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19 июля 2022 года

From Munich to Moscow

The inside story of how fugitive Wirecard COO Jan Marsalek fled from a 2 billion euro corruption saga in Germany and wound up living under state protection in Russia

This is a joint investigation between the London-based Dossier Center and the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. New Lines editor Michael Weiss edited and arranged the English-language text.

On the evening of June 18, 2020, a phone rang at the Vienna office of Jet X Aviation Services, known for flying the nation’s wealthy elite around in comfort and discretion. An unidentified man asked the company’s managing director Thomas W. to arrange a private jet for a third party the next day. The destination was Minsk.

Thomas W. offered take off from the small airport of the spa town of Bad Voslau, an half-an-hour drive from the Austrian capital, because that airport was cheaper to fly from. His mysterious customer confirmed the departure for five o’clock in the evening of June 19 and sent a photograph of the passenger’s passport via WhatsApp. The photograph showed a man with a bushy beard and brown eyes. Thomas W. had no idea the man in the picture was Jan Marsalek, now one of the world’s most wanted men.

June 18 had been a rough day for the 40 year-old chief operating officer of Wirecard, the German payment processing and financial services company. The board had “extraordinarily suspended” Marsalek after he was implicated in the expropriation of 1.9 billion euros from its accounts. Before ordering his private jet, he’d consulted with both Wirecard’s in-house counsel and criminal defense attorneys. His case was dire, they told him. That same day, Marsalek had a final meeting with colleagues. “He said it was all over. He looked tired and humble,” recalled one of them.

Then Marsalek disappeared.

The story of the incredible rise and ignominious fall of a German fintech giant became an international scandal. Founded in Munich in 1999, Wirecard was designed to work with risky or morally hazardous clients, the ones regular banks didn’t want to do business with: online casinos, porn websites, and private military companies. In 2020 a Financial Times investigation uncovered that Wirecard processed payments for CenturionBet, an online gambling concern in Malta, which was involved in money laundering for an Italian mob.  

Senior management, it came to light, had been manipulating internal accounting reports for years to cover up the crime. Wirecard executives recorded almost two billion euros on the company’s balance sheet, money that accounting firms established didn’t exist. The funds were held in bank accounts registered to Wirecard’s Philippine branch, for which Marsalek, as the head of the company’s Asia operations, was directly responsible. There were forged or backdated contracts in the Singaporean branch and irregularities in financial data in the Emirati and Irish ones.

Once valued at 24 billion euro, Wirecard is now insolvent. Its CEO and largest shareholder Markus Braun, a former KPMG consultant, now sits in a Bavarian prison, having been indicted in March for fraud, market manipulation, breach of public trust and account rigging. He is set to stand trial in Germany in the Fall. Two of his charged co-conspirators are Stephan von Erffa, the former head of accounting and deputy finance director, and an unnamed Dubai-based executive. Braun maintains his innocence and insists he is the victim of an elaborate fraud perpetrated by his fugitive COO.

The day before he vanished two years ago, Marsalek was “extraordinarily suspended” from Wirecard’s management board on a revocable basis following the finding by an independent auditing firm that it could not substantiate the 1.9 billion the company cited in its books. That same day Marsalek rang up his former assistant, Sabine Erhl and instructed her to book a table in an Italian restaurant in the center of Munich for three people. Around 6:30 p.m., Erhl and Marsalek met for a farewell pizza with Martin Weiss, the former head of operations of the Austrian Federal Office for Protecting the Constitution and Fighting Terrorism (BVT), the third highest ranking intelligence position in the country.

Weiss took a leave of absence from the BVT in 2017. Since 2019, he and Marsalek had been working together, with Weiss acting as a scout for business opportunities for the ambitious entrepreneur – and as an accomplice in stealing Austrian state secrets, which Marsalek passed onto members of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ). 

Weiss was also a frequent visitor to a luxurious villa that Marsalek rented in Munich and used as an office and hosting venue for those he wished to cultivate for personal or professional reasons. Under interrogation Erhl would later claim Marsalek never told her of escape plans; rather that he was going to retire and relocate to the Philippines to track down the missing Wirecard billions. To bolster this explanation, Marsalek even bought tickets and arranged for the forgery of entry data into the archipelago nation.

Weiss, for his part, has stated that Erhl asked him to arrange a plane to Minsk. She sent him a copy of Marsalek’s passport, he claims, and Weiss, evidently wary of getting his own hands dirty in the exfiltration of an accused fraudster, entrusted the organization of Marsalek’s flight to Thomas Schellenbacher, a former Austrian parliamentary deputy from the FPÖ. It was Schellenbacher who rang up Jet X Aviation on June 18.

