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Alleged Russian spy ring members led typical American lives

The charges against 11 suspects expose a surprising – and mundane – side to modern espionage.

June 29, 2010|By Bob Drogin and Geraldine Baum, Los Angeles Times
  • A woman takes photos at Richard and Cynthia Murphy's home in Montclair, N.J., where the couple was arrested. "She'd be the last person you'd suspect as a spy," a neighbor said of Cynthia.
A woman takes photos at Richard and Cynthia Murphy's home in Montclair,… (Rich Schultz, Associated…)

Reporting from Montclair, N.J. — Richard and Cynthia Murphy grew lettuce in a backyard garden, walked their daughters to the school bus each morning, and swapped Christmas cards with neighbors who had moved to Texas.

Their modest three-bedroom house sported maroon shutters and a wrap-around porch, and sat on a winding street in a well-heeled suburb across from Manhattan. They drove a green Honda Civic.

To all appearances, the Murphys were a typical, child-obsessed American family — not deep-cover Russian spies straight from a Cold War novel.

Their arrests, along with those of 9 other alleged Russian spies, has exposed a surprising side to modern espionage: The group led mundane lives far from the James Bond image. Instead of car chases and shootouts, they paid taxes, haggled over mortgages, and struggled to remember computer passwords.

As a result, the 11 — the biggest alleged spy ring ever broken by the FBI — blended into American society for more than a decade. They joined neighbors at block parties, school picnics and bus stops. Four of the couples were married, and at least three had young children.

One suspect wrote columns for a Spanish-language newspaper in New York. Another ran an international consulting and management firm in Boston, while his wife sold high-priced real estate near Harvard University. Yet another drove a shiny blue BMW to his investment banking job in Seattle; he regularly updated his status on LinkedIn, a social networking site.

If their cover jobs were ordinary, their secret lives had a humdrum side that sometimes seems more like Woody Allen than John LeCarre.

One suspect, Anna Chapman, bought a Verizon cellphone in Brooklyn, N.Y., with a patently false address: 99 Fake Street. She also posted sultry photos of herself on Facebook and videos on YouTube. Another, Juan Lazaro, used a payoff from Moscow to pay nearly $8,000 in overdue county and city taxes, according to court documents.

Donald Howard Heathfield and Tracey Lee Ann Foley, the alleged spies in Boston, filed regular expense reports to Moscow Center, headquarters for Russia's foreign intelligence agency, called the SVR.

"Got from Ctr. 64500 dollars, income 13940, interest 76. Expenses: rent 8500, utilities 142, tel. 160, car lease 2180, insurance 432, gas 820, education 3600," plus medical, lawyers' fees, meals and gifts, mailboxes, computer supplies, and so on, they wrote in one, according to an FBI affidavit.

And the lettuce-growing Murphys of Montclair repeatedly argued with Moscow Center in encrypted computer messages last summer about who should legally own their $400,000 house — them or the SVR.

"From our perspective, purchase of the house was solely a natural progression of our prolonged stay here," the Murphy's explained, apparently after being reprimanded. "It was a convenient way to solve the housing issue, plus to 'do as the Romans do' in a society that values home ownership."

Murphy later whined to another spy about their bosses back in Moscow: "They don't understand what we go through over here."

The group allegedly attended one of Moscow's most elite spy schools before landing in America. Their mission was spelled out, somewhat awkwardly, in a 2009 message to the Murphy's from Moscow Center.

"You were sent to USA for long-term service trip," the message read, according to the FBI affidavit. "Your education, bank accounts, car, house etc. — all these serve one goal: fulfill your main mission, i.e, to search and develop ties in policymaking circles in US and send intels [intelligence reports] to C [Center]."

It's unclear whether they were successful at that. But they did seem to succeed in adapting to life in America.

The Murphys appeared devoted their tow-headed, blue-eyed daughters, Katy, 11, and Elizabeth (called Lisa) 9.

Most mornings, according to neighbors, it was the mom, Cynthia, a blonde woman who favored long flowing skirts, who walked up Marquette Street to catch the commuter bus to Manhattan.

Or at least that's where everyone assumed she went.

"I think she was in financial services but who knows now?" said Elizabeth Lapin, who lives on the same street.

Since the Murphy's moved into the neighborhood a few years ago, Lapin and Cynthia had spoken at the annual block party in the fall, at the bus stop, on the sidewalk.

Many had assumed that Cynthia, because of her foreign accent and light hair, was Scandinavian. Lapin also said her neighbor smiled and waved whenever she passed. Once she saw her walking home with a bunch of daffodils and a French baguette.

"If you were to look at everybody on this street," added Lapin, "she'd be the last person you'd suspect as a spy."

Richard Murphy was the "stay at home dad," said Denise Capone, 38, who lives across the street.

Murphy walked his daughters to the school bus in the morning and trailed after them in the late afternoon while they rode their bikes around the cul-de-sac at the end of their street.

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