Who is Michael Travis Leake, the 51-year-old American reportedly detained in Russia on drug charges?
ABC News correspondent Patrick Reevell discusses the arrest on Start Here.
A 51-year-old American living in Moscow was arrested on reported drug trafficking charges last week, according to Russian media. Michael Travis Leake, accused of selling narcotics, appeared on Russian TV in a courtroom cage.
“I am not admitting to any guilt,” Leake said in a video posted on social media by Russian media.
Leake was formally charged with narcotics dealing and placed in pretrial detention for three months, according to Russian news agencies. If convicted, he could face up to 12 years in prison.
Leake’s mother confirmed to ABC News that her son appears in a video that Russian media say shows his arrest. Leake briefly served in the Air Force as a teenager and has lived in Moscow for much of the past decade working as a musician with two Russian rock bands and teaching English, his mother said. She also said she hasn’t heard from her son since Mother’s Day and is concerned for his well-being.
Leake’s reported arrest comes amid a series of detentions of other Americans in Russia on what the U.S. calls “false charges,” including Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich and former Marine Paul Whelan. The State Department said it’s aware of reports of an American detained in Moscow, but has declined comment otherwise.
Start Here podcast host Brad Mielke spoke to ABC News foreign correspondent Patrick Reevell about the detention and fears about other Americans living in Russia.
BRAD MIELKE: Just a few weeks ago, Brittney Griner played in her first WNBA game back on home soil. Remember, she had been imprisoned over marijuana possession charges in Russia. She pleaded not guilty, but was convicted and sent to a Russian penal colony. The only reason she didn’t serve her full nine-year sentence was because the U.S. made a deal. We got back Griner; they got back a notorious arms trafficker.
At the time, people said this feels like kind of a yucky trade. It was welcome news to Griner and her family, but will Russia try to ransom back more Americans to us?
Well guess what? As Griner is back home, another American has now been arrested on drug charges in Moscow.
ABC’s foreign correspondent Patrick Reevell spent years based there. Patrick, who is this American citizen?
PATRICK REEVELL: Yeah, Hi Brad. So over the weekend, we were monitoring the news and we suddenly saw that an American citizen had been arrested in Moscow. And his name is Michael Travis Leake, and he's charged with selling drugs. And the first that we learned of it was that he was brought to court, and Russian media showed him in a cage in a court, with the allegations that he had been selling drugs.
And he was not someone who was known to us. He is not a well-known person. He's not a famous person. He is ultimately an ordinary American, but who has spent a long time living in Russia. He's been there now since 2010 and has spent most of the past decade, on and off, living in Moscow. And I think one of the main distinguishing features of Travis Leake is that he really loves Russian rock music. In 2014, he appeared in an episode with Anthony Bourdain on his CNN show “Parts Unknown.”
Travis Leake speaks pretty bluntly [in the episode] about his views of how Russia already was and how difficult it was for bands that might try and be critical of the government.
I spoke with the lead singer of a group called Tarakany!, which means "cockroaches" in Russian, and he had known Travis for about 10 years. This band is one that has actually recently been disbanded because they had spoken out publicly against [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and against Russia's invasion of Ukraine. And he actually now lives in exile, when I spoke to him.
MIELKE: And Patrick, is there kind of a sense that subversive music or a subversive scene is part of this that Russia's factoring in? Or are the drug charges legit or is something else going on here?
REEVELL: So the first thing to say is that we really don't know if the drug charges against him could be legitimate. Obviously though, the fear, the immediate fear that people have at the moment – because of what has happened to Brittney Griner and also recently to The Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, and before that to Paul Whalen, the former Marine, and before that to the former Marine Trevor Reid, who was freed in a prisoner exchange – because of all those cases, as soon as an American is arrested, there is suddenly this question of, is it going to be another hostage case? Has Russia taken someone yet again to try and pressure the U.S. and to have trades?
And obviously, each time we approach one of these cases, we have to be open-minded. Of course, there are Americans in Russia who do commit crimes, and we simply, for now, don't know if it's true that he could be guilty. But it has to be said, a lot of the signs around the case are already disquieting. They already are worrying and resemble some of the things we've seen in other cases. I mean, a pro-Kremlin TV channel put out what really can only be described as a hit piece on him after his arrest. The fact of this existence of this hit piece is worrying. I think it suggests that, yes, he could also be taken now as a possible hostage. We'll have to wait and see. But certainly, there are a lot of signs around the case that are already quite worrying.
MIELKE: This feels like this continues to put the U.S. government in a tougher and tougher position, right? Because you're making deals to get back a former Marine or then you're making a deal to get back like a WNBA star, one of the most famous female basketball players who's ever lived in this country, who's a symbol unto herself – she's Black, she's gay.
But now you're talking about maybe ex-pats that live in Russia being taken, even if they're being taken hostage, does the U.S. start making deals for them? At some point, I’m sure there's a lot of Americans here being like, just don't travel to Russia, like, not the time. Is it to the point where people just should not be there because they could be next?
REEVELL: So the U.S. State Department, when the war in Ukraine began, when Russia invaded, told Americans to get out of Russia, now. They said you must leave, you should leave, immediately. And, you know, many Americans, many foreigners and frankly, many Russians who oppose Vladimir Putin, who opposed the war, have left. You know, hundreds of thousands of Russians have fled. But equally, you know, and I know this from my friends, it's a very difficult choice to have to make.
Ultimately, when you are someone like Travis Leake, who's lived in Russia for ten years and clearly loved it very much, you're being forced to say goodbye to your home and all the people you know and a place that you love, for something which, he clearly considered himself not to be a political person. You know, he didn't have any control over Russia's policy. He doesn't have any control over America's policy. And so, you know, it's easy to say you should just get out now, and I think many people feel you should. But of course, it is always very difficult for every individual person.
MIELKE: Really a disturbing case at this point. But like you said, Patrick, still a lot more details still to come here. Patrick Reevell in London right now. Thank you so much.
REEVELL: Thank you, Brad.
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