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Originally published Tuesday, June 29, 2010 at 9:24 PM

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Corrected version

Accused Russian spies sure fooled people in the Seattle area

If Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills secretly were Russian spies, they did an Oscar-worthy job of maintaining their cover as a boring young Seattle couple slavishly devoted to their toddler son.

Seattle Times staff reporters

Did you know the ex-Seattle couple accused of being Russian spies?

Alleged Russian spies Michael Zottoli and his wife, Patricia Mills, lived in Seattle until last year, attending the University of Washington. Did you know them or know of others who knew the couple? Tell us about it.

If Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills secretly were Russian spies, they did an Oscar-worthy job of maintaining their cover as a boring young Seattle couple slavishly devoted to their toddler son.

Zottoli left his Capitol Hill apartment at 7:30 a.m. each workday in business-casual dress and clocked in as a midlevel accountant at a small Bellevue telecom company, where he was known as somewhat grumpy and distractible.

After work, he and Mills, a stay-at-home mom, would push Kenny, their toddler, around the neighborhood in a stroller. Mills complained about the smokers downstairs and about upstairs neighbors overwatering their plants.

To co-workers, Zottoli seemed henpecked, constantly taking cellphone calls at work. My wife, he would explain in a thick accent, then walk outside for privacy.

But when the FBI arrested the couple Sunday in Arlington, Va., their Seattle life became something else. Charging documents unsealed Monday in federal court in New York described a years-long investigation that identified Zottoli and Mills as deep-cover Russian spies who received coded radio transmissions from their Seattle apartment, and jetted to New York to pick up bundles of cash, computer flash drives and a laptop sent from Moscow.

"I just cannot believe it," said David Joyce, who hired Zottoli at Link Conference Service in July 2007. "I'm like, you gotta be kidding me. I'll never believe anything anyone tells me in a job interview again."

A 37-page affidavit from an FBI agent described Zottoli and Mills as part of a Russian spy program that required them to integrate into American life and cultivate sources in policymaking circles. What information Zottoli and Mills provided is unclear and was not included in court documents.

They are scheduled to appear at a detention hearing Thursday, according to Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd. He declined to say what happened to the couple's two young sons — they had a second child in late 2009 — but said children of people in federal detention usually are placed in the custody of child protective services.

According to the FBI investigation, Zottoli came to the United States in 2001, Mills in 2003. Zottoli, who wore braces and short brown hair, claimed to be a U.S. citizen born in Yonkers, N.Y., and told co-workers he spent his childhood in Taiwan, where his father worked in construction. Mills, a thin brunette with a stern manner, claimed to be Canadian, but neighbors believed she had a Yugoslavian accent.

It is unclear if those are their real names. They both appeared to be in their 40s. Zottoli had a Social Security card. Mills' Social Security number is associated with another person, according to research databases.

The criminal complaint said Russian undercover operatives are provided false identities and often assigned together as couples. "They will often have children together; this further deepens" their cover, according to the complaint.

Zottoli and Mills applied for a marriage license under those names in King County in 2005 while they were both students at the University of Washington, Bothell. They graduated with bachelor's degrees in business in 2006.

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UW professor Ufuk Ince taught both Zottoli and Mills, and described them as "charming" and excellent students — especially Zottoli. "Michael was a top student in my class," Ince said. "They impressed me with their performance and personality."

By then, according to court documents, they already were involved in spycraft. FBI agents photographed Zottoli in 2004 as he picked up a bag of cash and a flash drive during a meeting in New York's Central Park with another alleged undercover operative.

In February 2006, FBI agents secretly entered the couple's Seattle apartment and found a spiral-bound notebook with columns of random numbers. Those digits, according to the FBI, were used to decode "radiograms" — short bursts of radio transmissions.

Four months later, according to court documents, Zottoli and Mills returned to New York. FBI agents followed them to a field near Wurstboro, N.Y., and photographed Zottoli as he dug up a duct-taped bundle of cash that another alleged Russian operative had left two years earlier. The spot was marked with a half-buried beer bottle.

Zottoli worked for a while as a car salesman. In July 2007, he was hired by Link Conference Service, of Bellevue, which provided teleconferencing services.

Joyce, his boss, said Zottoli's accent was thick and he considered not hiring him, but the company CEO overruled him.

"He could be very vague when you asked him things," co-worker Shannon Osthimer said. "When you asked him where his accent was from, he'd say, 'Where do you think my accent is from?' "

He often went on anti-U.S. rants in the office, critically comparing American policies to other countries'. He disliked President George W. Bush, Osthimer said.

"He was so emotional and adamant," Osthimer said. "I had several conversations where I felt, 'I'm done talking with you,' and turned around and walked away."

In September 2008, Zottoli received permission to take a six-month vacation. He told co-workers he was taking his son to see Mills' parents in South Africa. Mills told her apartment manager they were going to Europe.

Zottoli was broke enough that he received a $2,000 loan from Joyce, his boss. "I thought, here's this young couple making a once-in-a-lifetime trip," said Joyce, who was repaid.

In March 2009, the couple moved out of the $1,800-a-month Belmont Court apartments where they'd lived since October 2007. Despite Mills' complaints about other tenants, apartment manager John Evans said they were good, quiet tenants who often paid with cashier's checks. They told Evans they were moving to another Capitol Hill apartment to be closer to a hospital for Kenny — who seemed perfectly healthy to Evans.

"Everything was about Kenny," Evans said. "All their focus was on Kenny."

Zottoli and most Link employees were laid off in September 2009, when it was bought out.

Zottoli returned to New York later that month for one more meeting with his handler, according to the FBI, which said electronic messages intercepted by the agency show Zottoli was given $150,000 in cash and another flash drive.

Zottoli and Mills moved to Virginia late last year. Joyce received a request for a reference for Zottoli this year from a nursing home needing an accountant.

The FBI continued watching the couple. In March, Zottoli met for the final time with his handler in a Brooklyn coffee shop. According to the FBI, Zottoli received $9,000 and mostly complained about the quality of the laptop he'd been given by Moscow.

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com; Christine Willmsen: 206-464-3261 or cwillmsen@seattletimes.com.

Information in this article, originally published (June 30, 2010), was corrected (July 1, 2010). A previous version of this story on a former Seattle couple accused of being Russian spies incorrectly said Yonkers, N.Y., which is a borough of New York. Yo

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