NEW YORK – One of 11 people charged with being part of a Russian spy ring told investigators that his loyalty to his handlers exceeded his commitment to his own son, prosecutors said Thursday as they argued against releasing the defendants on bond and warned that evidence unveiled so far was “the tip of an iceberg.”
Three of the accused spies appeared in Manhattan federal court before Magistrate Ronald L. Ellis, who denied bail for a couple who went by the names Richard and Cynthia Murphy. They had lived a seemingly serene life in suburban New Jersey.
Ellis approved the release of El Diario newspaper columnist Vicky Pelaez on $250,000 bond on condition she remain under house arrest and be electronically monitored. She was not expected to be freed until next week, however, and prosecutors may appeal.
Hearings for defendants in Boston and Virginia were postponed, as was a hearing for Juan Lazaro, Pelaez’s husband. His statements to prosecutors since his arrest Sunday were among the new details U.S. Attorney Michael Farbiarz released in a nine-page argument against freeing any of the accused, who are suspected of spying for Moscow for years.
“This is a case where the evidence is extraordinarily strong,” Farbiarz said in court before outlining information that he said disproved defense claims that ties to family, jobs, and homes in the United States would ensure the defendants did not flee.
“This offense … at its core is simply about one thing: it’s about deception. It’s about lies,” he said, citing the defendants’ ability to hide their alleged secret lives from their children. “Imagine what it takes to keep that kind of secret from the people who are closest to you.”
As he spoke, the Murphys and Pelaez sat side-by-side in dark prison garb, unshackled, in a courtroom overflowing with relatives and spectators. On the sidewalk outside, scores of Pelaez supporters awaited word of the bail hearing’s outcome.
According to prosecutors, Lazaro waived his Miranda rights after his arrest and admitted that he had worked for Russian intelligence and that both the name and the nationality he used – Uruguayan – were lies. He refused to give his true name, according to the new court papers.
“Although he (Lazaro) loved his son, he would not violate his loyalty to the ‘Service,’ even for his son,” the document said. Lazaro and Pelaez have a 17-year-old. According to prosecutors, Lazaro also said the couple’s house in Yonkers, N.Y., was paid for by Russian intelligence.
Farbiarz said searches of property tied to the Murphys had turned up evidence underscoring what prosecutors alleged was a secret life aimed at convincing friends and neighbors that they were doting parents whose existence revolved around play dates, not surreptitious travel abroad and clandestine meetings with Russian agents.
The evidence included a safety deposit box containing eight envelopes, each stuffed with $10,000 in new $100 bills, and a receipt for an Italian train ticket found in the Murphys’ home under a fake name, which Farbiarz said was an alias Richard Murphy used when traveling with a forged Irish passport. The prosecutor described the evidence against the pair as “devastating.”
Farbiarz cited the disappearance of the 11th defendant, Christopher Metsos, as a reason to keep the others in custody. Metsos was arrested in Cyprus on Tuesday and freed on bail. He was discovered missing Wednesday.
Defense attorneys for the three said the government had not indicated what the defendants were accused of passing to their Russian handlers and scoffed at allegations their clients had relied on highly sophisticated technology to hide their alleged espionage. Letters purportedly written with “invisible ink” were actually just blank pieces of paper, and secretly coded messages were “dashes and dots,” said Pelaez’s lawyer, John Rodriguez.
Ellis noted that Pelaez did not appear to be a trained agent, had not used aliases, and held American citizenship. However, he said she did not appear to be “an innocent.” He set bond at $250,000 and ordered the electronic monitoring, which takes time to set up. Pelaez could not expect to be released until Tuesday, he said.
The magistrate said the Murphys were too much of a mystery to release. The court “just doesn’t know who those persons are,” he said.
Lazaro’s bail hearing was postponed until July 16.
Each faces 25 years in prison if convicted on charges that include money-laundering and failing to register as foreign agents.