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Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees

Federal Investigators Interviewed Biden Attorney Who Initially Discovered Classified Documents; GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene Lands Seat On Homeland Security Committee; Former Key Russian Mercenary Defects From "Wagner Group," Makes Claims About How Russia Finds Fighters & Disposes Of Its War Dead. Aired 9-10p ET

Aired January 17, 2023 - 21:00   ET




ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Well, I mean, thank goodness, for those neighbors. I mean, you say, "If you see something, say something."

CASAREZ: Oh! And they were going to leave.

COOPER: And they said something, repeatedly and repeatedly, yes.

CASAREZ: And the Police were going to leave.

COOPER: Yes, yes.

CASAREZ: Because they did the cursory search, they didn't find anything.

COOPER: Got it all. Jean Casarez, appreciate it. Thank you.

Coming up, we look at some of the issues House Republicans plan to investigate, when it comes to the first family, from Hunter Biden's business dealings, to claims by the President's brothers that have also drawn scrutiny. What it all means for the 46th Commander-in-Chief ahead.


COOPER: New reporting, just into CNN, in the Biden documents investigation, what sources are now telling us about who federal investigators are talking to.

CNN's Senior Justice Correspondent, Evan Perez, joins us now.

So, what have you learned, Evan?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, we know that the investigators, doing the initial review, talked to a number of people, associated with President Biden.

One of them, it turns out, is Patrick Moore. He's a longtime Biden campaign attorney election lawyer, who was present, when the first batch of documents, were found, back in November.

He was among the people there, who were trying to go through these boxes of documents that were being removed, from a private office that President Biden used, during the Trump administration. This is at the Penn Biden Center, here in Washington.


We're told that he is one of the people, essentially, who was first on the scene there, and was obviously an important person, for the FBI, for the U.S. Attorney, in Chicago, to talk to, Anderson.

COOPER: The attorney, also, turned over a set of non-classified personal documents, to the Archives, right?

PEREZ: That's right. So, after they found the classified documents, and they turned over those documents, to the National Archives, they decided, according to the White House team, out of an abundance of caution, they decided that they wanted to turn over pretty much everything.

And so, there were a number of documents, including some speeches, private - personal speeches, and reference material that he had had shipped, back to his office, back in Boston, that were then turned over to the National Archives. Again, they say, out of an abundance of caution.

We've talked to the White House, and to President Biden's private attorneys, and they declined to comment for the story.

But Anderson, it just gives you a picture, right, of at least from the White House's perspective, and President Biden's perspective, they view this as going overboard, trying to cooperate, with this investigation, in contrast with the one that's going on still, into the Mar-a-Lago documents.

COOPER: Evan Perez, appreciate it. Thanks.

From that direct examination now, with the President, and the people, around him, to the investigations that House Republicans are ready to launch, into business dealings by members of his family. That includes allegations his son, Hunter, traded on and profited from his familial connections.

Want to get some more now, on that, from CNN Chief Investigative Correspondent, Pamela Brown.


PAMELA BROWN, CNN CHIEF INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): He has built his political career, on promises of honesty, hard work, and a pledge that a family name means something.


I give you my word as a Biden.

BROWN (voice-over): But while, Joe Biden swears by his name, in politics, his son, and two brothers, spent years, trying to benefit, from the "Biden" name. It's all now the focus of a Republican-led Congressional investigation.

REP. JAMES COMER (R-KY): We want to know what the Biden administration is trying to hide, from the American people, and why they are not being transparent.

BROWN (voice-over): Republican congressman, James Comer, now chairs the House Oversight Committee, and has set his sights, on Joe Biden's son, Hunter, a mysterious laptop, now in the hands of the FBI, and long-held conspiracy theories, about President Joe Biden, and what he does or doesn't know.

J. BIDEN: I have never discussed with my son, or my brother, or anyone else, anything having to do with their businesses. Period!

BROWN (voice-over): Despite his denials, a CNN review, of the laptop data, as well as other public material, shows that Joe Biden did interact, with some of his son's associates, while serving as Vice President. Though it's unclear, exactly what was discussed.

One example, the Republicans cite, Miguel Aleman Magnani, a Mexican businessman, and son of the former President, who Hunter was trying to woo.

In 2014, Aleman Magnani, and his dad were photographed, at the White House, with then-Vice President Biden.

