Guilty pleas get spy swap underway

10 defendants admit to being foreign agents; Russia to release four convicted of espionage

By Shelley Murphy and Jonathan Saltzman
Globe Staff / July 9, 2010

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NEW YORK — A Cambridge couple and eight other accused Russian spies pleaded guilty yesterday to being illegal foreign agents, setting in motion the largest swap of espionage prisoners between the United States and Russia since the Cold War.

The couple, who lived for more than a decade as French-Canadian immigrants named Donald Howard Heathfield and Tracey Lee Ann Foley, admitted in US District Court in Manhattan that their real names are Andrey Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova.

“I am a Russian citizen,’’ Vavilova, 47, told District Court Judge Kimba M. Wood in a courtroom overflowing with spectators. “From 1999 to the present, I agreed to live in the United States and took direction from a foreign government, in particular the Russian Federation.’’

Her husband, Bezrukov, 49, who also acknowledged his double identity to the court, flashed a peace sign to one of the spectators at the end of the 90-minute hearing.

All 10 pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as an unregistered foreign agent, which carries a maximum penalty of five years and has no minimum term, and agreed to be deported.

In exchange for the guilty pleas, Russia has agreed to release four Russian citizens who have been held for years on charges of alleged contact with Western intelligence agencies, according to a letter from US Attorney Preet Bharara of New York to Wood. Family members of the four released prisoners would also be allowed to leave Russia. The agreement negotiated between the two governments was supposed to be carried out within 72 hours.

Lawyers for the Cambridge couple said after the hearing that the pair, in the custody of US federal agents, were expected to be put on a plane to Russia last night.

Boston attorney Peter B. Krupp, who represents Bezrukov, called the couple “very relieved’’ that the United States government and the Russian government had resolved their case so quickly.

“They are very hopeful that the relationship between the two countries will be able to move forward positively as a result of this quick resolution,’’ Krupp said.

The hearing was the climax of a fast-moving drama that began with the June 27 arrest of 10 people in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and Virginia who had allegedly worked as deep-cover Russian spies while posing as ordinary American suburbanites. The defendants included four sets of parents raising seven children.

Bezrukov and Vavilova have two sons, a 20-year-old student at George Washington University and a 16-year-old student of the International School of Boston. Both left the United States in the past few days and are in Russia awaiting the return of their parents, according to a person with knowledge of the case who insisted on anonymity because the individual was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Federal prosecutors told Wood that they will drop a second charge that most of the Russian spy defendants faced: conspiring to launder money, which carries a 20-year term. None of the defendants had been charged with espionage, and no evidence was disclosed suggesting that the agents had transmitted any significant or damaging intelligence.

Wood agreed to prosecutors’ recommendation that all 10 be sentenced to time served in jail since their arrests less than two weeks ago.

“I find that the sentences are reasonable,’’ the judge said, pointing out that the defendants were being deported and were part of a spy swap negotiated by the two governments.

An 11th person indicted in the case is a fugitive after disappearing following a bail hearing in Cyprus.

In Russia, the Kremlin said President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree pardoning four convicted spies so that they can be exchanged for the 10 US defendants, the Associated Press reported. It said Medvedev had pardoned Russian citizens Alexander Zaporozhsky, Gennady Vasilenko, Sergei Skripal, and Igor Sutyagin, who is a Russian arms-control analyst serving a 15-year sentence for spying for the US.

The agreement requires Bezrukov and Vavilova to forfeit their $799,000 Cambridge townhouse, all the belongings and cash within it, and their US bank accounts and other assets.

They are also barred from profiting from any book or movie that tells their story, a common provision in such deals in American courts. In addition, they agreed to renounce any right to claim Social Security benefits they might have earned while living in the country.

They also agreed to never to return to the United States and to abandon any claim to US citizenship.

The 10 accused spies filled the first two rows of a jury box during the hearing and smiled expectantly as they waited for Wood to enter the courtroom. Bezrukov and Vavilova, who had been ordered not to have any contact after they were first arrested, sat next to each other. At one point, he rubbed her back.

When the judge quizzed the defendants about their pleas, Bezrukov and Vavilova spoke English without accents.

Assistant US Attorney Michael Farbiarz told the judge that Russian officials had visited all of the defendants in jail in recent days.

“Part of what was discussed is the life these defendants might be returning to in Russia,’’ he said.

John M. Rodriguez, a New York lawyer who represents defendant Vicky Pelaez, a Peruvian-born reporter and editor for El Diario/La Prensa, said his client had had misgivings about participating in the agreement because she was not a Russian citizen. But Pelaez had been assured by Russian officials that she could get free housing there, move to other countries, get visas for her two sons, and receive a $2,000-a-month stipend for life.

The Cambridge couple lived on Trowbridge Street. Bezrukov admitted that he met in 2004 with a US government employee about nuclear weapons research. The employee was not named in the indictment. Vavilova admitted that she and her husband discussed how to send secret messages to Moscow Center.

The charges surprised those who knew the couple, but some neighbors and acquaintances had wondered about their accents and Heathfield’s assiduous networking.

Bezrukov, using the alias Heathfield, graduated from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 2000 with a master’s degree in public administration and ran a consulting business he founded in 2006, Future Map Strategic Advisory Services, out of his home.

Krupp said, “My client hopes to continue the lawful business that he began when he was in the United States.’’

Vavilova, using the Foley alias, worked for Redfin Real Estate since January and was regarded as one of the company’s most talented field agents, according to Alexander C.P. Coon, who hired her after what he described as a thorough background check.

Boston lawyer Robert Sheketoff, who represents Vavilova, said his client hopes to become a teacher.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the exchange took place in the context of “overall improvement of the US-Russian ties and giving them new dynamics.’’

Obama administration officials also have cited recent progress in easing tensions between the two countries.

Murphy reported from New York and Saltzman from Boston.

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