Published December 01, 2015
Two Virginia suspects in an alleged spy ring have admitted they are Russian citizens living in the U.S. under false identities, prosecutors said Friday, as officials in Cyprus said another defendant in the bust has likely fled the island after being set free on bail.
The defendants known as Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills told authorities after their arrest that their real names are Mikhail Kutzik and Natalia Pereverzeva, prosecutors said in a court filing Friday. The pair were arrested in Arlington, Va., where they have been living as a married couple with two young children.
Zottoli and Mills, along with a third defendant, Mikhail Semenko, remained jailed after waiving their right Friday to a detention hearing during brief appearances in federal court.
They are among 11 people arrested this week. Six other defendants had already appeared in court in the Northeast, and one was granted bail that will include electronic monitoring and home detention.
In Friday's court filing, prosecutors said Zottoli and Mills had $100,000 in cash and phony passports and other identity documents stashed in safe deposit boxes. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason B. Smith also wrote that Mills asked a family friend who has been caring for their two children since their arrest to take them to Russia to Mills' sister and parents.
Semenko, who was in the U.S. on a work visa, is not alleged to have used a false identity. But prosecutors said the FBI has searched his home and a second apartment that he recently leased and found computer equipment "of the type capable of being used for ... clandestine communications."
Semenko's visa has now been revoked, Smith said, and an immigration detainer has been filed for him at the Alexandria jail.
Also Friday in the Cypriot capital of Nicosia, Justice Minister Loucas Louca it was unlikely that Christopher Metsos, 54, would be apprehended on the Mediterranean island because he believes that he is no longer there. Metsos is wanted in the United States on charges that he supplied money to the spy ring.
Metsos disappeared on Wednesday after a Cypriot court freed him on bail.
Louca strongly defended Cypriot authorities' handling of the affair, which left the government deeply embarrassed and stung by rumors that it was somehow complicit in Metsos' disappearance. The island has close ties with Russia.
"If we wanted him (Metsos) to evade, as we have been accused, we wouldn't have tried as hard to arrest him in the first place," he said.
Russian Foreign Ministry said Friday that it had no reason to believe Metsos was in Russia.
"I do not have such information. You're knocking on the wrong door," ministry spokesman Igor Lyakin-Frolov said.
Another suspect arrested in the U.S., Juan Lazaro, has admitted to living in New York for years under a fake identity and lying about being citizen of Peru, as he had long claimed, prosecutors said.
Asked Friday about Lazaro, Peru's President Alan Garcia said the suspect apparently told people he had ties to that country's rebel groups.
"As I've been given to understand, he presented himself in the United States some time ago as a kind of ambassador of Peru's domestic subversives. This information we have from people who lived there," Garcia said. He did not specify the source of the information.
The AP has been unable to reach senior Peruvian security officials to determine if they suspected Lazaro was truly connected to the rebel groups. The country's defense minister said earlier in the week that he knew of no pending investigations against Lazaro.
In Virginia, Zottoli, Mills and Semenko were charged with being foreign agents, while Zottoli and Mills are also charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering.
In their filing, prosecutors said Zottoli and Mills gave information to authorities after being told about their Miranda rights to have a lawyer and to remain silent under interrogation.
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 a 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.
Semenko studied international relations at Amur State University from 2000 to 2005, former classmate Galina Toropchina said.
"He was a very good boy, unfortunately not all students are like him," Toropchina said.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Menelaos Hadjicostis and Christopher Torchia in Nicosia, Cyprus, Khristina Narizhnaya in Moscow and Franklin Briceno in Lima, Peru.