Illustration by Lincoln Agnew
You had to get the passphrase just right. A moment of hesitation, a flicker of uncertainty, and your contact, the one with the cash and the memory drive, might vanish into the crowd as quickly as he emerged.
And so, on September 26, 2009, a Seattleite known as Michael Zottoli—cleft chin, five ten, great hair—stepped onto the corner of Vanderbilt and DeKalb in New York City and waited to pass the test.
He wore jeans, a T-shirt layered under an untucked button-down, and, like any self-respecting Pacific Northwesterner, a North Face vest. At the corner, Zottoli spotted a man wearing shorts and a backpack cross the street and lumber toward him.
“Excuse me,” one of the men said, reciting the first half of the script, “did we meet in Bangkok in April last year?”
The other replied with the memorized phrase, “I don’t know about April but I was in Thailand in May of that year.”
The two shook hands and walked four blocks to Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park. In the oak- and elm-strewn meadow named after American Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene, they selected a bench and sat side by side. There the man in the shorts—later identified as a Russian agent using the alias Richard Murphy of New Jersey—handed Michael Zottoli from Seattle two items: a flash memory card and a bag that held $150,000 in cash.
Within nine months they’d both be behind bars.
News of Russian espionage is ubiquitous today, but in the first decade of the twenty-first century any disquieting news of the then-crippled former superpower dimmed next to the threat of terrorism hatched in the Middle East and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Russia remained a defeated Cold War foe. The Berlin Wall had collapsed, USSR an acronym long since mothballed in our collective memories.
So in June 2010, when the FBI swept up 10 suspected spies—living here under the direction of Vladimir Putin—the news was but a blip. Newspapers ran top-of-the-fold headlines, yes. Spasmodic cable news chyrons twitched at the bottom of our screens. But the details were met with something less like alarm and more like humor and nostalgia. Russian spies? Like in James Bond? Like Boris and Natasha?
Now Russian interference in the lives of Americans isn’t so funny. Now most of us, according to a CBS News poll, believe Putin’s government tried to sway the 2016 election and undermine our democracy. U.S. intelligence agencies have little doubt they did.
Russia may have no longer been on the minds of Americans for all those years, says Scott Stewart, an investigator in the State Department during both the George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton presidential administrations, “but Americans were on Russia’s mind.”
After the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, explains Stewart, Russia suddenly had NATO, led by the U.S., at its doorstep. “It makes sense that they would see the Americans as a threat.”
The 2010 FBI sweep, code-named Operation Ghost Stories, offers a glimpse into what Russian intelligence was up to while most of us weren’t paying attention: stolen identities, coded radio transmissions, and attempts at wielding influence over U.S. citizens in high positions.
Operation Ghost Stories was the inspiration for the FX hit The Americans, though screenwriters set the TV thriller in the 1980s, near the end of the Cold War; in 2013, when The Americans debuted, tensions between the U.S. and Russia weren’t deemed dramatically fraught enough. Not yet. But as in the show, which centers on two Russian spies posing as a middle-class, suburban husband and wife with two kids, Ghost Stories featured its own fictional American couples.
In Seattle, one of those couples lived right under our noses.
The FBI broke into their apartment on February 17, 2006.
Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills attended the University of Washington as business majors. He claimed birth in Yonkers, New York. She said she was from Canada. They had a son together and would soon have another. As far as the FBI could tell, Zottoli had only lived in the U.S. since 2001; Mills since 2003. And both, the bureau was confident, had stolen their identities from deceased people.
And so agents, armed with a warrant, slipped into the Seattle apartment when Zottoli and Mills weren’t home. By then the FBI had been monitoring the couple’s coconspirators for years and knew what to look for—what to photograph and what relevant digital media to download. Of particular interest in Mill’s and Zottoli’s apartment: a shortwave radio and spiral notebooks containing columns of ostensibly random numbers.
“Based on my training, experience, and participation in this investigation,” an FBI agent later observed, “I believe that the radio in the Seattle apartment was used by the Seattle conspirators to receive radiograms—and that the spiral notebook contains codes used to decipher radiograms as they came in.”
