ARLINGTON, Va. | Mikhail Semenko’s employer knew he liked to frequent embassy functions and didn’t want to work at his small travel agency forever, but he was stunned when the somewhat awkward Russian immigrant was accused of being a spy.
People who lived near Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills at an Arlington high-rise apartment building about a mile from the Pentagon likewise were surprised when the pair were charged with being foreign agents. Neighbors describe them as a smiling, attractive couple raising a young son and toddler. They went to the pool, did their laundry, rode the elevator, drove a gray BMW sedan and exchanged casual greetings.
All three are now at an Alexandria detention center facing federal charges for failing to register as foreign agents, a crime that is less serious than espionage. Zottoli and Mills are also charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering. The northern Virginia residents were among 11 people arrested this week in an alleged ring of secret agents working for Russian intelligence services.
Slava Shirokov, co-owner of Travel All Russia, said Semenko, 27, worked for roughly a year at their Arlington office on the second-story of a property that also houses a U.S. military recruitment center. In addition to Russian and English, Semenko speaks Spanish, Chinese and Portuguese, and those skills came in handy at the travel agency, Shirokov said.
“He was always interested in languages, global politics and other cultures,” Shirokov said.
The two men first met in college at Amur State University on Russia’s border with China, where Shirokov said Semenko was in a Chinese studies program. Both men eventually moved to the U.S., where Semenko received graduate degrees from Seton Hall University in New Jersey.
“He liked to go to banquets to meet people,” Shirokov said. “We always thought he is networking in order to land the jobs of his dreams. … He said ‘My dream job would be something in international relations, an NGO or something like that.’”
According to court documents, Zottoli claims to be a U.S. citizen, born in Yonkers, N.Y., and is married to Mills, a purported Canadian citizen. The FBI said the two lived together over the years in a number of locations, including Seattle, before moving to Virginia last year.
Celest Allred, who lives next door, said she could hear the children through their shared wall and would say “hello” to the couple in the hall.
“They seemed like a normal family,” she said. “The Cold War is over. You don’t expect to hear stories on the news about Russians being arrested.”
Neighbor Clayton Morgan said the couple’s son was talkative and never shy around strangers, and he would often hear the child as he walked down the hallway. But Morgan hasn’t heard anything since the Sunday arrests.
Co-workers said Semenko was the “clumsy,” ”quirky,” guy in their roughly 10-person office, the type of employee who would print documents right after being instructed not to use the printer because somebody was in the middle of an important job.
Co-workers described Semenko as frugal. They said he drove an inexpensive car to work for a few months, then got rid of it to save money and preferred to walk rather than paying the bus fare.
Later, Shirokov learned from a TV crew that that Semenko had been arrested Sunday at his Arlington residence, less than a mile from a burger joint recently visited by President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
According to the charging documents, an undercover FBI agent posing as a Russian agent met with Semenko last Saturday in Washington, blocks from the White House. The FBI undercover agent gave Semenko a folded newspaper wrapped around an envelope containing $5,000 and directed him to drop it in an Arlington park. The documents say there is video of Semenko making the delivery as instructed.
Regarding Zottoli, authorities detailed several exchanges with other alleged coconspirators, in which he is accused of receiving thousands of dollars, laptops used to communicate with Russian officials and other items.
During a search of the couple’s Seattle apartment, the FBI says, agents found a radio that can be used for receiving short-wave radio transmissions and spiral notebooks, which contained random columns of numbers. Authorities believe the two used the codes to decipher messages that came through the radio.
Authorities say Zottoli has lived in the U.S. since 2001, and at one point another alleged conspirator sent a message to Moscow saying Mills couldn’t leave the U.S. because her papers were no longer current.
An Arlington County social services spokesman said agency workers there arranged for care for the two young children, but within a day they were turned over to family friends.
Semenko, Mills and Zottoli are due to appear in federal court in Alexandria for a detention hearing Thursday. At the hearing, the judge will decide whether they are to remain in custody until their trial or other court proceedings.
Associated Press writer Brett Zongker in Washington contributed to this report.