This is Part Six 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 Seven: Christopher Steele's Other Report
Newly released police files expose significant holes in the investigation into the death of Vladimir Putin’s media czar two years ago in Washington, DC, casting doubt on the official finding of how he died.
After Mikhail Lesin’s corpse was found in a Dupont Circle 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. A federal prosecutor closed the case last year, announcing that Lesin died alone in his room due to a series of drunken falls “after days of excessive consumption of alcohol.”
Now, the Washington, DC, Metropolitan Police Department has released 58 pages of its case file on Lesin’s death. While many parts are blacked out, what was released raises sharp questions.
Nothing is said about the blunt force injuries that killed Lesin — or even about him falling down, which is how he is supposed to have died.
A disc of hotel security camera footage from the hallway outside Lesin’s room — including three critical hours during the period between when Lesin was last seen alive and when his dead body was found — was defective. Questioned by BuzzFeed News, the police department has repeatedly refused to say if it ever managed to review that footage, raising questions about whether Lesin truly died alone in his room.
The release of the police file comes as the West is grappling with Russia’s increasingly bold interventions. In a two-year investigation, BuzzFeed News showed how America’s closest ally, the UK, has turned a blind eye to 14 deaths on its own soil that US intelligence suspects were in fact hit jobs by the Russian state security services or mafia organizations, two groups that sometimes work together. US spy agencies have shared intelligence on each of those deaths with Britain, yet British police have ruled out foul play in every last case. US intelligence officials told BuzzFeed News they had been watching the pattern of suspected assassinations across the Atlantic with mounting unease, and Lesin’s death aggravated their fears.
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BuzzFeed News has previously reported that three FBI agents and an intelligence officer said Lesin had in fact been bludgeoned to death, directly contradicting the official finding. Two of them said he died on the eve of a planned interview with officials from the Department of Justice, who wanted to learn about the inner workings of RT, the Russian state-funded news and propaganda network that Lesin founded.
DC’s Metropolitan Police Department released the case file earlier this week, following Freedom of Information Act requests from BuzzFeed News and other news organizations. The department’s homicide branch carried out the investigation, with assistance from the FBI. The investigation ran for 11 months.
The case file shows that Lesin, a known alcoholic, had been drinking heavily. The Washington Post, which first reported on the police files, recounts how Lesin brought copious amounts of alcohol into his rooms at the Four Seasons Hotel and later at the Dupont Circle Hotel, where his body was discovered. He carried in two bottles of red wine, a six-pack of Guinness, and a bottle of Johnnie Walker whiskey, the files show. His blood alcohol level was .15, almost twice the limit for driving. Liquor bottles, both empty and unopened, were found strewn about the room where he was found dead, and he had emptied the room’s mini fridge.
But the case file, which misstates dates and at least one address, also reveals key gaps in the investigation.
The unredacted parts of the file say nothing about the blunt force injuries that killed the Russian media titan, nor do they mention any of the falls that supposedly led to his death.
About a day and a half before Lesin was found dead, a hotel security officer talked with him and noticed a bruise below the Russian’s left eye, which is also visible on security camera footage. But an officer who reviewed hotel camera footage from the lobby noted that from the way Lesin walked, he “does not appear to be in any pain.” And just 21 hours before Lesin was found dead, two officers — it is unclear from the report if they were hotel security guards or police officers — visited him in his room and briefly spoke to him. Asked if they noticed any injuries on Lesin, one of the officers said they did not. (The report does not note the other officer’s response.)
The Metropolitan Police Department declined to answer questions about Lesin’s injuries or falls.
The unredacted parts of the police file say nothing about the blunt force injuries that killed the Russian media titan.
Another part of the report suggests that police might never have reviewed hotel surveillance footage that covered three critical hours between when Lesin was last seen alive and the time he was found dead, calling into question the finding that he died alone in his hotel room.
Lesin was staying in a penthouse suite on the ninth floor of the Dupont Circle Hotel. According to a timeline provided by the hotel to the police, Lesin was last seen alive at 8:17 p.m. on Nov. 4. At that time, police files say, a hotel security officer and another person entered Lesin’s hotel room and found him “lying on the carpet on the floor face down and passed out.” They noted that he was breathing. They failed to to wake him up and left the room.
Fifteen hours later, at 11:32 a.m. on Nov. 5, Lesin’s corpse was discovered, the police files say.
About two weeks later, on Nov. 19, a Metropolitan Police officer proceeded to review two discs containing security camera footage from the hotel’s ninth-floor hallway, which would show if Lesin left his room on that floor or if anyone entered the hall. The first disc contained footage going to 11:14 p.m., three hours later than the last live sighting of Lesin. But, the report says, “unfortunately there was a problem with the recording on the disc provided.”
So the officer reviewed footage from a second disc showing the ninth-floor hallway from 11:14 p.m. onward.
"Unfortunately there was a problem with the recording on the disc provided."
On Jan. 5, 2016, a different Metropolitan Police officer went to the department’s video surveillance unit, where, the files say, he was met by the person who “downloaded all of the footage from the cameras at the Dupont Hotel.” The officer writes that he “began to watch all of the footage,” but there is no mention of whether he watched the video from the defective disc or what it may have shown of that crucial period between when Lesin was last seen and when he was found dead.
When first asked about the defective disc, the Metropolitan Police Department sent BuzzFeed News to the Dupont Circle Hotel, which, in turn, directed comment back to the police. Pressed twice more by BuzzFeed News, the police department declined to say if it had reviewed the critical hours of footage. Finally, in a phone call on Friday, a spokesperson for the department said she had forwarded the question to the homicide branch, which had declined to comment.
The officers listed in the police files as attempting to watch the footage did not respond to phone and email messages.
The police files — which show that homicide detectives interviewed witnesses as late as August 2016, nine months after Lesin died — include other details. They say that Lesin paid for his room with $1,200 in cash, contradicting FBI agents who previously told BuzzFeed News that the Justice Department had paid for the room. Reached again, the FBI agents, who spoke on condition of anonymity, continued to maintain that the Justice Department had paid for Lesin’s room. The Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment.
Finally, a timeline prepared by the Four Seasons Hotel for the police states that the day before Lesin was found dead, the Secret Service asked for a hotel security officer to be placed outside his room from 1:45 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. so that Lesin “does not leave the room.”
Lesin was not a member of the Russian government at that time, so it is unclear why the US government’s elite security force — which protects the president, vice president, and foreign dignitaries — would have intervened to have him watched. Mason Brayman, a Secret Service spokesperson, did not respond to questions about why the Secret Service apparently offered guidance to hotel security but told BuzzFeed News that Lesin “has never been a protectee of the US Secret Service.”
Liliana Baldasssari, a spokesperson for the Four Seasons, told BuzzFeed News that hotel security contacted a Secret Service agent who was on site protecting a delegation due to arrive. "We did not want this guest wandering around the hotel causing problems when the delegation arrived," Baldasssari said. She declined to identify the delegation, citing privacy, but said once the delegation got to their rooms, the hotel security guard posted outside of Lesin's room was removed. ●
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