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Suspicions Deepen On Lesin's Death As Russia Asks For More Info

Mikhail Lesin (right) with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2002
Mikhail Lesin (right) with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2002

WASHINGTON - The mystery surrounding Mikhail Lesin, the former Russian press minister who died in Washington after suffering blunt force trauma to the head, deepened as news reports said police were investigating whether Lesin had been assaulted outside his hotel.

Meanwhile, a Russian business executive who said he was a close friend told the Kommersant newspaper that Lesin had been drinking heavily in the days before his body was found in the Dupont Circle Hotel on the morning of November 5.

In Moscow, Russia’s prosecutor general said March 11 that a formal request had been made to Washington seeking details on the investigation.

Lesin, 59, had served as press minister for President Vladimir Putin between 1999 and 2004, during which time he headed the Kremlin-controlled media giant Gazprom Media and helped set up Russia Today, the English-language news network now known as RT.

In 2013, he became head of Gazprom-Media Holding, but resigned the following year, reportedly citing family reasons.

In 2014, a U.S. senator asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate whether Lesin used illicit funds to purchase several multimillion dollar homes in the Los Angeles area, but it was unclear whether any investigation was ever opened.

Just two days before his body was found on November 5, Lesin was on the guest list to attend a lavish dinner at Washington’s Ritz Carlton hotel, honoring Russian billionaire and philanthropist Pyotr Aven and Susan Lehrman, a Washington socialite, investor, and patron of the arts.

But he never attended the event.

After his body was discovered in his hotel room, Washington city police indicated that they were not treating his death as a homicide investigation, and an official at the city’s homicide branch indicated to RFE/RL that it was being handled by the branch's natural-death unit.

However, on March 10, more than four months after the body was found, the city medical examiner’s office released its finding, saying that Lesin died of blunt force trauma to the head, and to other parts of his upper and lower body.

The New York Times on March 11 quoted an unnamed law enforcement official as saying that those injuries were the result of what the paper described as "some sort of altercation" that occurred before Lesin returned to his hotel room.

Reuters also quoted an unnamed police official as saying that investigators were looking into whether Lesin had been attacked outside the hotel.

The police department said in a statement March 11 that it was continuing to actively investigate the death.

In an interview with the Russian newspaper Kommersant, Sergei Vasilyev, who heads a media advertising group called Vi that was co-founded by Lesin, said that Lesin had checked into the Dupont Circle Hotel on November 2.

Vasilyev was quoted as saying that Lesin was drunk at the time, and on November 3, went out to buy more alcohol.

On the evening of November 4, Vasilyev said, a hotel security guard went to Lesin’s room “to pay a visit to the guest who hadn’t left his room.”

The guard found Lesin nearly passed out on the floor, and when he tried to move Lesin to a bed, Lesin resisted, so the guard left him on the floor, Vasilyev was quoted as saying.

The source for Vasilyev’s information wasn’t immediately clear, and no one answered the phone at his company’s Moscow headquarters late March 11.

Aleksei Venediktov, аnother well-known friend of Lesin who heads the Moscow radio station Ekho Moskvy, told the Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets that Lesin had had a room at another posh Washington hotel: the Four Seasons.

“But this was a second or back-up room, evidently used for some sort of other meetings and other business,” Venediktov was quoted as saying.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP
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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

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