Radiograms are bursts of sound aired over shortwave. Similar to Morse code, the transmissions, the FBI believed, allowed the operatives to receive secret instructions from Moscow. Agents found evidence of another form of clandestine communication: A technique known as steganography encrypts data in common online images (images such as photos of flowers that “appear wholly unremarkable to the naked eye,” in the words of the FBI). This permitted Zottoli, Mills, and the others to surreptitiously receive and pass information.
What kinds of information? A message authorities intercepted and decrypted from Moscow offers a clue. Intended for a couple known as Cynthia and Richard Murphy—the man Zottoli met in Brooklyn in September 2009—the missive appears to be a rebuke, reminding the operatives of their mission:
“You were sent to USA for long-term service trip. 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 to C.”
The FBI interpreted “intels” to refer to intelligence reports and “C” to the Center, where the operatives’ Moscow handlers were stationed.
Those instructions held different meanings to different members of the 10-person spy ring. For Richard Murphy, who along with his wife had posed as an American for more than a decade, the mission included keeping the other spies stocked with the equipment (such as laptops) and cash (like the $150,000 Murphy brush-passed to his Seattle counterpart). Murphy’s wife, Cynthia, had enrolled as a Columbia University MBA student and the Moscow center directed her to “ ‘dig up’ personal data of those students who apply (or are hired already) for a job at CIA.”
Another member, Anna Chapman, who later enjoyed celebrity status in Russia for her role, posed as a New York City real estate agent and mingled with Manhattan business elites.
Business, in fact, is an attractive target for foreign espionage. “Think about the current administration,” says Scott Stewart, the former Bush and Clinton State Department investigator. “Look at how many people [President Trump] pulls in from the business world. Cabinet secretaries, assistant secretaries, and other such things.”
But Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills—what were they doing alone, way out here on the West Coast?
On July 1, 2010, days after the FBI announced the arrest of 10 undercover operatives, readers of The Seattle Times learned that two of those operatives had lived among them. “Accused Russian spies sure fooled people in the Seattle area,” the headline chirped, introducing Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills, residents of Belmont Court apartments on Capitol Hill from October 2007 to March 2009. “They did an Oscar-worthy job of maintaining their cover as a boring young Seattle couple slavishly devoted to their toddler son,” the Times wrote, employing a tone characteristic of just how playfully media outlets treated the news of Putin-led snoops on our shores.
Thanks to interviews with one of their professors at the University of Washington, their apartment manager, and Zottoli’s boss and coworkers, Seattleites got a peek at how the couple tried to blend in.
Cloaked in business casual, for example, Zottoli left Belmont Court every weekday morning at 7:30 sharp and drove a BMW across Lake Washington to a telecom firm in Bellevue, where colleagues described him as nitpicked (he and his wife seemed to argue a lot on the phone) and where he subjected coworkers to interminable kvetches about president George W. Bush. Patricia pushed a stroller around the North Capitol Hill neighborhood and doted over son Kenny. The apartment manager at Belmont Court described them as model tenants, but he and nearly every other source the Times quoted admitted that, in retrospect, Zottoli and Mills seemed off.
Only UW assistant professor Dr. Ufuk Ince, whose class the couple attended together, had unequivocally nice things to say. He described Zottoli and Mills as “charming,” and said “Michael was a top student in my class. They impressed me with their performance and personality.”
In some ways, the ruse seems absurd, subterfuge akin to a comic book superhero hiding his identity via a measly pair of eyeglasses. Almost every person The Seattle Times spoke to about the couple noted their strong foreign accents, yet all seem to have bought that they were American and Canadian. An alien had soared among them, but these witnesses saw only Clark Kent.
That astonishing credulousness, however, belies the sophistication of the operation. Court documents divulging the furtive lives of the Ghost Story spies—all, like Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills, stationed in cities around the country—reveal painstaking planning, advanced training, and an uncanny ability to go unnoticed.
