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Originally published July 4, 2010 at 6:15 PM | Page modified July 4, 2010 at 7:57 PM

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Russian spy that got away is a master at blending in

The alleged paymaster of a Russian spy ring in the United States spoke no more than necessary. He stayed in modest hotels and dressed for the Mediterranean heat: shorts and untucked shirts. He wore spectacles and a clipped mustache.

The Associated Press

LARNACA, Cyprus — The alleged paymaster of a Russian spy ring in the United States spoke no more than necessary. He stayed in modest hotels and dressed for the Mediterranean heat: shorts and untucked shirts. He wore spectacles and a clipped mustache.

Just another foreign tourist on a budget, it seemed, in a waterfront city in Cyprus where foreign tourists on budgets are a summertime fixture.

To U.S. officials, the man identified as Christopher Robert Metsos is the spy who got away, a footloose operative who funneled money to U.S.-based accomplices, 10 of whom are in custody. Metsos, the FBI says, was a key player in an underworld of coded instructions, false identities, buried bank notes and surreptitious bag swaps.

"There was really nothing strange about him," said Michael Papathanasiou, a lawyer who represented Metsos until he jumped bail in Larnaca last week. "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 U.S. Embassy said it had not asked Turkish Cypriot authorities for help in tracking the fugitive.

Witness accounts suggest Metsos was a textbook spy — soothingly banal, a fly on the wall who took advantage of loopholes in law enforcement. He was traveling as a tourist on a Canadian passport, and a man in Canada has said the identity was stolen from his dead brother.

Greek Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias has deflected U.S. Justice Department criticism over Metsos' release, saying U.S. authorities were slow in providing certain documents to Cypriot police.

On June 17, Metsos, said to be 54 years old, checked into the Atrium Zenon, a cream-colored block of hotel apartments on a busy shopping street one block from the Larnaca waterfront. He paid 40 euros in cash daily for the room. He was accompanied by a "beautiful" woman with short brown hair who was 30 or 35 years old, according to a receptionist.

The discreet pair always ate out and sometimes dressed for the beach.

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, Hungary, with his companion. Cyprus' Justice Minister, Loucas Louca, said she boarded the flight because police had no reason to hold her.

It is uncertain whether Metsos was in Cyprus on vacation or posing as a tourist. There is a heavy Russian presence in Greek Cyprus.

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Unwitting Cypriot police and court officials initially appeared unaware Metsos was suspected of espionage. Two days earlier, U.S. officials arrested suspects in the spy case after years of surveillance, and Metsos, cited in U.S. court papers, was about to get caught in the firestorm of publicity.

Metsos, wanted in the United States for alleged money laundering and acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, called Papathanasiou. There was no mention of spying.

Bail was set at $33,000, and an extradition hearing was set for late July. Metsos' passport was confiscated. Bail paid, Metsos paid $790 in advance for a two-week stay at the Achilleos hotel. After registering at the police station two blocks away, Metsos hung the "Do not disturb" sign on his door. He failed to report to police as required June 30, and hotel staff never saw him leave.

A Russian receptionist said Metsos may have slipped away with his two suitcases while the night duty staffer was in the bathroom, or perhaps hopped off a back balcony. His bed was unused.

The mystery stretches as far back as 1994, when Metsos studied for a semester at Norwich University in Northfield, Vt. He then claimed to be Colombian and gave an address in Bogotá.

On Friday, an Associated Press reporter in Bogotá searched for that address, but it does not exist. U.S. officials say Metsos traveled to the United States regularly. On May 16, 2004, according to the FBI, Metsos and a Russian government official swapped identical orange bags on a staircase at the Forest Hills train station in Queens, a New York City borough. The FBI believes Metsos received money in that fleeting encounter.

Hours later, U.S. officials say, Metsos met alleged spy Richard Murphy at a Queens restaurant, gave him a package that he said contained Murphy's "cut," and cryptically indicated the "rest of the money" should go to someone else.

The next day, a GPS device secretly installed by U.S. agents on a car linked to Metsos was tracked to Wurtsboro, north of New York City. Agents later discovered a buried package wrapped in duct tape in an area where the car had stopped. Two years later, the FBI videotaped another alleged spy digging in the same area and retrieving a package. Agents believe it contained a Metsos stash.

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