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FBI Releases Files From Probe of Former Russian Press Minister's Death

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, gestures as Mass Media Minister Mikhail Lesin listens to him during a meeting with local press in the far eastern city of Vladivostok, Aug. 24, 2002

The FBI has released dozens of pages from its investigation into the death of Mikhail Lesin, files that largely corroborate earlier police and other reports about the circumstances behind the former Russian press minister's 2015 death.

The 56-page file, released by the U.S. law enforcement agency on Friday, includes heavily redacted copies of the medical and toxicology exam of Lesin's body, as well as the investigation by forensic experts into the closed-circuit video footage of the hotel where he lived in his final days.

Lesin's death was declared accidental, due to blunt force injuries to the neck, torso, and lower and upper extremities, according to a final report released in October 2016 by the U.S. attorney’s office for Washington and city police. Acute ethanol intoxication was a contributing factor.

A city police report released in December 2017 highlighted Lesin's heavy drinking at Washington's Four Seasons Hotel, and later at the Dupont Circle Hotel, where he was found dead on November 5, 2015, just a few blocks from the White House.

Deep suspicion

But deep suspicion remains among many journalists and Russia-watchers, as well as some business acquaintances, over the exact circumstances of the death of the once-powerful, wealthy Russian figure — who was instrumental in the Kremlin’s crackdown on independent TV and in the creation of the Russia Today TV channel.

The FBI file said forensic investigators examined dozens of hours of video footage from hotel cameras. In the footage from the Dupont Circle Hotel, one camera caught "a rather clear picture of the back of Lesin's head" at 10:48 a.m. on November 4, 2015.

A police investigative photograph of the hotel room where Mikhail Lesin was found dead on Nov. 5, 2015.
A police investigative photograph of the hotel room where Mikhail Lesin was found dead on Nov. 5, 2015.

​The file notes that Lesin is then not seen leaving his hotel room again; his body was found dead at 11:32 a.m. on November 5, 2015, approximately 25 hours later.

Lesin was Russian President Vladimir Putin's press minister in the early 2000s. He was instrumental in bringing the country's national TV channels under Kremlin control, primarily the once-feisty channel NTV. Later, he set up the TV channel Russia Today, now known as RT.

He fell out of favor with the Kremlin, however, sometime between 2012 and 2014, and he largely fell out of the public eye.

In 2014, a year before his death, Lesin had drawn attention from the U.S. Senate, where one lawmaker had called on the FBI to investigate him for possible money laundering.

Beverly Hills mansions

Lesin owned mansions in Beverly Hills, California, where his children and estranged wife live.

Much of Lesin's wealth came from a private company he set up in the 1990s to sell television advertising on Russia's then-exploding TV advertising market. That company, called Video International, or VI, was later acquired by Yury Kovalchuk, the main shareholder of Bank Rossiya, which has been closely linked to the Kremlin.

Lesin was not known to be a regular visitor to Washington. But not long after his death, it emerged that one of his reasons for being in the U.S. capital was to attend a gala fundraiser at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute on November 3, two days before his body was found.

One of the philanthropists being honored that night was the influential Russian banker Pyotr Aven. Lesin never attended the event.

Aven also attended a private event at the Atlantic Council, another Washington think tank, on November 4. According to a person with knowledge of that event, Lesin had sought to attend as well, but the organizers declined to include him.

'Stumbling drunk'

The D.C. city police report released in December said that on November 4, at around 2 p.m., a Dupont Circle security guard who reported finding Lesin "stumbling drunk" in his room asked if he needed medical help. Lesin put his arm on the guard's shoulder and replied "nyet," the report said.

About six hours later, at 8:16 p.m., another guard found Lesin lying face down on the floor in his room. He was breathing but the guard said he was unable to wake him, the report said.

The following morning, at around 11:30 a.m., a security guard who went to Lesin's room to remind him to check out found him still face down on the floor. The guard called for medical help, and responding police determined Lesin was dead.

The FBI files also include 29 pages from the city medical examiner's office. However, the files are all nearly entirely redacted.

Russia officials have said little publicly about Lesin's death, aside from indicating early on that they expected U.S. law enforcement to provide full details.

Since his death, some of Lesin’s assets have been gradually sold off. His yacht was sold in Florida in 2016, listed for $40 million.

Earlier last year, his two Beverly Hills mansions were listed for sale, at $23 million and $29 million. It wasn’t immediately clear if the homes had sold already.