PHONY ARREST - How to Catch a Russian Spy: The True Story of an American Civilian Turned Double Agent (2015)

How to Catch a Russian Spy: The True Story of an American Civilian Turned Double Agent (2015)



There was no more delaying. The plan was a go.

I left the apartment a little after eleven on Sunday, October 28. I pulled the Corvette out of the parking garage and headed up the West Side Highway. The temperature had just cracked sixty. The morning was sunny and clear. I was wearing jeans, a long-sleeve blue dress shirt, and a black New York Motor Club baseball cap. I’d already punched the address for Pizzeria Uno into my GPS—West Belt Plaza, Route 23 South, Wayne, New Jersey.

Three painstaking years, a quarter-century family relationship, thousands of hours of thinking and scheming, begging and pleading, cajoling and coordinating, and it all came down to this. I was ready for the operation to be over, and I couldn’t bear for it to end. I was psyched and exhausted, hopeful and depressed, as focused as I could possibly be. My emotions were all in conflict. My nerves were on edge. My adrenaline was riding high.

As I pulled onto the George Washington Bridge, I noticed my phone wasn’t working. The calls were going straight to voice mail without ringing. I half thought someone might be messing with me. Were the Russians tapping into my cell phone? Was it the FBI? I’d never had reception trouble on the West Side of Manhattan. Was I imagining things? Admittedly, I was stressed.

I called Terry. “You good?” he asked me. “Everything’s together on our end. Frank will be with us. He’s command-and-control.” There was Frank’s name again. I was starting to get a sense of the larger team at work.

While I was talking to Terry, I got a message that Ava had called. What the hell was going on with my phone?

I called Ava back. I could tell she was speaking words. I knew the words were in English. I knew she was frustrated about something. But damned if I could process what she was trying to say. She was complaining, I believe, about something that had happened at work. “Ave,” I said sharply, “I just can’t do this right now.”

I called Terry again. “I’m just getting to the strip mall,” I reported. “On Route 23.”

I called him again when I got to the parking spot he and Lisa had showed me. I was happy to see the space was open. No one had told me what to do if the spot was taken. I took a breath. I gulped hard. I was ready to roll.

“All right,” Terry said. “Godspeed.”

“Godspeed?” I said to him. “What the fuck, man? What is this? Men in Black? Streets of Fire? Am I gonna get shot here?” I totally went off. “Is that like ‘Break a leg’ or something? Don’t tell me that now. I’m about to go into this. Don’t be like the pilot saying ‘I love you’ just as the plane goes down.”

I know that Terry, who’d been in this from the start, was trying to say something deep and profound. He was trying to find the right words. And I’d blown up at him. I was on the edge of losing it, but the eruption had gotten that mostly out of my system. I had one last job to do.

Taking a deep breath, I quoted my favorite line from Gary Busey’s FBI agent in Point Break: “Take your positions. It’s showtime.”

Before I left the car, I checked the G-Shock watch. It said 11:55. The watch part was working, at least. I looked out the window. To the left. To the right. Then behind. I made sure no one else was around. I opened the door and climbed outside.

I crouched in the parking lot, pretending to tie my shoe. I adjusted my hat.

I blew into the watch-recorder and pulled back the band. I made sure the LED light was blinking. It was.

We were a go.

I walked across the half-empty parking lot toward the entrance of Pizzeria Uno. I was two paces away, just about to reach for the door, when I heard a voice.


I turned to see Oleg over my right shoulder. He had somehow managed to sneak up on me. Oh, fuck! I thought. We were supposed to meet inside.

I tried not to look startled. I turned and smiled. I put out my hand to shake. He reached for it and didn’t let go immediately. My heart was pumping hard.

“How are you?” he asked. “Of course I was worried.”

“I’m fine,” I said. “Nice to see you.”

“What happened last time?” he asked, still holding on to my hand. I wondered if he could feel my pulse racing.

“I had a family thing. I’m sorry. I couldn’t get away. It was one of those things. Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” he said. “Everything’s fine.”

“It was my niece’s birthday. I just had to go. Sorry to make you come for nothing.”

“Listen,” he said, “let’s don’t go here. You want to go back to Hooters? It’s right over there.” He pointed across the sprawling parking lot.