In a later email, Hunter Biden reminds Aleman Magnani, of the favors, he's done for him. "We have been talking about business deals and partnerships for 7 years. I have brought every single person you have ever asked me to bring to the effing White House and the Vice President's house and the inauguration."

Hunter Biden bluntly acknowledged the power, of the "Biden" name, in a memoir, writing that the Ukrainian energy company, Burisma, which put him on its Board, "Considered my last name gold."

HUNTER BIDEN, PRESIDENT BIDEN'S SON: I don't think that there's a lot of things that would have happened in my life that - that if my last name wasn't Biden.

BROWN (voice-over): Joe Biden's brothers have repeatedly referenced him, in their private dealings.

Frank Biden, a developer a for-profit charter schools, has invoked his brother, in trying to convince local officials, to approve his projects, like in Sunrise, Florida, where he told the City, in 2015, to trust his venture.

FRANK BIDEN, PRESIDENT BIDEN'S BROTHER: Not because of Frank, but because of the honor of being the brother of a guy, I think, we all know and love. BROWN (voice-over): In 2021, at a gathering, of medical professionals, he made this pledge.

F. BIDEN: The bully pulpit that I have as a result of the privilege of being associated with - with my brother Joey.

And I'll do everything in my power to support you to get the job done, to get federal dollars to your research.

BROWN (voice-over): Frank Biden told CNN, there has been zero interaction, between his brother's public office, and his private business, adding "Do I engage in any way in quid pro quo on any level? Absolutely not."

MICHAEL FREY, CEO OF COMPANY THAT SUED JAMES BIDEN: The last name gave credibility, you know, initially.

BROWN (voice-over): Healthcare entrepreneur, Michael Frey, told CNN, Joe Biden's other brother, James, broke financial promises, he made, while referencing the "Biden" name. Frey's company filed a lawsuit, alleging fraud, by James Biden, who denied the claims.

Frey spoke to CNN, before the lawsuit settled in 2020.

FREY: Everything was on the "Biden" name, and so we took that to heart.


BROWN (voice-over): James Biden was also named, in a lawsuit, filed in July. He allegedly received about $600,000 in loans, in 2018, from a company he worked with, Americore Health, "Based upon representations that his last name, "Biden," could open doors and that he could obtain a large investment from the Middle East based on his political connections." The suit states that the investment was never delivered.

The lawsuit was settled, though James Biden denied the allegations, in court filings. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Kathleen Clark, a government ethics expert, calls it all troubling.

KATHLEEN CLARK, LAW PROFESSOR, WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY IN ST. LOUIS: We have certainly examples of Biden family members explicitly trading on his name, trying to convince business partners to do deals with them. That's outrageous!

BROWN (voice-over): Even so, government ethics experts say that Biden's ethical challenges pale in comparison to Donald Trump.

CLARK: One of the differences is that Trump himself personally was corrupt, and certainly did enrich himself, through the use of government power.

BROWN (voice-over): Even the Republican congressman, leading the Biden investigation, raises concerns, about Trump's dealings, while President. BROWN (on camera): And you believe there should have been more transparency with Trump, and his family members, in the business that they--

COMER: I do.

BROWN (on camera): --may have been doing, overseas?

COMER: I do. I absolutely do.

BROWN (voice-over): Comer says he wants to introduce bipartisan legislation, to tighten ethics laws. But the Committee's first priority is the Bidens.


COOPER: Pamela Brown joins us now.

What's the White House saying about all this?

BROWN: Well, Anderson, it's important to know first off, that there's no proof the President has done anything illegal.

We did send the White House a list of questions, including whether the President stands by his statement that he never discussed his relatives' businesses with them.

And in response, the White House sent us this statement, saying "The President has pledged to restore ethics to the White House and has established the most rigorous ethics guidelines of any administration in history. No family member has or will serve in the administration or be involved in government decision making."


COOPER: Yes. Pamela Brown, appreciate it. Thanks.

More now on how the White House is handling this, and the documents issue as well.

Here to talk about it, two veterans in the art of political communication and crisis management. CNN Senior Political Commentator, and former top Obama White House adviser, David Axelrod; and CNN Political Commentator, Alyssa Farah Griffin, who served as White House Director of Communications, in the previous administration.

David, how do you think the Biden administration is going to deal with the huge microscope, on his family, by the Republican-led House?

DAVID AXELROD, FORMER SENIOR ADVISER TO PRESIDENT OBAMA, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think they've had some time to think about it, because the Republicans haven't been subtle, about the fact that this was going to be an area of inquiry.

