

It was not immediately clear whether the natural-death unit continues to handle the investigation, which police described in the March 10 statement as "active." Police spokesman Dustin Sternbeck told The Washington Post that "we're not willing to close off anything at this point."

Why Did It Take So Long To Release Autopsy Results?

In the weeks prior to the March 10 release of the cause of death in Lesin's case, the D.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner told RFE/RL that in 90 percent of cases the office handles, the coroner's report is released within 90 days of death. Lesin's death was among the 10 percent of cases falling under the "more complex" category that can take longer than 90 days, the medical examiner's chief of staff, Beverly Fields, told RFE/RL. She did not elaborate on what made this case more "complex."

Was Lesin Being Investigated By U.S. Authorities?

This remains unclear. U.S. Senator Roger Wicker asked the Justice Department in August 2014 to investigate whether Lesin, who is seen as the mastermind behind the Kremlin-funded RT network, used dirty money to purchase pricey California real estate. Wicker wrote in a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that the fact "that a Russian public servant could have amassed the considerable funds required to acquire and maintain" such expensive assets abroad "raises serious questions."

In December 2014, U.S. Assistant Attorney General Peter Kadzik said that Wicker's request was referred to the Justice Department's criminal division and the FBI, neither of which have confirmed whether a formal investigation was opened.

Wicker's call for an investigation has driven speculation that Lesin may have been in Washington to discuss the matter of his California real-estate holdings with federal investigators. So far, no clear evidence has emerged that this was the case. This, however, has not stemmed speculation that Lesin may have been in Washington to cut a deal with the feds -- and that the former Kremlin insider may have been killed to prevent him from revealing intimate details about the workings of Putin's government.

Lesin, for his part, denied that he owned the California real estate in question. He told the Russian edition of Forbes magazine that the properties were owned by his children.

His denial was belied by corporate documents filed in California Superior Court showing that Lesin was the sole shareholder of a corporation known as Dastel. The company, according to public records, purchased a 1,208-square-meter Beverly Hills home in August 2011 for $13.8 million and a 985-square-meter home in Brentwood for $9 million in 2012.

So What Was Lesin Doing In The United States?

Lesin stepped down as head of state-controlled Russian broadcasting giant Gazprom-Media in December 2014 for what he described as family reasons. Prior to his resignation, had spent time living in California -- specifically in Beverly Hills -- for several years prior to his death, according to his friends and U.S. court documents.

His son, Anton Lessine, is a successful financier of several, well-known Hollywood films -- including projects featuring Woody Allen and John Turturro, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Brad Pitt. His U.S.-based daughter, Yekaterina Lesina, has worked for RT, which U.S. officials have called a "propaganda bullhorn" for Putin's government.

RT's editor in chief, Margarita Simonyan, wrote days after Lesin's death that he had invited her to quit her job and come to Los Angeles to write screenplays. "I'll be your producer," she quoted Lesin as saying.

The California Superior Court documents indicate Lesin was in the United States on a tourist visa. Why he was in Washington at the time of his death remains unclear.

With reporting by Mike Eckel

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