Agents leave US without a trace

2010-07-10 08:00

New York - A locked Honda outside a suburban house, a missing column in a New York newspaper - these were among the few traces left on Friday by 10 Russian agents after years of calling the US home.

They lived their lie quietly during a decade as deep cover agents for Moscow, fooling neighbours, colleagues, and in the case of one man maybe even his own spouse.

By Friday they were back in Russia, their expulsion and exchange for four convicted spies in Russia completing the kind of drama unseen since the days of the Cold War.

But even this denouement, reportedly negotiated by the heads of the CIA and the Russian espionage agency, shed little light on who the mysterious agents were or what they had done.

To those who knew them they were unremarkable people who went by names like Richard and Cynthia Murphy, or Donald Heathfield, and fitted right into the American way of life.

In federal court on Thursday where they pleaded guilty to being foreign agents and agreeing to their immediate expulsion, they were finally unmasked.

For example, Heathfield is really Andrey Bezrukov. The Murphys were really Vladimir and Lydia Guryev.

At the Guryevs' former home in the pleasant suburb of Montclair in New Jersey neighbors were baffled.

A Honda Civic car sat parked outside the house, reported. Copies of the Financial Times continued to thump on the doorstep.

"The KGB's paying for it," quoted a neighbour, Connie Jones, joking about the subscription.

Another slender clue to the disappearance of this deeply embedded cell was the absence in the Spanish language New York daily El Diario of a column by veteran journalist Vicky Pelaez.

The Peruvian-American, who admitted on Thursday to delivering letters written in invisible ink, was already in Moscow by Friday, along with her husband Juan Lazaro.

Except he isn't really Juan Lazaro: he's Mikhail Vasenko.


And according to the Daily News tabloid in New York, that's something Pelaez herself had only just found out.

"What's your name? What's your real name?" the News quoted her lawyer, John Rodriguez, as saying she demanded of Lazaro after their arrest last month.

The report says Pelaez considers herself a victim, duped by her husband and now sent to Russia.

Her lawyer told the court in New York on Thursday that the Russian government has promised her free housing and a lifelong monthly stipend of

$2 000 dollars, as well as visas for her two children.

She would be free to travel wherever she wanted, the lawyer said, meaning she might be able to go to Peru.

Apart from Pelaez, all the others are Russians, some speaking English in thick Russian accents, some having successfully mastered the US accent.

Their futures are unclear - and so, even now, is their past.

US officials have consistently said the spy nest caused no damage.

Under questioning in court on Thursday, the agents admitted only to the most banal activities, such as meeting Russian officials, traveling around the country, and in the case of sultry redhead Anna Chapman using a laptop to send an unspecified message.

But this apparently innocuous history could not be more in contrast with the drama of how it ended.

The swap was seen as resolving a scandal that threatened to disrupt improving US-Russian relations.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Leon Panetta, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and his Moscow counterpart, were in charge of the deal.

Once the details were worked out, both countries wasted no time.

The 10 US convicts and four Russian convicts were flown to Vienna, just as in Cold War days, and from there travelled onward to Moscow and the West.

Further underlining the rush to close the door on the episode, the US prosecutor in New York, Preet Bharara, announced Friday that outstanding charges had now been dropped against the 10 deportees.