I think, look, I'm old enough to remember other siblings, the Billy Carter, and Roger Clinton, and others, who created embarrassment, for their presidential sibling. But if you can't prove a quid pro quo, if there is no - influence peddling is only influence peddling, if you have influence, and you wield it. If there's no evidence of influence being wielded, it's embarrassing.

Clearly, there's some evidence that they're using his name, for their own advantage, but not necessarily getting much result, in terms of what the government does. And I think that's where the rubber hits the road.

COOPER: Alyssa, how do you see this House investigation?

ALYSSA FARAH GRIFFIN, FORMER TRUMP WH DIRECTOR OF STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I hope that Comer's words are right, that he's going to look into just broadly, any sort of impropriety that we may see, in government.

It's you can't talk about the very legitimate concerns about Hunter Biden, and not talk about the former President as well. I don't expect to see that with this committee. They've launched, and been very clear, the Republican-led committee, is going to be extremely partisan. I don't know that I think that gets us anywhere good.

I would remind you, Hunter Biden's under investigation, by the DOJ. If there's going to be accountability into any wrongdoing, anything regarding his taxes, it's going to come from there.


FARAH GRIFFIN: It's not going to come from a congressional committee with subpoena power.

COOPER: David, when we last spoke, last week, you thought the White House handling the classified documents issue was suboptimal.

Is it worse than suboptimal now?

AXELROD: Look, I think, what we've seen, is the tension, between lawyers, and political and communications people.

I think Alyssa would speak to the fact that political folks, communications folks, would say, "Get it all out, get it all out, quickly, get it all out, in total."

Lawyers, now that it's become a legal matter, you have the Special Counsel, are going to say, "Be circumspect. Don't say anything until we know exactly what we're dealing with here. Let's work through them, refer all questions to them."

And you can see, you hear, the President, there's all these leaks, about how frustrated he is, and so on. Source of that frustration, is that tension. He wasn't not answering questions, today, because his communications people told him, "Don't answer questions."


His lawyers are saying, "Let's let the process run here." And that's probably the prudent advice. But it has terrible short-term political implications, because we're here, talking about it, night after night.


Alyssa, if you were, in the White House Communications Office, how would you handle it?

FARAH GRIFFIN: Well, listen, it was not well-handled, this past week or so.

First and foremost, set expectations, I think it would be wise, for the White House, to say, "There may be additional documents found. But you have a commitment, we'll be transparent. We'll make the American public aware, as soon as those come forward, and we're fully compliant with the DOJ."

I also think it'd be very smart to kind of separate this, perhaps have a separate - they have separate counsel, but also have a separate spokesperson, so they can defer these questions.

This is not something they should be talking about, at the White House podium, every day. Dismiss it as an ongoing investigation, and have somebody, who's really credible, seen as non-partisan that's answering questions on this.

I hate to throw someone under the bus, but someone like an Admiral Kirby, the NSC spokesperson, I think, could genuinely answer questions, that are in the public interest, without bringing partisan politics into it.


FARAH GRIFFIN: That seems like what they should be doing.


COOPER: David, what do you think?

AXELROD: Yes, no, well, the thing is that if you say, "We will come forward," every time a new document is discovered you're essentially setting yourself up, for what we saw.

I think this is what they were trying to avoid, because, I don't think they know, or I don't think they did know. I don't know what they know now. But you don't want serial revelations, "Well, three more documents, four more documents." Better to just let the investigation run.

And in fact, I think, Ian Sams, who responded, today, is, Alyssa, now designated, to answer these kinds of questions. So, they're trying to do that.

But if you think back to the Clinton scandal, Monica Lewinsky, back in the day, they were very, very assiduous, about "President's not going to deal with this. We're not going to deal with this. You can talk to the lawyers. You can talk to the Justice Department, Special Counsel. We're not going to - we're just - we're going to do the business of government."

Be smart to - you do one or the other, but don't do half and half.

COOPER: Yes. David Axelrod, Alyssa Farah Griffin, Appreciate it.

Coming up next, how the Congresswoman, who once embraced a 9/11 conspiracy theory, ended up on the Homeland Security Committee.

And later, all we've learned about the disappearance, of missing mom, Ana Walshe, with her husband, just hours away, from being charged.



COOPER: Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene now sits on the House Homeland Security Committee. How she got there and, apparently, into House Speaker Kevin McCarthy's inner circle, is a story in itself.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny has more.


