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Suspicious Minds: Medical Experts Cast Doubt On Lesin Autopsy

Mikhail Lesin
Mikhail Lesin

WASHINGTON -- A neck bone that rarely breaks, and when it does, it is almost always due to strangulation or asphyxiation. Soft-tissue hemorrhaging on muscles running along the sides and back of the neck. A swollen brain. Extensive bruising and cuts on legs, arms, hands, chest, face, and skull.

The official conclusion is that former Kremlin media adviser Mikhail Lesin's death in a Washington hotel room on November 5, 2015, was an accident, caused by blunt-force trauma to the head and other parts of the body suffered from falls during a drinking binge.

RFE/RL Makes Lesin Autopsy Files Available

Nearly two years ago, RFE/RL filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to obtain the autopsy records of Mikhail Lesin, the former Russian press minister who was found dead in a Washington hotel room in November 2015.

Last month, Washington Judge Hiram Puig-Lugo ordered the city to turn over the files, which were finally released to RFE/RL on March 15 by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

The 149-page file offers the most precise scientific description to date about Lesin's death, around which many questions still remain.

RFE/RL is now making the autopsy files available to the general public for the first time. Find them here.

Yet multiple forensic pathologists and medical examiners who pored over autopsy results and other documents obtained by RFE/RL from the D.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner have raised fresh questions about whether the wealthy former Kremlin insider might have been murdered.

"I've done 12,000 autopsies over my career," said Donald Jason, a forensic pathology consultant and retired professor from Wake Forest University School of Medicine in North Carolina. "A good number have been alcoholics. And I've never seen a fractured hyoid bone on someone who's falling around drunk."

Hyoid Connected To A Mystery

The fact that Lesin's hyoid bone -- a thin, C-shaped bone that sits at the very top of the neck, above the larynx, and just underneath the jaw bone -- was broken is just one aspect of the autopsy highlighted by the experts who spoke to RFE/RL.

The autopsy report obtained by RFE/RL following more than two years of litigation over Freedom Of Information Act requests is incomplete; some pages are heavily redacted; signatures are whited out. But the details of laboratory results, observations by pathologists from the chief medical examiner's office and Georgetown University hospital, and an unidentified forensic anthropologist are included in relatively precise detail.

According to the experts who spoke to RFE/RL, however, it also raises multiple questions about the official conclusion that Lesin's death was accidental, caused by "blunt-force injuries to his head, with contributing causes being blunt-force injuries of the neck, torso, upper extremities, and lower extremities which were induced by falls, with acute ethanol intoxication."

"I’ve never seen anything quite like this," said Tom Andrews, who retired in 2017 as chief medical examiner for the state of New Hampshire, and reviewed the file at RFE/RL's request.

"This is an unusual case, the complexity of the injuries, even for an alcoholic," he said. "It’s an unusual constellation of injuries to see in an accidental death, in a fall or a series of falls, from a standing height."

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner did not answer an e-mail seeking further comment by the time of publication of this article.

Fallen Theory?

On March 10, 2016, the city medical examiner released its initial report, identifying "blunt-force trauma" as the cause of death. Weeks later, an official with the examiner's office responded to queries by an unnamed assistant U.S. attorney. Among the questions were the timing and possible causes of the break of the hyoid, which had been removed and separated from Lesin's body.

Documenting the conversation in a supplemental report dated April 1, 2016, and included in the file handed over to RFE/RL, the official notes that the fracture occurred "at or near the time" of death. While other causes could not be ruled out -- including a "significant fall" or that the bone was broken during the autopsy -- such an injury was "commonly associated with hanging or manual strangulation," the official wrote.

In the event of strangulation, the official added, "I would expect soft-tissue injury to be associated with the impact."

In the notations included in the autopsy report, an unnamed examiner describes there being some trauma to the tissue of the left side of Lesin’s neck.

The hyoid is so well-protected, according to multiple medical experts who spoke to RFE/RL, that breaking it requires a precise blow: an exact fall on a sharp edge of a object, for example, or a blow or chop to the neck.

A known alcoholic, Lesin was heavily intoxicated at the time of his death, according to the police report and the medical record attributing his injuries to falls.

Like all the experts interviewed by RFE/RL, Jason reviewed the report in its entirety. He said he was unconvinced by the official explanation. "He could have been beaten up, and almost tortured, he has knee injuries, could be from falling down, hard to say," said Jason, who has performed autopsies for four decades.

The examiners interviewed by RFE/RL all said that while it was not unheard of for a hyoid to be broken in an autopsy, it was rare -- even exceedingly rare in the words of one expert. Andrews, the former New Hampshire chief medical examiner, also highlighted the lack of complete information in the autopsy, such as the usual mention in the notations of the medical examiner should a hyoid be broken in the course of an autopsy.

More Questions Than Answers

Andrews and other experts said the medical notations and lab results suggested that Lesin may have been in a coma at 8 p.m. on the evening before he was found dead. At 8:17 p.m., a security guard and a manager from the Dupont Circle Hotel carried out a welfare check and found Lesin in his room, passed out and face down on the rug, but still breathing. After unsuccessfully trying to wake him, they left Lesin's room. It was the last time he was known to have been seen alive.

Andrews said the available evidence appeared to point to Lesin dying slowly, perhaps within a couple hours of him last being seen alive.

"He survived fairly long enough after sustaining the head injury that his brain was then able to swell significantly," he said, referring to to the ultimate cause of Lesin's death.

