Joyal, then 53, didn’t notice anything amiss until a hard, sudden blow landed on the side of his head. He fought back against the assailant, punching at the solar plexus. They tumbled to the ground. That’s when the man told his partner to fire. Joyal took a 9-millimeter round to the gut.
The gunman stepped closer for a second shot, Joyal says, but the weapon jammed. Meanwhile, the noise had roused the neighborhood. Inside his house, lights came on and the dog started barking. The men took off, perhaps via the cemetery just beyond the backyard. Joyal’s wife called 911. Within minutes, he was on his way to the hospital.
For a brief period that spring, the shooting of a Putin critic in the placid town of Adelphi was news around the Beltway. Even at a time when Washington was more focused on Baghdad than Moscow, the coincidence of a suspicious shooting so soon after the TV appearance was enough to vault the story into the local media. “Intelligence Specialist’s Shooting Stirs Speculation,” reported the Washington Post.
Adding to the paranoid mood in Joyal’s circle, a British reporter also interviewed on the show had died of a surprise heart attack at age 54 at his home in London just before the segment aired.
Not that Joyal could have known about the speculation. He spent a month in the hospital, in and out of consciousness. “I had tubes coming out of me in every direction,” he says. He would have multiple surgeries in the next few years to repair his intestines. When he was moved out of Intensive Care, he was given a hospital room under an assumed name and with a guard minding the door. To get in, he says, family members had to give each day’s unique code word.
But if the cloak-and-dagger ambiance excited the media, it didn’t do much to sway the people in charge of investigating the shooting: the local Prince George’s County Police Department.
In the initial days after the shooting, says William Chase, who knew Joyal and was then FBI Special Agent in Charge in Baltimore, the questions led him to send a team to search for chemical and electronic evidence and dispatch the guard to the hospital. But “there wasn’t enough for us to go over and try to assert jurisdiction,” he said. The case remained with local police.
County detectives, meanwhile, were unable to interview Joyal for nearly a month as he fought for his life in the hospital. They had little else to go on: No sightings of a getaway car, little physical evidence beyond the single shell casing in the lawn. He didn’t get a good description of the assailants; there was nothing memorable about the accent that said “shoot him.” Police came to believe it was a random crime gone wrong.
To Joyal, the lack of evidence is itself an indication to the contrary. Even if his quiet residential block were a place where a stickup crew would want to wait around for a target, there’s the inconvenient fact that nothing was stolen. No one tried to snag Joyal’s wallet or his phone. His computer was sitting on the back seat of the car. The keys to the Chrysler 300M itself were right there for the taking.
Sixteen years later, that’s pretty much where things stand. A spate of mysterious deaths of Kremlin foes bolsters suspicions that Joyal was targeted, either for his TV statements or other work with regime opponents. “I think it was intended to send a message to others, that we can and will do things like this,” says his friend Paul Goble, a prolific writer on the post-Soviet world and a former official at the State Department and VOA, who once hired Joyal to write a newsletter for Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty. Others continue to have doubts — suggesting, for instance, that the four days between the “Dateline” show and the shooting is too short a window for an intelligence operation.
Ultimately, police never concluded that international skullduggery was involved. But they didn’t find any other culprits, either. A spokeswoman said this week that the case remains open and there have been no arrests. It’s been largely forgotten. About the only time the 2007 mystery makes the news nowadays is when there’s some new allegation of Kremlin intrigue leading to dead bodies on Western soil.
Which is how I came to be sitting at lunch with Joyal on a sunny Friday afternoon. Over the past year, I’d written a couple of columns about the death of Dan Rapoport, the former Moscow businessman and one-time owner of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump’s Kalorama mansion. After leaving Russia, Rapoport had become a vocal Kremlin critic in Washington before relocating again to Kyiv. His fatal fall from a building in D.C.’s West End neighborhood last summer got big play overseas, but earned little attention locally.
Like Joyal’s shooting, Rapoport’s fall was quickly labeled foul play by allies, who blamed Moscow. Like Joyal’s shooting, there were skeptics, who in this case said the victim was too small a fish to merit a brazen hit. And especially like Joyal’s shooting, the skeptics included the local police, who said that they had no reason to think the fall was anything other than a suicide.
Calling around to Rapoport’s friends, I found mixed views about the D.C. police’s conclusion. But a frequent refrain was the sense that local law enforcement, accustomed to investigating drug killings or armed robberies, didn’t seem jazzed to consider something more convoluted and international — even if they had the skills and experience to recognize the dirty work of intelligence operatives.
One of those friends had a suggestion for me: There’s a guy who got shot in front of his house years ago, and lots of people back then believed it was more than just some street crime. Why don’t you see what he thinks?
As it happens, Joyal thinks the details seem awfully fishy.