REP. MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE (R-GA): We have to elect Kevin McCarthy.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Marjorie Taylor Greene is taking on a new role, in Congress, being a team player. And so far, this year, she's lining up squarely behind Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

TAYLOR GREENE: If we don't unify behind Kevin McCarthy, we're opening up the door, for the Democrats, to be able to recruit some of our Republicans.

ZELENY (voice-over): The evolution, of the Georgia congresswoman, has been remarkable to watch, or transactional, in the eyes of some critics, as she took center stage, in McCarthy's over-time raise for Speaker.

She worked to win every last vote, even handing her phone, with former President Donald Trump, on the line, to Congressman Matt Rosendale, of Montana, who brushed back her arm-twisting.

A one-time proud Republican rabble-rouser.

TAYLOR GREENE: I'm not afraid of the Civil War and the GOP. I lean into it.

ZELENY (voice-over): Now has a seat at the table, on two key committees, a new role after her committee assignments, were stripped, for repeatedly making incendiary comments, when Democrats controlled the House.

CNN has learned that with McCarthy's blessing, she has landed prime seats, on the Oversight Committee, that will investigate the President, and the Homeland Security Committee, with jurisdiction, over the border. The panel will lead the charge to probe, and potentially move to impeach DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

TAYLOR GREENE: House Republicans are committed. And we are all, together, going to do something, about this problem, to secure our border.

ZELENY (voice-over): She's beginning her second term, in Congress, in a far different place, than when she first arrived, in Washington, after being elected in 2020, from Georgia's deep-red 14th district.

A litany of previous statements, unspooled like a soundtrack of controversy and conspiracy.

TAYLOR GREENE: There is an Islamic invasion, into our government offices, right now.

How do you get avid gun-owners, and people that support the Second Amendment, to give up their guns? Maybe you accomplish that by performing a mass shooting, into a crowd.

The so-called plane that crashed into the Pentagon, it's odd, there's never any evidence shown for a plane, in the Pentagon.

ZELENY (voice-over): And she made clear, in late 2021, she had little interest, playing nice with leaders, of her own party.

TAYLOR GREENE: Respect is earned. It's earned. It's not given.

REP. MATT GAETZ (R-FL): Do you respect the Republican leadership right now?

TAYLOR GREENE: No, no, I don't respect them at all.

ZELENY (voice-over): But heading into the midterm elections, last fall, Republican leaders noticed a change. Her criticism cooled. And she was, on hand, in Pennsylvania, cheering on McCarthy, as he unveiled the GOP agenda.

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): We're going to repeal 87,000 IRS agents.


MCCARTHY: Our job is to work for you, not go after you. Our job is to make America stronger.

ZELENY (voice-over): Her support never wavered, during the bruising Speaker's fight, distancing herself, from McCarthy's outspoken critics, a group to whom, she once belonged.

One Republican ally tells CNN, her transformation, whether temporary or permanent, is a sign of "Strategic maturity."

Indeed, she told CNN's Manu Raju, Republicans must show they can govern.

TAYLOR GREENE: I really want to see us to come together. There's an important race, coming up, in 2024. And Republicans, we have to prove to the country that we can be trusted to lead.


COOPER: Jeff Zeleny joins us now, along with CNN Senior Political Correspondent, and "INSIDE POLITICS SUNDAY" Anchor, Abby Phillip.

So Jeff, we heard in your piece, the comments, Marjorie Taylor Greene made, regarding 9/11, essentially questioning the attack, on the Pentagon. Now, she'll have a seat on the Homeland Security Committee, which was founded in reaction to 9/11.

What do we expect for her, on that committee?

ZELENY: Well, Anderson, she is first and foremost focused on the border. Of course, that's what many House Republicans are focused on. And, particularly, the policies, of the Biden administration, and of the DHS Secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas. So, look for an investigation that could potentially lead to impeachment proceedings. We will see how that plays out.


But this is really a test for her, because just today, she was put back on these committees. She's essentially been - and had a lot of free time, on her hands, the last couple of years, because she's not served on any committees at all, after being stripped of those.

But she will be serving on the Homeland Security Committee and the Oversight Committee. So, we'll see how she conducts herself. She won't be leading these committees. She'll be a member. But the border seems, at least for now, her focus.

COOPER: Abby, she supported, defended, Kevin McCarthy, throughout his Speakership bid.

Republicans controlling the House, Greene showing her unwavering dedication, where does this place her, now, in the Republican Party?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, CNN ANCHOR, INSIDE POLITICS SUNDAY: Yes, I mean, I think that she said it herself, several months ago that if Republicans took over the House of Representatives, which they did, that she would be one of the most powerful members, of the House.

And I think that she, probably like a lot of other members, given out their small majority, is in a real position of power, because I think that she lent Kevin McCarthy, quite a lot of credibility. And that relationship, if it is transactional, it is in both directions. I mean, he needs her, as much as she needs him, for an opportunity, to be on those committees, to have some kind of real power.

So, I think that she's strategically has quite a lot of power, right now. The question is is she going to use it in a way that is good for her, or good for the Republican majority? I think those are not necessarily the same thing. And we'll see whether this "Strategic maturity," that Jeff was talking about, holds, once there's a lot of pressure, on Kevin McCarthy, in the coming months, from the right flank, of which she is still a part.

COOPER: So, she's clearly, Jeff, trying to distance herself from anti- Semitic comments, from the QAnon crazy stuff. Has it impacted her support from her anti-Establishment base?

ZELENY: It hasn't yet. I mean, this is still fairly newly developing. And she's speaking to a couple different channels, at the same time.

She's still not necessarily shying away from some of the sharp comments that she's made. But she is shying away from all the conspiracy theories that sort of brought her in. And she's sort of changed her staff, in some respects. And she seems like she wants to be part of this new Republican majority. But she also, of course, wanted to be - have her committee assignments back. So, we'll see how this plays out, with the base.

But she certainly has a lot of room here, because her district is deep-red. So, certainly supporting the Republican agenda is something that most of her constituents would also support.

COOPER: Yes, I mean, she did promote QAnon conspiracy theories. She even told President Trump, in the lead-up to January 6 that QAnon devotees were going to attend his rally that according to transcripts, released by the January 6 committee.

Just last week, she seemed to distance herself, from QAnon. And I want to play - listen to how she did that.


TAYLOR GREENE: Well, like a lot of people today, I had easily gotten sucked into some things, I'd seen on the internet. But that was dealt with quickly, early on. I never campaigned on those things. That was not something I believed in. That's not what I ran for Congress on. So, those are so far in the past.


COOPER: Do you think, her distancing herself, suddenly, from this, is going to work, and rebranding herself, as a more mainstream Republican?


PHILLIP: Well, we'll see. I mean, look, she said she didn't run on this stuff. But I do think that it was a key part of how she established her conservative bona fides to a certain segment of the Republican base. That's really important. I mean, she's in that seat, now. It's ruby red. But actually, for that reason, she may need to prove that she is still won with the base.

And frankly, Kevin McCarthy is the Speaker. But he has really a tenuous relationship with the kind of fundamentalist core of the Republican Party, which is why I think really only time will tell whether all of this holds.

I'll also say, Anderson, she, all of this stuff, about QAnon, is one thing. But she's also spoken, in front of Nick Fuentes' white nationalist convention, as well. So, she has a lot of things, in her past. And while she's distancing herself, from those things, hasn't actually also denounced them. And I think there's really a difference between those two things.

COOPER: Yes. And they're not that far, in the distance, especially the white nationalist stuff.


COOPER: Abby Phillip, appreciate it, Jeff Zeleny, as well.


COOPER: Coming up, the husband of Ana Walshe is now hours away, from being charged, with her murder. There's no sign, her body has been found. We'll take you through a timeline, of false claims, and some disturbing clues.



COOPER: The search, for Ana Walshe, a wife and mom, who disappeared, more than two weeks ago, is about to become a murder case, against her husband.

Brian Walshe is expected to appear, in a Massachusetts courtroom, tomorrow, charged in her death. The arrest warrant was issued, just hours ago.

He was already in jail, after prosecutors say, he tried to make the search, for Ana, more difficult.

National Correspondent, Jason Carroll, looks at what led to this moment, even with no trace, right now, of Ana Walshe.


JUDY DOANE, FORMER NEIGHBOR OF WALSHE FAMILY: I think the number one concern is finding Ana, and finding out what happened.

JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The timeline, in the mystery, of what happened to Ana Walshe, spans more than two weeks, starting on New Year's Day. That's when, her husband, Brian Walshe claimed she left their Cohasset home, in a rideshare or taxi, to fly to Washington, D.C., for work.

But prosecutors say, there is no evidence, Ana got a ride, or went to the airport.

Brian Walshe tells investigators, on this day, he ran errands, for his mother, in a nearby town. But they find no evidence those trips occurred.

January 2nd, prosecutors say Walshe went to a Home Depot, and spent about $450, in cash, on cleaning supplies, like mops, bucket and tarps.

January 4th, Ana Walshe's workplace, a D.C. real estate firm, calls Police, to report her missing.

A Police log would later confirm the Head of Security, at the firm, was the first to report her missing, to Police, and that her husband has not filed a missing person report on female.

Her friends begin to fear the worst.

PAMELA BARDHI, FRIEND OF ANA WALSHE: I think something has gone horribly, horribly wrong, when it comes to her.

CARROLL (voice-over): January 6th, Police startup massive search, in Cohasset.


Law enforcement sources say her husband's internet records, in the days following her disappearance, show searches for how to dismember a body, and how to dispose of a 115-pound woman's body.

January 8th, Walshe is charged with misleading investigators.

MICHAEL MORRISSEY, NORFOLK DISTRICT ATTORNEY: Early in this investigation, the Police developed probable cause, to believe that her husband, Brian Walshe, age 47, had misled Police investigators, on material matters, important to the search, for Ana Walshe.

CARROLL (voice-over): Walshe is taken into custody, and a not-guilty plea, is entered, on his behalf, the next day.

January 9th, prosecutors say investigators recover a bloody knife, in the family basement, also finding a hacksaw, and torn-up pieces of cloth, with apparent bloodstains, at a trash facility; this, according to law enforcement sources.

January 17th, Walshe is charged with his wife's murder. His arraignment, set for Wednesday, where the District Attorney says additional details about the case will be released.

His attorneys, declined to comment, on the latest charge.

Those who knew Ana Walshe, now left wondering, why the mother of three young boys, would have been killed.

DOANE: She was beautiful, every day. When I saw - every day, she was decked out and she was just - her smile. She smiled. And I never saw her upset. I'd never saw him upset. And it was just the strangest thing!

CARROLL (voice-over): Jason Carroll, CNN, Cohasset, Massachusetts. (END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Well, we'll be covering that story, tomorrow night, as Brian Walshe is expected to make, his first court appearance, in the afternoon.

Up next, the commander, who defected from the mercenary group, helping Vladimir Putin, wage war, in Ukraine, what he claims, is really happening, to those killed, fighting for Russia.



COOPER: In Ukraine, another child is confirmed dead, tonight, after this weekend's Russian missile strike, on an apartment building, one of at least six children, killed in the attack that claimed dozens of lives, in Dnipro.

It is another reminder, of the continued horror, faced by Ukrainians, in this war that Vladimir Putin launched, nearly a year ago. One of his most trusted allies, in that mission, is the head of the private military group, known as the Wagner Group.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, who you see, on the right, he's been recruiting, inside Russian prisons. He told a group of former convicts, today, who are said to have fought, in Ukraine that their quote, "Criminal talents are no longer needed." He reminded them again quoting, not to end up in the slammer again, implying, they were now free, to live their lives, outside prison.

Yet tonight, we're learning much more, about the defection, of a top Russian mercenary, once in the Wagner Group, one who offers a stark description, of what happens, to some of those recruited, into the war effort.

CNN's Nic Robertson has more.



NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR (voice-over): Andrei Medvedev is lucky to be alive. The former Wagner unit commander says he fled Russia, in a daring Arctic escape, dodging bullets, and dogs, across a frozen river, to Norway.

ANDREI MEDVEDEV, FORMER WAGNER MERCENERY (through translator): I've been chased. I'm afraid for my life.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): Afraid, he says, because he has witnessed the murderous atrocities, in Ukraine, committed, in the name, of his ex- boss, Wagner oligarch, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a.k.a Putin's Chef. And he wants to tell all, Russians killing Russians, some of them former prisoners, freed from Russian jails, to fight, for Wagner. MEDVEDEV (through translator): I know cases, where prisoners were demonstratively shot dead, for refusing to fight, or for betrayal. They were showing fighters, "Here, this is what will happen to you."

ROBERTSON (voice-over): He says he joined Wagner, in July, last year, signed up for four months, fought, near Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine.

But when Prigozhin began recruiting, former prisoners, to swell Wagner's ranks, Medvedev saw a deadly change, wanted out, as his contract ended, but wasn't allowed to quit.

