It was late March, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was going poorly. The Kremlin had done its best to black out Western coverage of the war domestically, as well as its reports of failed Russian advances and widespread brutality.
On the Kremlin’s flagship media channel, Russia-1, came a very different, ghoulish story: from Russian-occupied Ukraine, an “exclusive” report alleging Ukrainian militants brutally raped and murdered a Ukrainian woman and disfigured her corpse.
In the footage, a correspondent follows a pro-Russian separatist soldier into a school basement in Mariupol to view the corpse of a dead woman. The body’s hands appear bound, and a plastic bag is over its head. The body is partially covered by what’s described as a Ukrainian military uniform; a swastika appears either burned or carved into the corpse’s exposed skin.
The video contained no evidence to identify the culprit of the heinous crimes, and Ukrainian officials have said they were committed by Russian forces, noting evidence of similar atrocities had surfaced in other Russian-held areas. For Russia-1′s story, that was irrelevant: To them, this was a Ukrainian atrocity and underscored Putin’s claimed mission to “denazify” Ukraine.
The reporter on the scene wasn’t Russian but was Missouri-born Patrick Lancaster, 39, a U.S. Navy intelligence veteran and self-styled “independent, crowd-funded journalist.” Over the years, he’s shown a knack for being first on the scene to capture what appeared to be staged evidence benefiting Kremlin narratives. He has also courted an audience of American conspiracy theory enthusiasts by appearing on Alex Jones’ radio show, which promotes falsehoods like Joe Biden stealing the 2020 presidential election.
Lancaster’s work has become a regular feature of Russian state media. His footage and commentary have appeared on Russia Today, a state-run English-language channel; Russia-1 and Russia-24, two of the flagship state-owned Russian language channels; and Zvezda, a channel owned by the Russian Ministry of Defense.
In Ukraine, he enjoys access to Russian-controlled territories, where he is often the only English-speaking reporter. In his videos, he sometimes appears to accompany Russian military. In one recent video posted to his Telegram channel, he dons a white strap around his arm and leg, a form of identification used by Russian soldiers to recognize one another. He tells the camera if he didn’t do this, he has been informed he could be mistaken for a Ukrainian soldier and shot. On Telegram, pro-Russian trolls encourage users to support Lancaster’s work.
Just prior to Russia’s invasion, Lancaster was one of the first to report on an alleged “terrorist attack” on three civilians, purportedly carried out by Ukraine. In his coverage, he uncritically repeats what he appears to have been told by Russian military: Ukrainian saboteurs had detonated an improvised explosive device from the side of the road.
In this case, the scene appears to have been so lazily constructed that Lancaster’s own footage captures apparent evidence of the lie: his images of the remains inside the vehicle revealed an impossibly clean cut along the front of one “victim’s” skull, consistent with an autopsy. Grid confirmed with experts at the time that this was the case, and subsequent reporting further established the truth: This was not evidence of an IED attack, and the bodies appeared to have been sourced from a morgue.
As far back as 2014, Lancaster was shooting and posting videos from the region, including a dubious piece meant to challenge the veracity of the investigation into a civilian airliner shot down by a Russian anti-aircraft missile.
Lancaster is one node in an elaborate network of propagandists Putin and his allies have exploited for years to maintain Putin’s support with the Russian public and beyond. Since the invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin has used a heavy-handed media campaign to paint Ukraine as a nation overrun by Nazis and in need of liberation by Russian forces. The strategy has boosted Putin’s approval ratings even as the economy craters, news stations are forced off the air and the military suffers enormous losses.
From the heartland
Lancaster grew up in St. Louis, where he attended a private Catholic high school. Just after graduation in 2002, he joined the Navy. After attending the Navy and Marine Corps Intelligence Training Center in Dam Neck, Virginia, he served on the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk on deployments to the Persian Gulf, Australia and South Korea. He worked as a cryptologic technician and likely held a top-secret clearance, according to Navy documents.
The branch confirmed Lancaster’s service, and declined to make further comment. Grid asked to speak with Lancaster for this story. He agreed, and then stopped replying to messages. Grid also reached out to Lancaster’s friends and family, most of whom declined to speak about him or did not respond.
After his discharge from the Navy in 2006, Lancaster tried his hand at real estate for a few years, according to his LinkedIn profile. It was a uniquely poor time to enter the U.S. real estate market; the sector collapsed in 2008 and triggered a global financial crisis. After that foray, Lancaster worked briefly for a South Dakota construction firm, the company’s owner confirmed. Then Lancaster went to Europe and settled in Berlin, where he became involved in videography.
He first traveled to Ukraine in 2014, where he observed the Crimean referendum vote. In interviews with Russian media, he has said what he saw on the ground did not match what was portrayed in Western media, and it inspired him to begin documenting the scene. In his early videos, Lancaster seems more interested in opposing views, interviewing several people who thought the region should remain part of Ukraine. During this time, Patrick contributed videos of the conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists to RT, formerly known as Russia Today, a Russian state-controlled media company.
Lancaster’s LinkedIn profile says he worked in a freelance capacity for Sky News and Thomson Reuters. A Reuters spokesperson told Grid that “Patrick John Lancaster was not a Reuters employee, freelancer or stringer at any time. Reuters purchased a small number of video clips from Lancaster in Ukraine over a brief period in the mid-2010s. These clips were not commissioned by Reuters.” Sky News did not respond to a request for comment.