Marsalek departed Munich for Vienna the following day. Austrian investigators allege that another former BVT officer, Egisto Ott, drove him from Germany to Austria, as Marsalek didn’t have a driver’s license. Throughout the intervening 24-hour period, Weiss discussed the desired place of departure with the wouldbe fugitive as Schellenbacher photographed the police and customs checkpoints at Bad Vöslau Airport.

At 11:56 a.m, June 19, employees of the Minsk airport VIP lounge received a written request from a travel agency to escort Marsalek through their facilities. “This will be a private flight,” it read, “arrival from Vienna approximately 20:00-21:00.” Attached to the letter was also a copy of a Grenadian diplomatic passport issued in the name of Jan Marsalek, who was never known to have ever possessed Grenadian citizenship. (Austria doesn’t permit dual citizenship.)

According to the Minsk airport website, VIP escorts provide assistance during flight and baggage check-ins and arrange for leisurely pre-boarding conditions as well as separate transport to and from the aircraft. They also afford the flier the opportunity to obtain a business visa right at the airport. The sender of the letter, the Dossier Center has learned, was Victoria Gartvick, a sales representative for the Belarusian travel agency Planet of Dreams. 

A few years earlier, in May 2018, Marsalek’s friend Stanislav Petlinsky ordered the same VIP service in Minsk using the same travel agency and possibly orchestrated Marsalek’s arrival. A Russian and Israeli citizen, he is a former employee of the apparatus of the State Duma and the Office of the President who’s run a succession of businesses in Russia. In 2017, he arranged for Marsalek to visit the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, then newly liberated from ISIS, at the invitation of the Russian military. The Dossier Center previously confirmed that Petlinsky contracted the Russian private military company RSB Group to de-mine a cement factory in war-ravaged Libya, a factory Marsalek has serially claimed to co-own in territory under the control of pro-Russian warlord Gen. Khalifa Haftar and for which the Financial Times discovered he obtained 20 million euros in an Austrian debt waiver.  

According to colleagues, Marsalek used to introduce Petlinsky as “Stas” or “Stani” and identify him as a leader of Russian mercenaries. Petlinsky was also a frequent guest at Marsalek’s luxurious villa on Prinzregentenstraße in Munich, just opposite the Russian consulate, where powerful government officials and businessmen have gathered. These have included Rami El Obeidi, the former head of Libya’s foreign intelligence service in the National Transitional Council, the governing body that took over the country after Muammar Gaddafi’s fall in 2011. El Obeidi was also a shareholder in Wirecard. 

Austrian investigators and security officials believe Petlinsky to be one of Marsalek’s liaisons with Russian intelligence, even though Marsalek has consistently denied any such links. However, in 2019, Petlinsky changed his name to Boris Nikolaevich Grin and acquired a new set of identity documents including an internal Russian passport issued from the same department of the Federal Migration Service that produced the false passports for Anatoly Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin, the GRU assassins sent to poison Russian intelligence defector Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England in 2018.

Stanislav Petlinsky

Marsalek almost didn’t make it.

Thomas W. and the captain of flight FTY5 waited for him at Bad Vöslau airport on June 19 from 3:30 p.m., but Marsalek didn’t show up. The plane sat on the tarmac for several hours awaiting its lone passenger. Officers from the nearby Leobersdorf police station arrived to check Marsalek’s documents. As an arrest warrant hadn’t yet been issued for him, the police authorized the plane to depart.

He was late because he was on edge. Marsalek had told Weiss several times that he wanted to postpone his departure (first by an hour, then by several more), and he had logistical problems to boot. His taxi driver apparently couldn’t find the entrance to the out-of-the-way airfield.

Finally, a car with Viennese license plates drove up. Marsalek wore light blue jeans, a black leather jacket, and black sneakers – all Prada. He carried only hand luggage, a small suitcase and a bag with clothes. Under sunnier circumstances, he’d only don the finest couture and most expensive timepieces.

Thomas W. noted that instead of the shaggy client he’d seen in the passport photo, a clean-shaven businessman boarded the Cessna Citation Mustang 510. It finally took off at 7:45 p.m. 

According to the flight data provided by C4ADS and Icarus Flights, the flight landed in Minsk at 11:07 p.m. local time. Rejecting the proffered Jet X receipt, Marsalek paid Thomas W. 7,920 euros in cash and boarded the bus to the VIP lounge.

