The missing multi-millionaire: A cut-throat mystery for the new Cold War

All that was left behind was a pool of blood when Leonid Rozhetskin disappeared two months ago. Investigators are still no closer to working out what happened. What has become of the Russian tycoon with a thirst for danger?
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The Independent Online

There was blood on the carpet. Lots of it. The room was in disarray, but nobody had seen a fight. The villa was secluded in its own private pine wood, yards from a beautiful white beach on the coast of Latvia. The owner was gone.

Leonid Rozhetskin – a super-rich Russian-American lawyer with a taste for danger and connections in the highest places – disappeared exactly two months ago. The 41-year-old was beginning to finance movies, trying to break into Hollywood. Now he is starring – in his absence – in a real thriller, still unfolding at locations across the world.

It began on 16 March, when his holiday villa on the Gulf of Riga was found empty. His car was discovered abandoned the next day. His private jet had left Latvia without him, and has since hopped mysteriously from airport to airport for no apparent reason.

Exactly two months later, FBI agents are trying to unravel fiction from fact as they follow the hugely complicated trail of businesses, associates and lovers he left behind. Where did Rozhetskin go? Did he choose to vanish? Was he murdered? If so, who did it? Was it a crime of passion? Did the Russian mafia take revenge for a deal? Has another critic of Putin's regime been silenced?

That is what his partner is said to fear. She is under close protection with their son in London, where Rozhetskin co-owns the business paper City AM. An investigation by The Independent on Sunday has found no evidence to support her fears. But we have uncovered new details of his life that show Leonid Rozhetskin to be a man of many passions, thrilled by taking risks. No stranger to cocaine or rent boys, he was so deeply mired in the cut-throat world of Moscow business that he had previously been forced to flee Russia. The IoS has also learned of FBI evidence hinting at how he may have been killed and the body disposed of.

Just before Rozhetskin disappeared he was with his partner, the model Natalya Belova, in London. He had bought an apartment there for £3m and was telling people he planned to stay for good. But that weekend he flew to Latvia, apparently spontaneously, after a phone call that a source close to Rozhetskin said he described as "important".

Rozhetskin bought the villa near Riga airport five years ago, paying £900,000 for the holiday home in Kapu Iela, a development described as Latvia's Millionaires' Row. He visited only two or three times a year but was known for giving parties. He played an enthusiastic part in the area's small gay community and is said to have been the lover of an ambassador's son. His local nickname was Malvina, which may relate to a Belarusian soft toy company of the same name.

Fun may not have been his only reason for being there, however. Washington had put two Latvian banks on its list of suspected money launderers. One of them was the VEF Bank, whose chairman and largest shareholder until recently (along with his ex-KGB partner Yuris Savitskis) was a man called Alexey Durandin. He is said to own the largest hotel and casino in Jurmala, the seaside town near Rozhetskin's villa. The two men knew each other. Rozhetskin gambled at the casino – and some sources suggest he may have offered to use his influence to try to get Durandin's bank removed from the US blacklist. This has not happened.

Rozhetskin knew many wealthy men like Durandin. He first started to associate with them in 1996 when he moved back to Moscow. Born in Leningrad, he had been educated at Harvard Law School but returned from the US to make a fortune after the fall of Communism. This involved masterminding the first placement of Russian stock on Wall Street since the revolution. Working with George Soros and others, establishing the pioneering company Renaissance Capital, he played the markets to become a key figure in the new economy. But he also took chances in his private life. Rozhetskin had a reputation for hosting wild revelries, where cocaine and male prostitutes were available.

But money was all that really counted, and soon Rozhetskin was caught up in a huge business battle. Part of his considerable portfolio was a quarter stake in Megafon, the giant mobile phone company. When he attempted to sell up, his actions provoked legal battles across the world.

First, a Bermuda-based corporation called Ipoc claimed he had sold it the option to purchase his stake. The company is nominally controlled by a Danish lawyer called Jeffrey Galmond, but a Swiss arbitration court ruled the real owner to be the current Telecoms Minister in Russia, Leonid Reiman.

However, Rozhetskin actually sold his shares for £128m to Altimo, a subsidiary of a huge Russian banking and industrial group called Alfa. It has links to the British Establishment at a very high level: the international advisory panel includes the former foreign secretary Lord Hurd, and the one-time head of GCHQ, Sir Francis Richards. Neither man has a seat on the board, however, or any fiduciary responsibility.

The head of Alfa is Mikhail Fridman, ranked by Forbes magazine as the 50th-richest person in the world. Six years ago, when he was locked in a libel battle with the Centre for Public Integrity in Washington, Fridman ordered an audit of his own company by the corporate sleuths Kroll. Fridman is now believed to be paying the London office of Kroll to supply the bodyguards for Rozhetskin's partner and son.

Alfa and Ipoc threw themselves into a legal struggle over his shares. To help with this, Fridman hired another firm of investigators. Called Diligence, they are chaired in Europe by the former Conservative leader Michael Howard. But in one highly embarrassing episode, Diligence paid an ex-MI6 operative to impersonate a serving agent in an attempt to get documents from Ipoc's accountants. Diligence paid $1.7m (£875,000) to the accountants to settle the dispute.

Meanwhile, prosecutors in Moscow had charged Rozhetskin with the theft of $40m from Ipoc. The money is said to have been paid to him under an alleged option-to-buy arrangement. The arrest warrant is still in force.

But nobody knows where Rozhetskin is. As a result, the battle between Alfa and Ipoc appears to be abating. Last week in Bermuda, Ipoc admitted it had attempted to deceive a court about the source of its funds, and it had to forfeit $45m. In New York, where Rozhetskin had been suing Reiman for pressing him to sell, his lawyers said an unnamed person with power of attorney had ordered them to resolve the case.

All of which should pave the way for both sides to sell their shares to the man known as "the Kremlin's favourite businessman", Alisher Usmanov. The chairman of Gazprom Investment Holdings owns Dynamo Moscow football club and a 25 per cent stake in Arsenal. He is close to the new President, Dmitry Medvedev, but Gazprom cannot take over Megafon until all court cases relating to it are settled. The disappearance of Rozhetskin may actually now hasten an agreement between Fridman, Reiman and Usmanov – three of the most powerful men in Russia.

Of course, his disappearance may have nothing to do with his business interests at all. Among the last people to see him alive were two men who left the villa in a taxi at 2.30am on 16 March. They were taken to XXL, a gay club in Riga. The lights were on when the driver left, and Rozhetskin's SUV was in the driveway. The two men, who have not been named, were questioned but ruled out as suspects.

Police arrested the butler, Anatoly Demchenkov, once an employee of that local casino owner Alexey Durandin, but he has been released on bail. Detectives refuse to confirm that the large patches of blood found at the villa belong to the missing man, but the FBI said DNA tests proved it did. The blood came from a serious head wound, which leads agents to believe he is dead.

No valuables were stolen from the villa, the FBI noted. This may rule out a burglary or an assignation gone wrong. His passport was missing, as were two heavy metal toolboxes. One theory is that they were taken to weigh down the body when it was dropped in the sea.

The FBI must investigate the apparent death of a US citizen abroad, but the mysterious case of Leonid Rozhetskin has also given its agents an unprecedented chance to delve into the dealings of Russia's new movers and shakers. The vanished man was working with Eric Eisner, the son of the former head of Disney, providing finance for a new film about the Russian mafia, to be called Three Wolves. Whatever the plot, it can hardly be as gripping or as far-reaching as the one he left behind.

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