Illegal foreign agents, according to the FBI, “generally receive extensive training before coming to the United States.” That training includes “the creation and use of a cover profession; counter surveillance measures; concealment and destruction of equipment and materials used in connection with their work as agents.” A fake identity—in the case of most of the Operation Ghost Story suspects, cribbed from the dead—is known in counterintelligence circles as a legend.
The Seattle spies cultivated the legends of “Michael Zottoli” and “Patricia Mills” over time yet they left a light footprint in the annals of local public records. Aside from the King County marriage certificate on the books—the couple was married on June 5, 2005—court records contain a ticket for both Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills for jaywalking in February 2005. And Michael collected a couple minor traffic and parking violations. But for the most part they kept a low, squeaky clean profile.
That makes determining what they were up to here in the Emerald City difficult. The FBI’s trove of available Operation Ghost Stories documents—the majority are redacted and won’t be unsealed until the year 2035—remain frustratingly mute on the specifics.
In September 2017, I reached out to someone who spent time with the spies and might have a clue.
We agreed to meet in the lobby of a skyscraper in Seattle’s downtown business district. It was around lunchtime. A mass of suit jackets and ties and tailored skirts rotated in and out of three elevator bays. Harried finance employees clicked across the foyer floor.
Ufuk Ince, handsome, trim, late 40s, greeted me with a searching look, holding eye contact for an extra second or two. Now a partner at an asset management firm, Ince was the professor who taught both Zottoli and Mills, the one who had unequivocally kind things to say about the couple when news of their true identities broke in 2010.
More than once during our conversation Ince, a native of Turkey, would suggest he couldn’t really be sure I was who I said I was. You could never be sure about anyone. His experience with the couple he knew as Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills changed him that way. “Who can you trust at this point?” Ince asked. “I had a personal connection with these people.”
In the early 2000s Ince was an assistant professor of finance at UW Bothell and has fond memories of the couple who sat at the back of his investments classroom in 2006. Zottoli and Mills kept quiet during lectures, but at breaks or after class the pair approached the lectern. “They would come and express their curiosity by asking questions.” Ince recalled. “Not all students seek that kind of interaction.”
Later, when Zottoli sought employment after graduation, the professor wrote him a letter of recommendation. To this day Zottoli stands out to Ince as one of the brightest students he taught during that time.
I asked him what he thought the Russians were up to. He answered by describing the class. Students in his investments class, Ince explained, “have a high chance of being hired in one of the big U.S. companies”—including local behemoths Microsoft, Amazon, and Boeing—“and rising through the ranks. Imagine what kind of access they might have.”
The day Ince and I met, special prosecutor Robert Mueller seemed to be tightening the screws in his investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Vladimir Putin’s government. (That week news broke that federal agents armed with a warrant had picked the lock and raided the home of former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.) Talk of recent Russian meddling was everywhere, and our conversation wasn’t immune to it. Ince was once married to a woman from Russia, and he has long watched with frustration as both Russia and his native Turkey succumb to Russian propaganda. It pains him to see the United States fall prey.
In light of ongoing and aggressive interference with democracy, I asked, has his view of Zottoli and Mills, about whom he spoke so glowingly in 2010, changed?
He paused to consider. “I feel like they are also in a way, victims. Especially since they were young.” He says, despite everything, he would like to enjoy a shot of vodka with them.
The couple known as Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills moved from Seattle to Arlington, Virginia, in October 2009. By then they had two young sons, and in Virginia they continued on as they had in the Pacific Northwest. They resided in a high-rise apartment and made trips to New York in a gray 2004 BMW sedan. Zottoli met Richard Murphy there again on March 7, 2010, in a Brooklyn cafe, where he received $9,000 in cash and a laptop.
Three months later the whole plot came crashing down. Unbeknownst to the spies, a man they had assumed was one of their Russian handlers was in fact an undercover FBI agent. U.S. law enforcement had the Russians’ number for years. Zottoli and Mills were arrested in Arlington. The FBI apprehended the rest of the ring in New York, New Jersey, and Boston.
Zottoli and Mills admitted they were Russian, and confessed their true identities: Mikhail Kutsik and Natalia Pereverzeva.
