Mikhail Lesin, a former Russian cabinet minister, seemed sloppily drunk when he showed up at the bar in the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown one day last fall, two police officials recounted Friday, and the bartender sent him away.
He took a bottle of liquor — it was unclear if he paid. He checked out of the hotel, where he had a room, and headed to the Dupont Circle Hotel. Surveillance video there shows him walking in, looking disheveled but not noticeably injured, another police official said.
The 57-year-old millionaire was found dead the morning of Nov. 5 in his room, lying on the floor. His family told media outlets that the former aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin had suffered a heart attack.
But on Thursday, the D.C. Medical Examiner’s Office said Lesin died of blunt force trauma to the head and had bruises on other areas of his body. The examiner reached no conclusion about whether the man who was a trusted member of Putin’s inner circle and once ruled a media empire died because of a crime, an accident or some other means.
The mysterious death of the Kremlin-connected businessman — found two days after he failed to show at an exclusive Washington fundraiser — is fueling conspiracy theories around the globe. Speculation ranges from Lesin being targeted by a political or financial rival to being the victim of a mundane bar fight.
An official with the Medical Examiner’s Office said the autopsy findings took an unusually long time as officials awaited drug tests and ran conclusions through peer review, a step taken only in complex cases. D.C. police said their investigation continues, but they privately cautioned that detectives are baffled.
The FBI said it is not currently involved in the case.
One senior D.C. police official said it is a “distinct possibility” that Lesin was in a brawl, stumbled back to his hotel room and died. But the official said police are considering other possibilities, too, including that Lesin was hit by a car or fell.
So far, though, there’s no clear evidence of any of those scenarios.
“We don’t know what happened,” another police official said. “We don’t know how the injuries occurred.”
Meanwhile, the Kremlin and the Russian Foreign Ministry are pressuring authorities to keep them informed. “We count on detailed official information being provided,” said Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, according to the Interfax news agency.
Yury Melnik, a spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington, said officials are drafting a request for a briefing. Of the speculation in the Russian and European media, Melnik said, “I think politicizing this death is disrespectful.”
Lesin played a central role in the evolution of Russia’s modern media scene into an instrument of Kremlin influence and control. Trained as an engineer, he helped found one of the country’s first ad agencies. After Putin came to power in 2000, Lesin took over the unruly anti-Kremlin NTV channel and reversed its orientation. He was a longtime confidante and public relations adviser to Putin and helped shape Putin’s domestic image as a virile, uncorrupt leader.
To bolster Russia’s image abroad, and to propagate the Kremlin’s Western-skeptic worldview to a broader audience, he helped foster the creation of Russia Today, an English-language television network that has spread around the world since its start in 2005.
More recently, he had stepped down from his post as the head of Gazprom-Media, a holding company that owns several prominent pro-Kremlin TV networks and the popular Ekho Moskvy radio station. The break came after he clashed with the station’s editor, Alexey Venediktov, over whether to fire a journalist who had criticized the Kremlin.
After leaving the media company in Russia, he bought three properties in California. Two of them are occupied by his children, one of whom is a producer on films including “Dirty Grandpa,” “Rock the Kasbah” and “Fury.”
In 2014, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) requested that the Justice Department investigate Lesin for possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and anti-money-laundering statues. He questioned how the Putin aide was able to amass tens of millions of dollars in Los Angeles real estate and noted his connections to people covered by U.S. sanctions.
Assistant Attorney General Peter J. Kadzik wrote back months later, saying the matter had been referred to the Justice Department’s criminal division and the FBI. Such referrals are common and do not indicate that an investigation has been launched, and it was unclear Friday to what extent, if any, authorities looked into Wicker’s concerns. Justice Department and FBI spokesmen declined to comment Friday.
Wicker said in a statement that he has “not been briefed on Mr. Lesin’s death or why he was in our nation’s capital. I am sure that the FBI, the Intelligence Community, and local authorities will work together to investigate the circumstances surrounding this suspicious situation.”
On Nov. 3, two days before his body was found, Lesin was expected at a fundraiser honoring a philanthropist and chief executive of the largest private bank in Russia, along with a Washington socialite and patron of the arts. It was organized by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, which works to build ties between Russia and the West.
Caroline Scullin, a spokeswoman for the institute, confirmed that Lesin had been invited but did not pick up his place card for a table of 10 that cost at least $10,000.
Kremlin critics have advanced theories that Lesin may have been killed because officials feared he was about to cut a deal with federal authorities investigating his land dealings in California. Such stories have traction in a world where ex-KGB agents are poisoned in London by radioactive tea and the lawyers of Kremlin critics die in Moscow prisons.
But Russia’s independent Dozhd television channel reported Friday that one unnamed person who saw Lesin shortly before his death said he had been with a group of friends. The person said Lesin may have gotten into a fight near his hotel.
A longtime friend and business associate of Lesin’s, Sergey Vasiliev, said he believed that Lesin, who also went by Misha, died after a bout of heavy drinking.
On the night of Nov. 2, a Monday, Lesin settled into his hotel room, “was drunk” and in the morning went out to buy more alcohol, Vasiliev said, saying he formed his account after speaking to the Russian Foreign Ministry and others familiar with the sequence of events.
Vasiliev said he was told that on Nov. 4, a hotel security guard visited Lesin’s room because the guest had not left in a long time.
“He found Mikhail on the floor, sleeping and drunk. He tried to lay him on the bed, but he resisted,” Vasiliev said, and the guard left.
“The next morning the cleaner found him lying in the same place, but already without any signs of life,” Vasiliev said. He added that “earlier, when Misha had breakdowns, there were times when he fell, injuring himself, at times quite heavily.”
A hotel spokesman declined to comment.
Birnbaum reported from Moscow. Jennifer Jenkins, Victoria St. Martin, Andrew Roth, Matt Zapotosky and Roxanne Roberts contributed to this report.