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Fw: Comrade J - More details about the autopsy (and colon cancer)

Released on 2012-03-08 09:00 GMT

Email-ID 366609
Date 2010-09-26 17:55:18
Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T


From: Anya Alfano
Date: Sun, 26 Sep 2010 10:01:56 -0400
Subject: Comrade J - More details about the autopsy (and colon cancer)
Looks like the autopsy was actually completed before his death was made
public, and sounds like he also had colon cancer.

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Printed on page A1

An espionage mystery solved on an autopsy slab


Published: Sunday, September 26, 2010 at 1:00 a.m.

In Moscow and Washington, if not in his adopted home of Osprey,
speculation has sizzled about what -- or who -- killed Sergei Tretyakov,
former KGB agent and perhaps the most prominent Russian defector of the
post-Cold War era.

But now it seems that Tretyakov, 53, was done in by an extra helping of
chicken pot pie.

Dr. Russell S. Vega, chief medical examiner for Florida's District 12,
certified this month that the ex-spy choked to death in June. Vega also
revealed that Tretyakov's days might have been numbered anyway -- by an
advanced, and apparently undetected, cancer of the colon.

It was a forensic investigation that nearly did not happen.

When Helen Tretyakov found her husband unconscious on the living room
floor June 13 and called 911, she and the paramedics responded as though
he had suffered a heart attack.

After an 18-minute attempt at resuscitation failed, the paramedics
pronounced him dead at 7:28 p.m.

Because Tretyakov had a doctor willing to sign his death certificate after
the apparent heart attack, Vega said, his office initially had no interest
in the case. That changed the next day, after a call from the Sheriff's

"Additional information was presented to us about his background and
history," Vega said, "which automatically raised a degree of suspicion
that wouldn't have existed in an average citizen's death of this type.
Based on that additional layer of suspicion, that's when we got involved,
and asserted jurisdiction over the case and brought him in for an

Tretyakov has been described as the most important defector ever from
Russia to the United States. His acceptance of FBI protection in October
2000 was linked to the high-profile arrest, four months later, of FBI
agent Robert Phillip Hanssen on charges of selling secrets to Russia. At
the time of his arrest, Hanssen's mother, Vivian, was living in Venice.

In March 2001, a month after the Hanssen case broke, Tretyakov settled
with his wife, Helen, in the peaceful Park Trace neighborhood near Pine
View School, where they lived for more than nine years. Two weeks after he
died there, Russian espionage was once again in the news, with the U.S.
arrest and deportation of 10 suspected spies.

Greeting some of those deportees on their return to Russia in July, Prime
Minister Vladimir Putin said darkly that "traitors always end badly. They
finish up as drunks, addicts, on the street. Recently one, for instance,
ended his existence abroad and it was not clear what the point of it all

But as spy watchers avidly wondered whether Putin was hinting at foul play
against Tretyakov, Vega had already found the 5-inch-long piece of chicken
that ended the life of the former spy.

Vega's final report was not made public until after all toxicological and
other lab reports had been completed.

"In this particular case, I played on the side of caution and waited for
all the tests to come back before finalizing the cause of death," he said.
"In most cases I would not have done that; I would have certified it right

Vega conducted the autopsy on June 15, after his investigator had
interviewed Helen Tretyakov and the first responders. At this point, death
from heart disease was still considered the most likely possibility.

"We knew he had a history of being a pretty heavy drinker, and being
overweight, and having high blood pressure and high cholesterol," Vega
said. "When I get that history from anybody, and it's somebody who has an
apparent sudden collapse, then 95 times out of a hundred or more, when we
get those cases it's going to be a sudden death from heart disease."

Helen Tretyakov did not make her husband's death public until July 9 --
the same day the Russian spy exchange occurred -- calling a Washington,
D.C., radio station to say he had died of coronary arrest. So at the time
Vega was examining the body, only law enforcement agencies and Tretyakov's
family and friends knew he had died. Vega said he received no pressure
from the FBI or anyone else.

"You know what? I took the extra degrees of scrutiny because I knew it was
important to do so," he said. "But intellectually I knew what was going on
from the beginning. I said this is not going to be a suspicious case; I
don't think this guy would have been knocked off by ex-KGB agents or
something like that. It turns out that was true, but my initial assertion
that it was a natural death was wrong. It was a non-suspicious kind of
accidental death."

Proceeding with a thorough but routine autopsy, Vega looked for scars that
might provide evidence of poisoning, and found none. He did see some
evidence of underlying heart disease. But he also found colon cancer: a
large tumor that, in his opinion, could have proven fatal if not diagnosed
within a few months. Because it was not fully obstructing the colon, Vega
said, the tumor was probably asymptomatic, and there is no evidence
Tretyakov was aware of it. There were also indications that the cancer
might have been in the process of spreading to Tretyakov's liver.

Coming to the end of his examination, Vega said, "I was leaning toward the
heart being the cause of death. And that's when I was examining the neck
structures and found the very large obstruction in the airway."

Even then, he said, it did not feel like a dramatic discovery.

"We find stuff in the airways pretty frequently. So when you first get a
hint that there's something in there, I'm not necessarily thinking this is
a choking death," he said. "It was not until I realized that this was
nothing that had been sitting around in the stomach for a while. It was
really lodged, and a very long piece. I was absolutely convinced that it
was a real choking death."

Sending his investigator back to interview Helen Tretyakov, Vega learned
she had made one of her husband's favorite dishes that night, chicken pot

"He had apparently finished dinner, and was going to make a cocktail,"
Vega said. "It appears that he decided to have an additional helping, and
that additional helping was the one that got stuck."

Choking deaths are rare in adults, Vega said, unless they have some
neurological disorder that makes it hard to swallow. But choking sometimes
occurs when a person is intoxicated.

"There's no way to tell for certain" if that was the case with Tretyakov,
Vega said. "I can tell you, in a general way, intoxication can impede
somebody's ability to clear their airway. And he had a pretty good alcohol
level, so I think probably in this case it did contribute."

The official cause of death for Sergei Tretyakov of Osprey is now a matter
of public record: asphyxia due to airway obstruction. That may not
discourage gossip by international espionage enthusiasts, but Vega
considers the case closed. He also considers it memorable.

"If you take away the whole spy thing," he said, "it was an interesting
case because of such an obvious large food bolus that was causing the
choking. We just don't see them that often."

This story appeared in print on page A1

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