The Dupont Circle Hotel shown in Washington in 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. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The Dupont Circle Hotel shown in Washington in 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. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Ruling revives questions about DC death of ex-Putin aide

Speculation he was murdered has continued to this day.

  • By ASHRAF KHALIL Associated Press
  • Tuesday, March 12, 2019 8:23am
  • Nation-World

By Ashraf Khalil / Associated Press

WASHINGTON — 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.

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.

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.

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 his office is “committed to protecting the medical confidentiality of the deceased in our possession.”

Talk to us

More in Nation-World

FILE - Britain's Queen Elizabeth II looks on during a visit to officially open the new building at Thames Hospice, Maidenhead, England July 15, 2022. Buckingham Palace says Queen Elizabeth II is under medical supervision as doctors are “concerned for Her Majesty’s health.” The announcement comes a day after the 96-year-old monarch canceled a meeting of her Privy Council and was told to rest. (Kirsty O'Connor/Pool Photo via AP, File)
Queen Elizabeth II dead at 96 after 70 years on the throne

Britain’s longest-reigning monarch and a rock of stability across much of a turbulent century died Thursday.

A woman reacts as she prepares to leave an area for relatives of the passengers aboard China Eastern's flight MU5735 at the Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport, Tuesday, March 22, 2022, in Guangzhou. No survivors have been found as rescuers on Tuesday searched the scattered wreckage of a China Eastern plane carrying 132 people that crashed a day earlier on a wooded mountainside in China's worst air disaster in more than a decade. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
No survivors found in crash of Boeing 737 in China

What caused the plane to drop out of the sky shortly before it was to being its descent remained a mystery.

In this photo taken by mobile phone released by Xinhua News Agency, a piece of wreckage of the China Eastern's flight MU5735 are seen after it crashed on the mountain in Tengxian County, south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region on Monday, March 21, 2022. A China Eastern Boeing 737-800 with 132 people on board crashed in a remote mountainous area of southern China on Monday, officials said, setting off a forest fire visible from space in the country's worst air disaster in nearly a decade. (Xinhua via AP)
Boeing 737 crashes in southern China with 132 aboard

More than 15 hours after communication was lost with the plane, there was still no word of survivors.

In this photo taken from video provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to the nation in Kyiv, Ukraine, Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022. Street fighting broke out in Ukraine's second-largest city Sunday and Russian troops put increasing pressure on strategic ports in the country's south following a wave of attacks on airfields and fuel facilities elsewhere that appeared to mark a new phase of Russia's invasion. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)
Ukraine wants EU membership, but accession often takes years

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s request has enthusiastic support from several member states.

FILE - Ukrainian servicemen walk by fragments of a downed aircraft,  in in Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. The International Criminal Court's prosecutor has put combatants and their commanders on notice that he is monitoring Russia's invasion of Ukraine and has jurisdiction to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity. But, at the same time, Prosecutor Karim Khan acknowledges that he cannot investigate the crime of aggression. (AP Photo/Oleksandr Ratushniak, File)
ICC prosecutor to open probe into war crimes in Ukraine

U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet confirmed that 102 civilians have been killed.

FILE - Refugees fleeing conflict from neighboring Ukraine arrive to Zahony, Hungary, Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022. As hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians seek refuge in neighboring countries, cradling children in one arm and clutching belongings in the other, leaders in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Moldova and Romania are offering a hearty welcome. (AP Photo/Anna Szilagyi, File)
Europe welcomes Ukrainian refugees — others, less so

It is a stark difference from treatment given to migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa.

Afghan evacuees disembark the plane and board a bus after landing at Skopje International Airport, North Macedonia, on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. North Macedonia has hosted another group of 44 Afghan evacuees on Wednesday where they will be sheltered temporarily till their transfer to final destinations. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)
‘They are safe here.’ Snohomish County welcomes hundreds of Afghans

The county’s welcoming center has been a hub of services and assistance for migrants fleeing Afghanistan since October.

FILE - In this April 15, 2019, file photo, a vendor makes change for a marijuana customer at a cannabis marketplace in Los Angeles. An unwelcome trend is emerging in California, as the nation's most populous state enters its fifth year of broad legal marijuana sales. Industry experts say a growing number of license holders are secretly operating in the illegal market — working both sides of the economy to make ends meet. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)
In California pot market, a hazy line between legal and not

Industry insiders say the practice of working simultaneously in the legal and illicit markets is a financial reality.

19 dead, including 9 children, in NYC apartment fire

More than five dozen people were injured and 13 people were still in critical condition in the hospital.

15 dead after Russian skydiver plane crashes

The L-410, a Czech-made twin-engine turboprop, crashed near the town of Menzelinsk.

FILE - In this March 29, 2018, file photo, the logo for Facebook appears on screens at the Nasdaq MarketSite in New York's Times Square. Facebook prematurely turned off safeguards designed to thwart misinformation and rabble rousing after Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in the 2020 elections in a moneymaking move that a company whistleblower alleges contributed to the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, invasion of the U.S. Capitol. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram in hourslong worldwide outage

Something made the social media giant’s routes inaccessable to the rest of the internet.

Oil washed up on Huntington Beach, Calif., on Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. A major oil spill off the coast of Southern California fouled popular beaches and killed wildlife while crews scrambled Sunday to contain the crude before it spread further into protected wetlands. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Crews race to limited damage from California oil spill

At least 126,000 gallons (572,807 liters) of oil spilled into the waters off Orange County.