French police are stepping up an investigation into the 2012 death of a Russian exile and treating it as a likely “assassination,” The Globe and Mail has learned.
The cause of Alexander Perepilichnyy’s sudden death while jogging outside his home in Surrey, England – just hours after returning from Paris – has never been determined, despite a police investigation and an ongoing coroner’s inquest in the United Kingdom. But the case is one of 14 mysterious deaths of Russian exiles in the U.K. that are getting a harder look after the March 4 poisoning of Sergei Skripal.
The poisoning of Mr. Skripal and his daughter has led to a fresh crisis in relations between Russia and the West after British Prime Minister Theresa May said it was “highly likely” that the Kremlin was behind the attack.
Britain and its allies have expelled more than 150 Russian diplomats in response, with the United States also ordering the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle. The Kremlin, which denies all involvement in the attack on Mr. Skripal, has vowed to respond to each gesture “symmetrically.”
The French investigation, if Mr. Perepilichnyy’s death is indeed found to have been an assassination linked to Moscow, could trigger another round of diplomatic hostilities.
What connects Mr. Perepilichnyy’s tale to Mr. Skripal’s are the unrelated but similarly obscure substances found in their systems after police found them in very different places, six years apart.
Mr. Skripal fell ill after coming into contact with Novichok, a nerve agent believed to have been developed in the Soviet Union. The British coroner’s inquest has heard that Mr. Perepilichnyy died with a rare and toxic herb – believed to be gelsemium, which grows only in Asia and is called “heartbreak grass” because ingesting it can trigger a heart attack – in his stomach.
That’s enough evidence to convince many critics of the Kremlin that both attacks were ordered by Moscow.
French police are zeroing in on the possibility that Mr. Perepilichnyy was poisoned during a four-day visit he made to Paris just before he died. A French judicial source told The Globe and Mail this week that the Paris prosecutor’s office was pursuing a case of “criminal conspiracy and assassination” related to his death.
Mr. Perepilichnyy, an affluent businessman, woke up on Nov. 10, 2012, amid the luxurious sheets of Le Bristol, a glittering five-star hotel near the famed Champs-Élysées. He’d stayed there in the company of a 22-year-old Ukrainian model who was not his wife. His credit card bill shows he spent about $3,400 on a two-night stay and another $2,400 on a Prada handbag for his companion.
He was dead by mid-afternoon that day: After returning to Britain, the slightly overweight but otherwise healthy 44-year-old father of two collapsed after lunch while jogging in the gated community in Surrey where he and his family lived.
His death is just one in a string of curious endings to befall critics of the Kremlin living in Britain. Some, such as prominent anti-Putin oligarch Boris Berezovsky, were ruled suicides at the time. Others, such as Mr. Berezovsky’s business partner Badri Patarkatsishvili, were formally declared to have died of natural causes – a heart attack in the case of Mr. Patarkatsishvili.
After the attack on Mr. Skripal, Britain’s counterterrorism police announced they would take another look at all 14 cases, including Mr. Perepilichnyy’s. There’s talk that his body may be exhumed, as well as Mr. Patarkatsishvili’s.
Surrey police maintain they see no reason to investigate Mr. Perepilichnyy’s death as a murder. His widow is among those who have accused anti-Kremlin activists of trying to score political points by pushing for her family’s tragedy to be considered an assassination.
But everything looks different in light of the poisoning of Mr. Skripal.
“I thought from day one that it was a hit of some sort,” said Chris Phillips, the former head of Britain’s National Counter Terrorism Security Office, of Mr. Perepilichnyy’s death.
“The circumstantial evidence is strong. A lot of people have died in very similar circumstances, and all of them were linked to the same sorts of people – the Kremlin and Russian organized crime, to the extent that there’s a difference between the two.”
Alexander Perepilichnyy wasn’t always bothered by the corruption that is rampant in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Until the system bit his hand, he made quite a tidy profit off it.
Had the Soviet Union held together, Mr. Perepilichnyy likely would have lived his life as a physicist, perhaps working in a top-secret laboratory. He studied at the prestigious Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology.
But the Cold War ended and the USSR fell apart, and Mr. Perepilichnyy suddenly found himself living in a lawless free-market world. He and his friends began hawking computers on the streets of Moscow, making a relatively decent living doing so. He discovered he was good at business. He told his friends he no longer wanted to be a scientist – he had decided to become an entrepreneur.
He made millions during the wild 1990s. Doing so, especially in the early years of post-Soviet Russia, usually meant disregarding the rules. No one was enforcing them anyway.
He made most of his money investing other people’s money, making everyone involved a tidy profit. But he didn’t ask – or appear to care – where the money came from.
Much of the money he was handling belonged to Vladlen Stepanov, the husband of Olga Stepanova, a government official who from 2004 until 2010 was the head of a tax collection office in Moscow. Mr. Stepanov and Ms. Stepanova have both been linked to the Klyuev organized crime ring, which allegedly included top officials in several departments of the Russian government.
