This is Part Five 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 Six: Holes In The Investigation
Part Seven: Christopher Steele's Other Report
Vladimir Putin’s former media czar was murdered in Washington, DC, on the eve of a planned meeting with the US Justice Department, according to two FBI agents whose assertions cast new doubts on the US government’s official explanation of his death.
Mikhail Lesin’s battered body was discovered in his Dupont Circle hotel room on the morning of Nov. 5, 2015, with blunt-force injuries to the head, neck, and torso. After an almost yearlong "comprehensive investigation," a federal prosecutor announced last October 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," and prosecutors closed the case.
But the two FBI agents — as well as a third agent and a serving US intelligence officer — said Lesin was actually bludgeoned to death. None of these officials were directly involved in the government’s investigation, but they said they learned about it from colleagues who were.
“Lesin was beaten to death,” one of the FBI agents said. “I would implore you to say as much. There seems to be an effort here to cover up that fact for reasons I can't get into.”
He continued: “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. Everyone thinks he was whacked and that Putin or the Kremlin were behind it.”
In another previously unreported revelation, the two FBI agents said it was the Department of Justice that paid for the hotel room where Lesin died. DOJ officials had invited the Russian to Washington to interview him about the inner workings of RT, the Kremlin-funded network that Lesin founded, they said.
But Lesin never made it to the interview. He died the night before it was scheduled to take place.
Last month, a two-year investigation by BuzzFeed News revealed explosive evidence pointing to Russia in 14 suspicious deaths on British soil that the UK government had largely ignored. Four high-ranking US intelligence officials confirmed that those deaths had been linked to Russian security services or mafia gangs, two groups that sometimes work in tandem, by “intelligence gathered in the field and analysed” by US spies and handed to Britain’s security services. But the UK police publicly declared that none of the 14 incidents involved foul play. As a result, the public has been kept in the dark about what national security officials have long suspected: Russian assassins may have murdered in the UK with impunity.
Some American officials now fear the threat has hit home. Lesin’s death raised “concerns” that the Kremlin would start “doing here what they do with some regularity in London,” said a former high-level national security official who recently left government. Altogether, 18 current and former intelligence, law enforcement, and other federal officials told BuzzFeed News that they question the official story of how Lesin died.
The FBI, which assisted with the investigation, and the Department of Justice declined to comment. The US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia said it had nothing to add beyond its statement last year calling Lesin’s death an accident. The DC medical examiner’s office said it is barred by law from releasing details of the autopsy, so would not comment beyond the US Attorney’s statement and a brief summary of its own findings that it released in March 2016. A spokesperson for the DC Metropolitan Police — which led the investigation, deploying homicide detectives — told BuzzFeed News that “we have no evidence to suggest this death involved foul play. However, we will certainly reinvestigate should additional evidence be brought to light."
Urgent questions remain about Lesin’s death. The government is withholding the FBI’s investigative file, which includes critical evidence ranging from surveillance tapes to witness interviews. So today, BuzzFeed News filed a lawsuit to pry that information loose.
A BuzzFeed News reporter submitted requests under the Freedom of Information Act for the FBI’s and the Department of Justice’s complete records of the investigation in 2016. But recently the FBI said that if it can release any documents, it may take as long as two more years for it to do so. The suit, filed in US District Court in Washington, DC, aims to speed up that process.
Lesin, the son of a military construction worker, 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 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 to consolidate control over the country’s mass media under the Kremlin. The move earned Lesin, a stocky man with a large head, a nickname: “The Bulldozer.”
During Putin’s second term, Lesin was named senior presidential adviser and rose to the top of Putin’s propaganda machine when he conceived and founded Russia Today, which he once described as a news channel to counter Western spin disseminated by news networks such as CNN and the BBC. Later renamed RT, the state-owned media channel broadcasts in the US on cable and via the internet.
Lesin’s career in government ended in 2009 when Dmitry Medvedev took over Russia’s presidency. Over the next three years, Lesin traveled the world and spent lavishly. He owned a yacht — reportedly valued at $40 million — that he named Serenity, and property records show that companies he’s 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, an up-and-coming Hollywood producer. Multiple sources said Lesin helped finance his son’s films, such as Dirty Grandpa starring Robert De Niro, and Fury starring Brad Pitt.
Neither Lessine nor Lesina, who are based in the US, returned multiple calls and emails seeking comment.
When Putin was elected to a third term in 2012, Lesin returned to Moscow, took over state-owned Gazprom Media, and acquired the conglomerate ProfMedia in what was seen by opposition critics as another effort by the Kremlin to crack down on independent voices in the media.
Lesin abruptly resigned from Gazprom in December 2014.
At that point, his activities became more murky. Intelligence and law enforcement sources said Lesin had a falling out with Putin’s close confidants and then went into hiding abroad. But five sources told BuzzFeed News he was forced out of Gazprom after US Senator Roger Wicker got wind of Lesin’s US spending spree and wrote to the Department of Justice demanding it investigate. The Justice Department, in turn, referred the matter to the FBI.
Lesin “was feeling good until that letter came out,” said the US intelligence officer. But “Putin decided to cut him loose as a potential liability. Once Putin ditched him, once he lost his protection, Lesin’s partners and competitors started going after him.”
A second US intelligence official said Lesin was hiding out in the Swiss Alps during the summer of 2015, fearful that he would be killed.
Lesin “was running out of options of where to live and hide,” the second intelligence official said. “At this point he was a defector. He contacted the Justice Department and the FBI through a third party. He was worried about his kids and their safety so he wanted to cooperate.”
The three FBI agents who claim Lesin was beaten to death said they were told by colleagues who were assisting Metropolitan Police detectives with the investigation. Two of the agents said they were told that the FBI has obtained evidence and conducted witness interviews that indicate that Lesin was murdered. Neither agent would describe the evidence or give details about who the witnesses were, or what exactly they said. The third said that a colleague working on the case told him in January that Lesin was beaten to death.
The intelligence officer would not say how he knew Lesin was bludgeoned but said that the weapon was a baseball bat. Another source — with direct knowledge of the autopsy performed by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Washington, DC — offered new information about Lesin’s injuries: He had fractured ribs, a detail that has not been previously reported.
One of the FBI agents said that he learned Lesin was put up by the Justice Department at the Dupont Circle Hotel — a midrange hotel out of keeping with Lesin’s extravagant lifestyle — during an informal “water cooler talk” with a “case agent” working on the investigation. Lesin, he was told, “was going to talk about the inner workings of RT — basically, how the propaganda machine works. DOJ was investigating RT. These are the types of meetings we have with people when we want to recruit them as informants.”
Does he believe Lesin was murdered over RT? “Whether it was over RT, money, pissing off Putin or a combo or all of it, I don’t know,” he answered. “But falling down drunk? Come on. That’s bullshit.”.
The second FBI agent said he learned that the Justice Department had put Lesin up at the hotel from a DOJ official on the case. The DOJ “was investigating something with RT,” he recalled being told, and investigators planned to ask Lesin “how the station operated — how it was run and how the Kremlin used it.”
The Dupont Circle Hotel declined to provide any information about Lesin, citing its policy of protecting guests’ privacy.
BuzzFeed News filed suit today to compel the swift release of investigative records and other documents about Lesin because American intelligence agencies have said that Russia interfered in the US presidential election, ties to Russia are at the heart of the investigations underway involving President Donald Trump’s campaign, and we have revealed that US intelligence officials suspect Russian involvement in 14 deaths on the territory of one of America’s closest allies, Great Britain. ●
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