By John Helmer, the longest continuously serving foreign correspondent in Russia, and the only western journalist to direct his own bureau independent of single national or commercial ties. Helmer has also been a professor of political science, and an advisor to government heads in Greece, the United States, and Asia. He is the first and only member of a US presidential administration (Jimmy Carter) to establish himself in Russia. Originally published at Dances with Bears
Washington, DC, is not a death penalty state. So the local authorities don’t know how to put someone to death judicially. They also don’t have the knack of knowing when a death has been caused by a crime. That is what the Metropolitan Police Department and the Office of the Medical Examiner were saying when they released last week a 5-line report on the death of Mikhail Lesin (lead image, left), the former Kremlin media official, who died at a Washington hotel four months earlier, on November 5.
The long investigation and the short announcement have been coordinated with the State Department’s official in charge of Russia, Victoria Nuland (right). Her spokesman revealed on Friday that she wants the world to think a crime was committed even if it was not. “I’m not going to speak to an ongoing criminal investigation”, the spokesman announced, before adjusting the remark . “Okay, okay. I used the word ‘criminal investigation’ inappropriately. It is an investigation by the Metropolitan Police Department. Let me correct my transcript right now. That investigation is ongoing and I’m not going to get ahead of it.” Getting ahead of it is exactly what the State Department is doing.
According to a US lawyer active in Russian and American litigation, “if Lesin was murdered, the State Department, if not CIA and NSA, must have been aware of this shortly thereafter. It is inconceivable that the DC police department would be so incompetent not to be aware he was murdered or to have notified the federal government.”
So the death of Lesin has become a case of rounding up the usual suspects to be accused in the press of a murder there is no evidence actually happened. It is now US Government policy not to tell the difference between a fact and a fiction, or in the case of Nuland, a factotum.
Lesin’s body was found in the room of a hotel known for sex dates on the morning of November 5. A spokesman for the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), Sean Hickman, told the press at the time no signs of violence had been found by hotel security, Second District police, and emergency service medics at the scene. Anonymously to the press, the police claimed “at this stage there is no suggestion that the death was suspicious.” A local newspaper reported: “One law enforcement official said there were no obvious signs of forced entry or foul play in his hotel room.”
An autopsy followed, along with post-mortem tests. On November 7, the chief of police issued this statement on the “undetermined death investigation”:
Asked a week later “whether your Homicide Branch continues to investigate the case as possible homicide”, Sean Conboy, another MPD spokesman, said: “The investigation is continuing. We are not able to comment further. Additional information will be released as it becomes available.” For more details, read this report.
The Medical Examiner confirmed Lesin’s body was released on November 9, but refused to identify to whom. Lesin’s son, Anton Lessine, and daughter, Ekaterina Lesina, both live in Los Angeles. So far they refuse to make any statement about their father’s death.
Between November and last Wednesday, Washington and US officials had nothing to say on the case investigation. On March 9 officials at the Medical Examiner’s office told the New York Times they were not planning to release their findings, and refused to explain why they were taking so long. The next day the Medical Examiner and the MPD rushed out this statement:
The signs of official haste, compared to the November release, are the lack of a date on the announcement, and the misspelling of the MPD spokesman, Dustin Sternbeck’s title, “Director of Commuinications”. The names of Roger Mitchell, the chief medical examiner, and Cathy Lanier, the police chief, have been omitted from the statement.
Twenty-four hours later, at the State Department’s daily briefing, spokesman John Kirby was asked to explain why the investigation had taken so long without outcome. The spokesman was anticipating the question from the Russian reporter, and was already prepared. He said: “I’m not going to speak to an ongoing criminal investigation. What I can tell you – I mean, I’ve seen those comments. What I can tell you is that my understanding is that the Metropolitan Police Department is still investigating this, that they have provided information to the Russian Government. We have at the State Department tried to help facilitate those conversations and will continue to do so appropriately. But my understanding is that information has been provided and shared and I am sure will be appropriately going forward.”
The transcript of what was asked and answered can be read here. Watch what happened on the official video recording at minute 54:10. When challenged to say whether he knew Lesin’s death had been the result of a crime, Kirby didn’t blink, and he didn’t admit he had made a mistake calling the death investigation a “criminal” investigation.
Watch the spokesman’s thumbs and hands as he releases the statement intended to imply that Lesin had been murdered. When pressed by the scepticism of the reporters, Kirby’s hands go up in defensiveness, and he then tries to pat down the disbelief. The right hand moves toward a crossing of his heart as he attempted to swear he was telling the truth with the double meaning and innuendo.
So what exactly did the State Department intend to mean? “I’m not going to get into that, and I think you can understand why I wouldn’t.”
Deaths resulting from blunt force trauma are some of the “most common cases encountered by the practicing forensic pathologist”, according to the textbooks for coroners in the US. The term “blunt force injuries”, as the Washington police, Medical Examiner and State Department have intended it, is a catch-all term – and it doesn’t mean homicide. “Blunt force trauma,” according to this text, is defined as “injuries resulting from an impact with a dull, firm surface or object. Individual injuries may be patterned (eg ,characteristics of the wound suggest a particular type of blunt object) or nonspecific.”
