SEATTLE – A Seattle couple's studies at the University of Washington may have helped them in their roles as alleged Russian spies working in the U.S.
Michael Zotolli and Patricia Mills were among 11 people arrested by the FBI, accused of being sleeper agents for Russia. Sources close to the investigation say the suspects were dedicated to spending decades in the U.S.
Zotolli and Mills studied finance at UW's Bothell campus, perhaps to begin climbing the social ladder that would eventually give them access to sensitive information.
"I could not distinguish them from any of my other students outside of their charm and personality," said UW finance professor Yfuk Ince. "Pleasant. Charming. Smiling. Engaged and well-performing students."
Zotolli was top of the class and would later tell neighbors he was an investment banker.
"I think 100 percent they were trying to blend. Blend very well and be respected members of the society," said Ince.
The FBI has been watching Zotolli and Mills for years, even using a secret warrant to snoop through their Seattle apartment in 2006, uncovering a radio and code book allegedly used to transmit messages.
The Cold War-era spy tactics seemed to be targeting the influence and information centers of the East Coast – Washington, D.C. and Arlington, Virginia – where the Seattle couple moved late last year.
"I just realize they did their job very well," said Ince. "They knew what their mission was, blend in well for a decades-long journey. I think they were doing that very well, too."
There's no information that Zotolli and Mills passed on any state secrets, but charging documents say some of the East Coast spies did have relationships forming with a big political fundraiser and a strategist in a nuclear weapons program.
Accused spy worked for Seattle-based company
One of the alleged spies worked as a real estate agent for Seattle-based Redfin. Tracey Foley was a field agent who showed homes for the Boston branch of the company.
On the company blog, CEO Glenn Kelman said about Foley, "As with every agent we hire, Redfin validated her social security number, her deal history and that her real estate license was in good standing; as with every agent we hire, we ran a criminal background check, which came up clean."
Kelman went on to say "The customer surveys for Ms. Foley described her as friendly and helpful."