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Hypothermia Or Foul Play? New Documents Reveal U.S. Doubts About An American's Death In Siberia

U.S. student Colin Madsen was found dead in Siberia in 2016.
U.S. student Colin Madsen was found dead in Siberia in 2016.

Nearly six years ago, a 25-year-old American studying in Irkutsk went missing in the dead of night in the wintry countryside about four hours’ drive west of the Siberian city. His body was found eight days later.

Russian investigators ultimately concluded the man, Colin Madsen, had died of hypothermia. They suggested illegal drug use may have been a contributing factor. A criminal investigation was opened shortly after his body was found, as a standard procedural matter, but later was closed without finding any crime.

Newly obtained internal and confidential records and correspondence from the State Department, provided to RFE/RL, show that U.S. officials suspected foul play and that the circumstances of Madsen's death "were not properly or fully investigated."

Madsen's mother, Dana, strongly believed that was the case and that her son was murdered, and waged a years-long battle to try to force the Russian government to reopen the case.

U.S. officials, however, said they were unable to do more, due to the restrictions of diplomatic convention, domestic Russian law, and even the refusal of the FBI to get involved.

The internal documents show the U.S. government pressed Russian officials on the investigation -- and also fended off the Madsen family, which was insistent that Madsen's death was covered up by local authorities and that the United States should push Russia to reopen its investigation.

On May 23, 2016, about two months after Madsen was found dead, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow issued a legal document called a Consular Report Of Death Abroad. The cause of death was "not specified."

"I do not accept that the U.S. government cannot do more," Dana Madsen Calcutt told RFE/RL recently. "It is certain they could do more, if they wished to do so."

Cause Of Death: Hypothermia

In 2013, Madsen traveled from the U.S. state of Missouri to study at the state linguistics university in Irkutsk, a major industrial city on the edge of the world's largest and deepest freshwater body, Lake Baikal.

Madsen was an avid and experienced hiker who fell in love with the region's physical beauty. He volunteered for local environmental organizations and helped build nature trails. According to accounts from his classmates, friends, and his mother, he was gregarious, friendly, and an avid student of the Russian language.

On the day Madsen disappeared, March 27, 2016, he and his three hiking companions -- two Russians and another American -- were set to head out on a 3.5-kilometer hike they had mapped out, setting off from Arshan, a tourist town 200 kilometers southwest of Irkutsk.

At 2 a.m., according to testimony provided by Madsen's companions, they turned the lights out in the cabin where they were staying, planning to wake three hours later and set off at 7 a.m. But when the others awoke at 5 a.m., Madsen was gone. His backpack and other items had been left behind, according to the police record of the investigation.

Eight days later, a search party found his body in a wooded, mountainous area, about 1.5 kilometers from the cabin.

To this day, it remains unclear precisely how Madsen ended up dead beneath a large tree, his body resting on its back on wilted spring vegetation with an extended left arm and clenched fists. The body had visible cuts and abrasions, many of which appeared relatively new, according to autopsy photos.

Investigators in Buryatia, the Siberian region where Madsen's body was discovered, opened a murder investigation, a standard procedure in missing-persons cases.

Investigators found Madsen's wallet at the scene. It contained cash and his U.S. passport, suggesting he was not the victim of a robbery.

They eventually concluded he'd been taking drugs -- an illegal cannabinoid -- with his friends shortly before he vanished sometime between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. and that he "froze to death" after wandering out of the cabin dressed only in light clothing.

The final cause of death was listed as hypothermia.

Dana Madsen Calcutt, a retired obstetrician-gynecologist, was present for the autopsy, conducted in a nearby town, the day after his body was found. Three months later, she returned to the Irkutsk region to meet with one of the police investigators, to retrieve some of her son's belongings, among other things.

Colin Madsen, who arrived in Irkutsk from Missouri in 2013, was an avid and experienced hiker who fell in love with the physical beauty of the region.
Colin Madsen, who arrived in Irkutsk from Missouri in 2013, was an avid and experienced hiker who fell in love with the physical beauty of the region.

Much later, she obtained her son's laptop computer and cell phone, but was unable to access them without knowing his password. She said she obtained a U.S. court order to force Google to unlock the account for her, but Google refused, citing federal privacy laws.

After Madsen's body was returned to the United States, she hired a U.S.-based private laboratory to review the initial Russian autopsy and provide a second opinion.

The laboratory cast doubt on the official Russian explanation, concluding that foul play was likely involved.

