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Los Angeles police see no sign of foul play in journalist's death

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Police said on Thursday there was no sign of foul play in the fiery car crash near Hollywood that killed journalist Michael Hastings, whose 2010 magazine article led to the ouster of the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan.

Hastings died when the car he was driving slammed into a tree and burst into flames early on Tuesday in a wreck that stirred unsubstantiated conspiracy theories on the Internet suggesting he was the victim of government efforts to silence the reporter.

Hastings, 33, was alone at the time of the crash.

The online rumors were stoked by a Twitter posting from the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks on Wednesday saying Hastings had contacted a WikiLeaks attorney "just a few hours before he died, saying that the FBI was investigating him."

The FBI issued a statement denying WikiLeaks' assertion.

"At no time was journalist Michael Hastings under investigation by the FBI," agency spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said.

She said the FBI had been receiving a barrage of calls pertaining to WikiLeaks' message and "it was getting a little out of control."

Eimiller acknowledged it was "a departure from normal policy" for the FBI to go out of its way to deny an investigation.

Hastings' death was originally confirmed Tuesday by his employer, the online news outlet BuzzFeed.

His body was burned beyond recognition, and medical examiners identified his remains through fingerprint analysis, Ed Winter, the assistant chief coroner, said on Thursday.

Winter said the cause of the accident remained under investigation.

"We don't know if he was just speeding and lost control, if he had a medical issue, if he passed out or had a heart attack ... or if he had a mechanical failure," Winter told Reuters.

He said further tests would be necessary to determine whether alcohol or drugs were a factor.

But a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Police Department, officer Rosario Herrera, said, "We can confirm that there was no evidence of foul play in the accident."

Hastings was best known for his 2010 Rolling Stone magazine profile of then-Army General Stanley McChrystal, which quoted the military leader making disparaging remarks about President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.

The article led Obama to relieve McChrystal of his post as the senior U.S. military commander in Afghanistan and replace him with then-General David Petraeus, who later became CIA director.

Petraeus was forced to resign last November over an affair with Paula Broadwell, his biographer.

The Los Angeles Times reported Hastings had been researching a story about a privacy suit brought by Florida socialite Jill Kelley against the U.S. Defense Department and the FBI in the weeks before he died.

In her lawsuit earlier this month, Kelley and her husband claimed government officials willfully leaked damaging false information about the couple to the media after she became embroiled in the Petraeus scandal.

It was an FBI investigation into Petraeus' extramarital relations that led to publication of allegations that Kelley had exchanged embarrassing personal emails with another U.S. general, John Allen, one-time commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

(Reporting and writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Bill Trott)

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