“I remember Patrick being compromised from the beginning”
David Ferris, an American filmmaker and writer, met Lancaster when the two were part of a group of freelancers based at the Red Cat Hostel in Donetsk, Ukraine, in 2014. The unaffiliated, young, broke journalists bonded over being a step removed from the better-resourced journalists affiliated with legacy news publications staying in a real hotel on the other side of the city, he said.
Although that group didn’t work together, they often traveled to sites together for ease and safety, Ferris said. Others in the group included Antoine Delaunay, a French photojournalist, and Christopher Allen, an American journalist. Allen was killed in South Sudan in 2017. Reached by phone Wednesday, Delaunay confirmed he was part of the friend group and did not dispute any portion Ferris’ account.
“I remember [Patrick] sort of being compromised from the beginning,” Ferris said. “He would regularly sell to Russia Today.”
Despite ideological and professional differences, the group was close, Ferris said, bound by their empathy for civilians in wartime and the shared experience of personal risk. “All of us did sympathize with the plight of the people who were living under this war and who had their lives upended, and who were, honestly, on the receiving end of Ukrainian bullets and shells,” he explained.
That camaraderie came to an end after Allen, Ferris and Lancaster were detained at the unofficial border between the pro-Russian, separatist-controlled region of Ukraine, known as the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), and Ukraine, according to Ferris. With no translators, fixers or security — or real press credentials to speak of — the Ukrainian intelligence agency pulled the reporters off the public bus they were traveling in and held them overnight in an old Soviet hotel.
The U.S. embassy got them out the next day, Ferris said. But when Lancaster agreed to be interviewed by a “conspiratorial,” “anti-imperialist” podcaster, Allen grew angry, Ferris recalled, and the dispute culminated in a fist fight in the hostel’s kitchen.
“Chris had objected to Patrick’s coverage because it did not adhere to journalistic norms,” Ferris said. After the fight, “that was pretty much the end of that harmonious relationship.”
Grid could not independently confirm the group’s detention by Ukrainian officials or the U.S. embassy’s intervention.
Shortly thereafter, Lancaster has said he moved to the DPR. In 2017, he married a Donetsk woman from the area. They have two children.
Lancaster’s wedding was covered by multiple Russian news organizations including Zvezda, which is owned and controlled by Russia’s Ministry of Defense. His wedding was attended by infamous Serbian mercenary sniper Dejan Beric, who claims to have killed many Ukrainians while fighting for the Russians.
“He poses as a journalist”
That year also saw an early example of Lancaster’s participation in a dubious, macabre story that advocated for the Russians. That July, Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine, killing 298 people. A subsequent investigation concluded the plane was downed by a Russian missile, fired by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine who likely mistook the civilian craft for a military target.
Russia denied responsibility for the disaster and repeatedly tried to cast doubt on the Dutch-led investigation. Lancaster took an active role in this effort, producing videos raising doubts about the investigators’ efforts.
In one video, Lancaster stumbles upon fragments of human bones at the crash site, months after it was meticulously scoured, documented and cleared by the investigative team.
His video angered families of the deceased and frustrated the Dutch investigative team. “Take that American, Patrick Lancaster,” Michael Pistecky, who led the effort to retrieve the bodies, said in 2019. “He poses as a journalist and works with the … I wouldn’t call them separatists, not rebels, but rather bandits, because we now know that they were involved in the downing of MH17.
“Well, Lancaster claims to have found bone remains at the crash site in 2017 and then says that the forensic experts from the Netherlands did a bad job. In this way, the feelings of the next of kin are played into in an annoying way. As if we didn’t go to great lengths to retrieve the bodies.”
Lancaster’s internet empire
Lancaster has built a global audience for himself since then, in part by skillfully leveraging the many social media platforms available to broadcast content worldwide. He has about 500,000 followers across Twitter, YouTube, Telegram and VK, the Russian Facebook clone. He releases new videos almost daily. YouTube, his most trafficked outlet, reports over 30 million views for his videos.
Lancaster’s reach has been further boosted by American uber-conspiracy-theorist Jones, who has made Lancaster a recurring guest on his show, “Infowars.” Jones has been a major proponent of the “Stop the Steal” movement to overturn Donald Trump’s 2020 election loss, and his shows often describe real news events as fantastical “false flag” intelligence operations meant to mislead and confuse the American public. Jones did not respond to a request for comment. In an unrelated lawsuit, Jones’ lawyers have argued that no reasonable person would believe his over-the-top rhetoric.
In one “Infowars” segment with Lancaster, titled “American Reporter in Ukraine Exposing the Globalist WW3 Russian False Flag Op in Real Time,” Jones heaps praise on the expatriate Missourian, in between advertisements selling buckets of shelf-stable food and dietary supplements. “He shows what the Western media will not show you,” Jones said on one episode. To Lancaster, he said, “You’ve done so much amazing work I feel like I know you.”
On a recent “Infowars” appearance, Lancaster implored Jones’ audience to “do your own research.” On screen, Jones promotes Lancaster’s Patreon, a fundraising platform popular with podcasters.
“Think for yourself,” Lancaster says, “Don’t listen to the narrative the Western mainstream media gives you. Research and find out the facts.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.