Suspected paymaster of Russian spy ring, now a fugitive, resembled a budget tourist in Cyprus

By Christopher Torchia, AP
Sunday, July 4, 2010

Cyprus: how an alleged Russian spy eluded capture

LARNACA, Cyprus — The alleged paymaster of a Russian spy ring in the United States spoke no more than necessary. He stayed in modest hotels and dressed for the Mediterranean heat: shorts and untucked shirts. He wore spectacles and a clipped mustache.

Just another foreign tourist on a budget, it seemed, in a waterfront city in Cyprus where foreign tourists on budgets are a summertime fixture.

To American officials, the man identified as Christopher Robert Metsos is the spy who got away, a footloose operative who funneled money to U.S.-based accomplices, 10 of whom are in custody. Metsos, the FBI says, was a key player in an underworld of coded instructions, false identities, buried banknotes and surreptitious bag swaps.

“If you saw him on the road, you would say, ‘Good morning’ and you would keep walking,” said Michael Papathanasiou, a lawyer who represented Metsos until he jumped bail in Larnaca last week. “There was really nothing strange about him. He was a very normal, usual guy.”

The tale of how this mysterious figure eluded authorities in Cyprus is one of the more intriguing episodes in a spy saga recalling the cloak-and-dagger days of Cold War espionage.

Greek Cypriot officials believe he fled the divided island, and crossing into the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north may have offered an avenue of escape. But the U.S. Embassy said it had not asked Turkish Cypriot authorities for help in tracking the fugitive.

Witness accounts suggest Metsos was a textbook spy — soothingly banal, a fly on the wall who took advantage of loopholes in law enforcement. He was traveling as a tourist on a Canadian passport, and a man in Canada has said the identity was stolen from his dead brother.

On June 17, Metsos, said to be 54 years old, checked into the Atrium Zenon, a cream-colored block of hotel apartments on a busy shopping street one block from the Larnaca waterfront. He paid 40 euros in cash daily for the room. He was accompanied by a “beautiful” woman with short brown hair of about 30 or 35, according to a receptionist who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with hotel policy.

The discreet pair always ate out and sometimes dressed for the beach. In the mornings, Metsos dropped the key at reception with a polite but curt greeting. The woman waited for him by the lobby door. The receptionist never heard her speak.

On June 29, they checked out early, and Metsos was arrested on an Interpol warrant at the airport while trying to board a flight to Budapest, Hungary with his companion. Cyprus’ Justice Minister, Loucas Louca, said she boarded the flight because police had no reason to hold her.

It is uncertain whether Metsos was in Cyprus on vacation, or posing as a tourist. There is a heavy Russian presence in Greek Cyprus.

Unwitting Cypriot police and court officials initially appeared unaware that Metsos was suspected of espionage. Two days earlier, officials in the United States arrested suspects in the spy case after years of surveillance and Metsos, cited in U.S. court papers, was about to get caught in the firestorm of publicity.

The drama that day began for Papathanasiou when he got a call from a Larnaca court. Metsos, wanted in the United States for alleged money laundering and acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, needed a lawyer. There was no mention of spying.

“He told me that he had nothing to do with this case. He didn’t understand why he was there,” Papathanasiou said in an interview at his office on Saturday. “He was very quiet. He answered my questions. We ordered coffee and water when we were waiting before the court.”

Bail was set at 27,000 euros ($33,000), and an extradition hearing was scheduled for late July. Metsos’ passport was confiscated. It was a fair decision, Papathanasiou said, based on available facts. The amount that his client was accused of laundering — $40,000 — was far below the millions he expected.

Greek Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias has deflected U.S. Justice Department criticism over Metsos’ release, saying U.S. authorities were slow in providing certain documents to Cypriot police.

A police photo of Metsos shows a bald Caucasian in a casual shirt. His skin has a reddish tinge, as though from sun exposure. His expression is impassive.

Bail paid, Metsos paid 630 euros ($790) in advance for a two-week stay the Achilleos hotel. Faded, tattered flags, including American and Russian ones, hang outside the hotel. A handwritten sign says: “We have residents sleeping upstairs. Please when smoking outside, keep the noise down.”

After registering at the police station two blocks away, Metsos hung the “Do not disturb” sign outside his door. He failed to report to police as required on June 30, and hotel staff never saw him leave.

A Russian receptionist said that Metsos may have slipped away with his two suitcases while the night duty staffer was in the bathroom, or perhaps had hopped off a back balcony. His bed was unused. The receptionist, who identified herself only as Inna, said Metsos had heard her talking in Russian to another employee, but gave no indication that he understood them.

The mystery stretches as far back as 1994, when Metsos studied for a semester at Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont. He then claimed to be Colombian and gave an address in Bogota.

On Friday, an Associated Press reporter in Bogota searched for that address, but it does not exist. The AP called a telephone number that Metsos had provided to the university. It belongs to a decade-old car wash, and nobody there knew Metsos.

U.S. officials say Metsos traveled to the United States regularly, allegedly engaging in activities that most people would associate with the suspense-packed fiction of a page-turner or a movie thriller.

May 16, 2004 was eventful. According to the FBI, Metsos and a Russian government official swapped identical orange bags on a staircase at the Forest Hills train station in Queens, a New York City borough. The FBI believes Metsos received money in that fleeting encounter.

Hours later, U.S. officials say, Metsos met alleged spy Richard Murphy at a Queens restaurant, gave him a package that he said contained Murphy’s “cut,” and cryptically indicated that the “rest of the money” should go to someone else.

“You will meet this guy, tell him Uncle Paul loves him… he will know … it is wonderful to be Santa Claus in May,” Metsos allegedly said.

The next day, a GPS device secretly installed by U.S. agents on a car linked to Metsos was tracked to Wurtsboro, north of New York City. Agents later discovered a buried package wrapped in duct tape in an area where the car had stopped. Two years later, the FBI videotaped another alleged spy digging in the same area and retrieving a package. Agents believe it contained a Metsos stash.

Larnaca residents who met Metsos can’t restrain a smile at their brush with international intrigue.

“I can’t say that I have represented any other spies in the past,” said Andreas Pastellides, the partner of lawyer Papathanasiou.

Associated Press reporters Menelaos Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus, Wilson Ring in Montpelier, the United States, and Vivian Sequera in Bogota, Colombia contributed to this report.

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