Records show Marsalek crossed the border into Belarus with an Austrian passport. According to a request for legal assistance sent to the Belarusian government by German law enforcement, the CCTV footage of his arrival in Minsk has been deleted. Belarusian authorities stated that Marsalek’s further movements within their country could not be established. Allegedly, he never left. But that was a lie.

According to sources in the Russian special services, on the same evening Marsalek landed in Minsk, an Austrian citizen by the name of Maks Mauer passed through border control. The photograph in his passport, which the Dossier Center has obtained, completely matched Marsalek’s appearance. Mauer was born in the Swiss city of St. Gallen two years earlier than Marsalek, on February 17, 1978. The passport otherwise appeared genuine, although Süddeutsche Zeitung has found that its number was never registered in Austria. It was presumably a fake issued to Marsalek by the agents of the Russian security services who obtained the cooperation of Alexander Lukashenko’s KGB in offering Marsalek safe passage through Belarus under a false identity.

Mauer’s Austrian passport

At the exit from Minsk airport, a black Mercedes with the license plate number 8367 **-* was waiting for Mauer. The Dossier Center has found a car with that same license number in Belarus’ traffic police database, although it isn’t listed as a Mercedes but an Audi 80, registered to one Alexander Evgenievich K.  The car ferried Marsalek to his hotel, the Hampton by Hilton on Tolstoy Street in the city center. From there, he crossed into Russia and arrived in Moscow.

Marsalek has been living there under the round-the-clock protection of Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB. If that seems an odd privilege afforded to an accused white collar criminal from Europe, it’s because it is. Marsalek, according to the Financial Times, is a person of interest to three Western intelligence agencies, which suspect he’s been working with or for the FSB’s sister agency, the GRU, Russian military intelligence. One of Marsalek’s key liaisons for his eyebrow-raising business ventures in Libya, for instance, is Andrey Chuprygin, who one western intelligence official cited by the broadsheet said is “a former GRU senior officer with strong links to the agency.”

Marsalek, as it happens, was a frequent visitor to Russia; he’s traveled there more than 60 times in the last decade and not just to Moscow but also Kazan, St. Petersburg, and Nizhny Novgorod. Most were incredibly short trips; some just for the night. In other cases, Marsalek flew back and forth from Europe to Russia repeatedly in the space of a single day – an occurrence that increased in frequency after Russia’s seizure and annexation of Crimea in 2014. The independent Russian news portal The Insider has suggested Marsalek was a bagman for sanctioned businessmen, politicians and friends of Vladimir Putin.

According to the forensic investigative outlet Bellingcat, he’s used six different Austrian passports for these trips and other identifying documents, all of which have been “purged from the [Russian] border-crossing database.” In some of his passport photos, he’s wearing glasses or has a beard, much as he did in the passport arranging his plane out of Austria. In others, he looks much as he did to those who knew him at Wirecard, beardless with close-cropped hair.

Marsalek knows Moscow nearly as well as his native Vienna. Periodically he’s been kept in safe houses maintained by Russian intelligence in exchange for his relay of privileged information about his business connections and the political landscape in Germany and Austria, two Central European countries notoriously susceptible to Russian influence operations and espionage.

Weiss has told German authorities that Marsalek often inquired of him about influential Russians and their possible connections to the European intelligence services. Weiss was all too happy to oblige. He said he gave at least 25 names to Egisto Ott, another ex-officer of the BVT also since arrested, to verify on Marsalek’s behalf. One of them was Elena Baturina, the billionaire wife of Yuri Luzhkov, the former mayor of Moscow. Last year, Austrian authorities confiscated a list of Russian names Marsalek had prevailed upon Weiss and Ott to vet.

Yet Berlin has yet to publicly acknowledge Marsalek’s troubling Russian connections. Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND), its foreign spy agency, continues to deny he had any. And yet Marsalek did fall under BND suspicion in 2018 when he bragged to business associates in London that he possessed four classified reports from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) showing the exact chemical formula for the Novichok nerve agent, the weapon of choice of both the GRU and FSB in their botched attempts to assassinate Skripal and Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The OPCW at that time was investigating the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury, England, in 2018 and several GRU operatives were caught in October of that year by Dutch counterintelligence attempting to hack into the watchdog’s headquarters in The Hague from a nearby hotel parking lot.

The BND claimed during a hearing in the Bundestag that it only found out Marsalek was hiding in Moscow in the Spring of 2021 when, during a confidential hearing by the parliamentary committee in charge of overseeing the activities of German intelligence it was disclosed that he was living in a Rublyovka villa owned by an unnamed Russian oligarch.

