Mysterious death of Putin's aide Lesin. Baseball bat and ‘Hollywood laundromat’ 

Mysterious death of Putin's aide Lesin. Baseball bat and ‘Hollywood laundromat’
Mikhail Lesin was very rich. The political context of his death, beneficial for the mass media, had shaded this aspect Photo: The CrimeRussia

Who possesses the multimillion legacy of Mikhail Lesin and why the movie production company belonging to his son continues operating at a loss in Hollywood? The CrimeRussia reviewed various versions of his demise to figure out who could be interested in the sudden death of the functionary-turned-oligarch.

Mikhail Lesin died almost two years ago but he is still well remembered – the ‘Gray Eminence’ of the Russian media was a too controversial figure and his sudden death conceals too many mysteries. Last week, BuzzFeed media company has announced, citing its sources in the FBI, that he was murdered.

The former Minister of Press of the Russian Federation, Presidential Advisor, and ex-Head of Gazprom-Media Holding died in November 2015 in a suite of budget-level Dupont Circle Hotel in Washington, DC. No documents were found with him, and the identity of the deceased Russian native has been established only after the intervention of Russian diplomats.

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Dupont Circle Hotel where the body of Mikhail Lesin was found

The vague circumstances of the death of Mikhail Lesin, inconsistent information about its cause, delays with the expert assessments, and weird events occurring immediately after it have sparked several conspiracy theories.

‘Hand of Moscow’

The most popular theory – political assassination – has emerged shortly after the death of the ex-Minister of Press of the Russian Federation. On October 28, 2016, a year after the decease of Lesin, the United States Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia has officially ruled that his death was an accident. However, BuzzFeed News capitalizing on the political killings and blaming ‘the hand of Moscow’ for those has revived the ‘foul play’ version a week ago.

On July 28, 2017, BuzzFeed, citing several anonymous sources in the FBI and CIA, has published results of its own investigation and concluded that the former advisor for Vladimir Putin was murdered. Furthermore, according to BuzzFeed sources, Lesin was bludgeoned with a baseball bat, while his ribs were fractured. Allegedly, the reason behind the murder was the intention of the ex-Minister to tell the U.S. Department of Justice how, for what purpose, and on what funds Russia Today TV channel – whose creator was Lesin – had been launched. The judicial agency and ex-Minister reportedly had a preliminary agreement to hold a meeting, and the hotel suit where the body of Lesin was found had been booked and paid by the U.S. Department of Justice.

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Mikhail Lesin and Margarita Simonyan, the Editor-in-Chief of Russia Today

BuzzFeed claims that Lesin had arrived to Washington, DC to make a deal with the American justice in order to be exonerated from further prosecution by the FBI for money laundering – but he was murdered prior to the interview in the U.S. Department of Justice located (similarly with the FBI Headquarters) within a walking distance from Dupont Circle Hotel. According to the anonymous BuzzFeed source in the FBI, the agency has no doubts that the Kremlin was behind this assassination.

The material published by BuzzFeed is a continuation of its two previous high-profile investigations dedicated to 14 mysterious deaths in the Great Britain allegedly arranged by the Russian secret services and to ‘Russian mafia’ and Donald Trump ‘dossier’ uncovering Trump’s ties with the Federal Security Service (FSB) of the Russian Federation. The American media disbelieved the new ‘leak’ from BuzzFeed; most of the outlets have simply ignored it, while the Washington police has immediately refuted its conclusions and reproached BuzzFeed for publishing unconfirmed information. By the way, this is not the first such situation – earlier CNN had openly blamed BuzzFeed for cheap sensationalism discrediting the journalism.

Turncoat

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But, in fact, the American Internet portal has published nothing new – except for the baseball bat. The version blaming the ‘hand of Moscow’ for the death of Lesin had been broadly discussed after the publication of the cause of Lesin’s death back in 2016. A high-profile publication in Figaro newspaper citing its sources in the CIA and naming the death of Lesin a “political assassination” has further fueled the flame.