It’s almost as common as dying. It “is routinely involved in cases classified as accidents, as well as in cases of suicide and homicide. People dying natural deaths often have minor blunt force injuries that do not contribute to death — small abrasions or contusions on the skin are commonplace at autopsy. Although it is important to document evidence of blunt force trauma in all autopsies, one should not immediately assume that blunt force trauma is the cause of death.”
Professional practice for coroners and medical examiners in the US requires identification of an antecedent cause for the lethal blunt force. Evidence at the death scene must be collected to pinpoint what that was. This evidence includes blood spatter, abrasions or wounds on the skin, head or face. Photographs at the scene are required. The reason the policemen and medics at Lesin’s hotel room on November 5 said they saw no evidence of suspicious death or foul play was that blood and wounds were not visible. Those photographs have not been passed to the Russian Government, according to official statements from the Kremlin, the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Prosecutor-General’s office, which has asked for them.
Forensic pathologists make common mistakes with blunt force trauma. This is why the death scene is carefully recorded photographically and microscopically. At the morgue, more photographs are taken, plus X-rays, CT scans, and microscopic slides from tissue dissection. Coronial sources say that if the DC Medical Examiner had followed textbook procedure, this evidence would all be available. There would be almost no doubt about the cause of the blunt force, or the object causing the allegedly fatal wound to Lesin’s head.
If the object or objects causing the extent of the “blunt force injuries” reported in last week’s statement, had been human – fist, finger, arm, foot, teeth, penis – then the DNA evidence has been known to the US authorities since last November. Also, according to expert pathologists, the DNA evidence at the death scene, on Lesin’s clothing and body, and at the sites of his injuries must have been compared to Lesin’s DNA. If another person’s DNA had been discovered, the discovery is now more than four months old. This finding – positive or negative for the DNA of another person – has also not been provided by the State Department to Moscow.
The US-Russia treaty on mutual legal assistance is more than 15 years old now. When then-President Bill Clinton (below, right) signed it, he said the agreement provided “for a broad range of cooperation in criminal matters.”
“Mutual assistance available under the Treaty includes obtaining the testimony or statements of persons; providing documents, records and other items; serving documents; locating or identifying persons and items; executing requests for searches and seizures.”
The key word in the treaty obligation is “criminal”. If Lesin’s death was provably not criminal, then the US authorities have not been treaty-bound to provide the information which Moscow, and the press, have been requesting. Especially not if Lesin’s family have invoked US privacy laws.
For how many obstacles to public disclosure of Lesin’s death certificate and post-mortem records there are in Washington, DC, read this review of the statutes and case law. The DC government says that release of a death certificate is restricted to “mother, father, sister, brother, spouses named on the death certificate, children, informants and legal representatives (proof of relationship is required). All others requesting certified copies of death certificates, must demonstrate direct and tangible interest.” The DC guidelines don’t mention the press, or foreign governments.
The significance of the release last week that Lesin’s death had been caused by “blunt force injuries” was that it contradicted the version of Lesin’s death reportedly leaked in November to the Russian press by his family and friends – that he had died of a heart attack.
The MPD chief spokesman Sternbeck was asked, and refuses to answer, whether his deputy Hickman had made a mistake last November, when he announced the police had found no evidence of foul play at the death scene. Asked by a local newspaper last week whether the fresh MPD statement meant that a crime may have been committed, Sternbeck said: “We’re not willing to close off anything at this point.” He was implying that a crime may have been committed.
But this also means that for the MPD at least, a Russian government request for assistance in a “criminal matter” requires full disclosure of the available evidence. The State Department could not be telling Russian officials at the same time that the Lesin death records are protected by US privacy laws covering non-criminal deaths.
Sternbeck was asked whether he had been quoted correctly to say “we are not willing to close off anything at this point.” He replied: ““The circumstances surrounding the death of Mr. Lesin continue to be actively investigated by D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. The ruling released by the DC Office of the Chief Medical Examiner notes the primary cause of death as blunt force trauma and the manner of death as undetermined. This information is another step in the process as we continue to be transparent in regards to our investigation. We understand the attention regarding this case and will continue to provide updates as information become available.”
Note the careful qualification that blunt force trauma was “the primary cause of death”, and the antecedent cause “undetermined”. But Sternbeck (below, left) wasn’t “transparent in regards to our investigation”, and wasn’t answering the question – was he correctly quoted when he passed his innuendo to the press? “Yes it is accurate”, he replied, this time spelling his title correctly.
Sternbeck was then asked: “After four months of investigation, including gathering of DNA at the death scene and on Mr Lesin’s body, you refuse to say that a crime has been committed – is this correct? And you refuse to say that you have identified the object causing the ‘blunt force injuries of the head’? Is this correct? Regarding the object, you have failed to evidence a trace that the blunt force left DNA on the victim – is this correct?” Sternbeck refuses to answer.
