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Judge's Order Could Shed Light on Death of Russian in DC

There is a long history of high-profile Russians turning up dead or seriously ill in foreign countries

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    Judge's Order Could Shed Light on Death of Russian in DC
    Andrew Harnik/AP
    The Dupont Circle Hotel in Washington, Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015. Mikhail Lesin, a former aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin who helped found the English-language news service Russia Today, was found dead in the upscale Washington hotel room, Russian authorities said. He was 57.

    On a foggy November morning in 2015, a heavily intoxicated man showed up before dawn at the Dupont Circle Hotel, forked over $1,200 cash for a ninth-floor penthouse suite and kept drinking. His bender continued all day.

    By the next morning, he was dead. Authorities concluded that he died of blunt force trauma, the result of repeatedly falling in his room and suffering at least one serious head wound.

    Normally, such a case would be quickly forgotten. But Mikhail Lesin, 57, was no ordinary tourist on a drinking binge. He was one of Vladimir Putin's top lieutenants during Putin's rise to power in Russia. Speculation he was murdered has continued to this day.

    Now a recent court ruling could shed light on the case.

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    On Feb. 13, a District of Columbia court ordered Washington's medical examiner to turn over Lesin's autopsy report and all related files. The order by Superior Court Judge Hiram Puig-Lugo was in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is considering an appeal, saying it should be up to the family to decide what details of Lesin's death should be made public.

    If the files are indeed released, they could provide new details about a case that has long been shrouded in suspicion.

    There is no public evidence of foul play in Lesin's death. Police and the medical examiner's office stand by their finding that the death was accidental and Lesin's family has not publicly challenged it. Phone calls and emails to Lesin's two adult children, who live in Los Angeles, were unsuccessful.

    Yet there is intrigue surrounding the case, fed by circumstantial evidence: It seems odd for someone Lesin's age to die of blunt force trauma while alone in a room. There is also a gap in security video footage for the hours after Lesin was last seen alive. The police report eventually released to the public has been heavily redacted.

    Above all, there is a long history of high-profile Russians turning up dead or seriously ill in foreign countries. In 2006, former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko died a few weeks after being dosed with a radioactive isotope in London; and in March 2018, former Russian spy turned double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia narrowly escaped death after being dosed with a nerve agent in the English city of Salisbury.

    Lesin had amassed a fortune operating one of Russia's first advertising agencies, then spent years as Putin's media czar. He helped bring independent media outlets under state control during Putin's rise to power. Later he founded the news network Russia Today. But he abruptly resigned in December 2014 and was believed by some Moscow-watchers to have fallen out of favor with the Putin government.

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    His death was headline news in Moscow. Russian media, citing the family, quickly reported the cause of death as a heart attack, but the medical examiner first listed the cause as "undetermined" and then later announced the "blunt force trauma" finding.

    In December 2017, Washington's Metropolitan Police Department released its 58-page report on Lesin's death. It relies heavily on interviews with employees at two hotels where Lesin engaged in a 72-hour drinking binge. It also contains 14 pages of witness interviews that are almost totally redacted.

    Still, it paints a grim portrait of a man drinking himself to death.

    Lesin checked into the Four Seasons Hotel in the tony Georgetown neighborhood on Nov. 2 and immediately began drinking heavily. Over the next two days, Lesin was escorted back to his room multiple times after drunkenly wandering the hallways or lobby.

    He repeatedly asked hotel staff to get him more alcohol and twice went behind the hotel bar to grab bottles. His behavior was so erratic that Four Seasons staffers essentially confined him to his room and conducted periodic "welfare checks," according to the police report.

    Around 5:30 a.m. on Nov. 4, while still booked at the Four Seasons, Lesin took a taxi to the more downscale Dupont Circle Hotel. After paying for the penthouse, he returned to the Four Seasons where he was found wandering the hallways at 8 a.m. "in nothing but his underwear."

    The Four Seasons staff eventually locked Lesin out of his room and he returned to the Dupont Circle Hotel, where the staff started doing their own welfare checks on the problematic guest.

    Lesin was last seen alive while passed out on the floor of his room, at 8:15 p.m., and his body was found at 11:30 the next morning during another hotel welfare check. Security camera footage from the hallway outside Lesin's room had a 10-hour gap ending at 11:14 p.m. That means there was apparently no video covering the three hours after Lesin was last seen alive — and no way of knowing if anyone entered his room during that period.

    The video gap and the redacted pages added to the online conspiracy theories . There was speculation, but no proof, that Lesin was killed before he could provide details of a Russian money laundering network and that police and the medical examiner either bungled the case or covered up the murder. There's no clear explanation, though, why American authorities would participate in such a cover-up.

    Other more exotic theories suggest he faked his death and either went into hiding or entered the FBI's witness protection program.

    A 2017 Buzzfeed investigation quoted unidentified FBI and intelligence officials who said they believe that Lesin was murdered. Those same officials said Lesin died the night before he was scheduled to meet with the Justice Department and that the DOJ was paying for his hotel. This could not be independently confirmed.

    Buzzfeed's allegations were explosive, but with no officials speaking publicly and with Lesin's own family not feeding the flames, the issue became a bit of a cold case mystery for skeptics.

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    That was until Puig-Lugo's ruling. The medical examiner's decision to push back against the ruling and fight the release of information may only feed speculation of a cover-up.

    But the chief medical examiner, Dr. Roger Mitchell, said in a statement that his office is "committed to protecting the medical confidentiality of the deceased in our possession."