Details emerge on swap of spies
Cambridge pair met diplomats in courthouse
As one of the most dramatic spy swaps in US history concluded yesterday with a prisoner exchange on the tarmac of Vienna’s international airport, details emerged about secret meetings between Russian embassy officials and two admitted spies from Cambridge that helped pave the way for the handoff.
In an unusual show of accommodation on the Fourth of July weekend, US officials allowed Russian diplomats to come to the closed federal courthouse in Boston on July 3 and meet with Andrey Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova in a lockup, according to their lawyers, who were present.
That secret meeting was part of a 12-day flurry of events involving the arrest, conviction, and deportation of 10 Russian spies in exchange for four men accused of spying on Russia for the United States and Britain. The speedy resolution raised speculation by one lawyer that the swap was in the works even before the arrests, but federal officials denied that was the case.
During the weekend meeting, the Russian diplomats reassured the accused Cambridge spies that “we know you’re here, we’re going to work for you, and we’re available,’’ said Vavilova’s attorney, Robert Sheketoff.
It did not take long. Two days later, the deal had been struck between the United States and the Russian Federation, and there was suddenly a race to make it happen as quickly as possible, the lawyers said.
“On Monday afternoon I get a call saying a deal was reached and they wanted to get word out to all the defendants in person,’’ said Boston attorney Peter B. Krupp, who represents Bezrukov, recounting his call from a Russian Embassy official.
Early the next morning, Krupp accompanied Russian diplomats from Washington, D.C., and New York to a jailhouse meeting with Bezrukov at the Plymouth County jail, followed by a meeting with Vavilova at the Donald W. Wyatt detention facility in Central Falls, R.I.
“He tells my client what the terms of the deal are,’’ said Krupp, adding that the accused Cambridge spies, who had been passing themselves off as French-Canadians Donald Howard Heathfield and Tracey Lee Ann Foley, were told they would have to reveal their true names and admit they were Russian citizens acting under the direction of the Russian Federation since they arrived in the United States in 1999.
“He makes clear that this was discussed by the president of the country,’’ said Krupp, referring to President Obama.
By yesterday, the international episode was over as the Cambridge couple and eight others arrested June 27 in Massachusetts, Virginia, New York, and New Jersey arrived in Russia a day after they pleaded guilty in US District Court in Manhattan to conspiring to act as agents of the Russian Federation in the United States and were sentenced to the 12 days they had already spent in jail.
Bezrukov and Vavilova agreed to forfeit their three-bedroom townhouse on Trowbridge Street and their US bank accounts to the US government as part of their plea agreements. But their family remained intact, as their sons left Massachusetts earlier this week and were waiting for them yesterday in Russia.
The case revealed that the FBI had been following the spies for a decade as they settled in US cities and tried to get close to US policymakers. The FBI secretly raided their homes and safe deposit boxes. Agents had the spies under surveillance as they used invisible ink, delivered cash by swapping identical bags while passing each other on stairwells at train stations, and traded coded messages.
Vavilova’s lawyer shed new light yesterday on the Cambridge spies. Bezrukov and Vavilova were in their 20s when they moved to Canada for the Russian intelligence agency, Sheketoff said. “It was a real marriage,’’
The couple’s sons, a 20-year-old student at George Washington University and a 16-year-old who attended the International School of Boston, were both born in Canada. The younger son became a naturalized US citizen when his parents were also naturalized.
The couple agreed to forfeit their US citizenship in the plea bargain, but there has been no move to take any action against either of the children, and the government has not suggested any wrongdoing by them, said Sheketoff.
Bezrukov’s lawyer, Krupp, speculated yesterday that the spy swap had been in the works before the the arrests.
“I think it is reasonable to conclude from the way in which this all happened that the government had its endgame planned from before these arrests took place and I wonder if they decided to arrest these folks when they did so they could have them as a bargaining chip to get people out of Russia that they wanted to have as a swap,’’ Krupp said. “From the very beginning of the detection of the Russians in the US and the watching of them, they became an asset of the United States to be cashed in on at a convenient time. This was all done so quickly I wonder if it was in the works all along.’’
US Attorney Preet Bharara of New York told reporters Thursday that the investigation was aimed at uncovering and deterring espionage and was “not undertaken for the purpose of having a bargaining chip.’’
He predicted the Russian government “is unlikely to engage in this methodology in the future, and that’s a good thing.’’
“The case sends a message to every other agency that if you come to America and spy on Americans in America you will be exposed,’’ Bharara said.
During the negotiations, Krupp said there was a last-minute glitch that threatened to be a deal-breaker. He said the Russian diplomats initially told Bezrukov and Vavilova that they would be allowed to keep all of their property and could arrange to sell the townhouse they recently purchased for $790,000 and keep the profits after paying off the $632,000 mortgage.
But when Krupp received a draft copy of the plea agreement Tuesday night, he discovered that the US government was insisting on seizing the Cambridge couple’s townhouse and other assets. He said he told prosecutors about the inconsistency, triggering more discussions between US and Russian officials.
On Wednesday afternoon, Krupp said Russian Embassy officials told him they had signed off on the agreement, including the forfeiture, and “the deal was these people had to be on the plane Thursday evening.’’
The Trowbridge Street condominium will be sold, and after the mortgage is paid off, any profits will go to the government.
“I assume it will sell for a million bucks because it’s the spies’ house,’’ Krupp said. “There may be bugs still in there.’’
Globe staffers John Ellement and Jonathan Saltzman contributed to this report. Shelley Murphy can be reached at email@example.com.