Suspect in Russian spy ring vanishes in Cyprus after being released on bail
NEW YORK – An alleged member of a Russian spy ring that authorities say operated under deep cover in America's suburbs vanished in Cyprus on Wednesday, a day after being released on bail.
The man, who had gone by the name Christopher Metsos and was wanted in the U.S. on charges he supplied money to the spy ring, had been arrested Tuesday in the Mediterranean island nation as he tried to board a flight for Budapest, Hungary.
On Wednesday, after a Cypriot judge had freed him on $32,500 bail, he failed to show for a required meeting with police, and authorities began searching for him.
The U.S. Justice Department and the FBI — which spent nearly a decade gathering evidence against some of the defendants in the case — refused to comment on Metsos' disappearance.
On Sunday, 10 other people, most of them believed to be Russians living under assumed names, were arrested across the Northeast, accused of gathering information for Moscow on American business, scientific and political affairs while leading what appeared to be utterly ordinary suburban lives, right down to their well-kept lawns and the barbecues they threw on the Fourth of July.
Nine of the defendants were scheduled to appear before federal judges Thursday in New York, Massachusetts and Virginia. It was unclear whether Metsos' disappearance while out on bail might affect their own attempts to get out of jail pending trial.
The turn of events raised questions about why Cypriot authorities released Metsos.
"I'm truly surprised that the court issued no such detention order against an individual who is alleged to be a spy," said Ionas Nicolaou, chairman of Parliament's Legal Affairs Committee.
Andreas Pastellides, one of Metsos' lawyers in Cyprus, said: "Yes, it was a serious case, but God forbid if someone remains detained for a month until extradition proceedings can begin." He said Metsos had offered to surrender his passport and appear once a day at a local police station.
In the past, Cyprus been known as a regional hub for spies across the Mideast, since it lies near the meeting point of Europe, Africa and Asia.
To the delight of New York City's tabloid press, one of the defendants arrested in the U.S. is a young and beautiful Russian redhead who went by the name Anna Chapman, spent time on the party scene in New York City and the Hamptons, and had a penchant for posting sultry photographs of herself on the Internet.
On Wednesday, her mother, Irina Kushchenko, who lives in Moscow, told The Associated Press: "Of course I believe that she's innocent." She declined further comment.
The case has left some associates of the defendants wondering whether they might have been among the plot's targets.
Court papers say one of the alleged spies, who called herself Cynthia Murphy, had been instructed by her handlers to get close to a politically connected New York financier she had met through work. New York venture capitalist Alan Patricof told The Washington Post that he believed he was that person.
He had gotten to know Murphy through her job with Morea Financial Services, a New York tax advisory firm, and was a trustee at Columbia University's graduate business school, where Murphy got a master's in business administration this spring.
On Wednesday, Patricof told the AP in a statement: "I highly doubt that I could have been an intended target."
"I met with her a limited number of times and spoke with her frequently on the phone on matters relating to my personal finances. We never — not once — discussed any matter other than my finances, and certainly she never inquired about, nor did we ever discuss, any matters relating to politics, the government, or world affairs," he said.
Another one of those arrested, a man who called himself Donald Heathfield, may have stolen the identity of a Canadian who died as a baby in Montreal in 1963. David Heathfield of Canada said his dead younger brother had the same birthdate and name as the alleged Russian spy.
"Initially I thought it was a joke and then it turned to shock," said David Heathfield, 51. He added: "With the Cold War over, I thought this spy thing was over and done with, but I guess it's still going on."
Hays reported from New York and Hadjicostis from Nicosia, Cyprus. Also contributing were Associated Press writers Cristian Salazar and Eva Dou in New York and Nataliya Vasilyeva, David Nowak and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow.