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U.S. Judge Orders Officials To Turn Over Lesin Autopsy Records


Washington officials concluded that Mikhail Lesin died of blunt force trauma in a hotel room on November 5, 2015.
Washington officials concluded that Mikhail Lesin died of blunt force trauma in a hotel room on November 5, 2015.

WASHINGTON -- A Washington judge has ordered the city medical examiner to turn over dozens of autopsy records and other files in the investigation of Mikhail Lesin, the former Russian press minister who was found dead in a D.C. hotel room under suspicious circumstances more than three years ago.

The February 13 ruling came in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by RFE/RL, which has sought the files as part of its ongoing probe into Lesin's November 2015 death.

Once a powerful media adviser to President Vladimir Putin, Lesin fell out of favor sometime around 2012 and had largely been out of sight before his body was found in the Dupont Circle Hotel. Despite the official conclusion that his death was "accidental," suspicion has focused on whether he was killed to keep him from sharing information with the Justice Department.

Judge Hiram Puig-Lugo ordered the city by February 20 to turn over the files -- which include medical records, toxicology reports, e-mails, and other materials -- with certain information including names and personal details redacted.

In his ruling, Puig-Lugo rejected arguments by city lawyers that privacy interests of Lesin's family outweigh the public interest in the circumstances surrounding his death. And he chided city officials for what he said were overly broad arguments that turning over the documents that could compromise how D.C. city police, or even the FBI, conducted their investigations.

It was unclear whether the city would appeal the ruling. The plaintiff in the case is the author of this article.

Blunt-Force Trauma

Lesin's body was found in the Dupont Circle Hotel on November 5, 2015, just a few blocks from the White House. An initial report by the medical examiner's office the following March declared Lesin's death to be caused by blunt-force trauma, but said the manner of death was "undetermined."

But the final report, released in October 2016 by the U.S. Attorney's Office for Washington and city police, called his death accidental, caused by blunt-force injuries to the neck, torso, and lower upper extremities, "which were induced by falls." Acute ethanol intoxication was cited as a contributing factor.

The report was met with deep suspicion by business acquaintances and others familiar with the once-powerful, wealthy Kremlin insider who was instrumental in Russia's crackdown on independent TV and in the creation of the international broadcaster RT.

One person who had direct access to the hotel room where Lesin was found told RFE/RL in 2016 that it was physically impossible for him to have died alone in the room. Photographs released by police showed bottles of beer and liquor, stacks of dollar bills, and crumpled clothing on the floor. Associates of Lesin have argued that the Dupont Circle Hotel did not match his known tastes for expensive goods and lodging.

Prior to the Dupont Circle Hotel, Lesin had spent time at the posher Four Seasons Hotel in another part of Washington. According to the D.C. police report, officials at the Four Seasons had called the U.S. Secret Service on November 3 when Lesin appeared to be heavily intoxicated, and the Secret Service advised that a guard be posted at his door to prevent him from leaving. He checked into the Dupont Circle Hotel a day later.

There has been no public explanation why the Secret Service was contacted.

Russia Today

As Putin's press minister in the early 2000s, Lesin was instrumental in bringing the country's national TV channels under Kremlin control, primarily NTV, a channel known at the time for its hard-hitting journalism. He went on to set up Russia Today, the global Kremlin mouthpiece known today as RT.

Much of his wealth came from a private company he set up in the 1990s to sell television advertising on Russia's exploding TV-advertising market. That company, called Video International (VI), was later acquired by Yury Kovalchuk, the main shareholder of Bank Rossia, which has been closely linked to the Kremlin.

He lost favor with the Kremlin for unknown reasons sometime between 2012 and 2014, and he largely fell out of the public eye.

In 2014, a year before his death, Lesin had drawn the attention of the U.S. Senate, where one lawmaker had called on the FBI to investigate him for possible money laundering.

Lesin owned mansions in Beverly Hills, California, where his children and estranged wife live, and owned a yacht valued at $40 million. Months before his death, Russian media alleged that he was engaged to a Russian model much younger than him, and that she was pregnant with their child.

The whereabouts of the woman, identified as Viktoria Rakhimbayeva, is unknown.

Lesin was not known to be a regular visitor to Washington. But shortly after his death, it emerged that one of his reasons for being in the U.S. capital was to attend a scheduled gala fund-raiser at the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute on November 3, two days before his body was found.

One of the philanthropists being honored that night was the influential Russian banker Pyotr Aven. Lesin never attended the event.

Aven also attended a private event at the Atlantic Council, another Washington think tank, on November 4. According to a person with knowledge of that event, Lesin had sought to attend as well, but the organizers declined to include him.

One person in contact with federal law enforcement officials told RFE/RL that Lesin had been in contact with the Justice Department in the months leading up to his death. In March 2018, the website BuzzFeed quoted unnamed sources as saying that former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele had given the FBI a report stating that Lesin was bludgeoned to death by enforcers working for an oligarch close to Putin. The identity of the oligarch was not revealed in the BuzzFeed report.

Steele later became famous because of a series of memos detailing President Donald Trump's alleged connections to Russia. Known as the Steele Dossier, the memos were circulated among Washington reporters in late 2016, and published in full by BuzzFeed in January 2017.

In its December 2017 report, D.C. police said that Lesin had been drinking heavily in the days prior to his death. A month later, the FBI released a 56-page file on its investigation, including the work by forensic experts into the closed-circuit video footage of the Dupont Circle Hotel.

The FBI files also included 29 pages from report by the city medical examiner's office that were the basis of the official reason given by the city for his death. However, the pages were redacted almost entirely.

​Russian officials have said little publicly about Lesin's death, aside from indicating early on that they expected U.S. law enforcement to provide full details.

Since his death, some of Lesin's assets have been gradually sold off. His yacht was sold in Florida in 2016.

In 2017, his two Beverly Hills mansions were listed for sale, at $23 million and $29 million. It isn't immediately clear if the homes have been sold yet.

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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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