Among the eyebrow-raising transactions Mr. Perepilichnyy was involved in were a series of payments between 2006 and 2008 that saw US$3.2-million transferred between two shell companies registered in the British Virgin Islands: Quartell Trading Ltd. and Balec Trading Ventures Ltd. The money, which was supposedly payment for high-end furniture, moved via a Swiss bank account controlled by Mr. Perepilichnyy.
Balec Trading Ventures was controlled by Issa al-Zeydi, a dual Russian-Syrian national whom the United States government has put on its sanctions list for providing “material support to the Syrian regime” of Bashar al-Assad. Some media reports have connected Mr. al-Zeydi to Syria’s chemical weapons program.
Quartell Trading, meanwhile, was connected to another growing scandal: a US$230-million tax scam in Russia that became an international cause célèbre after the death in prison of a lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky, who had been tracing the money on behalf of U.S. investor Bill Browder.
Mr. Perepilichnyy had wound up as a money launderer for Russian organized crime. And he was in way over his head.
When the 2008 financial crisis hit, several investments he had made on behalf of Mr. Stepanov went sour. Mr. Stepanov accused him of stealing the money, and Ms. Stepanova used her office to launch a tax evasion case against Mr. Perepilichnyy. He fled to London, where he made contact with Mr. Browder and told him he could fill in the holes in the Magnitsky case.
Mr. Browder was initially suspicious when Mr. Perepilichnyy reached out to him.
The information being offered sounded too good to be true. Mr. Perepilichnyy was offering documentary proof of the core case Mr. Browder had been trying to make.
Mr. Browder not only made hundreds of millions of dollars in Russia in the early 2000s, he was for years a staunch defender of Mr. Putin’s style of government.
But Mr. Browder eventually grew too big and too influential for the Kremlin’s liking. In 2005, he was blacklisted as a threat to Russia’s national security and denied entry to the country.
With Mr. Browder out of the country, he lost control of three holding companies for his firm Hermitage Capital. What followed was the scam that Mr. Magnitsky lost his life trying to investigate: The Russian government gave a US$230-million tax rebate to the three firms, which were now under the control of Klyuev group associates.
Mr. Perepilichnyy arrived in London with documents to prove that some of that $230-million had passed through his hands and into bank accounts and shell companies controlled by Mr. Stepanov and Ms. Stepanova.
Mr. Browder – who has proven as skilled at public relations as he is at finance – went to work, producing a slick YouTube video that branded Ms. Stepanova the “tax princess” who was one of the major beneficiaries of Mr. Magnitsky’s death in detention.
When the United States passed its Magnitsky Act in 2012, Ms. Stepanova was one of 18 individuals hit with economic sanctions, an asset freeze and a travel ban. Both she and Mr. Stepanov were named in Canada’s version of the same law, which was passed five years later.
But Mr. Browder’s victory was darkened by shock, anger and fear. As he watched on television as the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Magnitsky Act he had fought so hard to introduce, he received a call.
Alexander Perepilichnyy was dead.
It must have seemed as though all was well in the world when Mr. Perepilichnyy awoke on Nov. 10, 2012.
Life in Le Bristol is soft and easy. The hotel is a land of marble pillars, spotless mirrors, walk-in closets and monogrammed bathrobes. The minibar is full of Grey Goose vodka and multiple brands of champagne. The sixth-floor hotel pool is kept bathtub-warm, and floor-to-ceiling windows present views of the Eiffel Tower out one side and the Sacré-Cœur Basilica out the other, while you swim.
He likely woke up that Saturday morning with Elmira Medynska, a model who, like Mr. Perepilichnyy, was born in Ukraine.
The pair had paid for the hotel’s “romance package,” which included a bottle of champagne that would have been chilling in their room upon arrival and rose petals scattered on the bed.
Mr. Perepilichnyy’s credit card bills suggest that he and Ms. Medynska dined their way around Paris over their 48 hours in the city, spending hundreds of euros feasting at not only Le Bristol – which has two Michelin-starred restaurants attached to it – but also the nearby Four Seasons and Le Crillon, a five-star hotel across the street from the U.S. embassy.
He had recently been told that his name had appeared on an apparent “hit list” discovered in Moscow and had applied for more than $15-million in life insurance policies. But there was little about his behaviour in Paris that suggested he believed himself to be a hunted man.
An American breakfast for two came included in the Bristol’s “romance package.” Afterward, Mr. Perepilichnyy made his way to the Gare du Nord station and the Eurostar train back to London.
When The Globe visited Ms. Medynska’s Paris studio on swish Avenue Victor Hugo – a short walk from the Arc de Triomphe, in a building that also houses Iceland’s embassy – an associate opened the door with a smile. He assumed the visitors had arrived to look at the haute-couture clothing and impossibly high-heeled stilettos Ms. Medynska designs and sells under her “EM” brand.