A July 2016 memo from the newly obtained files cites Madsen Calcutt as speculating that her son could have been targeted for his environmental volunteer work or "rumors about his sexual orientation."

Madsen Calcutt told RFE/RL that a local police investigator she and a translator spoke with after arriving in Arshan yelled at her "about the fact Colin and his friends were staying without women or alcohol and kept trying to get me to say that Colin liked boys and his friends liked boys."

"It was surreal: no questions pertaining to his health, hiking experience, etc., that one would expect to be asked in a situation where someone is missing," she said.

'A Homicide Theory'

Internal documents show that U.S. government officials had doubts about many aspects of the official Russian probe.

One e-mail indicated that a Russian employee from the U.S. Embassy traveled from Moscow to observe the search for Madsen and found it suspicious, due to the fact that the body was later found just outside the original search perimeter and was within sight of a small outbuilding "that conceivably could have provided shelter from the cold."

In another memo, dated July 28, 2016, there were doubts about the accidental death conclusion, based on wound marks found on Madsen's torso.

The embassy "believes that the circumstantial evidence could support a homicide theory because the circular wounds on Madsen's remains suggest that death was caused by some external actor," the memo says. "Neither hypothermia nor drug abuse would have produced them."

The memo also shows U.S. officials considering the notion that Madsen might have been killed by police officials. It's not clear how or from where that idea originated. However, police in Buryatia have been under official scrutiny for years now for abuses committed against detainees and criminal suspects.

If law enforcement officials had, in fact, killed Madsen, the memo states, they would not have provided evidence files to Madsen's mother, who traveled to the Siberian region days after Madsen's disappearance and later obtained investigative files including autopsy photographs.

"It is plausible that the murder was committed by a criminal group that has protection from the authorities," the memo says. "However, there is no evidence to implicate any Russian police, only conjecture."

Some analyses have concluded that Colin Madsen's death could have been homicide.
Some analyses have concluded that Colin Madsen's death could have been homicide.

Over the course of 2019, the Madsen family continued to push U.S. government officials to pressure the Russian government -- to essentially force the local authorities to reopen the investigation.

The family also enlisted the help of their congressional delegation and the House Foreign Relations Committee.

In September 2019, Madsen Calcutt sought a meeting with the Office of American Citizens Services and Crisis Management, a division of the State Department that helps U.S. citizens who have legal or similar problems abroad. She was rebuffed.

"We do not have investigative authority, nor do we have leverage with Russian authorities to insist they reopen an investigation into your son's death. Therefore, barring some unforeseen new circumstance, there are no more avenues of assistance that we can provide," an e-mail from the office said, which was repeated in other correspondence.

In October 2019, a top U.S. Embassy official traveled to Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryatia, to meet with Foreign Ministry officials. An embassy memo said the officials pledged to work with the U.S. Embassy if a decision was made to reopen the case -- suggesting that, at least as of October 2019, Russian law enforcement had refused to reopen the case.

The Buryatia regional unit of the Investigative Committee -- a national agency roughly equivalent to the FBI -- did not answer multiple e-mails from RFE/RL.

A request for comment sent to the regional Interior Ministry via its web portal was not responded to and no one answered the phone at the Interior Ministry's press service.

Madsen's family also lobbied for the FBI to get involved, but ultimately the bureau did not, according to State Department e-mail correspondence.

"The FBI only has the authority to investigate specific violent crimes committed against Americans overseas and those investigations are worked collaboratively with the host governments," the State Department e-mail, from May 3, 2019, said. "The authority includes the crime of kidnapping where there is a ransom demand. The authority does not extend to homicides or accidental deaths."

An internal State Department "talking point" dated November 14, 2019, states: "We are concerned that events that led to Mr. Madsen's death, as well as the cause of his death, were not properly or fully investigated."

One of the embassy's legal attaches, the memo states, was "also of the opinion that the Russian coroner's stated cause of death is questionable."

In an e-mail to RFE/RL, a State Department spokesperson said that the U.S. Embassy had provided consular assistance to Madsen's family "from the beginning of the case."

"This included closely monitoring local authorities' investigation into the cause of his death. However, it is the host government's responsibility to lead such investigations," the official said.

"The [State] Department and our embassies abroad take very seriously all deaths of U.S. citizens, and follow such investigations closely. We regularly discuss investigations with appropriate authorities in the host government and also provide family members with updates and information on resources available to them, such as local attorneys," the official said.

"We refer you to Russian authorities for more information on their investigation in this case."

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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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