Employer says Va. spy suspect 'clumsy,' yet highly intelligent, speaks 5 languages

Mikhail Semenko's employer knew he liked to frequent embassy functions and didn't want to work at his small travel agency forever, but he was stunned when the somewhat awkward Russian immigrant was accused of being a spy.

People who lived near Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills at an Arlington high-rise apartment building about a mile from the Pentagon likewise were surprised when the pair were charged with being foreign agents. Neighbors describe them as a smiling, attractive couple raising a young son and toddler.

All three are now at an Alexandria detention center facing federal charges for failing to register as foreign agents, a crime that is less serious than espionage. Zottoli and Mills are also charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering. The northern Virginia residents were among 11 people arrested this week in an alleged ring of secret agents working for Russian intelligence services.

Slava Shirokov, co-owner of Travel All Russia, says Semenko worked for roughly a year at the company's Arlington, Va., office on the second-story of a property that also houses a U.S. military recruitment center. Semenko spoke five languages, according to Shirokov — a big plus for a travel agency dealing with many foreign clients.

"He was always interested in languages, global politics and other cultures," said Shirokov, 29.

The two men met in college at Amur State University in Russia, where Semenko was in a Chinese studies program, according to Shirokov. Both men eventually moved to the United States, where Semenko received graduate degrees from Seton Hall University.

Shirokov said Semenko joined Travel All Russia more than a year ago, and relocated to northern Virginia with the travel agency.

"He liked to go to banquets to meet people. He did a lot of that in New York, he did a lot of this here," Shirokov said. "We always thought he is networking in order to land the jobs of his dreams. We knew this is not the job of his dreams. He liked it but he wanted to move on somewhere."

Semenko was arrested Sunday at his Arlington residence, less than a mile from a burger joint recently visited by President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

According to court documents, Zottoli claims to be a U.S. citizen, born in Yonkers, N.Y., and is married to Mills, a purported Canadian citizen. The FBI said the two lived together over the years in a number of locations, including Seattle, before moving to Virginia last year.

According to the charging documents, an undercover FBI agent posing as a Russian agent met with Semenko last Saturday in Washington, blocks from the White House. The agent gave Semenko a folded newspaper wrapped around an envelope containing $5,000 and directed him to drop it in an Arlington park. The documents say there is video of Semenko making the delivery as instructed.

Regarding Zottoli, authorities detailed several exchanges with other alleged coconspirators, in which he is accused of receiving thousands of dollars, laptops used to communicate with Russian officials and other items.

In June 2006, Zottoli and Mills traveled to Wurtsboro, N.Y., where Zottoli dug up a package of money that had been buried there two years earlier by another conspirator, the FBI said.

During search of the couple's Seattle apartment, the FBI says, agents found a radio that can be used for receiving short-wave radio transmissions and spiral notebooks, which contained random columns of numbers. Authorities believe the two used the codes to decipher messages that came through the radio.

Attorneys for both Zottoli and Mills had no comment. The court docket Wednesday did not list an attorney for Semenko.