MEDVEDEV (through translator): Since the moment, the prisoners have come to serve with us, strange things and murders of their own recruited prisoners, by the Wagner security service, and foolish orders, such as sending us to die, as cannon fodder, started to happen.


ROBERTSON (voice-over): He is the highest-ranking Wagner fighter, to flee to the West. His eye witness account, of Prigozhin's murderous practices, in Ukraine, is revelatory.

VLADIMIR OSECHKIN, HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST: He is really target for the Russian special forces, for the security service from Wagner Group. It's a very high risk of die.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): Human rights activist, Vladimir Osechkin, helped Medvedev escape, has made sure his story gets out.

OSECHKIN: It's very important to do the international investigation about this. It's very important to open this information to the Russian people to understand what has happened.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): Medvedev's biggest revelation will likely be the most damaging, to Putin, and Prigozhin's recruitment drives.

Last month, Prigozhin recorded this callous video, purporting to pose, in front of his dead fighters, in body bags, claiming, "Their contracts were complete, and they were on their way back home."

But Medvedev says he's seen the truth. Many fighters, never making it home, because Prigozhin is too cheap, to pay out insurance, on their death.

MEDVEDEV (through translator): The majority of the prisoners were buried, and then declared missing. The insurance only pays out money, to relatives of the deceased, if the body was identified, and handed over to the relatives. So, they were just declaring everyone as missing.


ROBERTSON: Well, right now, Medvedev is in a secure location, in Norway, telling investigators every detail that he can remember. He says he didn't commit a crime, but wants those responsible, for all the murders, to be brought to justice.


COOPER: Nic Robertson, thanks.


Coming up, details on the, disappearance, of a 20-year-old, who believed the rantings, of a COVID conspiracy theorist, and is now missing, at sea.

Randi Kaye has the story, next.


COOPER: COVID has killed more than a million people, in the U.S., since the start of the Pandemic. It is currently the third leading cause of death, in this country. And yet, since the beginning, many have chosen to embrace misinformation, about the Virus and Vaccine.

Randi Kaye now has the story of one 20-year-old, who has been missing, for more than two years ever since he succumbed to the teachings, of a conspiracy theorist, and sought what he thought would be an island paradise.


ABIGAIL DANIAN, ISAAC DANIAN'S MOM: We were out of town. We came back from Chicago. He was gone.

RANDI KAYE, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Abigail and John Danian haven't seen their son, Isaac, since September of 2020. That's when they say he ran off to Hawaii, to follow his so-called guru.

MATTHEW MELLOW, YOUTUBER: I've known about the end times, for many years.

KAYE (voice-over): That guru? Matthew Mellow. He goes by the name, Mortekai Eleazar, on social media, including his YouTube channel, where he offers sermons, about what he says, is Satan's plan, to destroy society, and false claims, about the dangers, of the COVID-19 vaccine, which he calls, the "Mark of the Beast."


MELLOW: Today, People don't even know what the Mark of the Beast is. Those who do, still don't. They think it's a RFID chip or something of that manner.

KAYE (voice-over): Mellow had posted this recruitment video, online, encouraging men, to join him, and sail to the South Pacific. In it, he suggested society was doomed.

MELLOW: I'd like to extend an invitation. I'm basically the coordinator of this trip.

KAYE (voice-over): Back home, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, 20-year-old Isaac Danian signed up.

His parents say, his mental health had worsened, since the Pandemic began, and that he'd mistakenly come to believe, the Vaccine, was the government's way, of controlling the population. Even the COVID test scared him.

He'd been encouraging his parents to sell all their belongings, and move to a bunker. At the time, they had no idea he'd been listening to the teachings, of Matthew Mellow.

Labor Day weekend, 2020, Isaac left home, without warning. He left behind this note, for his younger siblings, warning them, "Do not get the Vaccine!!!" or "You won't make it to heaven."

Author and journalist, David Wolman, investigated this case, for "The New York Times."

DAVID WOLMAN, AUTHOR, JOURNALIST: This guru clown, who was based, in Hawaii, at the time, he convinced them, to fly to Hawaii, and join him, on this journey, across a huge portion of the Pacific Ocean, to find some COVID-free place, where they could start again, and escape Satan's grand plan.

KAYE (voice-over): Isaac called his parents, on October 4th, 2020, from Hawaii, to say, he'd be off the grid, for about 30 days. He would not say who he was with, or where he was going.