They were arraigned on charges of money laundering and failing to register as agents of a foreign government. Yet the spies were shown leniency. All were allowed to return to their motherland in exchange for four U.S. spies being held in Russia.
In Moscow, Vladimir Putin welcomed Zottoli, Mills, and the other operatives as heroes. At first the Seattle couple’s young sons had to stay behind—a friend they had made in Washington state took care of them—but eventually the boys rejoined their parents in Russia.
Today, Mikhail Kutsik and Natalia Pereverzeva (who now goes by Natalya Kutsik, taking her married name) hold top positions at prominent Russian companies. Reward, presumably, for their sacrifice in posing as Americans all those years.
We tell ourselves fictions every day. About ourselves, yes, but also about those around us—We develop assumptions. The women sitting in front of me on the plane are sisters, say. They resent each other. We fill in gaps, conjure connective narrative tissue where none exists, tell ourselves we comprehend the lives unfolding ephemerally before us.
So did Ufuk Ince with the two students who sat at the back of his investments class in 2006. Ince, remember, knew Russians. His ex-wife was Russian. He’d visited the country. Yet he believed the man who called himself Michael Zottoli was Italian.
“Or Italian American, because of his last name. He also had an accent [that] was not a Russian accent.” Patricia Mills, he thought, was American, due to her name, behavior, and speech. Ince’s unconscious assumption: “So this Italian guy came here, found a girlfriend, and they’re almost engaged or something.”
Near the end of our conversation in September, the lunch crowd still in orbit around us in that downtown skyscraper lobby, Ince had one more story to tell.
In January 2011 he received an email from another former student who had taken his finance class at UW Bothell years earlier. She said she was writing as a favor to “Mike Zottoli.”
“I remained good friends with Pat and Mike after college,” she wrote. “Their son was in our wedding and I visited them often when they moved to DC.” She said that she was on her way for one such visit on the morning FBI agents arrested the Russians. Child Protective Services, presumably at the behest of Mikhail Kutsik and Natalia Pereverzeva, appointed this friend the caregiver of their two young children. She brought the boys home to Seattle, where they stayed with her for a week before she and her husband flew to Moscow to reunite the family.
The reason she was emailing was to pass along a message from Kutsik to Ince. Kutsik had either heard about or read what his former professor had said to the press. “Mike asked that if I should ever get the chance to please thank you for being a decent man when they were in a difficult situation.”
I was surprised to learn Mikhail Kutsik, a year and a half after arrest and nearly as long after his return to Russia, still, at least on occasion, used the name “Mike Zottoli.” It reminded me of another fiction at play in Operation Ghost Stories.
The real Michael Zottoli was not a spy. He was born in Yonkers in 1970, just as Kutsik claimed, but died a year and a half later. The real Michael Zottoli is buried in Fairfield, Connecticut.
I found a photo of the toddler’s gravestone online, a small granite slab recessed in the unkempt grass of a lonely cemetery. The details sent me on a genealogical scavenger hunt that led me to the parents of the real Michael Zottoli.
The child’s surviving family members now live in Florida. His older brother, in his early 50s, is active on Facebook. Lately I’ve felt like the spy, watching Michael Zottoli’s brother share his robust life with his friends and post about his love of American muscle cars.
I obtained his phone number and in the past few weeks I’ve tried to goad myself into dialing it. I’ve rehearsed my lines. Your younger brother’s name lived on, I might say. Your family lost Michael 46 years ago, but for nine years in the early part of the twenty-first century his name lived on.
For decades we were locked in a frigid, silent struggle with the only other country capable of wiping us off the map. That struggle, we were told, ended and we triumphed. The other side kept at it. Operation Ghost Stories and the 2016 presidential election hacking stand as evidence. The other side kept at it by becoming us. The other side spread propaganda in our social media, but it also spirited through our graveyards, took on our identities, left home on Mondays at 7:30 sharp, clocked in at office jobs across the lake.
I could call Michael Zottoli’s brother but I never do. I never do because some ghost stories are better left untold.