A coroner has highlighted a series of failings in the initial police investigation into the mysterious death of a Russian whistleblower.
Multi-millionaire Alexander Perepilichnyy, 44, collapsed and died while jogging near his home in Weybridge, Surrey, on November 10 2012, after spending the night with his mistress in Paris.
Coroner Nicholas Hilliard QC has been examining whether the married businessman could have been murdered with poison or died of sudden arrhythmic death syndrome (Sads).
The inquest at the Old Bailey has heard evidence that Mr Perepilichnyy had faced threats in the months before his death and had taken out millions of pounds in life insurance.
Mr Perepilichnyy had recently fought off a legal challenge by a debt recovery firm allegedly led by a prime suspect in the Alexander Litvinenko poison case, Dmitry Kovtun.
And he had been helping UK-based Bill Browder’s Hermitage Capital Investment expose a 230 million US dollar (£142 million in November 2012) money-laundering operation, the inquest was told.
The father of two died before he could give evidence against the alleged fraudsters who had targeted Hermitage.
One significant lost opportunity was the absence of an early forensic post-mortem examinationNicholas Hilliard QC
The coroner said Mr Perepilichnyy’s death was not initially treated as suspicious at the scene as no-one reported any ill-effects or concerns.
As a result, no forensic post-mortem examination was carried out until 18 days later, and Mr Perepilichnyy’s stomach contents were thrown away before they could be tested for poison.
There was only a “limited search of the scene so any potentially incriminating evidence was missed and police failed to follow up house-to-house calls at properties where no-one was home.
Only a “very limited” amount of CCTV footage was viewed from two of the six entrances to the St George’s Hill estate where Mr Perepilichnyy lived, Mr Hilliard said.
The handset of Mr Perepilichnyy’s second mobile phone was never obtained and data from his computer was lost.
On why Surrey Police did not at first treat the death as suspicious, Mr Hilliard said: “Faced with a middle-aged man in jogging clothes at the top of a steep hill, it is unsurprising those officers (at the scene) came to this view.”
He told the court that, had police looked “carefully”, they could have found an article linking Mr Perepilichnyy to the alleged fraud and that he was “hiding in London”.
The coroner said: “One significant lost opportunity was the absence of an early forensic post-mortem examination.”
There is nothing that points significantly towards poisoning rather than Sads. And there is nothing significantly that points away from poisoning and towards SadsNicholas Hilliard QC
However, Mr Hilliard said there was “no direct evidence Mr Perepilichnyy was murdered”.
He told the inquest there was an “obvious” motive of those behind the Hermitage to stop Mr Perepilichnyy from giving evidence against them in Switzerland.
However, the alleged fraudster, Vladlen Stepanov, never had a visa to enter the UK, he said.
Even though Andrei Pavlov, with whom Mr Perepilichnyy had two meetings, was in Britain until November 11 2012, there was no evidence to suggest he was an “assassin”.
The court heard that Swiss authorities had referred to the deaths of three witnesses in the fraud case, and that Mr Perepilichnyy was not a high-profile critic of the Kremlin, unlike others who were obviously murdered.
Mr Hilliard said he received a letter on Tuesday from the Metropolitan Police counter-terrorism unit confirming they “are not conducting an investigation into Mr Perepilichnyy’s death” at the hands of a “hostile” agent.
Mr Hilliard said the most likely causes were either poisoning or Sads, which claims between 800 and 1,500 lives in the UK each year.
He told the Old Bailey: “There is nothing that points significantly towards poisoning rather than Sads. And there is nothing significantly that points away from poisoning and towards Sads.
“Whatever happened to Mr Perepilichnyy, it was highly usual and in reality it was poisoning or Sads.”
In the two days before his death, Mr Perepilichnyy had been on a romantic break in Paris with his ex-model girlfriend, Elmira Medynska, 28, and had vomited after eating fish during their last supper.
While he may have suffered from food poisoning, the coroner said it did not contribute to his death the next day, after he went home.