The Mikhail Lesin case is still very much unsettled
This post first appeared on Russia Insider
The mysterious November 5, 2015 death in DC of a former Putin media minister has gone from strange to weird. Ever since Mikhail Lesin was discovered dead in his hotel room, imaginative theories have abounded about what happened. They've included:
--Putin did it because Lesin knew too much.
--The death was connected with his alleged role as a CIA informer.
--His demise was related to a secret romantic tryst gone wrong.
--Lesin's body was cremated to destroy evidence of what really happened.
--He is not dead and has entered into a witness protection program.
--Lesin simply hopped on a flight out of LA and left the country.
Mind you, no one has produced any substantiation for these allegations. But that hasn't stopped media organizations from reporting on them.
I thought that by contacting several governmental agencies in the US I could clear up some of that nonsense. But I was wrong.
The official coroner report says:
--Cause of Death: blunt force injuries to the head.
--Other Contributing Causes: blunt force injuries of the neck, torso, upper extremities and lower extremities.
The manner of death is given as "undetermined." According to the coroner's website, examples of manners of death are: "natural, accident, suicide, homicide, undetermined, and pending."
So I called the coroner's office to see if that list could be whittled down in Lesin's case. I pointed out that the cause of death certainly excludes natural causes as the manner of death. Then I asked, what about the other possibilities? It would seem that suicide could be crossed of the list too, no? But she refused to take suicide off the list of possible manners of death.
I also asked why the manner of death was pegged undetermined. She said it is because based on the autopsy it was not possible to determine the actual manner of death. Without further information, such as something from a police report, the undetermined designation could be the final word, she said.
But think about that for a moment. Look at the above list of examples of manners of death. The coroner has ruled out natural causes. One does not die from bludgeoning naturally. Accidental? Perhaps he fell down stairs while inebriated. That could have caused blunt force trauma. But it is not certain that there were any stairs in his hotel room. He could have accidentally fallen out a window from on high. But if so, how did he get back into the hotel room where he was found?
Suicide? Perhaps he dove down stairs with an intent to die That could certainly be suicidal. Not a very common or reliable form of suicide, though. And again, were there stairs in his hotel room?
That would seem to leave homicide as the sole plausible manner of death. What could the police possibly contribute to alter that? Coroners are not legally concerned with criminal culpability, just the manner and cause of death. So the coroner's story doesn't really stand up to scrutiny. Unless the police have proof of accident or suicide, there's nothing they could possibly add that would lead away from homicide as the manner of death.
Then I talked with the police. I asked to see the report of the police officers who found Lesin's body. Ultimately they provided me a "public version." All it says is that officers found Lesin lying unconscious on the floor. An ambulance unit arrived and determined that "death was evident." The body was then transported to the coroner's office for an autopsy.
I asked a police official if in the internal version of the police report documented any signs of blunt force trauma. He said it did not, pointing out that some signs of trauma might not be present immediately. I also asked why the police had gone to Lesin's hotel room in the first place. He told me a hotel employee had discovered it and notified the police. Since Lesin was discovered at 11:30 AM, it might have been that a maid making the rounds knocked and then entered the room and found Lesin on the floor. Seems plausible. The New York Times claims a police insider saw Lesin on a security camera arriving at the hotel looking "disheveled." The Times offers no reason for believing its single anonymous source, and the police spokesperson denies the story. In the face of numerous wild rumors I can't understand why the Times would let loose such a questionable claim.
I also asked the police whether the coroner had released Lesin's body to them. I was concerned about the disposition of the body since there were allegations the cremation was done to destroy evidence. The coroner pleaded confidentiality reasons for not disclosing who received the body. Usually a body is sent to a funeral home at the behest of the family. But did the police get it back as part of the alleged government conspiracy to destroy evidence? The police spokesperson assured me that the body had not been returned to the police department. The Lesin family reportedly have declined comment on this matter.
And then there is the Department of State. At a March 11 press conference, the department's spokesperson was asked about the Lesin case. He responded, "I'm not going to speak to an ongoing criminal investigation." A reporter jumped on that and asked, "You're not aware that it's been determined he was killed?" The spokesperson, apparently not wanting to go on record about that, backed away from his own statement. He remarked, "I used the word criminal investigation inappropriately," and indicated he would correct the record. He should have kept quiet, though. That's because his "correction" was not correct. Lesin's death case is indeed a criminal investigation. That's not because of evidence of murder, however. The police claim that all deaths in DC are investigated by the homicide division.
All this leaves us still with great uncertainty about what happened to Lesin. If the coroner, the police, and the State Department were all telling me the truth, it seems that the focus of suspicion should fall upon the coroner's office. There does not seem to be a rational explanation why they haven't concluded the death was a homicide. It's still a puzzle, with lots of uncertainty.
Uncertainty was not a factor in many mass media reports, though. For instance, the New York Times casts suspicion on Putin. It quotes a Miami University professor named Karen Dawisha, commenting on Lesin's past relationship with Putin and the Kremlin. She says. "He [Lesin] knew more than most about the system's dark center." What does that sheer innuendo contribute to readers' understanding of what really happened?
That wasn't the only transgression of the Times. On one hand the article questions Lesin's integrity by quoting Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi. Wicker asserts "That a Russian public servant could have amassed the considerable funds required to acquire and maintain ... assets in Europe and the United States raises serious questions." Again more indictment by innuendo. But in the very same Times' article, the Times reports that Lesin had made "a successful foray into advertising," and that he had held "a lucrative job as an executive at Gazprom's media branch." So he wasn't just a lowly public servant. Didn't the Times' journalists read their own story for consistency? Does the Times still use the motto "All the news that's fit to print"?
The Washington Post seemed to be on the same page as the New York Times. It reported, "Some opposition journalists -- many of whom knew Lesin since the waning years of the Soviet Union -- said he had been killed because he knew too much about the inner workings of the Kremlin." But at least the Post admitted that there's no evidence that's the case. Of course, that raises the question: if there's no evidence of such serious allegations, why report them? Indeed, why?
The biggest booby prize for bad reporting in the Lesin case should go to the Independent. It ran the headline, "Mikhail Lesin death: Vladimir Putin's propaganda chief reportedly flew out of LA 40 days after his death. Alexei Navalny says the incident 'smells of a witness protection programme.'"
The Independent goes on to say, "prominent opposition activist Alexei Navalny now says American border crossing records show the Russian [Lesin] left the US on a flight from Los Angeles in December 2015 -- 40 days after his reported death on 5 November."
The newspaper doesn't say why Navalny, an avowed political enemy of Putin's, should be considered an expert on American border crossing records. Maybe Navalny really does know the inside story. But the Independent gives no reason to believe that.
Isn't the Independent incredible?
Really, these media reports tell us more about the integrity deficit of their own newspapers than anything they had to say about the Lesin case. Caveat Emptor!
This post first appeared on Russia Insider
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