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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Questions Surround Death of U.S. Student

The body of an American university student has been found outside his south Moscow dormitory, but investigators were divided Friday over whether the death was a murder or suicide.


The student from Connecticut, Anthony Riccio, 21, died Tuesday evening about 7:30 P.M. after being asphyxiated with a rope and falling to the ground outside his dormitory at the Russian State Humanities University, according to a coroner's report. The U.S. Embassy has received a summary of the report.


The report classified Riccio's death just 10 days after his arrival in Moscow as a murder, said acting embassy spokesman Michael McClellan. However, a police investigator Thursday attributed the death to suicide.


The coroner's ruling will now be passed along to the Moscow Procurator's Office, which, in turn, will consider toxicology tests on Riccio's body, interviews with witnesses and other evidence before deciding whether to launch a murder investigation.


Some American students, living in fear after Riccio's death, reportedly plan to quit their exchange program and return to the United States.


Melissa Cloteaux, an American who has been studying at the university for a year, said at the dorm complex that other American students "were very much scared."


Moscow police officials are giving conflicting accounts of Riccio's death. One of the first officers on the scene said Riccio was found dead on the ground with a broken rope around his neck and the other end attached to a balcony on the 16th floor of the university dormitory building.


"We have found no traces of violence on the body and the testimony of witnesses give no immediate grounds for suspecting that this was a murder," said the officer, Pyotr Kushnin, on Thursday. "The most immediate version of the cause of the incident is that he committed suicide by hanging himself on the balcony of the 16th floor, then the rope broke and he fell down."


Kushnin cautioned that it was still too early to have a definitive cause of Riccio's death.


On Friday, however, the officer on duty at the 136th precinct, the district where Riccio died, had a different version of what investigators found.


"There was no rope nor traces of rope found," said Alexander Peshkov, who agreed with his colleague in deeming the death a likely suicide, although he did not provide details on how it might have occurred.


The coroner's report makes no mention of a rope being found, said McClellan.


Nikolai Solntsev, a lawyer who has just started investigating the case for the Riccio family, said Friday that there were many reasons to doubt Riccio's death was a suicide.


"He did not leave a farewell note and he was not a drug or alcohol addict. And he had a good reputation," said Solntsev.


Those who knew Riccio, a junior in Russian Studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, said they had seen nothing to indicate he was prone to suicide.


In Riccio's hometown of Glastonbury, Connecticut, his cousin Anthony Cowles described him as "a wonderful person. Warm. Energetic," according to a report in The Hartford Courant newspaper in Connecticut.


The newspaper quoted Riccio's former high-school Russian teacher, who had stayed in touch with him, as saying: "He was gregarious, one of the most outgoing people I've taught ... He was the kind of person that just made friends instantly."


The teacher, Joseph McCarthy, said Riccio had traveled extensively in the last two years in the former Soviet Union, visiting Moscow, St. Petersburg, Georgia and Estonia.


Riccio arrived in Moscow on Sept. 10 for a year-long course of study at the Russian State Humanities University, under a program run by the American Collegiate Consortium. His mother, Lenore Cronin, told The Courant that the family had not heard from Riccio since he had left for Moscow.


Elisha Hall, assistant resident director in Moscow for the American Collegiate Consortium, said: "I would describe Tony as very outgoing, very excited about this year. We are all waiting to hear what the Procurator's Office has to say."


Hall said Riccio had moved into the predominantly Russian dormitory on Sept. 14.


Linda Bruce, the director of Middlebury College's program in Moscow, said she had heard about concerns for the safety of American students in programs other than her own.


"I think that a lot of the American groups at Russian schools of higher learning are not well taken care of and are housed in sometimes dangerous situations," Bruce said Friday.


"I've heard about fires on dormitory floors where the firemen don't come. I've heard of a situation where a man came onto a dormitory floor with a gun. Then the police were called but they never came."


According to Solntsev, the family lawyer, Riccio's body was scheduled to be flown back to Connecticut on Saturday. American Collegiate Consortium officials and others students in Moscow had not heard Friday of any plans for a memorial service.


Riccio is survived by his parents John Riccio and Lenore Cronin of Glastonbury, Connecticut; a sister, Julia, of Somerville, Massachusetts; and, a brother Leonard, who lives in California.


***Pyotr Yudin contributed to this article.***