KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
The mystery continues over the death of a man who was once known as Russian President Vladimir Putin's right-hand man. Mikhail Lesin was found dead in a Washington, D.C., hotel room last November. And at the time, Russian TV reported he had suffered a heart attack. But police and the Chief Medical Examiner's Office now say the cause of death was blunt force to the head, which raises the question, who might have wanted Lesin dead? NPR's Mary Louise Kelly is tracking the latest twists in this story, and she's with us now. And Mary Louise, start by just telling us who was this man.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: So Mikhail Lesin was 57-years-old. He was an advertising executive-turned cabinet minister. I mean, among his roles were he helped orchestrate the state takeover of independent media in Russia, and he was very much a part of President Putin's inner circle. You identified him as Putin's right-hand man, and those are the exact words that one former Russia expert at the Pentagon used with me today. She described him as being his right-hand man, particularly in matters relating to the media.
MCEVERS: OK. So he died there in Washington in November. Why did it take so long to determine the cause of his death?
KELLY: Excellent question. I am told that an autopsy was performed within 24 hours of his arriving at the lab - of the body arriving at the lab, but then, as you say, four months have past before the statement this week stating that he died from blunt force to the head, also stating that other contributing causes included blunt-force injuries to his neck, to his torso, to upper extremities, to lower extremities - his whole body, in other words. It is hard to imagine that it was not immediately obvious that this was not a heart attack, and I put that question today to Lashaun Beaman (ph) in the Chief Medical Examiner's Office. She said 90 percent of autopsy reports are completed within 90 days, but there are outliers, that this was one. She said there was otherwise nothing unusual about this case, and she denied there was any pressure from any direction to slow walk the report.
MCEVERS: So we know more about the cause of death than before. Do we know anything more about why Lesin was in D.C. this time?
KELLY: We know that he was on a guest list for a dinner at the Wilson Center. We know he failed to turn up. We also know - and this is relevant - that he and his family had amassed serious property holdings in California. And when I say serious, we're talking in the neighborhood of 30 million.
KELLY: So that raises questions about a possible motive.
MCEVERS: Right. So what about that motive? I mean, who might have wanted him killed?
KELLY: Well, the interesting thing about the property angle - and why I say it may be relevant is, you wonder how a former civil servant would have millions in surplus cash to blow on real estate, and he had attracted attention. One Republican senator, Roger Wicker of Mississippi, had raised questions about possible money laundering, possible corruption.
One theory that people were floating me - to me today is that maybe Lesin came to D.C. to cut a deal with the feds under which he would share what he knew from moving for so long within Kremlin inner circles. I should emphasize that is - it's a theory. NPR has reached out to the Justice Department. They are declining comment, but there's no sign that the FBI or DOJ ever investigated these allegations.
MCEVERS: Right, but surely there are some conspiracy theories out there, right?
KELLY: There are a lot of conspiracy theories. I mean, again, no proof, nothing that has come to light that proves definitively that Lesin didn't just fall down some stairs. But it would not be the first time that someone who posed a political threat to President Putin ended up no longer alive.
MCEVERS: That's NPR's national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly. Thanks.
KELLY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.