Fuck, fuck, fuck!

“Sure,” I said cheerily. I wasn’t sure at all. Weren’t some of the agents already inside Pizzeria Uno? Would they know I’d been here and now I was leaving? What would this do to all their work? Oleg had called another last-minute audible. As with the thumb drive, I couldn’t think of a reason to say no. “Let’s go to Hooters,” I said.

It wasn’t “right” there. It was at the opposite end of the parking lot and across an exit road, a good ten-minute walk away. Maybe the last-second switch shouldn’t have surprised me. I already knew what a Hooters fan he was.

* * *

Oleg wasn’t making any of this easy—on the FBI or on me. Inside and outside the pizza place, the agents must have already started scrambling, though I had no way of knowing for sure. Would they get to the Hooters and position themselves? Whatever they did, I understood, I had to get Oleg out of the restaurant and out to the car.

When we got to Hooters, the restaurant was packed. The TVs were blaring. The brunch Bloody Marys were giving way to the game-day beers. The Sunday crowd was already howling for a packed afternoon of NFL football. The Giants-Steelers game had a one p.m. start. It was anyone’s guess what the G-Shock watch was picking up.

When the Hooters Girl came over in her sleeveless tee and short shorts—she was blond this time and as large-chested as any of them—I wasn’t feeling hungry at all. But we started with an order of mild chicken wings. Oleg got the fish-and-chips. I ordered the steak quesadilla. We both had Cokes. I’d tried the salad last time, but this was Hooters. Take a page from Terry’s book of nutrition: Why even think healthy or lean?

I wasn’t sure what was going on around me. I was trying to assess what our last-second switch-up meant for the FBI. I assumed they were scrambling, finding new positions for themselves. I tried not to look at the door every time new patrons came in.

Over the din of the busy restaurant, Oleg leaned across the table and started asking me about DTIC. Clearly, he’d bought in to the whole database idea.

“What other kinds of searches are you capable of?” he wanted to know. “Why does it take so long to order the documents? Don’t you have access to more than this?”

His words were straightforward enough. But he couldn’t help himself. He was slipping back into that Russian condescension, the tone that said to me: “We are unimpressed with what you can deliver, but we want to continue to use you.” That was never a good tactic for motivating me, but they must have taught it in Russian espionage school, and Oleg kept trying it on me.

For now I was thinking, Let’s see how unimpressed you are when you figure out I was using you. However I was feeling, I had to stay focused on the business at hand. It was my job, even with the end in sight, to pretend things were moving ahead, to motivate him, and to do it in a way that wouldn’t raise his suspicions. I would stoke his appetite mercilessly and squeeze him for as much as he had in his pocket. I had to be the materialistic young American traitor he had slowly gotten to know. And in this final act of ours, how hard could that be?

I wouldn’t have to deliver whatever it was I was promising. The FBI would have swooped in by then. I could promise Oleg anything. My only real challenge was getting him out to the car. I assumed some of the agents were inside Hooters. Many of them lived in this part of Jersey. For all I knew, they hung out at this bar every Sunday afternoon, munching on fried mozzarella sticks and watching the game. They must have seen us turn outside Uno’s and walk together across the parking lot—right? Right?

“Look,” I said to Oleg, cutting off his questions, “I can get you more, a lot more. I just need to get paid.”

“Did you bring the previous material?” he asked. He was talking about documents related to the navy’s Future Combat Systems, the F-22 Raptor plane, and cruise missiles.

“I have a lot of stuff in the car for you,” I said. “I really didn’t want to bring it into the restaurant. I am happy to get you more. You can see it if you want to. I just need to protect how I do my searches, and I have to get paid.”

He started asking about other categories, technical military terms I only half recognized. “Do you know what they are?” he asked me.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “Tell me what you want. I’ll just search for it. You can give me more subjects. We can make it work.”

I was laying it on pretty thick. He was getting excited. And I kept pushing.

“I want to discuss business first,” I continued. “How much do you have on you? If I’m going to give you what I brought for you, I want everything you have.”

“I think you will be pleased,” he said.

It was then, as we asked the Hooters Girl to get a check for us, that Oleg told me what I already knew: His New York tour was ending, and he would soon be heading home.