Ms. Medynska – who has shortened her last name to Medins, perhaps to disassociate herself from the notoriety she briefly gained in the French and British media after Mr. Perepilichnyy’s death – was clearly more nervous about having visitors.
“They are press,” the now-28-year-old said when she spotted a reporter’s notebook. She looked at her associate pleadingly and spoke with a note of panic in her voice. “They are here to talk about Alexander Perepilichnyy.”
The burly associate walked briskly to the door and opened it. “She has nothing to say,” he said curtly in French. “She’s had problems with the press. It’s bad for her business.”
Ms. Medynska will struggle to keep her profile low. A source told The Globe that she will be asked to testify when the British inquest into Mr. Perepilichnyy’s death resumes next month.
By the time he got home to Surrey, Mr. Perepilichnyy was starting to feel unwell. He ate a bowl of schi, a cabbage-based Russian soup, that his wife had prepared, then decided to go for a jog. He died just a few hundred metres from his house.
Surrey police who attended found nothing suspicious about the case and declared that Mr. Perepilichnyy – like Mr. Patarkatsishvili four years earlier – had died of a heart attack. (The coroner’s inquest heard that Mr. Perepilichnyy had Sildenafil – the generic name for Viagra – in his system, but it was deemed insignificant.)
“There is no evidence to suggest that there was any third-party involvement in Mr Perepilichnyy’s death,” Detective Chief Inspector Ian Pollard said at the time.
It’s a position that Surrey police maintained as recently as last year, when DCI Pollard told the ongoing inquest that he still saw no reason to believe Mr. Perepilichnyy had been murdered. And with no murder to solve, he saw no reason to start interviewing suspects or to send investigators to Moscow.
It’s a conclusion that infuriates Mr. Browder, who says the Surrey police never seriously looked at who Mr. Perepilichnyy was or who might have wanted him dead.
In addition to Mr. Perepilichnyy’s central role in the Magnitsky case – and the sanctions that have infuriated the Kremlin – Mr. Browder says Mr. Perepilichnyy was also involved in a financial dispute with Dmitry Kovtun, one of two former KGB officers that the British government believes were involved in the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko.
That killing, which took place in London, was carried out using radioactive polonium.
“Perepilichnyy turned against his people. He was as important a traitor as Skripal was,” Mr. Browder said.
It’s a theory that Surrey police never asked him about. But Mr. Browder said French police recently interviewed him for 18 hours about Mr. Perepilichnyy’s case.
“I’ve now seen what a real murder investigation looks like.”
Another element that connects the cases of Mr. Skripal and Mr. Perepilichnyy was that they had made many enemies, not just the Kremlin.
Mr. Skripal reportedly blew the covers of some 300 Russian agents during the decade he was feeding information to Britain’s MI6 intelligence service. Any of those men and women might understandably hold a grudge against the man who outed them.
Mr. Perepilichnyy, meanwhile, was deeply involved with unsavoury characters who would not have easily forgiven his betrayal.
The Russian government, which has scoffed at Ms. May’s claims that it was involved in the attack on Mr. Skripal, sees a very different pattern at work in the deaths of Russian exiles on British soil. The Kremlin contends that accusations are made but no evidence to support such charges is ever made public.
“When Boris Berezovsky and Alexander Perepilichnyy died in Britain, there was a lot of speculation in the media, then all the conclusions were classified, and no data provided to Russia. Same happening now, with MI6 agent Sergei Skripal poisoning,” the Russian embassy in London posted on its Twitter account this month in a statement attributed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow.
But many others say the coincidences are simply too many, and too strong, to ignore. In addition to the Skripal case – and the 14 suspicious deaths on British soil – there are the other famous cases of Kremlin opponents encountering rare poisons.
Journalist Anna Politkovskaya – one of Mr. Putin’s first and loudest critics – fell ill after drinking tea on a domestic flight inside Russia in 2004. She survived, only to be shot dead in Moscow two years later. Former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko, who was trying to pull his country out of Moscow’s orbit, had his face disfigured after ingesting dioxins believed to have been slipped into his food during the 2004 election campaign.
Russian opposition figure Vladimir Kara-Murza has been poisoned twice, in 2015 and 2017. Inexplicably high levels of heavy metals were found in his bloodstream after the second attack. “The doctors say, if there is a third time, that’ll be it. I will not survive this again,” he said after staging his unlikely recovery last year.
Mr. Phillips, Britain’s former counterterrorism head, said it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it’s dangerous to your health to oppose the Russian government.
“If you take each case individually, you could argue that this one’s a heart attack or a suicide or whatever. But if you put them all together, you realize that, blimey, we’ve got a mass murderer, with an MO [modus operandi], killing an awful lot of people.”