New York: A suspect in the Russia spy saga cracked after his arrest, confessing he was a Russian agent and pledging greater loyalty to the Kremlin than to his own son, US prosecutors said.
The suspect, who operated under the false identity of Juan Lazaro, also revealed that his Peruvian born journalist wife, Vicky Pelaez, made several trips to South America to give intelligence to their Russian spymasters.
They are among 11 "deep-cover" suspects charged with trying to infiltrate US policymaking circles and report back to Moscow, in a Cold War-style spy case that has threatened to upset efforts to "reset" ties between the superpowers.
Attorney Preet Bharara outlined Lazaro`s remarkable confession in a letter to Judge Ronald Ellis, imploring him not to make the same mistake as a local court in Cyprus, which freed a key conspirator on bail who later fled.
In what was described as a "lengthy post-arrest statement" after waiving his Miranda rights, Lazaro confessed that he was not Uruguayan and that "Juan Lazaro" was not his real name, although he never revealed his proper identity.
He astonishingly told investigators that "although he loved his son, he would not violate his loyalty to the `Service` even for his son," according to the letter. The "Service" is short for Russia`s foreign intelligence service SVR, the successor to the Soviet-era KGB.
One suspect released
Juan Lazaro’s wife has been released and placed under home arrest, but nine other suspects in an espionage case that has revived Cold War memories remained in federal custody.
A New York judge ruled that Vicky Pelaez, a columnist for the New York Spanish-language daily El Diario, be freed on bond but held in her home and monitored electronically.
"Vicky`s case is more complicated. She does not appear to be a trained agent. She has a real identity and she is a US citizen, and she has an incentive to stay in the country," the judge decided.
Authorities say Peruvian-born Pelaez and 10 other alleged spies spent a decade living quiet lives in US cities and suburbs, all the while recruiting political sources and gathering information for the Russian government.
Nine of the 11 suspects faced bail hearings on Thursday in three separate courts, but the five awaiting their fate in Boston and Virginia will have to return another day as proceedings were postponed to consider further evidence.
In Boston, a hearing was postponed for two other suspected spies, Donald Heathfield and a woman who called herself defendant No 5 but court papers call Tracey Lee Ann Foley.
Heathfield`s attorney, Peter Krupp, called the case against his client "extremely thin”.
"It essentially suggests that they successfully infiltrated neighbourhoods, cocktail parties and the PTA," he told reporters following the hearing.
The Boston defendants lived near Harvard University in Cambridge, where Heathfield worked as a consultant and Foley was a real estate agent, according to local media.
In New York, Richard and Cynthia Murphy -- accused of posing since the mid-1990s as a suburban couple in New Jersey while secretly garnering high-level contacts -- had their bail denied, while judge Ellis said he would decide on Lazaro at a later date.
Ellis said "the government evidence is strong" against the couple, adding that the main concern was that "ultimately the court has concluded that it just does not know who they are."
There was expected to be little chance any would be granted bail after Cypriot authorities were left red-faced when Christopher Metsos, the alleged Kremlin money-man, escaped after being allowed to walk free.
"As we had feared, having been given, unnecessarily, the chance to flee, he did so," spokesman Philip Crowley said, adding it was too early to say if the United States would issue a formal protest to Cyprus over the case.
The Cypriot authorities said they were still hopeful of catching the fugitive. "We know his whereabouts roughly from the information we have collected," said Justice Minister Loucas Louca.
A 10th suspect arrested in Sunday`s swoop, flame-haired Russian bombshell Anna Chapman, had her bail request turned down by Ellis on Monday.
Bharara`s letter also revealed that some 90 messages decrypted by the FBI have not yet been made public and that a raid on a safe-deposit box, after the arrest of the 10 suspects, had yielded yet more evidence.
"Among the items recovered from the safe-deposit box were eight unmarked envelopes -- each of which contained USD 10,000, in apparently USD 100 bills," the attorney said.
Nine suspects face a maximum of 25 years in jail for money laundering as well as another five years for conspiring to work for a foreign government. Chapman and one other only face the lesser conspiracy charges. None of the 11 were charged with the more serious offence of espionage.
`Spy suspects have plenty of helpers`
A prosecutor says 11 people accused of operating as Russian spies have lots of helpers in the US waiting to aid their flight if they are released on bail.
The prosecutor, Michael Farbiarz, told a New York federal magistrate judge on Thursday that there are a lot of Russian officials in the United States who are actively assisting the conspiracy.
He says the defendants would have a "powerful sophisticated network they can call upon in the United States" if they were freed on bail.
The White House has said President Barack Obama knew the FBI was closing in on the suspects when he hosted Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at a summit three days before the arrests.
Medvedev has yet to comment on the scandal although strongman Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB officer, has criticised US law enforcement authorities, while saying he hoped the row would not harm ties.
(With Agencies’ inputs)