An official with the District of Columbia Medical Examiner’s Office said Mikhail Lesin’s autopsy findings took an unusually long time as officials awaited drug tests and ran conclusions through peer review, a step taken only in complex cases
WASHINGTON — Mikhail Lesin, a former Russian Cabinet minister, seemed sloppily drunk when he showed up at the bar in the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown one day last fall, two police officials recounted, and the bartender sent him away.
He took a bottle of liquor; it was unclear if he paid. He checked out of the hotel, where he had a room, and headed to the more modest Dupont Circle Hotel. Surveillance video there shows him walking in, looking disheveled but not noticeably injured, another police official said.
The 57-year-old millionaire was found dead on the floor the morning of Nov. 5. His family told media outlets that the former aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin had suffered a heart attack.
But on Thursday, the District of Columbia Medical Examiner’s Office said Lesin died of blunt-force trauma to the head and had bruises on other areas of his body. The examiner reached no conclusion about whether the man who was a trusted member of Putin’s inner circle and once ruled a media empire died because of a crime, an accident or some other means.
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The mysterious death of the Kremlin-connected businessman — found two days after he failed to show at an exclusive Washington, D.C., fundraiser — is fueling conspiracy theories around the globe. Speculation ranges from Lesin being targeted by a political or financial rival to being the victim of a mundane bar fight.
An official with the Medical Examiner’s Office said the autopsy findings took an unusually long time as officials awaited drug tests and ran conclusions through peer review, a step taken only in complex cases. D.C. police said their investigation continues; privately, they said detectives are baffled.
The FBI said it is not involved in the case.
One senior D.C. police official said Friday it is a “distinct possibility” that Lesin was in a brawl, stumbled back to his hotel room and died. But the official said police are considering other possibilities, too, including that Lesin was hit by a car or fell.
So far, though, there’s no evidence of any of those scenarios.
Yury Melnik, a spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington, said officials are drafting a request for a briefing. Of the speculation in the Russian and European media, Melnik said, “I think politicizing this death is disrespectful.”
Lesin played a central role in the evolution of Russia’s modern media scene into an instrument of Kremlin influence and control. Trained as an engineer, he helped found one of the country’s first ad agencies. After Putin came to power in 2000, Lesin, who became press minister, took over the unruly anti-Kremlin NTV channel and reversed its orientation. He was a longtime confidant and public-relations adviser to Putin and helped shape Putin’s domestic image as a virile, uncorrupt leader.
To bolster Russia’s image abroad, and to propagate the Kremlin’s Western-skeptic worldview to a broader audience, he helped foster the creation of Russia Today, an English-language television network that has spread around the world since its start in 2005.
More recently, he had stepped down from his post as the head of Gazprom-Media, a holding company that owns several prominent pro-Kremlin TV networks and the popular Ekho Moskvy radio station.
After leaving the media company in Russia, he bought three properties in California.
In 2014, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., requested that the Justice Department investigate Lesin for possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and anti-money-laundering statutes. He questioned how the Putin aide was able to amass tens of millions of dollars in Los Angeles real estate and noted his connections to people covered by U.S. sanctions.
Assistant Attorney General Peter Kadzik wrote back months later, saying the matter had been referred to the Justice Department’s criminal division and the FBI. Such referrals are common and do not indicate an investigation has been launched.
Wicker said in a statement that he has “not been briefed on Mr. Lesin’s death or why he was in our nation’s capital. I am sure that the FBI, the Intelligence Community, and local authorities will work together to investigate the circumstances surrounding this suspicious situation.”
Missing from event
On Nov. 3, two days before his body was found, Lesin was expected at a fundraiser honoring a philanthropist and chief executive of the largest private bank in Russia, along with a Washington socialite and patron of the arts. It was organized by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, which works to build ties between Russia and the West.
Caroline Scullin, a spokeswoman for the institute, confirmed that Lesin had been invited but did not pick up his place card for a table of 10 that cost at least $10,000.
Kremlin critics have advanced theories that Lesin may have been killed because officials feared he was about to cut a deal with federal authorities investigating his land dealings in California.
But Russia’s independent Dozhd television channel reported Friday that one unnamed person who saw Lesin shortly before his death said he had been with a group of friends. The person said Lesin may have gotten into a fight near his hotel.
A longtime friend and business associate of Lesin’s, Sergey Vasiliev, said he believed that Lesin, who also went by Misha, died after a bout of heavy drinking.
On the night of Nov. 2, a Monday, Lesin settled into his Dupont Circle Hotel room, “was drunk” and in the morning went out to buy more alcohol, Vasiliev said, explaining that he formed his account after speaking to the Russian Foreign Ministry and others familiar with the sequence of events.
Vasiliev said he was told that on Nov. 4 a hotel security guard visited Lesin’s room because the guest had not left in a long time.
“He found Mikhail on the floor, sleeping and drunk. He tried to lay him on the bed, but he resisted,” Vasiliev said, and the guard left.
“The next morning the cleaner found him lying in the same place, but already without any signs of life,” Vasiliev said. He added that “earlier, when Misha had breakdowns, there were times when he fell, injuring himself, at times quite heavily.”
A hotel spokesman declined to comment.