A laptop owned by the US-based Russian spy ring’s suspected paymaster was being searched by experts today after he vanished in Cyprus.
The country’s justice minister Loucas Louca said the US has asked for the laptop and “more than one” USB memory stick belonging to 54-year-old Christopher Metsos.
Metsos is wanted in the US on charges that he supplied money to the spy ring, which operated under deep cover in American suburbs. He disappeared last Wednesday, a day after a Cypriot court freed him on bail.
Before the scandal broke, Metsos had appeared in Cyprus as seemingly just another foreign tourist on a budget.
But the FBI says he was a key player in an underworld of coded instructions, false identities, buried banknotes and surreptitious bag swaps.
“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. “There was really nothing strange about him. He was a very normal, usual guy.”
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 US Embassy said it had not asked Turkish Cypriot authorities for help in tracking the fugitive.
Witnesses suggest Metsos was a textbook spy – soothingly banal, a fly on the wall who took advantage of loopholes in law enforcement. He was travelling as a tourist 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 years old, checked into the Atrium Zenon, a cream-coloured block of hotel apartments on a busy shopping street one block from the Larnaca waterfront. He paid €40 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 who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with hotel policy.
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 with his companion.
Cyprus’ Justice Minister Ms Louca, said she was allowed to board the flight because police had no reason to hold her.
It is uncertain whether Metsos was in Cyprus on holiday, or posing as a tourist. There is a heavy Russian presence in Greek Cyprus.
Unwitting Cypriot 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 US court papers, was about to get caught in the firestorm of publicity.
The drama that day began for Mr Papathanasiou when he got a call 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. There was no mention of spying.
“He told me that he had nothing to do with this case. He didn’t understand why he was there,” Mr Papathanasiou said. “He was very quiet. He answered my questions. We ordered coffee and water when we were waiting before the court.”
Bail was set at €27,000 and an extradition hearing was scheduled for late July. Metsos’ passport was confiscated. It was a fair decision, Mr Papathanasiou said, based on available facts. The amount that his client was accused of laundering – $40,000 dollars (€31,000) – was far below the millions he expected.
Greek Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias has deflected US Justice Department criticism over Metsos’ release, saying it was slow in providing documents to Cypriot police.
A police photo of Metsos shows a bald Caucasian in a casual shirt. His skin has a reddish tinge, as though from sun exposure. His expression is impassive.
Bail paid, Metsos paid €630 in advance for a two-week stay the Achilleos hotel.
After registering at the police station a short distance 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.