RD Interview: What actually happened to former Russian press minister and ex-President aid Mikhail Lesin in his Washington hotel room? Russia Direct talked to a professional privacy consultant to analyze several scenarios for what might have happened.
Pictured: Russian then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, right, former RIA Novosti Editor-in-Chief Svetlana Mironyuk, center, and ex-Presidential Advisor Mikhail Lesin, left. Photo: RIA Novosti.
The mysterious death of former Russian press minister Mikhail Lesin in Washington, DC is once again in the news. The U.S. authorities, which kept silent for more than four months after his body was found in a hotel room in Washington, released a statement saying that the death occurred as a result of blunt force injuries to his head.
Before this, Russian news agencies had reported that, according to Lesin's family, the cause of his death was a heart attack. Given the discrepancy in the two accounts of the death, it’s easy to see why some see the involvement of a potential conspiracy. Moreover, as new details emerge, they also appear to raise more questions than they answer.
The day after the U.S. statement was released, Sergey Vasiliev, the head at VI Group, a company that deals with the advertising media market in Russia and Eastern Europe, and a close friend of the former Russian press minister, shared previously unknown facts about the last days of Lesin’s life. Vasiliev told Kommersant, a Russian business daily, that Lesin first flew to Los Angeles where his family lives and then went to D.C. to meet business colleague Peter Aven. However, Vasiliev claims the meeting never actually happened.
According to Vasiliev, Lesin was suffering from a spinal compression fracture and had problems with alcohol. The night before he was found dead, he left a hotel where he was staying with a friend and booked a new room in a Dupont Circle hotel. The next day, a hotel security representative visited the room of “a guest who has never gone out of his room.” This person found Lesin sleeping on the floor. However, the guest didn’t want the security person to help him and soon he left Lesin’s room, Vasiliev said.
Later, Alexey Navalny, a former candidate for mayor of Moscow who is famous for his anti-corruption investigations in Russia, published a post on his blog stating that Lesin (or somebody with his passport) crossed the U.S. border 40 days after his actual death. He was referring to the electronic database that checks border crossings and provides I-94 forms for nonimmigrants.
The first reasonable explanation can be found at the website of the Association of International Educators, formerly known as the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers (NAFSA). It describes one possible theory. A mistake could have been made by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s system because of a return ticket: The system may have confused the date of the second flight with the date when a person actually left the country. However, this does not often happen.
Finally, the U.S. authorities told Russian news agencies that the record showing Lesin leaving the country appeared in the system as part of the standard procedure of closing his current nonimmigrant status.
“U.S. Customs and Border Protection has no data about this person’s departure from the U.S. after his death,” Michael Friel, the director of the Media Division for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, states.
Nevertheless, the official description of the I-94 form does not says that it has anything to do with a person’s status.
“The I-94 is the Arrival and Departure Record, in either paper or electronic format, issued by a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Officer to foreign visitors entering the United States. After April 30, 2013, most Arrival and /or Departure records will be created electronically upon arrival,” it reads.
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One of the most popular theories explaining the mysteries of Lesin’s death says that he may have become a part of the U.S. Federal Witness Protection Program. That’s especially true if the F.B.I. was looking into investigating Lesin’s U.S. assets on suspicion of money laundering, As a former press minister who had become a person of interest to the F.B.I., Lesin would have never gone to the U.S. under these circumstances unless his goal was to reach an agreement with the authorities, Sergey Parkhomenko, a Russian journalist, suggested during his program on the radio station Echo of Moscow.
Russia Direct discussed the situation with a person whose job it is to help people disappear. Frank Ahearn, the author of several New York Times bestsellers on privacy consulting, finds vanishing traces of a client's past on a professional basis. Sharing his thoughts on Lesin's death, he suggests that people stop discussing any conspiracy theories about the “magical reincarnation” of the former Russian press minister.
Russia Direct: After Navalny found that there is a record of Lesin’s departure from the U.S. 40 days after his death and the U.S. authorities released their official explanation, it’s reasonable to ask how this could have happened. How do officers control departing passengers and what is your general observation of the situation?
Frank Ahearn: The official explanation sounds plausible. Unfortunately, it does sound suspect - not that something is wrong, it just seems odd. In general, this is a bizarre case. When a person dies, their social security number is reported as being deceased and that information is fanned out to the appropriate agencies - such as the U.S. Department of State, which issues passports.
When a person books an international flight, they must provide a passport. If passport reported that the subject is deceased, it would be noticed. Officers would stop the person, question and not release him until the matter is cleared up. The flight would show the subject did not fly. However, Lesin had a Russian passport and his information may not have been processed on the Russian side.
RD: Is there any theoretical chance that an officer didn't recognize that a person used a passport issued for somebody else?
F.A.: It is possible. To make it appear that Lesin is still alive is a plausible way of going about a cover-up. But I think it is unlikely. Keep in mind that the person would need to clear customs in Russia as well.
RD: Some people suggest that Lesin’s death was made up in order to protect him after reaching an agreement on cooperation with the F.B.I., which was previously looking into investigating his U.S. assets on suspicion of money laundering. Does it sound likely to you that Lesin may be in the U.S. Federal Witness Protection program?
F.A.: I would say it does not look like witness protection. Faking his death would be an amateur move: There are too many moving parts involved, especially if a funeral is staged. The protected person would not use their passport. If the subject entered witness protection, they would have confiscated his passport. [Lesin’s widow told the press that her husband’s passport had been returned to her very soon after his death. – Editor’s Note].
RD: If it's not the witness protection program, is it likely that the person made up his disappearance with the help of experts like you?
F.A.: It is very possible, people disappear every day. The subject also has plenty of funds to finance a disappearance.
RD: In order to clarify things, do you believe that Lesin is still alive?
F.A.: He is dead.
RD: Is it possible that the agents of a state security service murdered Lesin?
F.A.: I have no way of knowing. The reality is that there is more going on than what we see. I think it is too soon to draw any conclusions.