Prosecutors say one accused Russian spy confessed
Defense lawyers depict clients as innocent parents
They have been described as Russian secret agents living in the shadows of the suburbs, but they looked no more sinister than bored Thursday parents in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, slumped, arms crossed, as if enduring another long PTA meeting.
Husbands and wives shared the defense table, two mothers and two fathers, as the sensational charges were fleshed out and the more mundane sides of their lives were explored. They were described as concealing their missions from their closest observers.
“There is no inkling at all,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Farbiarz, “that their children, who they live with, have any idea they are Russian agents.”
In the end, the judge decided that the charges of deception mostly won out over parenthood, denying bail to two defendants. Another might be allowed to serve a kind of house arrest next week.
The fourth, who was granted bail, is the one the government concedes lived under her own name: Vicky Pelaez, a columnist for El Diario La Prensa, a newspaper in New York, with the judge saying she didn’t appear to have trained as a spy. Her husband, Juan Jose Lazaro Sr., postponed his request for bail.
But Lazaro made a long and damaging statement after his arrest, prosecutors revealed, in which he admitted that his loyalty was to the “Service,” a reference to the Russian SVR, the successor agency to the KGB, the Soviet spy agency.
Of the second couple, Richard and Cynthia Murphy of Montclair, N.J., the judge said he wasn’t confident that they wouldn’t flee if released.
Federal prosecutors said they had searched a safe-deposit box belonging to the Murphys this week and found eight unmarked envelopes each stuffed with $10,000.
“In order to have confidence in somebody’s appearance, you have to know who the person is,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald Ellis said in denying them bail. “The court came to the conclusion that it just doesn’t know who these individuals are.”
In the back row of the heavily guarded courtroom appeared to be relatives and supporters of the defendants. And lawyers for three of the suspects argued that their clients were rooted in their communities, had jobs and had no incentive to flee.
But Farbiarz used that claim against them. The family situations and professional and community connections — typically considerations in bail hearings — weren’t relevant, he said, because they were fraudulent and “riddled with deception.”
The decision to deny bail for most of the defendants came as police on the Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus searched airports, ports and marinas for another suspect, a man who had been going by the name Robert Christopher Metsos. A judge there freed him on $32,500 bail but he failed to show up Wednesday for a meeting with police. He was charged by U.S. authorities with supplying funds to the other members of the ring.
Cypriot authorities also examined surveillance video from crossing points on the divided island, fearing he might have slipped into the breakaway Turkish north, a diplomatic no-man’s-land that’s recognized only by Turkey and has no extradition treaties.
Ellis said the disappearance of Metsos didn’t affect his ruling.
“I don’t know what they do in Cyprus,” the judge said.
At the New York hearing, prosecutors said that Lazaro, after waiving his Miranda rights, had admitted his allegiance to the “Service.”
Among other things, prosecutors said, he confessed that Juan Lazaro wasn’t his real name, that he wasn’t born in Uruguay and wasn’t a citizen of Peru, as he had long claimed, that his home in Yonkers, N.Y., had been paid for by Russian intelligence and that his wife, Pelaez, had passed letters to the “Service” on his behalf.
He also told investigators that even though he loved his son, “he would not violate his loyalty to the ‘Service’ even for his son,” three assistant U.S. attorneys wrote in a court memo. They added that Lazaro, who investigators claim spent at least part of his childhood in Siberia, also wouldn’t reveal his true name.
In Boston, another husband-and-wife team — two of the defendants in the case against 11 suspected “illegals,” or Russian agents — appeared for a hearing that was quickly postponed two weeks. But their identities were an issue, too.
When asked by a magistrate judge there how they would like to be addressed, a lawyer for one stuck to what prosecutors said was an alias, Donald Heathfield. His wife, known as Tracey Lee Ann Foley, however, preferred a new name, “Defendant No. 5.”
Heathfield claimed to be a Canadian, but he was using a birth certificate of a deceased Canadian infant, federal agents said in a court filing. His wife purported to be from Canada, too, but investigators said a family safe deposit box held photographs taken of her when she was in her 20s that had been developed by a Soviet film company.
As they entered the court Thursday in handcuffs and leg shackles, the couple smiled at their sons, a teenager and a college student. The boys waved to their parents.
Heathfield’s attorney told the judge that the case against his client was “extremely thin.”
“It essentially suggests that they successfully infiltrated neighborhoods, cocktail parties and the PTA,” attorney Peter Krupp said.
Spying suspects Patricia Mills, left, Michael Zottoli, and Mikhail Semenko briefly appeared in federal court Thursday in Alexandria, Va. They are to return to the court today for a bail hearing. Only one of their eight fellow defendants, Vicky Pelaez, had a request to be freed on bail granted Thursday.
Robert Christopher Metsos vanished in Cyprus after posting bail.