NEW YORK – Children often ask the question “Who am I?” as they come of age, but that’s nothing like the identity crisis now confronting the sons and daughters of four couples accused of spying for Russia.
Over a turbulent week, at least some, and maybe all, have discovered that mom and dad are not who they said they were. The children’s citizenship, family history, and even their very names have been called into question.
At least two children involved in the case, ages 1 and 3, will soon be headed for Russia.
Of the 11 people charged this week with being members of a Russian spy ring, eight were parents. Collectively, they are believed to have eight children, although, like much else associated with this strange post-Cold War spying case, the true facts are hazy.
Some of the older children are likely already wrestling with questions about their identities.
Juan Lazaro Jr., a gifted 17-year-old pianist at New York’s LaGuardia High School of the performing arts, was named after his father. But the FBI said this week that dad’s name was fake, as was his claim to have been raised in South America.
Tim Foley, a 20-year-old student at George Washington University, wrote on a blog that he was born in Toronto and grew up in Paris and Boston. Now his true birth country has been called into question. Prosecutors say they have evidence the family is actually Russian.
Two girls growing up in suburban Montclair, N.J., ages 7 and 11, were given the last name Murphy, but prosecutors said that was a lie, too.
“While the FBI has spent years conducting extensive electronic and physical surveillance of the people who call themselves the Murphys, there is no indication that the Murphys’ children have any inkling that their parents are, in truth and in fact, Russian secret agents,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Farbiarz wrote in a court filing Thursday. Their parents went by the names Cynthia and Richard Murphy.
The future of those children, at least the youngest ones, is now in question.
Who will take care of them if their parents remain in prison? Do they have extended families in Russia they have never met? Are they all American citizens?
U.S. immigration officials have declined to comment on the children’s status, citing privacy rules, but note that any person born in the United States is a citizen by right, except in certain cases involving the children of diplomats or other foreign government workers.
At least two of the children, the toddler and preschooler whose parents posed as American Michael Zottoli and Canadian Patricia Mills, will be going to Russia. Federal prosecutors said Friday the couple acknowledged they are Russian citizens and instructed a family friend now caring for the children to contact relatives in Russia to arrange for the youngsters to go there.
By most accounts, the couples charged in the case appeared to be caring parents. Several raised children who excelled.
Tim Foley wrote in his blog about speaking English, French and German and said he was learning Chinese. He said he was majoring in international affairs with a concentration in Asian studies, and wrote about his plan to spend a semester in Beijing.
His 16-year-old brother, Alex, attended the International School of Boston, a private high school where some classes are taught in French and the theme is “shaping global citizens.”
Federal prosecutors have questioned the family’s claim of Canadian heritage. The boys’ father, they said, faked his citizenship by stealing the name Donald Heathfield from a baby who died in Montreal in 1963. Investigators weren’t certain where the boys’ mother, who went by Tracey Lee Ann Foley, was born. However, photographs found in a safety deposit box, taken when she was in her 20s, had been developed by a Soviet film company.
The two sons were in court Thursday to watch a hearing in their parents’ case. The couple smiled at the boys and Alex waved in return.
“My client and his wife right now are worried about their kids,” Heathfield’s lawyer, Peter Krupp, said after the hearing.
Juan Lazaro Jr. could be reunited soon with his mother, Vicky Pelaez, also a defendant in the case.
A federal judge on Thursday said Pelaez – one of the few suspects to use a real name – could be released on bail as soon as Tuesday and be placed under house arrest in Yonkers.
The elder Juan Lazaro is to remain behind bars for now. Prosecutors said after his June 27 arrest, he acknowledged his name was fabricated and that he had been working for the Russian intelligence service. According to investigators, he also admitted his claim to be a native of Uruguay was not true. Prosecutors said he spent his childhood in the Soviet Union.
Pelaez also has a 38-year-old son from a previous marriage, Waldo Mariscal. He said he had no knowledge of any spying activities by either his mother or Lazaro, and didn’t believe the charges.
“This is pure psychological pressure,” he said in Spanish during a court hearing Thursday. “It’s total confusion. He’s an old guy. His English isn’t so good.”
Authorities have not revealed the current whereabouts of 11-year-old Katie and 7-year-old Lisa Murphy, who were last seen by neighbors being led from their home on the day of their parents’ arrest, carrying backpacks and pillows.
A state child services spokeswoman said the agency wouldn’t remove children and place them in foster care unless abuse or neglect was suspected. Federal prosecutors haven’t said where the children were born, but their ages suggest their births occurred when their parents were living in Hoboken, N.J.
The citizenship of the children of the couple known as Zottoli and Mills is unclear, although they, too, were born after their parents had settled in the U.S.
In a letter filed Friday with a court in Arlington, Va., prosecutors said the suspects’ real names are Mikhail Kutzik and Natalia Pereverzeva. They said Pereverzeva’s parents, brother and sister live in Russia, as does Kutzik’s father.
Former neighbors in Seattle, where the family lived before moving to Virginia last year, remembered the couple as doting on their now 3-year-old son, Kenny, and recounted how they gave him the master bedroom so he would have space to run around.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.