MOSCOW -- An American exchange student who was realizing a dream by coming to study at a Russian university fell 14 stories to his death Tuesday night from his dormitory room in southern Moscow.
Officials are calling it a suicide, but an official familiar with the university program here says it looks more like murder with possible connections to the local mafia.
Anthony Riccio, 21, appeared to have been strangled before he fell, according to a preliminary, as yet undisclosed examination, the official said.
Four of Mr. Riccio's fellow students have moved out of the dorm out of fear. They say they don't believe police need to look far for a culprit: The university Mr. Riccio was attending regularly rents out dormitory rooms to non-students who appear to be actively engaged in organized crime.
"You can be pretty sure he was killed," said the person familiar with the case, asking for anonymity for fear of retribution.
The student's father, John Riccio, was not surprised to hear it.
In a telephone interview from his home in Glastonbury, Conn., yesterday, he said, "The idea of self-inflicted death: It just doesn't ring right."
Anthony Riccio, a junior at Brown University in Rhode Island, had been studying Russian since he was in the seventh grade. He majored in Russian studies at Brown, and he hoped to become a Russian professor or a news correspondent based in Moscow.
He arrived here Sept. 9 for a short orientation, then on Sept. 15 began taking classes at the Russian State University for the Humanities, known by its Russian initials as RGGU.
He was in a group of five American students sponsored by the American Collegiate Consortium for East-West Cultural and Academic Exchange, based in Middlebury, Vt.
The students asked to be housed at a Russian dormitory, far from the university itself, rather than in one close by that caters to foreign students.
"That was the way our son was, always wanting to mix in with his surroundings," Mr. Riccio said. "His biggest concern was, could they understand his accent, and could he assimilate himself into the Russian culture."
The students were apparently unaware that university officials were making money on the side by renting out spare rooms. Faculty members said last night that almost all those rooms go to lower-echelon gangsters.
Nor were the students aware of reports that a young Russian woman living at the dorm apparently was thrown to her death several months ago.
The four surviving Americans left the dormitory Wednesday. A faculty adviser said they were terrified. The adviser said the U.S. Embassy had advised them not to speak until after they have been questioned by Moscow police next Monday.
On Wednesday, sources say, Russian university officials pressured police to treat the death as a suicide. A police officer involved in the case said last night that that was still the official explanation. He denied that there had been any forensic examination of the body.
University officials could not be reached last night.
Mark Teeter, the Moscow resident director of the American Collegiate Consortium, challenged the assertion that Mr. Riccio had been murdered. But he said he was not familiar with the details of the case.
"The Consortium has to knuckle down and get an answer," said John Riccio. "They're the ones who sanctioned this university."
RGGU provides an interesting glimpse of the changes swamping higher education in Russia. Originally a high Communist Party school, it was transformed into a humanities center by its director, Yuri Afanasyev, after the fall of the party in 1991.
There was a great deal of optimism then, faculty members say, but corruption within the university quickly became a blatant problem.
Today much of its space is rented out to various business enterprises, who post machine-gun-wielding guards on the university's grounds.
Teachers complain that "registration fees" are extorted from them by the administration. They call the school's leaders "bandits" and "rats."
"It's not like an academic institution anymore," said one teacher.
But Anthony Riccio entered this environment full of excitement and enthusiasm for all things Russian. He had been to Russia once before, as a high school student on a brief tour. According to teachers, he had an excellent command of the language.
"What struck me most," a classmate, Marisa Textor, told the Brown Daily Herald, "was how easy it was for me to see him [in the future] as a Russian professor inspiring people to love Russian as he loved Russian."
"This was something he'd been looking forward to for a long period of time," his father, an advertising executive, said last night. The last time they heard from him was Sept. 12.
"He was in wonderful spirits," Mr. Riccio said.
If what the police are saying is true, his father added, "he would have had to reach an awfully high level of despondency in a very short period of time.
"And he always knew he could get on a flight and come home. The pieces aren't there to fathom it."
Anthony's father and mother, Lenore, learned of his death through the U.S. Embassy. They were not aware until talking to a reporter that he was living among non-students, nor that there is, reportedly, evidence of foul play.
An autopsy is scheduled for today, and Anthony's remains may go home as early as tomorrow. But the Riccios are willing to delay his return if that will help the investigation.
"It's killing us over here, to put it bluntly," his father said. "But it seems the best course. Forthrightness is what we need right now. But no matter what happened, in the end we still don't have our son back. It's hard. It's hard. It's awfully hard knowing he's over there like that."