Nuland’s spokesman has repeated the innuendo that Lesin’s death may have been murder, encouraging the media speculation which has followed. Although State is responsible for the treaty compliance, Nuland’s spokesman claims it is the MPD which is responsible for disclosing the evidence to the Russian government. “I cannot speak for the police department. My understanding is that they have shared information with the Russian Government and that we have helped facilitate the sharing of that information, and I would fully expect that that would continue going forward.
QUESTION: What kind of information? MR KIRBY: I’m not going to get into that.”
What the US officials are saying is deliberate. What they are not saying is also deliberate. So the gap they have opened between the two, the innuendo that Lesin was murdered, is a deliberate act of policy, coordinated by Nuland’s subordinates at State, and implemented by policemen like Sternbeck.
According to a Russian media publisher, the cover-up is intended to trigger the speculation which has followed in the Russia-hating media of the US and the UK. According to Courtney Weaver – now removed from the Financial Times’s Moscow bureau to the Washington bureau – the official statement is “fuelling further speculation over the nature of his death… ‘Litvinenko-Perepilichny-Berezovsky-Lesin. Who else?’ Tikhon Dzyadko, a Russian TV journalist, wrote on Twitter on Thursday. He was referring to a string of high-profile deaths of influential Russians in London and Washington.” The Financial Times innuendo was that the Kremlin is responsible for Lesin’s death.
Shaun Walker, the Guardian’s Moscow reporter and author of several fictions on the Ukraine-Russia border, reported this time “a range of conspiracy theories, some more plausible than others. Some Russian bloggers have suggested Lesin could be in a witness protection programme having agreed to pass information to the Americans about the Russian elite, with his death being faked to throw Russia off the scent.”
The intelligence and security reporter for The Daily Beast, an outlet of the Soros-family funded New American Foundation, reported that “Lesin was murdered after coming to Washington to cut a deal with the FBI. The conspiracy theories are arguably well-founded, because it wouldn’t be the first time someone who posed a political threat to Putin wound up dead under unusual circumstances.”
“The question is,” says the Russian media publisher, “why and who is behind the cover up? I can’t imagine that his family had such reach instantly. This also raises a question for me – was he a turncoat, and was he in DC to report and be instructed, and using that time for his deviant sexual behaviour? This is murky from here on. How is it that the whole police case is so sloppy – unless it is is not.”
Innuendoes about Lesin’s sexual behaviour have been widely reported in the Russian and western press. The press have also tracked down the expensive homes Lesin bought in California for daughter Ekaterina and son Anton. Although Ekaterina Lesina’s address is well-known (below, left) and she works for the Russian state media organization RT at its Los Angeles bureau, she has not been contacted or quoted by either Russian or western media.
Sources: left, http://virtualglobetrotting.com/map/ekaterina-lesinas-house/view/bing/ and right, http://www.latimes.com/business/realestate/hot-property/la-fi-hotprop-anton-lessine-house-20151116-story.html
Anton Lessine also lives in Los Angeles (above, right); he is represented by a local lawyer named Steven Marenberg at a lawfirm called Irell & Marella. Last November Lessine (below, left) was asked through Marenberg (right) to say if the latter is acting as his attorney, and whether Lessine “has made, or wishes to make, a public statement regarding the recent death and burial of his father, Mikhail Lesin.”
The two men refused to reply. Marenberg was contacted by email again last week. “I request you to invite Mr Lessine to respond to the official report of the DC Medical Examiner and DC Police, issued yesterday, confirming what Mr Lessine knew at the time we communicated. Since Mr Lessine knew then what we know today, his refusal to comment on the death of his father carries meaning of its own. Is this the meaning your client wishes to continue to convey?”
Marenberg replied: “Although I am reluctant to reply to your email in any respect, but its text leaves me no choice. I have no record of ever responding to your November 16, 2015 email. I have searched my records of my email correspondence and can find no such reply. If your assertion is correct, please provide any response you claim I sent to me [sic]. I certainly have no recollection of suggesting to you that ‘Mr. Lessine refused to comment on his father’s death’ and I believe that assertion to be false and any report to that effect would also be false. Likewise false is the suggested inference in the last paragraph of your email. I decline your invitation to ‘invite Mr. Lessine to respond’ to anything.”
Marenberg was then asked by email: “Since the family did make an initial statement about the cause of death – a statement, it now appears, they had reason to be believe was misleading, if not false — Mr Lessine would, in European as well as Russian tradition, have the duty to defend his father’s name and honour. Should Mr Lessine, either directly or through you, refuse to do so, this is a very significant point to report. I am grateful for your conveying this as you do. Should you and your client have another point of comment, meaning or honour to convey, I invite you to do so. Should you decline to do so, you may be reported as refusing to do so.” Lessine and Marenberg refuse to reply.
The Lesin family know what the Medical Examiner and MPD have told them caused Lesin’s death. Before his burial, they saw for themselves what have been described as “blunt force injuries”. Until Marenberg’s email last Friday, not a single reporter claiming that Lesin was murdered in a Russian plot has asked the family members; or reported their cover-up for a reply.