The neo-McCarthyism wave in the U.S. caused by the conflict in eastern Ukraine and subsequent sanctions against Russia has contributed to the popularization of this version in the Western media. For instance, some outlets claimed that “court dignitary” Mikhail Lesin, who was in charge of the ‘Kremlin propaganda machine’, had agreed to reveal the secrets of the Russian political elite to the U.S. authorities as an insider. In return, he had allegedly expected that the investigation launched against him by the FBI a year ago on suspicion of money laundering in the U.S. would be discontinued.

By the way, Alfred Koch, the ex-Vice Prime Minister of Russia, has written just about the same and in similar words on his Facebook page on the third day after the death of Lesin. The former Minister of Press has got strong reasons to switch sides more than a year before his decease.

In November 2014, Republican Senator Roger Wicker has asked Eric Holder, then-Attorney General of the United States, to launch an inquest against Mikhail Lesin on suspicion of breaching the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

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Letter from Senator Roger Wicker to Attorney General Eric Holder

In his letter, Wicker has emphasized that Lesin had “acquired multimillion dollar assets in Europe, including an estate reportedly purchased through a company registered in the British Virgin Islands during his tenure as a Russian civil servant”.

The Senator has also noted that Lesin had “moved his immediate family to Los Angeles, California, where he acquired multiple residences at a cost of over $28 million”. Wicker has stressed that Lesin “may also have close business ties with individuals subject to U.S. sanctions” and mentioned the links between the ex-Minister and Bank Rossiya and its beneficiary Yury Kovalchuk. The senator has also reminded that the name of Lesin “was suggested by some groups for inclusion on a U.S. sanctions list under the Magnitsky Act”.

The letter from Roger Wicker had its effect. On December 3, 2014, Assistant Attorney General Peter Kadzik has instructed the FBI to carry out an investigation of the possible legalization of criminal proceeds by Mikhail Lesin.

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Response from Assistant Attorney General Peter Kadzik to Senator Roger Wicker

As early as on December 12, Lesin has resigned from the post of the General Director of Gazprom-Media and disappeared from Russia for a long time. Some sources directly link his resignation with a major corruption scandal on the West: the letter from Senator Wicker has not only attracted the attention of the FBI to offshore assets of Lesin – but also prompted the Spanish law enforcement authorities known for their intolerance to ‘the Russian mafia’ to launch their own preliminary investigation against Lesin on suspicion of money laundering.

Fractured hyoid bone

The CrimeRussia has found out that all the possible speculations in the investigation performed by BuzzFeed may pertain only to the motive behind the murder of Lesin (everything is unsubstantiated and anonymous), but the circumstances described by the news portal are real and based on the official information about the battering provided by the D.C. Medical Examiner’s Office and the state police back in March 2016.

The document issued by the law enforcement structures states that the cause of the death were “blunt-force injuries to the head”. It was also noted that numerous injuries had been found on the torso, neck, hands, and legs. In addition, the American law enforcement authorities were unable to determine the criminal nature of his death, and the investigation had lasted for six more months, until the District Prosecutor’s Office has ruled the death of Lesin an “accident”.

According to the unofficial information, the investigative authorities of the Russian Federation do not rule out the version proposed by BuzzFeed – although they do not advertise their opinion. A week ago, Mash group has reported that the Russian special services had received a medical report from the American colleagues describing the injuries in detail. In addition to the head injury (the direct cause of the death), the body had fractured ribs and hyoid bone, which is typical for strangling. According to Mash, a criminal case has been instituted due to the death of Lesin under Article 111 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (Intentional Infliction of a Grave Injury).

Close the visa for a dead person

Even the opponents of Lesin do not believe that his death was an accident, neither do they support the version implying the involvement of the United States Federal Witness Protection Program (WITSEC).