“I am sorry to be leaving. But do not worry,” he told me, turning more personal and warm. “I will introduce you to the new people. They will be very excited to meet you. They will work closely with you.”

It all sounded nice, I told him. We would see what the future brought. But didn’t we have a piece of business we had to take care of first? I kept it simple, like I always did with Oleg, like I always did with the FBI. “You will give me the money,” I said. “We will go to the car. I will give you the files that I have.”

“Yes,” he agreed.

Oleg seemed excited about everything I’d promised. But to him, every minute we sat at the table was another minute his huge win was delayed. As far as he was concerned, he was heading home a hero. He was leaving a valuable agent behind. He seemed cocky, completely sure of himself.

He paid the bill, and we got up to leave.

* * *

It was total bullshit, my extravagant promise of valuable files in the car. I was completely bluffing. All I had in the Corvette trunk was a box filled with assorted papers that, at best, would give me about twenty seconds before Oleg realized they were nothing. The moment I unlocked the trunk for Oleg—before he could tell that he’d been duped—the agents would swoop in from all directions, and this three-year drama would be over. It wouldn’t matter what was or what wasn’t in the car trunk. It wouldn’t matter what else Oleg was expecting. It wouldn’t matter how much money he had paid.

I would unlock the trunk, and I would take off my cap as he glanced inside. It would be like a Taurus and Fusion rally in the parking lot. The agents would screech toward us in their cars. Oleg’s world would change forever. My tour as a self-taught American double agent would be done.

As we stepped outside Hooters, Oleg handed me a fat white envelope. “It’s fifteen thousand dollars,” he said. “I told you that you would be pleased.”

I nodded and said nothing.

As we began walking together across the sunny parking lot, I couldn’t see the black Corvette at first. There was a busy exit road between Hooters and the Uno’s parking lot. Oleg and I had a few last moments together. I took advantage of them. Almost certainly, this was my last opportunity. Fifty paces from where we were standing, I might never see Oleg again.

“I have some news for you, too,” I said as we walked toward my car. “It’s big.” I knew Oleg never liked surprises. He looked at me, half excited, half alarmed. “The letter came from the navy. I got accepted.”

“You got accepted? That’s great!” he roared.

“I’ll be a U.S. Navy intelligence officer.”

“Congratulations! That is wonderful news! Do you have a copy of the letter?” he asked. Oleg loved paperwork.

“Not with me.”

“You will show it to me later,” he said.

This news, like the documents waiting in the Corvette trunk, was a bit more than exaggeration. I couldn’t give him the letter even if I’d wanted to because it hadn’t come yet. I did know the board would soon be meeting. I had observed some pretty good indications that the answer would be yes. But no formal decision had been made, much less sent out to me.

Still, I enjoyed saying it, and Oleg seemed to enjoy hearing it even more. “That is excellent,” he said again. Given the briefness of our future together, why deny my purported partner in espionage one last thrill? For me, it was one last time to prove my prowess at lying to the enemy. I wasn’t sure if I was being kind or mean. But as I always had with Oleg and the FBI, I pushed straight ahead.

The traffic coming out of the parking lot was heavy. Sunday brunch at downscale eateries was evidently popular in Wayne. As Oleg and I stood at the curb waiting for the walk light to turn, he reached into his pocket and took out a piece of paper that he handed to me. I gave it a quick glance. It contained a handwritten grid of lines and boxes with a list of government job titles—many of them, both high and low—and their levels of official secrecy: top-secret, secret, restricted, and so on.

“What is this supposed to be?” I asked Oleg.

“These are the codes for all the different levels of clearance,” he said. “I thought you’d like to see them.”

And he meant all of them. The job titles went from the lowliest “civilian” all the way up to members of Congress and the Senate and even “President of the United States.”

“Here is where you are now,” he said, pointing to a box on the lower third of his chart. “You have access to material that is export-controlled and everything below that. That is good. But look where you will be as a navy intelligence officer.” He pointed to a spot six or eight rungs up the grid that someone had already marked with a pencil. “Big difference,” he said with a giant smile.

“Big difference,” I agreed.

From what I knew about government classifications, the grid was probably accurate, though I’d never seen the practical details of secret access laid out so clearly. Had he gotten this chart from the U.S. government? Or had the Russians made it up themselves? I shouldn’t have been surprised. Secrecy was the business that Oleg was in.

