This is Part Seven of a BuzzFeed News investigation.
Part One: Poison In The System
Part Two: From Russia With Blood
Part Three: The Man Who Knew Too Much
Part Four: The Secrets Of The Spy In The Bag
Part Five: Everyone Thinks He Was Whacked
Part Six: Holes In The Investigation
The FBI possesses a secret report asserting that Vladimir Putin’s former media czar was beaten to death by hired thugs in Washington, DC — directly contradicting the US government’s official finding that Mikhail Lesin died by accident.
The report, according to four sources who have read all or parts of it, was written by the former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele, who also wrote the famous dossier alleging that Russia had been “cultivating, supporting and assisting” Donald Trump. The bureau received his report while it was helping the Washington, DC, Metropolitan Police Department investigate the Russian media baron’s death, the sources said.
FBI spokesperson Andrew Ames declined to confirm or deny the existence of the report and would not comment for this story. Steele's business partner, Chris Burrows, declined to comment on behalf of Steele and their company, Orbis Business Intelligence.
Steele’s report — the existence of which has never before been made public — adds to a mounting body of evidence that casts doubt on the official finding on Lesin’s death.
The new revelations come as concerns about Russia’s meddling in the West have intensified to a pitch not seen since the Cold War. Both the UK and the US have blamed the Kremlin for poisoning former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England this month, using a rare nerve agent that endangered bystanders. (Russia has denied it was behind the poisoning.) In the wake of that attack, the British government has opened a review of all 14 suspicious deaths linked to Russia that a BuzzFeed News investigation exposed last year.
The BuzzFeed News series also revealed new details about Lesin — including that he died on the eve of a scheduled meeting with US Justice Department officials. They had planned to interview Lesin about the inner workings of RT, the Kremlin-funded network that he founded.
Now BuzzFeed News has established:
Steele’s report says that Lesin was bludgeoned to death by enforcers working for an oligarch close to Putin, the four sources said.
The thugs had been instructed to beat Lesin, not kill him, but they went too far, the sources said Steele wrote.
Three of the sources said that the report described the killers as Russian state security agents moonlighting for the oligarch.
The Steele report is not the FBI's only source for this account of Lesin's death: Three other people, acting independently from Steele, said they also told the FBI that Lesin had been bludgeoned to death by enforcers working for the same oligarch named by Steele.
Lesin’s corpse was found in a Washington, DC, hotel room on the morning of Nov. 5, 2015. The coroner determined that he had died from blunt force injuries to the head and had also sustained blunt force injuries to his neck, torso, upper extremities, and lower extremities. After an 11-month investigation, a federal prosecutor announced in late 2016 that Lesin died alone in his room due to a series of drunken falls “after days of excessive consumption of alcohol.” His death was ruled an “accident,” with the coroner adding acute alcohol intoxication as a contributing cause of death, and prosecutors closed the case.
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But Steele’s report — the existence of which has never before been made public — adds to a mounting body of evidence that casts doubt on the official finding on Lesin’s death. “What I can tell you is that there isn’t a single person inside the bureau who believes this guy got drunk, fell down, and died,” an FBI agent told BuzzFeed News last year. “Everyone thinks he was whacked and that Putin or the Kremlin were behind it.”
In December, DC police released 58 pages of its case file on Lesin’s death. While many parts are blacked out, what was released says nothing about the blunt force injuries that killed Lesin — or even about him falling down, which is how he is supposed to have died.
Now BuzzFeed News has learned that federal prosecutors called witnesses before a grand jury during 2016 to compel them to testify under penalty of perjury about Lesin’s death, and they amassed more than 150 pages of material from the proceedings. The use of a grand jury, not previously reported, was discovered in documents released after BuzzFeed News launched a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to compel the Justice Department, the FBI, and other agencies to turn over records related to the Lesin investigation. That lawsuit is ongoing.
Citing grand jury secrecy, two law enforcement officials with direct knowledge of the case declined to say what witnesses were called or describe their testimony. They said that prosecutors used a sitting grand jury, rather than empanelling one specifically for the Lesin case, and that they were investigating the media baron’s death as a homicide.
During the investigation, FBI agents reviewing hotel surveillance footage of Lesin were asked to pay particular attention to the back of his head, documents obtained through the FOIA lawsuit show. As with the police files, the FBI documents that have been released say nothing about how Lesin sustained the head injuries that killed him. But, according to those documents, the bureau found no evidence of foul play.
“It’s really hard to imagine that it was an innocent death.”
“It’s really hard to imagine that it was an innocent death,” said former CIA intelligence officer John Sipher, who worked for years on Russia matters. “Everybody I know who’s a professional and dealt with Russia — the immediate assumption is that he was murdered.”
Details about Steele’s Lesin report are based on interviews with 11 sources, almost all of whom are current or former FBI agents or US intelligence officials. Two sources said they had read the whole report, while two other sources each said they read about half of it. Seven others said they heard about it from colleagues or had been briefed on it.
It’s not surprising that Steele provided his Lesin report to the FBI. The former head of the Russia desk for Britain’s foreign intelligence service served as a longtime source for the FBI and was occasionally paid for his information, some of which has been used in federal criminal cases, according to memos released earlier this year by Democrats and Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee. He also provided more than 100 reports, mostly on Russian affairs, to the State Department, according to a former assistant secretary of state, Jonathan Winer.
