By delivering a bag containing $5,000 in cash to a drop site in an Arlington park, Mikhail Semenko fell into an elaborate trap set by the FBI. Photograph by Matthew Worden
It’s been a long time since I last saw my landlord, Mikhail Semenko. He was an affable twentysomething whose tiny Arlington one-bedroom apartment I rented for a short period during the summer of 2010. He worked what seemed like a low-impact job at a local travel agency, and spoke with a thick but understandable Russian accent. Our discussions never got too deep—whenever I saw him we talked mostly of rent checks and gas bills, spare keys and parking passes—but I liked him. He undercharged on the lease.
I finally saw him again yesterday, although not under the circumstances you might imagine. It was on camera—hidden camera, specifically—on the Web site of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. You see, my landlord was one of ten people arrested by the FBI in June 2010, targets of a decade-long investigation of undercover Russian spies living in the United States. I detailed my experience of having the FBI search my apartment for evidence in a feature story for this magazine last year.
Yesterday the FBI released a trove of declassified surveillance tapes and documents related to the case. Code-named “Ghost Stories,” it made for a timely Halloween posting.
The spies’ mission was never made explicit; the federal complaint only went so far as to say their objective was “to become sufficiently ‘Americanized’ such that they can gather information about the United States for Russia, and can successfully recruit sources who are in, or are able to infiltrate, United States policy-making circles.”
In the video, we see Mikhail step across a bridge of an anonymous Arlington park and surreptitiously place an object underneath it. The object was a bag containing $5,000 cash, given to him by an undercover FBI agent posing as one of his Russian handlers. By completing this “dead drop,” as it’s called in the espionage world, Mikhail had sealed his own fate.
Just a few hours after his visit to the Arlington park, my landlord knocked on the door to Apartment 33, my tiny one-bedroom, and asked if he could finish moving in a few boxes of his stuff. I was supposed to move out later that week, and he was going to move in. He wanted to get a head start.
He was wearing the same mesh shorts and T-shirt that he has on in the FBI’s video. I remember these tiny details only because they made the situation seem all the more unbelievable. What kind of spy wears gym clothes?
He was arrested later that night, around dinnertime. Those boxes would later be picked over by the FBI, as would the entire apartment, my possessions included. Mikhail and the rest of the spies would be deported back to Russia under a “spy swap” agreement between governments and awarded the country’s highest honor by President Dmitry Medvedev.
I never saw my landlord face to face again. But after the smoke cleared, I spent the next few weeks trying to uncover who he really was and what he really wanted. Read that story here.