"At first blush, limited to what I’m seeing now, it does appear to be, to my eyes, to be someone who was assaulted, injured about the neck by an assailant, and may or may not have defensive injuries to his hands," Andrews said. "I think he has very suspicious injuries."

Some of the experts consulted by RFE/RL considered the official conclusion given for Lesin's death as plausible, but still problematic.

Lee Ann Grossberg, who worked in the medical examiner's office for Harris County, Texas, where the city of Houston is located, said the information available in the autopsy record would appear to support the conclusions of the Washington medical examiner.

"What is most concerning to me is that, in addition to numerous injuries that appear consistent with accidental injuries, there are also numerous injuries that appear consistent with inflicted injuries, such as those sustained in some type of physical altercation," she told RFE/RL in an e-mail.

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Grossberg, who said she had been consulting on forensic pathology cases for 18 years, said these injuries included multiple areas of blunt-force trauma to the head, neck, and face -- some in locations and in numbers that do not appear to be consistent with accidental injuries. She said they also include hemorrhages noted in the muscles of the neck and the possible fracture of the hyoid bone.

"It is unknown whether the accidental or inflicted injuries or a combination of the two contributed to or caused the death. Therefore, my opinion, based on the limited information I have available, would be that the manner is undetermined," she told RFE/RL.

Kendall Crowns, deputy chief medical examiner for Travis County, Texas, where the state capital of Austin is located, said that Lesin indeed might have merely died from a fall.

The fracture of the hyoid bone with no correlating "petechial hemorrhages" in the eyes, in particular, were the among the things that led him to reach his conclusion. Add to that, he said, the lack of mention of damage to the artery at the base of the neck.

"What he does have is all these bruises in prominent areas which he could have gotten in a fall, and then he has this wonky fracture of the neck, that without the information, I am hard-pressed that it’s anything less than an odd, incidental fall," he said.

No Clear-Cut Case

Both the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department and the FBI released documents related to Lesin's death, which made mention of video taken by the Dupont Circle Hotel closed-circuit cameras. Around 300 hours of footage was taken by the FBI for examination, according to the agency’s document release.

Police records, however, state that there was a "problem" with the disk that was storing the video footage from the 9th-floor penthouse where Lesin was staying. An unidentified agent states that he was unable to review footage of the 9th-floor hallway from 1:02 p.m. until 11:14 p.m. due to the problem with the disk -- a period that includes nearly three hours after Lesin was last known to have been seen alive.

It’s unclear whether that specific footage was ever reviewed.

Asked for further comment on the question of the footage, the Metropolitan Police Department referred questions to the U.S. Justice Department, which oversees both the FBI as well as the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. The Justice Department, meanwhile, referred queries from RFE/RL to the Metropolitan Police Department.

The cache of documents obtained by RFE/RL this week, however, includes one titled "903 camera footage timeline" -- a reference to the room at the Dupont Circle Hotel where Lesin's body was discovered. The timeline chronicles Lesin and hotel staff going in and out of his room on the day he was last seen alive, including the final visit that day by hotel personnel.

The FBI’s Forensic Audio, Video, and Image Analysis Unit was asked by the agency's Washington field office in July 2016 to examine surveillance video from one camera -- whose location was redacted -- at the Dupont Circle Hotel to determine whether it "has been tampered with in any way." The unit found "no indication...of editing or alteration of the content."

On May 16, 2016, two police officers and an official from the U.S. attorney’s office visited the hotel room. The report notes that the initial police photographs taken of the hotel room on November 5 showed a broken piece of wood from the leg of the bed, lying on the floor beneath the bed. It also said the initial police photographs showed the room contained a round table that appeared to have had a metal piece broken off. The table had been replaced with a wooden table at the time of the May 16, 2016, visit.

Death Of A Media Tycoon

Even before his death in November 2015, Lesin's career had been scrutinized by close watchers of President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin.

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

Lesin played a major role in the 1996 election campaign of Boris Yeltsin, and served as his main spokesman in the latter part of Yeltsin's tenure, including during Yeltsin's abrupt decision to resign, announced on December 31, 1999, and the appointment of Putin to be his successor.

As Putin's press minister in the early 2000s, Lesin was instrumental in bringing the country's national TV channels under Kremlin control, primarily NTV, a channel known at the time for its hard-hitting journalism. He went on to set up Russia Today, the global Kremlin mouthpiece known today as RT.

He lost favor with the Kremlin for unknown reasons sometime between 2012 and 2014, and he largely fell out of the public eye.

Among the many questions circling the question of Lesin's final days is what he was doing in the U.S. capital in the first place. Questioned by investigators, his son, Anton, who lived in California, said he did not know.

Lesin was not known to be a regular visitor to Washington. But shortly after his death, it emerged that one of his reasons for being in the U.S. capital was to attend a scheduled 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.

Final Determination Is Undetermined

Karl Williams, chief medical examiner of Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located, echoed other observations that the absence of further information from the police investigative records makes it harder to get a full picture.

"The key to this case lies in what's not in the medical examiner's file," he said. "There's more missing in the medical examiner's file than what's there."

As for the hyoid, he said, "It would be extraordinarily rare to see this fractured from a fall."

"This is the essence of it. Everything in it just makes me feel it just doesn't look like a fall," Williams said.

Amid the skepticism, two common observations were shared by nearly all the experts consulted by RFE/RL: first, that Lesin was certainly not bludgeoned to death by a baseball bat or similar object, a theory that had been discussed early on.

And secondly, as Williams said, "The manner of death should be considered undetermined."

Written by Mike Eckel from Washington, with additional reporting by Carl Schreck in Prague. Editing by Michael Scollon
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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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