For his report to the FBI about Lesin, Steele gathered intelligence from high-level sources in Moscow, according to the two sources who read the whole report.
All four of the people who read Steele’s report said it pins Lesin’s murder on a professional relationship gone lethally awry. According to the report, they said, Lesin fell out with a powerful oligarch close to Putin. Wanting to intimidate Lesin, the oligarch then contracted with Russian state security agents to beat up Lesin, the report states, according to three of the sources. The goal was not to kill Lesin, all four sources said Steele wrote, but Lesin died from the attack.
The sources could not recall what, if anything, the report said about whether Putin knew of or sanctioned the attack.
Three other individuals, including a business associate of Lesin and two intelligence officials, told BuzzFeed News that they had independently given the FBI similar information: that Lesin had been bludgeoned to death by thugs operating on orders from the same oligarch Steele named.
A fourth person, who is another business associate close to Lesin, told BuzzFeed News that Lesin had a falling out with the oligarch but did not know if the oligarch had any involvement in Lesin’s death.
In the UK, BuzzFeed News exposed 14 suspicious deaths linked to Russia. In each of those cases, US intelligence officials suspected the dead might have been rubbed out by Russia’s security services or mafia groups — two forces that sometimes work in tandem — and they had shared intelligence with their British counterparts “in the context of assassinations.” In at least one case, that of Alexander Perepilichnyy, the US had determined he was likely killed on orders of Putin or his close associates.
Yet despite that and other evidence, British authorities stuck by their position that the deaths were due to natural causes, accidents, or suicides, and they refused to reopen the cases — until the poisoning this month of Skripal, the former Russian spy. The attempted murder, using a rare nerve agent produced in Russia, caused an outcry throughout Britain. In response to widespread calls for a full inquiry into all 14 deaths from members of parliament who cited the BuzzFeed News investigation, the government agreed to review each of the cases with the help of Britain’s security service and the police.
“It is not inconceivable that the Kremlin could use its security services in the United States as it has elsewhere.”
US intelligence officials told BuzzFeed News they had been watching the pattern of suspected assassinations across the Atlantic with increasing alarm, and Lesin’s death intensified those fears. “It is not inconceivable that the Kremlin could use its security services in the United States as it has elsewhere,” read a report released in January by Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “The trail of mysterious deaths, all of which happened to people who possessed information that the Kremlin did not want made public, should not be ignored by Western countries on the assumption that they are safe from these extreme measures.”
The FBI declined to answer any questions for this story, including whether it would reopen the investigation into Lesin’s death. The DC Metropolitan Police pointed to an earlier statement that said, “We will certainly reinvestigate should additional evidence be brought to light.”
The son of a military construction worker, Lesin rose to become one of Russia’s most powerful and influential media officials. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, he ran a wildly successful advertising agency and developed the ad campaign that helped Boris Yeltsin win reelection to the presidency in 1996. Lesin went on to serve as Yeltsin’s press minister. Vladimir Putin kept him on during his first term as president, and Lesin muzzled anti-Putin critics by helping the Kremlin consolidate control over the country’s mass media. The move earned Lesin, a stocky man with a large head, a nickname: “The Bulldozer.”
“He was a binge alcoholic. He would go off the rails for a week and you couldn’t find him.”
In 2005, he founded Russia Today, which he once described as a news channel to counter Western perspectives put out by the likes of CNN and the BBC. Later renamed RT, the state-funded media channel broadcasts in the US on cable and via the internet. Lesin also served as a presidential adviser.
“Lesin was not a very nice guy,” one of his business associates said. “He was very smart, and he was a big player in the media. Whatever you wanted to do in the media, you had to go through him.” He was also difficult to work with. “He was a binge alcoholic,” another person who knew him said. “He would go off the rails for a week and you couldn’t find him.” The police files, first reported by the Washington Post, show that Lesin was drinking huge amounts of alcohol for almost three days before his body was found.
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Lesin’s role in government ended in 2009, but he continued to spend lavishly. “He bought a huge boat and filled it with girls, and his drinking got worse, and all that sort of stuff,” said an associate.
Lesin’s yacht Serenity, which he purchased in 2011, was reportedly valued at $40 million. He spent more and more time in the United States, and he was dating a Siberian model at the time of his death. Property records show that companies he was associated with spent at least $28 million on luxury real estate, purchasing sprawling estates in Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, and Brentwood for himself; his daughter, Ekaterina Lesina, an RT bureau chief; and his son, Anton Lessine, a Hollywood producer. ●
Jason Leopold is a senior investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles. He is a 2018 Pulitzer finalist for international reporting, recipient of the IRE 2016 FOI award and a 2016 Newseum Institute National Freedom of Information Hall of Fame inductee.
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Heidi Blake is a senior investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News based in London. She is the author of From Russia With Blood: The Kremlin's Ruthless Assassination Program and Vladimir Putin's Secret War on the West, and the co-author of The Ugly Game: The Qatari Plot to Buy the World Cup