“Look where it was first reported,” he says. Rapoport’s death first made news on a Russian gossip site — the sort of outlet that intelligence services frequently use to put things out — before a lot of people in Washington even knew what had happened at 24th and M streets. “The thing that gets me leaning in the direction that a more vigorous investigation is needed are some of the information threads that surround this case, the fact that Russian media reported it before our local media.”
For that matter, Joyal thinks the same about the 2015 death of Mikhail Lesin, the former Putin propaganda mastermind who died in a Dupont Circle hotel room of what was initially reported to be a heart attack. D.C.’s medical examiner later determined that the cause was blunt force trauma — but that report was soon amended to say that the death was accidental, possibly the result of falling off the bed when drunk. “Very, very suspicious to say the least,” he says.
Over crab cakes, the Rhode Island native, now 70, paints a picture of a Washington where people are much more vulnerable to international violence than many locals believe. An Iranian former minister shot at his front door in Bethesda in the 1980s. The former Chilean foreign minister blown up by a car bomb on Massachusetts Avenue during the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship. And those are just the successful killings that became public.
Murders of exiles with polonium-laced tea or poison-tipped umbrellas may be associated with European capitals like London (or Berlin, where the Russian convicted of assassinating a Chechen exile in a local park is reportedly part of prisoner-swap talks aimed at freeing imprisoned Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich). But there’s no reason dirty deeds by secret agents have to stay on the far side of the ocean.
“Who knows what the Chinese are up to with these police stations,” Joyal says, referring to allegations (denied by Beijing) that China had set up 100 overseas police stations to monitor dissidents around the world — including several in the United States, where charges were filed against two alleged operatives in New York in April. This week, Canada expelled an Indian diplomat amid allegations (denied by New Delhi) of abetting a hit on a Sikh activist based in British Columbia. In June, the New York Times reported that the Kremlin had sought to target a Florida-based Russian official turned CIA asset in Miami in 2020.
The Times report characterized that alleged plot to kill someone on U.S. soil as an unprecedented escalation — a description that would seem to leave out Joyal’s case, as well as those of Lesin and Rapoport. But when I met with Joyal, he was less interested in litigating his theory that Moscow was behind those incidents (which the Russians too have denied) than in discussing how America should investigate similar allegations.
Under our system, when someone falls from a window or gets shot in their driveway, the case is handled by local police. Oftentimes, that’s where the incident will stay. Though certain contexts — terrorism, organized crime — might trigger federal involvement, plain old murder is not primarily an FBI issue. The result, Joyal says, is that cases involving a foreign intelligence agency are liable to get handled by detectives with no particular expertise in the methods and motivations of state-sponsored assassinations.
Worse still, a history of tension between local cops and the feds means detectives might not be especially eager to call for assistance. (One of Rapoport’s friends told me last year that he suspected city police’s dread of having “to deal with some crazy Russians,” was a motivation for ruling out foul play in the Lesin case.)
What Joyal says he’d like to see is an FBI resource that could be dispatched to local cases where a foreign government might be involved. Such a unit would be made up of folks who had deep knowledge of assassinations, both in terms of methodology and in terms of how they fit into related “active measures” that might range from misinformation to ongoing operations around the world. And it would include forensic experts, too. “There are particular things that the medical examiner may not be aware of,” he says. “It could be the use of some aerosols. It could be injections under the eyelids or between the toes of poisons.”
Joyal also says the work of chasing down allegations would be made easier if there were a specific federal statute aimed at this particular type of assassination. “It’s very important for us to communicate to the world that we’re not going to tolerate this and we’re going to throw resources at it to get to the bottom of it,” he says.
Goble, Joyal’s old friend from Radio Free Europe, says he’s all for the idea, but has his doubts about how easily the various players would want to work together — especially since, sometimes, Washington may subconsciously not want the truth.
“You start saying that a foreign government that has nuclear weapons has decided to send a message in the worst possible way on the territory of your country — that’s not something that officials in most governments want to see happen,” he says. “This creates a problem, and people don’t like problems. If you can find an alternative explanation that deals with it, you are going to be inclined to accept it.”
Ironically, there’s one kind of case where this kind of resource would be especially useful: Incidents where there really isn’t a sinister international scheme involved.
Right now, when local police decide to move on from a case of alleged foreign intelligence misdeeds, no one is really satisfied. Suspicious types will always assume the hometown cops didn’t have the muscle to uncover secret-agent perfidy.
Among other things, the murkiness benefits whatever country is accused of sponsoring the violence. Besides eliminating a critic, one reason to carry out a hit is to send a message to future turncoats: No one can protect you, not even the Americans, not even in their own capital. An unconvincingly closed case sends the same message — even if the foreign government had nothing to do with it. A team that could lend credibility to the conclusion that it really was a random crime, on the other hand, would be reassuring.
“You don’t want to feed the conspiracy theory of people who are always looking to stoke the fires of, ‘You can’t trust the United States,’” Joyal says.