Alexey Navalny, the founder of the Anti-corruption Foundation, was one of the first to suggest that the death of Lesin had been staged in the framework of the United States Federal Witness Protection Program. As if joking, Navalny has posted the following message on his Facebook page a week after the death of Lesin:

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Have they already managed to bury him quietly? This is like a movie – so much resembles the witness protection program. Our Lesin may be now somewhere in Nebraska under the name of Lenny Hofsteder – growing beard, adapting to the new nose form, and testifying against Putin (Alexey Navalny, November 13, 2015).

The majority of the audience had initially thought that this was a joke – although an inappropriate one (Navalny was even shamed in the comments). However, in March 2016, Navalny has published in his blog documents indicating that Mikhail Lesin had crossed the American border in the Los Angeles airport exactly 40 days after his death.

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The U.S. Customs and Border Protection has immediately attempted to clarify the weird situation – but failed to provide a rational explanation. According to its official representative, Acting Assistant Commissioner Michael Friel cited by TASS, the record entry indicating that the former Minister of Press of the Russian Federation had departed from the U.S. has been made only to “close the non-immigration visa of the deceased”. Allegedly, this entry does not mean that the deceased person had indeed left the U.S. by a commercial or private plane – this is just a legal procedure. The words of Friel were a real surprise for those familiar first hand with such situations (death of a Russian citizen in America) and who had never seen anything like this before.

It is necessary to note that the publication of documents indicating that dead Lesin had crossed the American border by Navalny has mysteriously coincided with the official statement about the cause of the death of the Russian ex-Minister issued by the U.S. authorities.

The rumors that ‘Lesin is alive’ have more or less calmed down after the presentation of his passport by his widow Valentina who told that the American law enforcement authorities had handed it to her immediately after the death of her husband.

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Mikhail Lesin and his wife Valentina

In fact, it is highly unlikely that adventurer and reveller Mikhail Lesin, who used to live in grand style, would agree to grow old in an American province under a fake name and on a humble pension from the U.S. Department of State – like his former political rival, ex-Deputy of the State Duma Konstantin Borovoy.

Loving husband and proud father

The former Minister of Press nicknamed ‘enemy № 1 of the Russian independent media’ had numerous ideological and personal enemies, including Alexei Venediktov, the Editor-in-Chief, host, and co-owner of the Echo of Moscow radio station. In his recent interview, Venediktov has pointed out an obvious aspect somehow forgotten amid sensational politically charged versions.

Mikhail Lesin and Victoria Rakhimbayeva

Mikhail Lesin and Victoria Rakhimbayeva

After the resignation from Gazprom-Media, 57-year-old Lesin, father of two and grandfather of five, has fallen in love. Model Victoria Rakhimbayeva, who used to pose topless for Maxim men's magazine, became his darling one. In addition to the modeling, Rakhimbayeva had graduated from the Jet Service School and worked as a stewardess on a British private airplane – where she has apparently met Mikhail Lesin in 2014.

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The lovebirds had spent a whole year travelling – and the girl was actively posting photo reports on her pages on social networks. They had lived in Switzerland for some time, flew all over the world (according to RBC Information Systems, in the last years of his life, Mikhail Lesin was flying only by business jets), sailed to most unknown islands on a yacht, enjoyed fishing and spearfishing, and visited the shores of Grece, Komodo, Bali, Italy, and California – where Victoria, according to her own words, would like to live.

The girl’s dream could come true, taking that her powerful patron referred to as “husband” in her posts had owned several luxury mansions there.

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Mansion in Beverly Park belonging to the Lesin family

In September 2015, Victoria gave birth to their daughter, and, according to his close kin, Mikhail Lesin was inspired and happy. After the birth of the baby, Lesin has quit bad habits, including alcohol. He had to divorce Valentina, and Alexei Venediktov has emphasized that any divorce is primarily about the division of common assets. Lesin had plenty of possessions and, based on their luxury honeymoon, the lovers were not going to start a family ‘in a cottage’. The love affair of the retired functionary was about to incur significant property losses to his previous family.

But Lesin died, thus, eliminating the need to divide assets. Victoria Rakhimbayeva, who became a media personality in the last year of his life, had posted a seemingly weird message on Facebook prior to deleting her accounts on social networks and withdrawing into the shadows forever: “Serenity – calmness and tranquility. You have found those already”.

