Photo: Michael Travis Leake's personal VKontakte page
Last week, a court in Moscow arrested 51-year-old US citizen Michael Travis Leake. He is accused of large scale drug dealing. Russian TV channels claim that Leake recruited “young ladies” as mephedrone sellers, either with blackmail or in exchange for drugs. Travis moved to Russia in 2010, all these years he has been collaborating with local rock bands such as Tarakany! and Louna. Mediazona tells what is known about the musician's background, his detention, and how Russian propaganda reported on the case.
On June 7, REN TV reported on the detention of American musician Michael Travis Leake, who got “Russian girls hooked on drugs.” The channel's source claimed the 51-year-old US citizen was “blackmailing the young ladies and forcing them to get into the drugs business.” The law enforcers found scales, ziplock bags, duct tape, and “a substance of unknown origin” in his flat.
Later, the Izvestia newspaper published a photograph of Leake's American passport, a photo of him in the hallway of some institution, and a screenshot from a video of his arrest. It showed a man in shorts and a T-shirt, with his hands tied on the floor, and several dildos of different colors and sizes piled in front of his face.
On the same evening, REN TV reported that the Khamovnichesky Court in Moscow had arrested “a Russian woman who had been making drug paraphernalia at the behest of an American musician.” The court's website publishes a document dated June 7 showing the arrest of V.R. Grabanchuk on a charge of selling drugs on a large scale. 22-year-old Veronika Grabanchuk is one of Travis Leake's friends on VKontakte. In June last year, the she wrote that she was working as a bartender and gave master classes in rhetoric and public speaking.
“Nika Bar,” “Veronika Bar/Waiter Trainee,” “Veronika Waiter”—several users of the GetContact app have similar records of Grabanchuk. The court banned any documents being published about the girl's arrest, citing a list of court decisions that are not permitted to be posted on the Internet; this includes, for example, decisions affecting state security.
The next day, an Izvestia correspondent went to a panel building on the outskirts of Moscow where Leake rented a flat two years ago. The journalist asked the American's neighbor if he was having “parties,” if there was “noise or clamor.” The woman said that she “did not notice any signs of parties,” but she “fought” with Travis “because of his love for loud music.” When asked if the neighbor had seen him “under the influence of any substances,” the woman only replied, “Well, he was very untidy all the time.”
A few hours later, the same newspaper posted a video of the arrest. It shows at least four masked law enforcers with assault rifles bursting into the musician's flat. In the video, Leake screams violently as if in pain; the law enforcers twist his arms behind his back and lay him on the floor.
“This morning, US citizen Michael Travis Leake, who had long settled in Russia and was selling drugs here, will remember for a long time. It has never been so crowded at the door of his flat, with so many people wanting to wake him up—in masks, helmets and body armour,” commented a NTV journalist in a story published on the same day. In the material titled “American rocker got young Muscovites hooked on mephedrone” the reporter sneered: “The whole house is literally stuffed with sex toys, in every taste and color. But that's more of a small detail.”
Both Izvestia and NTV also published a short video of the interrogation of the American in the suspect's room. He answers some the standard questions in both English and Russian. When asked about a confession of guilt, he answers that “there is no guilt.”
“I have not been officially charged, I don't know why I am here. I can't believe what I was accused of. I don't understand the reason,” he says.
According to NTV, Leake later changed his mind and “told the police how he decided to set up a small but profitable business selling mephedrone in Russia.” The TV channel claimed Leake had been involved in drug trafficking for three years. However, according to law enforcers, he had “assistants,” allegedly “two ladies” who “for a dose or two left stashes in the city” and “promoted his products on the Internet.” One of the “assistants”, the journalist claimed, was detained at the Pekin Hotel in the centre of Moscow. The girl even “pointed at Leake during interrogation.” The reporter did not name the detainee—it was unclear whether she was referring to Veronika Grabanchuk or not.
The Khamovnicheskii court did not announce Leake's arrest until June 10, three days after REN TV reported it. Leake was charged under the same article as Grabanchuk. The court press office specified to TASS news agency that the musician was “accused of organizing a business of selling drugs with the involvement of young people.” On the same day, news of Leake's arrest was aired on Russia-24.
Talking about Leake's biography, both NTV and Russia-24 TV channels focused on the fact that he served in the US paratroopers and has lived in Russia since 2010. “He also visited Ukraine for some reason—starting with the famous events of 2014. He even found a comrade-in-arms and a wife there. In Moscow, apart from trying in vain to write his name in the history of the capital's punk scene, he promoted music bands and, perhaps like a true American, consulted his friends on how not to love Russia,” the NTV correspondent said.
Leake's mother Glenda Garcia, who identified him from the arrest video, told ABC News that he was born in California and served in the US Air Force as a young man. He has been living in Moscow for the most part of the last decade, “performing in two Russian rock bands and also teaching English.” She last spoke to her son on Mother's Day, May 14. Garcia said she was “concerned about his well-being” as they usually spoke every fortnight.
All over social media, Leake mentions his group, Lovi Noch. But judging by the number of subscribers on the collective's pages, it was not a success. Leake himself has rarely appeared on the stage, he is more well known as a guest artist. For instance, he performed a few songs with NAIVE band leader Alexander “Chacha” Ivanov at his birthday party in 2020, and the next time he performed with his band was only in March 2023.
Leake's LinkedIn profile states that he has been a producer for the rock band Louna since 2011. He also started collaborating with the band Tarakany! in 2013, and stopped working with the Slot band in 2015. Louna’s song ‘Behind the mask’ as well as Tarakany!’s hit ‘Russian Democrazy’ are mentioned there as a part of his English-language work.
“Bands from the Moscow rock scene would ask him to write English songs for them or proofread lyrics,” said former CNN producer Daria Tarasova, who worked on host Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown travel show back in 2014, in one episode of which Leake also had a brief appearance.
Around that time, impressed by the protests in Russia, the famous American presenter Anthony Bourdain came to Moscow to show the atmosphere in the city against the backdrop of the Donbas war outbreak. He met Leake at the “16 tons,” one of the most famous rock nightclub in the city, at a Louna concert. Ruben Kazaryan, the band's guitarist, was also with them. When the film crew's audio equipment starts malfunctioning, Leake says in all seriousness: “It's the KGB, they're blocking your signal. I'm sure they are, believe it or not. I'm quite sure you have someone on your tail the entire time you're here.” Ghazaryan says that in Russia, there's a “façade” which looks nice: “We have elections, democracy, courst. But all of this doesn't work... What prevents Russians from speaking freely? Formally, nothing. But in reality, a lot of things.”
As an example of unspoken pressure, Leake describes a situation around an MTV show about protesting musicians. Louna was supposed to appear on one of its episodes. At the last minute, when the band had already written a song for the show's soundtrack, Leake received an email from the show's producer saying that the episode about Russia had been removed “due to political pressure.”
“This was a documentary series about musicians standing up and risking their lives in some cases, to stand up against government abuse of power, government corruption. And yet, a foreign government was able to editorially control what Americans viewers see on their TV screens. That to me is a scandal of epic proportion,” he raged.
“The band wasn’t that famous but Travis and his friends had been very vocal about the freedom of speech and state oppression in Russia. Bourdain really liked that interview,” producer Tarasova shared her opinion with CNN.
She said Travis, “a showman,” was “very articulate and he loved Russia.” During their last conversation in 2018, he seemed “depressed and upset.”
“Travis would never do the things he is being accused of. He is an American in Russia and is very aware of the situation he’s in. But I’m surprised he stayed after the war started, as it was very risky for him,” Tarasova says.
Editor: Maria Klimova
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