#MinskMonitor: American Reportedly Found Dead in Occupied Donbas

After disappearing in 2015, Rostov news site reports that William Paul Reilly’s grave has been found

(Sources: Left — 1rnd.ru, Right — VK / Mikhail Polynkov)

American William Paul Reilly was reportedly found dead in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), three years after he was last heard from, according to a local Rostov Russian media outlet.

If this report is accurate, Reilly would be the third American confirmed to have died in eastern Ukraine as a result of the ongoing conflict in the Donbas. Speculation around Reilly’s fate has also focused the spotlight on Mikhail Polynkov, a controversial Russian activist who recruited Reilly, along with a number of other foreigners, to fight for separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.

On June 24, 2015, Reilly, a 28-year-old American from Michigan, called his parents from the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. He was planning to head to the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine to assist the Russian-led separatists in Donetsk. Reilly has not been heard from since and, according to recent reports from Rostov.ru and Ukrainian journalist Denis Kazansky, his body has been discovered in eastern Ukraine.

“American citizen William Paul Reilly has been found in the territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic. In the spring of 2015, the foreigner arrived in Russia, but soon disappeared without a trace. The last time he spoke with his parents, he was in Rostov. Per our source, William died in mid-2015. ‘The man’s body was discovered in the territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic,’ Rostov.ru was told by a source. ‘They buried the dead in a DNR grave.’”

There has been no other corroboration of these reports, however.

After arriving in Moscow, Reilly reportedly met with a Russian man who recruited foreigners into the self-declared DNR. In 2014–2015, a surge of Westerners ideologically identifying with both the far-right and the far-left came to fight in eastern Ukraine, including for the Russian-led separatists in eastern Ukraine and in support of the Ukrainian government. Most of these people survived, though some were arrested upon returning home and others are still stranded on both sides of the conflict line in Ukraine.

Coming from America

Reilly, a Michigan native, arrived in Moscow on May 15, 2015, where he was met by the notorious Russian activist Mikhail Polynkov (also known as “Khrustalik”). From Moscow, Reilly visited a number of cities in western and southwestern Russia, including Ulyanovsk, Volgograd, and eventually Rostov. A number of photographs provided by Russell “Texas” Bentley (an American living in Donetsk) and previously posted on Reilly’s now-deleted social media page show the American’s stops throughout Russia before he arrived in Rostov.

For example, in the photograph below, Reilly is posing in front of the Eternal Flame in Volgograd.

(Sources: Left — 1rnd.ru, Right — TripAdvisor)

Another photograph shows the American either boarding or departing from a train between Moscow and Rostov. While it is unclear where he is during his journey, he is not in Rostov, as the main Rostov train station has a different brick pattern than the one seen in the Reilly photograph.

Note the sign (in Russian) indicating the Rostov to Moscow route in the window. (Source: Pikabu.ru).

After a few trips around Russian cities, Reilly arrived in Rostov, from where he planned to head to Donetsk and meet with Russell “Texas” Bentley. As detailed by Bentley, Reilly’s parents, credit card statements, and phone records, Reilly was mugged in Rostov in early June, losing $2,000 USD and his bank and credit cards.

The phone records that Reilly’s parents provided show a number of calls to and from Ukraine and Russia, with some of the locations largely matching his trips through Russia. By using apps such as TrueCaller and GetContact, some of these numbers can be reverse searched, providing vague results for some of these numbers (e.g., “Misha,” “Alina”) and specific but unhelpful for others (e.g., “Taksi Mezhgorod Aleksey (…)13 rubles per kilometer” and “Olya Saakyn” in Saratov).

(Source: 1rnd.ru)

Reilly last spoke with his parents on June 24, 2015, and only one person has publicly acknowledged seeing or speaking with him after this date—Mikhail Polynkov.

Mikhail Polynkov

The person who helped bring Reilly to Russia and who last saw him in Russia is a man named Mikhail Polynkov, one of the most influential recruiters of volunteers to fight with the so-called DNR and assisting infamous Russian-separatist commander Igor “Strelkov” Girkin.

Polynkov assisted Reilly with his arrival into Moscow and helped him reach a base in Rostov for his eventual trip to the Donbas. After Reilly fell out of contact with his parents, his father reached out to Polynkov on the Russian social network Vkontakte (VK). In the conversation, Polynkov implied that Reilly was with the CIA and that he was last known to be with the Russian security services (FSB). The names and profile pictures linked with these messages match those on VK at the time of the conversation.

(Source: 1rnd.ru)
(Source: 1rnd.ru)

Additionally, a Ukrainian hacker group called RUH8 published a number of VK private messages belonging to Polynkov. Among these messages is a conversation between Polynkov and “Odin Dvatri,” who also works to recruit volunteers to fight in the Donbas. After discussing how to send a parcel to America, on May 20, 2015—five days after Reilly’s arrival in Moscow and a month before his disappearance—Polynkov sent a color photograph of Reilly’s passport to “Dvatri.” In a recent post to LiveJournal, Polynkov claimed that this was done so that Reilly would be allowed onto their base in Rostov. The leaked messages have since been taken offline, but screenshot and archived versions of them still exist online.

Photograph of the passport shared by Polynkov in a VK message. Personal details blurred by @DFRLab. (Source: RUH8.info)

The fact that this is a color image is notable because only black-and-white scans of Reilly’s photograph have appeared elsewhere online to date.

Polynkov directly addressed news of Reilly’s grave being discovered in a December 3, 2018, post on his personal LiveJournal.

“He really was at our base in Rostov. But we did not let him go to the Donbas. He really was detained by our security services in suspicion of espionage. According to my information, [the security services] found out about a chain of liaisons from him to the CIA. After this, they deported him back to his homeland. It’s possible that he returned and tried to cross the border himself, but I have doubts about that. I also have doubts that he was found dead. And the fact that he is connected with the CIA — I’m convinced of this because now the Ukrainians are arranging yet another information game about his ‘death.’”

Polynkov went on to accuse a Wall Street Journal journalist, who tried to speak with him of being an “undercover CIA agent.” It should be noted that Reilly’s death was originally reported by a local Russian site, Rostov.ru, and not by “the Ukrainians,” as asserted by Polynkov.

Conclusion

A number of Americans have traveled to war-torn eastern Ukraine, but, to date, only three are known or suspected to have died as a result — Mark Paslawsky, who died fighting in a pro-Ukrainian militia; a monitor for the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine who was carrying out patrols outside of Luhansk; and possibly William Reilly.

There has not been a confirmation of Reilly’s death outside of the isolated Rostov.ru report along with reports from Denis Kazansky and Polynkov, but the Russian recruiter’s claims regarding him being “deported” and being a CIA agent only cast further suspicion on what he knows about Reilly’s fate.


Both the family of Reilly and Russell “Texas” Bentley are still attempting to gather information about William Reilly’s disappearance. Any information about Reilly and his disappearance in Rostov and/or eastern Ukraine should be sent (in Russian or English) to the email address where.is.billy@yandex.com.


Aric Toler is the Lead Digital Forensic Research Associate for Eurasia at the@DFRLab.

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