The allegations are shocking: four couples living in the U.S. under assumed false identities while secretly working as covert Russian spies on long-term, "deep-cover" assignments to obtain information on nuclear weapons.
They are part of a clandestine network that used a series of cold war tactics such as encrypted Morse code messages, brush passes and invisible writing to send intelligence back to the Russian government, the FBI said today as it announced the results of a multi-year investigation into the alleged spy ring.
Charged are Richard and Cynthia Murphy of New Jersey, Donald Howard Heathfield and Tracey Lee Ann Foley of Boston, Massachusetts, Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills of Arlington, Virginia, and Juan Lazaro and Vicky Pelaez of Yonkers, New York.
Also charged is Christopher Metsos, who remains at large and is alleged to be one of the main facilitators for the group and a trained agent living outside the U.S. According to the complaint, Metsos purports to be a Canadian citizen and regularly traveled to U.S. locations to meet with the other defendants, including numerous meetings in New York City in places such as coffee shops and book stores.
Two additional defendants, Anna Chapman and Mikhail Semenko, were also arrested Sunday for allegedly aiding in the same suspected Russian spy ring.
The arrests come just days after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met President Barack Obama in Washington, DC and shared hamburgers and French fries at a Virginia restaurant, not far from where Zottoli and Mills were living.
The couples are charged with conspiring to act as unregistered agents of Russia and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
The court documents read like a 1960's cold war spy novel: The accused spies allegedly used steganography, hiding secretive data in an image, and radiograms, bursts of data sent by a radio transmitter that resemble the sound of Morse code, as part of their secret communications with the Russian government.
The criminal complaint references buried money in upstate New York and clandestine meetings with the Russian government in South America for payments.
And there are allegations of fabricated birth certificates, Irish and Latino surnames, and fake college diplomas.
The Department of Justice revealed the depths of the multi-year investigation in court documents unsealed today, detailing the covert video and audio recordings inside the alleged spies' homes, monitoring of phone calls and e-mails, and secret searches that were used.
"The FBI has surreptitiously entered certain of the defendant's residences; photographed evidence and copied electronic media while inside; and then left the residence in question," according to one of the complaints.
The defendants allegedly received their directions from the Russian military intelligence division known as the "SVR." The complaint alleges that members of the group sought to establish ties with congressional aides and scientists who worked on nuclear weapons development.