I didn’t give Oleg a chance to take the chart back. Just as the light was changing, I folded the paper in half and slipped it into my pocket. I walked as the traffic cleared. This was too good to lose.

“There is so much else I can get you,” I told Oleg.

“This could be very good,” he said.

“I hope,” I told him.

As we talked and walked, Oleg sounded almost wistful. Like he was proud of the asset he had developed for his country, the young American he was convinced he held in his hands. For once, he spoke to me like he recognized what I was capable of and appreciated what I had done.

“We want to throw you a big party,” he said. “Vodka and lobsters. Music. It will be fun. It will be a very big party.”

I listened but didn’t speak.

“You will get numbered bank accounts,” he went on. “You will get a retirement plan. You will be treated like a true professional. They are very excited about this.”

He didn’t say who they were, exactly. I assumed he meant his superiors or his colleagues at headquarters. In Moscow? At the Mission? Maybe both. But he made clear to me that whoever they were, they were very happy with what I had been able to do for them and all the documents I had been able to retrieve.

And with my new place in Naval Intelligence, they were expecting much, much more.

* * *

Oleg and I walked a diagonal route across the parking lot. When we approached the black Corvette, I followed the script exactly as the agents and I had agreed. The time for improvising was behind us. My free-flowing promises had more than motivated Oleg to do what I wanted him to do. Now he seemed entirely clueless about what the future held.

“It’s all right here,” I told him as I held the car key in my hand.

He took a step closer.

I pushed a button on the fob, and the trunk popped open.

He leaned in.

I glanced across my right shoulder and saw nobody else nearby. With my left hand, I tossed the bulging envelope of cash onto the floor of the trunk, right beside the empty cardboard box.

Oleg leaned in to see what I had in there. He squinted from the bright afternoon into the darker trunk. This time I didn’t slam the trunk on his head.

As he peered inside, I took a step back from the car’s rear bumper.

I glanced to the left, then the right, and still saw no one.

With my right hand, I removed the Motor Club cap from my head and lowered it to my side.

There was half a second of silence.

Oleg’s head was in the trunk. He was staring into the cardboard box where the papers were supposed to be, giving his eyes a moment to adjust from the bright sunlight. He began to turn his head toward me as if to ask, “Where are these documents?” But he didn’t get a single syllable out.

After one more half second, the calm of the parking lot flew into mayhem.

Out of nowhere, three cars raced around from the right. No lights. No sirens. Just three Ford Fusions—Terry’s black one, plus a silver one and a gold one, all 2007s or 2008s. I definitely won the cool-car contest in the parking lot that day.

All the cars slammed to a stop almost simultaneously just a few short feet from us. In an instant, five car doors flew open and five FBI agents jumped out. There was Terry and Lisa, my immediate team.

Like a movie character suddenly cornered by the authorities, I lifted both my hands to shoulder height in a gesture of half surrender.

There were two young agents I didn’t recognize. There was Frank, the supervisor. Terry pointed him out. A couple of other agents were standing on the periphery.

One of the young agents stood beside me as I faced Oleg. “Who is that?” the agent demanded.

I didn’t answer.

“Who is that to you?” he yelled again.

“Nobody,” I said.

“Who?” he yelled one more time.

He was talking, and I was staring at Oleg. The whole thing felt like an out-of-body experience, like I was standing there watching it come down.

The agent didn’t let up. “What’s his name?”

“Pasha,” I said.

Pasha? Where did that come from?

I knew where. The night before, as I was trying to stay calm for my big adventure, Ava and I had been watching So You Think You Can Dance on TV. There was a contestant on the show named Pasha.

As all this was unfolding, Oleg was just standing there. Saying nothing. Doing nothing.

Terry walked back to the open Corvette trunk. “Got something, boss,” he called out to Frank. He was holding the big white envelope of Oleg’s cash. He turned to me. “What is this?” he demanded. Terry, the agent who’d been with me the longest and knew me best of all.

After Pasha, I said nothing else. Oleg still hadn’t said anything. No one touched him. He stood there wide-eyed, his face betraying the tiniest hint of the confusion that must have been surging through his brain.