To all of Germany’s inquiries about Marsalek’s whereabouts, Moscow has answered that there is no Austrian citizen under that name living in its territory. Technically, this is correct. Marsalek entered the country under an assumed name with documents likely prepared for him by the FSB.

The Dossier Center confirmed Marsalek’s daily routine is a great deal more relaxed than that of the high-stakes Austrian fintech wiz he once was. He’s a frequent visitor to the famous La Marée restaurant on Malaya Gruzinskaya Street, where Russian oligarchs and spies party under a large portrait of Putin. He’s frequently accompanied to La Marée by an Audi A8 and Toyota Land Cruiser, both conveyances of his bodyguards from the FSB.

Marsalek, too, has learned to drive or at least has a license to do so. His car in Moscow is outfitted with diplomatic plates associated with the embassy of a Persian Gulf state, allowing him to evade city surveillance, as diplomatic cars’ movements are not officially registered.

Marsalek, moreover, is no longer Maks Mauer.  

On June 10, 2021 he acquired Russian citizenship, along with an internal passport. But he has since altered his identity yet again to that of German Bazhenov, a Munich-born German national, and someone whom German police aren’t seeking in connection with billions of purloined corporate money.

Bazhenov Russian passport

The authenticity of Bazhenov’s Russian passport is in question. The Dossier Center made a request using the Rospassport database, but no information was found about a document with German Bazhenov’s passport number and surname. A passport with an identical number was issued to Daria Mitina, a former deputy of the State Duma, in September 2000. The photo in it has been retouched: the same image of Marsalek has been advertised on his international arrest warrant and only the clothes he’s wearing are different. He may have used an old photograph for a legitimate passport.

According to the Dossier Center’s source, the FSB provided Marsalek with Bazhenov’s passport for daily use and assumed that information about his existence could “leak”. Marsalek likely has another Russian passport under a different name.

Two FSB sources told the Dossier Center that Marsalek was indeed issued one, although another source in the services noted that it’s impossible to reuse the same number as one previously issued to another citizen. Not that Marsalek has had much use for any travel documents, real or forged. He’s left Moscow only once — to go to Sochi in April.

The FSB moves him around the capital and its region constantly, from one apartment to another and one house to another. Marsalek has been spotted entering the Aerobus residential complex at 4/1 Kochanovsky Prospect Street, the residence of one of his female friends.

Marsalek near Aerobus residential complex

The German tabloid Bild reported that he was suspected of living in the village of Razdory in the Odintsovo administrative center of the Odintsovsky District. According to Dossier Center sources, until recently Marsalek lived nearby in the heavily guarded village of “Meiendorf Gardens,” on the former territory of the Barvikha sanatorium. This is one of the toniest areas in Russia, where cottages can cost up to $100 million. As such, Marsalek’s former neighbors are some of the wealthiest people in Russia: Iskander Makhmudov, Andrei Bokarev and Vladimir Lisin, plus relatives of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. Igor Sechin, the powerful CEO of Russian oil giant Rosneft, is building an enormous dacha in the area in the shape of the Cyrillic letter Zh. Also close by is Novo-Ogaryovo, the official residence of the Russian president. 

Jan Marsalek may have physically disappeared, but his old Telegram account is still active. The last time anyone used it was January 21, 2022, about a month before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The instance before that after Marsalek’s flight from Austria was in mid-March 2021, shortly after his lawyers met with investigators from the Munich prosecutor’s office to discuss his possible surrender, even though he’d not been seen or heard from in over a year. 

Except, of course, by Martin Weiss. 

The ex-BVT officer was arrested along with former colleague Egisto Ott in January 2021. Even before then, however, Weiss had been cooperating with the Austrian authorities. In the Fall of 2020, he told investigators that Marsalek wanted to know how far the probe into his malfeasance had progressed. The disgraced executive, Weiss said, used different phone numbers, including those with English and Russian country codes. The first contact was always through an encrypted messenger. Ever paranoid about who he might really be talking to, and perhaps trained up on the rules of communications security, Marsalek would test his interlocutor by asking what bauble he’d kept on his desk at his palatial Munich office. 

It was a swinging figurine of Putin.

Correction: We previously mentioned that BND started keeping a serious eye on Marsalek back in 2018, when the latter bragged to his business associates about possessing classified reports related to the Novichok poisoning. However, the German agency’s interest, in fact, got raised only in 2020 when the Financial Times published an article about Marsalek and his Novichok-related claims.

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