But a month later, Serenity has been found. It was a 55-meter luxury yacht worth some $50 million, made at Heеsen wharf in the Netherlands, and waiting to be picked up in Brisbane after maintenance works.

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Serenity has everything to make a sea voyage comfortable for an oligarch
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Many people had supposed that the ex-Head of Gazprom-Media had an own yacht (in particular, Margarita Simonyan, Editor-in-Chief of Russia Today and one of the few friends of Lesin, had mentioned it) – but no one knew this for sure. After settling the inheritance matters, the yacht has been promptly sold at Palm Beach International Boat Show to an unknown purchaser. The exact price and recipient of the sale proceeds are unknown – but it is known that IYC yacht broker had initially put it up for sale for only €37 million.

According to the CrimeRussia source, Victoria Rakhimbayeva has changed her sphere of activity – she graduated from a prestigious interior design school and lives quietly in Moscow with Tamara, the 2-year-old daughter of Mikhail Lesin. Apparently, Victoria has no need of money – at least, she can afford a babysitter for the daughter.

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It is also known that she still loves sea voyages – but instead of the private yacht, Victoria now has to use cruise liners.

Legacy

Mikhail Lesin had associated his future life with the U.S. since 2009, after the dismissal from the post of the Presidential Advisory by Dmitry Medvedev “for non-compliance with the civil service rules and civil servant ethics”. According to the CrimeRussia sources, Lesin had openly patronized Video International company created by himself a long time ago. As a result, it had monopolized the Russian media advertisement market. After the termination, Lesin has relocated his entire family to the U.S. and purchased his first American real estate.

There are different estimations of his fortune. Lesin was a governmental official for his entire life and, therefore, could not appear on the Forbes list. However, political expert Gleb Pavlovsky, familiar with him since the 1990s, claims that Lesin already was a multimillionaire in the period when he had directed the presidential election campaign of Boris Yeltsin and was in charge of the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK). Some sources believe that Mikhail Lesin had plenty of possibilities to siphon off VGTRK funds abroad through his official capacity without a risk to be caught by tax or law enforcement authorities.

The Anti-corruption Foundation also believes that Lesin had mastered the schemes allowing to siphon off funds abroad through offshore companies in that period; a major portion of these funds were huge profits of Video International almost uncontrolled by the government – while Lesin never was its official co-owner.

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Mikhail Lesin with Boris Yeltsin and his wife

Journalist Yevgenia Albats estimates the value of the shady business empire of Mikhail Lesin at $1 billion. Politician Konstantin Borovoy and some other sources believe that a significant portion of his wealth originates from Russia Today – because “it is impossible to count” all the hundreds of millions of dollars allocated for the TV channel created by Lesin.

The mansions in California belonging to Lesin and accidentally found by Senator Roger Wicker (only because the housekeeper and babysitter from two different homes had filed lawsuits against the Lesin family demanding million-dollar compensations) were just the tip of the iceberg. According to some information, the legacy of Lesin includes multimillion-dollar assets in Finland and, possibly, in Switzerland; their official owners are dummy companies. By the way, his son Anton has been living and studying in Switzerland since the age of 10.

Hollywood story

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Anton and Carole Lessine

Today 34-year-old Anton Lesin (he calls himself a la suisse – Antone Lessine) is a well-known producer who has released several movies starring A-list celebrities. Upon graduating from a prestigious college in Switzerland, Anton Lessine has joined his family in the U.S. At that time, his father started legalizing his shady capitals in the new country.

Not every graduate of the New York Film Academy can retain Brad Pitt and Arnold Schwarzenegger to play in his movies. Anton Lessine was lucky – these actors starred in the films produced by him.

According to the CrimeRussia source, Anton Lessine hasn’t inherited the business skills of his father and succeed only in aristocratic amusements, like polo – his Swiss wife Carole also plays it professionally. However, the good cinematographic education and knowledge of languages have enabled him to invest the family money into the American motion-picture industry.