A thought entered my head. Look at Oleg. He’s the loneliest man in the world. I understood his confusion and watched as he managed to remain disconnected. In an instant, this cheeriest of afternoons had turned into a horrible fast-paced mess for him.

The agents in their matching Ford Fusions.

Me being grabbed in front of him.

The hopeful excitement he had felt a few seconds earlier—his own impending departure, the rash of documents to come, my long-awaited navy acceptance, the eye-popping secrecy grid, the talk of a lobster-and-vodka celebration, the numbered bank accounts, the retirement plan, this triumph so close he could taste it—all snatched abruptly from his powerful grip.

He never flinched.

For their part, the agents deserved Academy Awards.

“Anything in your pockets that will poke me?” one of the agents asked as he began patting me down. “Anything sharp at all?”

Oleg, I noticed, expressed no concern for me, this young American he had been so recently flattering. He said nothing to protect me, nothing to the agents on my behalf. He said nothing to anyone.

Whatever genuine appreciation he had for me or concern for my well-being—and I’m guessing it wasn’t much in the end—was clearly overwhelmed by his own fear, military training, and sense of self-protection.

Saying not a word, he turned his back on me and began walking slowly away.

No one put me in handcuffs. I’m not sure why. But I was pushed into the back of a gold Ford Fusion. The two younger agents got into the front seats. Just as quickly as they’d converged on us, the agents were driving me away.

I couldn’t see Oleg’s face through the rear window. He was walking out of the parking lot. All I could see was the back of his stocky frame moving silently away.

* * *

The agents didn’t take me far in the gold Fusion, just far enough to be sure that Oleg had departed and could no longer see us. Then they stopped the car.

“By the way, my name is Fred,” one of the agents said, turning around in his seat. “This is Sam. We’re both so glad to meet you.”

“Very nice work,” Sam said.

“Very well done,” said Fred. “We used to work with your parents.”

They drove me up to the third level of a nearby parking garage. When we got up there, it was filled with agents and cops. I didn’t know who most of them were. There had to be at least a dozen vehicles and twenty or twenty-five people. I’d had no idea so many people were working behind the scenes. We started with a tight, tiny group, a couple of agents and me. Look at what that had expanded into! All of them seemed fully familiar with what had gone down. Compared with the tense craziness of the parking lot, the atmosphere in the garage was celebratory and loose. A bunch of law-enforcement professionals, all congratulating each other and congratulating me.

It was surreal. I saw two guys holding doggie bags from Pizzeria Uno. I could only imagine how they’d found out about the switch and bolted out of there—but not without their food.

A couple of people were talking into radios, getting updated reports from agents assigned to follow Oleg back to the city.

“You like our RP?” Terry asked. “The rally point.”

“Pretty cool,” I said.

“Listen,” Terry said, noticing how I was paying close attention to the radio squawks about Oleg. “He’s on his way outta here. His career is over as of right now. God only knows what happens to him when he gets back home. It won’t be pretty.” He handed me the keys to the Corvette. They did not want me hanging around. “You gotta go now,” he said.

“Are we sure he’s left?” I asked Terry. I knew they were good at their jobs, but I needed to hear that Oleg wasn’t watching us from behind a mailbox or hunkered down in his car seat.

“He’s gone and he’s not looking back,” Terry assured me.

“Am I gonna run into him on the highway?”

“Highly unlikely.”

“What kind of danger am I in? What about my family?”


I nodded. They seemed confident that Oleg was gone from my life, that my years of duplicity and looking over my shoulder were truly over.

I climbed into the car. I turned the key and listened to the comforting loud rumble of the engine. They’d given Oleg enough time to be way ahead of me. I agreed it was time to get out of there.

My mind was racing. Even faster than I usually drove.

What kind of turmoil had we caused for the Russian espionage apparatus inside the United States?

Were the Russians worried about my well-being? Highly unlikely. Were they worried about what I might say? For sure. What did they make now of our three-year relationship or the twenty years they had known my family?

At that moment, no one knew what would happen next. But as I took one last look at the celebration in the garage, I understood that the feeling was triumph. God only knows what the Russians thought. But to be on the safe side, I took a circuitous route back to Ninety-sixth Street.