'Spy that got away' a textbook operative, says FBI

By Christopher Torchia

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 moustache.

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 funnelled money to US-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 the spy saga.

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 US 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 travelling 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-coloured block of hotel apartments on a busy shopping street one block from the Larnaca waterfront. He paid €40 ($73) 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.

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 holiday, 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 US arrested suspects in the spy case after years of surveillance and Metsos, cited in US 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 US 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," Papathanasiou said. "He was very quiet. He answered my questions."

Bail was set at €27,000 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 - US$40,000 ($58,000) - was far below the millions he expected.

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

Bail paid, Metsos paid €630 in advance for a two-week stay at the Achilleos hotel. 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.

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

US officials say Metsos travelled to the US regularly, allegedly engaging in activities that most people would associate with the tension-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, New York. The FBI believes Metsos received money in that encounter.

Hours later, US officials say, Metsos met alleged spy Richard Murphy at a Queens restaurant, gave him a package that he said contained Murphy's "cut", and 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 US agents on a car linked to Metsos was tracked to Wurtsboro, north of New York. 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.

- AP

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