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Anton and Carole are professional polo players

In 2012, Anton Lessine and Alexander (Sasha) Shapiro, an old friend of his father and Hollywood manager of Russian descent, have acquired, through their fund Media Content Capital, the control block of shares in QED International, an American-based film production studio.

Shapiro had worked in Warner Brothers for almost 20 years and advanced through ranks to the Vice President; he understood that QED had difficulties with the financing for new movies. Even the production of Elysium starring Matt Damon was progressing slowly – so the company had desperately needed outward investments. Media Content Capital has offered $25 million for 75% of its shares. The deal has been made, and a year later, founder of QED Bill Block was driven out of the company. Shapiro and Lessine have taken full operational control over the studio.

The new management had no shortage of investments. Under the guidance of Shapiro and Lessine, QED started from a low-budget thriller Haunt, and then released Sabotage starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and famous ‘tank drama’ Fury with Brad Pitt who was also a co-producer of that film.

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Lessine and Shapiro had initially kept silence about the source of funding for the film making – but in 2014, the letter from Senator Wicker has been published. Then rumors started circulating about the corruption origin of the money of Media Content Capital, and Anton Lessine told in his commentary to The Hollywood Reporter that the possible FBI inquest against his father would not affect the company in any way. He has emphasized that the funds are going not from Russia but from Europe, thus, implying Switzerland – his ‘second motherland’.

The ‘Hollywood laundromat’ of the Lesin family continued growing. In mid-2015, Media Content Capital has launched Covert Media film company specializing not only in the motion picture production but also in the distribution, thus, becoming a full-cycle movie maker. Paul Hanson, a former QED top manager, has been appointed in charge of the new company. According to its official web site, Covert Media intents to produce, finance, and distribute three to four films a year.

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Paul Hanson, Anton Lessine, and Sasha Shapiro at the Covert Media presentation

According to Peter Newman, Academic Director of the New York University Tisch School of the Arts, the appetite for so-called ‘dumb money’ (funding from investors not related to the motion picture industry) has considerably increased in Hollywood in the last years due to the difficult economic situation. It is very hard to track financial flows going through a chain of intermediary companies.

According to a CrimeRussia source well aware of the American film industry and its mechanisms, even a shallow analysis of the QED operations shows that the company does not bring real profits to its founders. According to IMDb.com, the most successful QED movie was Fury starring Brad Pitt – it has brought $18 million in profits, while its budget was $68 million. It is necessary to keep in mind that 40–50% of the box office goes to the film distributors, while co-producer Brad Pitt has received a half of the remaining profit. Other movies released by the company were classical flops, including Sabotage with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In addition to the cinema industry, the funds of Mikhail Lesin are also circulating in the elite real estate sphere. Anton Lessine owns Dastel Holdings, a California-based company specializing in acquisitions and management of luxury real properties.

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The most recent acquisition of the Lesin family in California

He also controls another real estate firm – Java Drive Inc. Mansions of the Lesin family in Beverly Park located near homes of basketball player Magic Johnson and actor Samuel L. Jackson officially belong to Dastel Holdings – as well as a home in the prestigious city of Brentwood with the living space of some 980 square meters purchased for $9 million.

The home features 7 bedrooms, 11 washrooms, wine cellar, spacious storage rooms, sauna with steam room, elevator, huge dining room, underground parking, etc. Both mansions are currently offered for sale at the cost considerably higher than their initial purchase prices – $23 million and $28 million.

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Home theater in the Lesin Estate in Pacific Palisades

At the first glance, it might seem that the Lesin family is getting rid of its expensive assets – but their recent acquisitions dispel this illusion. In May, Anton Lessine has purchased an estate worth $16 million in Pacific Palisades, a coastal neighborhood of Los Angeles. This is the second property bought by the family in that neighborhood – the first, not so fancy, mansion was purchased for $4 million. Apparently, the coffers of the Lesin family are still far from depletion. 

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