A. DANIAN: He said it was better if he didn't. But he always said, "I wish I could tell you."

KAYE (voice-over): This is one of the last text messages, Isaac sent his mother. October 4th, 2020, a photo of a giant fish he'd caught.

His family never heard from him again.

They would learn later, from Sheriff's investigators that he'd connected with Matthew Mellow, who had arranged for a couple of boat captains, to sail him, and his recruits, to the South Pacific, where COVID hadn't taken hold.

Isaac and, another man, from Rochester, New York, named Shukree Abdul- Rashed, would go in Captain Mike Schmidt's boat, while Mellow left, days later, in another boat.

MIKE SCHMIDT, BOAT CAPTAIN: They actually had a really good time, these two. We caught a lot of fish.


KAYE (voice-over): The trip took a dark turn, when after almost two months at sea, Captain Schmidt, approached the island of Wallis, a French territory, between Hawaii and New Zealand.

Schmidt says, when he alerted local authorities, about their arrival, Isaac and Abdul-Rashed panicked, about having to take a COVID test, to enter. He says, they did the unthinkable, and suddenly jumped overboard.

VOICE OF SCHMIDT: They were afraid of taking the COVID test, as it being the "Mark of the Beast."

Now, they had gotten involved with the guru. They were convinced that for sure (ph) that the PCR test had that there is things inside, along with the Vaccine.

SCHMIDT: And the Vaccine wasn't even really out.

KAYE (voice-over): Schmidt says, he called Wallis Island authorities, for help, and flagged down a fishing boat, to search.

He believes the men had a plan, to slip into oblivion, with Mellow, giving up all ties, to the United States.

WOLMAN: They had really been led astray, by this Instagram-era want- to-be prophet guru who, for some strange reason, just spoke in just the right way, and manner, and with the right diction, to draw these two young men in. It was really this witches' brew of COVID conspiracy theory, meets end times prophecy, meets kind of DIY Christian fundamentalism, meets a lot of stress and turmoil, regarding the 2020 election.

KAYE (voice-over): Mellow didn't respond to our repeated requests for comment.

According to this French Police report, Captain Schmidt was interrogated. And authorities confiscated his 9-millimeter pistol, laptop, and Garmin GPS device, from the boat. Schmidt was eventually cleared, in that investigation.

SCHMIDT: I never did anything to harm these guys ever.

KAYE (voice-over): Dive teams searched the area, for the men, but found nothing.

Isaac's parents filed this missing person report with the Kent County Sheriff's Department, in Michigan, and have appealed to the State Department, and French authorities, for help.

But years later, they are no closer to finding their son.

A. DANIAN: We do have hope he's alive because there hasn't been any evidence to prove otherwise.

VOICE OF A. DANIAN: It's possible that he wanted to go off the grid. And he's in a manic state. It's possible that he was unwillingly kidnapped. It is possible that he drowned.

A. DANIAN: If somebody said to you, your child probably died, would you just accept that and move on? It's not something we can do.


[21:55:00] COOPER: Hey, Randi, I mean, those poor parents, it's just it's an impossible situation, for them.

Any idea, where this so-called guru is?

KAYE: There are a lot of questions, about where he is. Anderson, and a lot of questions, still, about this investigation.

Isaac's parents got a letter, from French authorities, saying that they closed the investigation. They basically concluded that Isaac and the other man drowned.

His parents are now asking and considering, an appeal, in that case. And maybe they would reopen that investigation.

We also know from Kent County Sheriff's Office, in Michigan that their missing person investigation is still open.

But as far as where Matthew Mellow, this so-called guru is? David Wolman, of "The New York Times," who wrote that article, for "The Times," he actually found him, and spoke to him, on an island, in French Polynesia.

He said he's still there, peddling his nonsense, and talking false claims, about COVID-19. He's riding his bike around, according to Wolman, handing out leaflets, telling parents not to get their children vaccinated, talking about the Illuminati, talking about the Mark of the Beast.

And David Wolman also asked him, Anderson, about these men, and their disappearance. And apparently, he told him, that he referred to them, as his brothers. And he said that they died in God's good graces.

But, of course, Anderson, we don't know, if they're dead or alive. Because, as you heard Isaac's mom say no remains have been found.

COOPER: It's just - it's awful!

Randi Kaye, I really appreciate it. Thank you.

The news continues. "CNN TONIGHT" with Laura Coates is next, right after a break.