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Alleged Russian spy eludes capture on Cyprus

LARNACA, Cyprus - 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 mustache.

Just another foreign tourist on a budget, it seemed, in a waterfront city in Cyprus.

To American officials, the man identified as Christopher Robert Metsos is the spy who got away, a footloose operative who funneled money to U.S.-based accomplices, 10 of whom are in custody.

"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."

A textbook spy

The tale of how this mysterious figure eluded authorities in Cyprus is one of the more intriguing episodes in a spy saga recalling the cloak-and-dagger days of Cold War espionage.

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 U.S. 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 traveling 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, checked into the Atrium Zenon, a block of hotel apartments on a busy shopping street one block from the Larnaca waterfront. He paid 40 euros 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.

Without a trace

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. Justice Minister Loucas Louca said she boarded the flight because police had no reason to hold her.

Unwitting police and court officials initially appeared unaware that Metsos was suspected of espionage. Two days earlier, officials in the United States arrested suspects in the spy case after years of surveillance and Metsos, cited in U.S. court papers, was about to get caught in the firestorm of publicity.

Papathanasiou got a call that day from a Larnaca court. Metsos, wanted in the United States for alleged money laundering and acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, needed a lawyer.

"He told me that he had nothing to do with this case," Papathanasiou said Saturday.

Bail was set at 27,000 euros, and an extradition hearing was scheduled for late July. Metsos' passport was confiscated.

Bail paid, Metsos paid 630 euros in advance for a two-week stay at the Achilleos hotel. Faded, tattered flags, including American and Russian ones, hang outside the 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. His bed was unused.

Right out of a movie

The mystery stretches as far back as 1994, when Metsos studied for a semester at Norwich University in Northfield, Vt. He then claimed to be Colombian and gave an address in Bogotá.

U.S. officials say Metsos traveled to the United States regularly, allegedly engaging in activities that most people would associate with the suspense-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. The FBI believes Metsos received money in that fleeting encounter.

Hours later, U.S. officials say, Metsos met alleged spy Richard Murphy at a Queens restaurant, gave him a package that he said contained Murphy's "cut," and cryptically indicated that the "rest of the money" should go to someone else.

The next day, a GPS device secretly installed by U.S. agents on a car linked to Metsos was tracked to Wurtsboro, in the Catskills. Later, agents discovered a buried package wrapped in duct tape in an area where the car had stopped.


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