Recently, the DOJ announced that Navy nuclear engineer Jonathan Toebbe and his wife, Diana were charged with selling secret information to an unidentified foreign country. The Toebes unwittingly passed on classified information containing military secrets on nuclear Virginia-class submarines to FBI agents in a sandwich, receiving $70,000 in cryptocurrency for that exchange.

Anyone working in the DoD, would be aware of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg through their security training. The Rosenbergs were dedicated communists, leading an American spy ring that provided highly classified atomic weaponry information to the Soviet Union. They were executed in 1953, shortly after their conviction for violating the Espionage Act.

What about the suspenseful cold war period drama, The Americans – with Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings? Similar spying could not happen today, right? There is considerable knowledge of United States-based agents performing foreign intelligence for the Russian Federation (SVR) since the cold war. In June 2010, the FBI arrested 10 agents or “illegals” including four couples, living in the United States on long-term, “deep-cover” assignments. The agents hid all connections to Russia, even while under the control of the SVR.  All plead guilty to secretly acting as agents of the Russian government.

None of the couples were charged with espionage, a more serious offense, because no evidence was presented for accessing and passing classified information. Evidently, the Jennings of The Americans were far more successful, than their real-life counterparts.

After their conviction in 2010, the U.S. and Russia agreed to a prisoner swap. The 10 “illegals” were deported to Russia in exchange for four people convicted by the Russian government of spying for Western countries. According to then Vice President Joe Biden, “We got back four really good ones” and “the ten [illegals], they’ve been here a long time, but they hadn’t done much.”

The most famous of the 10 illegals was the “disarmingly attractive” 28-year-old redhead, named Anna Chapman who moved in dangerously close circles to the White House. The other singleton was Mikhail Semenko, who studied at Seton Hall, and worked for a travel agency.  Sound familiar?

Who were the other couples in the “Illegals Program”

First, there was Vladimir and Lidiya Guryev who moved to the U.S. around 1990, using the names “Richard and Cynthia Murphy.” Cynthia had an undergraduate degree from NYU and an MBA from Columbia. With a deep cover, she earned $135,000 a year in Manhattan from Morea Financial Services. According to court documents, Cynthia’s assignment, was to collect information on Columbia University faculty and students applying to or hired by the CIA. Living in Montclair NJ, the couple had daughters (11 and 9) at the time of the arrest. The children were reunited with their parents in Russia following the prisoner swap, but as U.S. citizens.

Believed to have inspired The Americans,  Andrey Bezrukov, who went by the name “Donald Heathfield,” was “married” to Yelena (“Tracey Lee Ann Foley”), who stayed at home with their two children, Tim, 20, and Alex, 16. Donald studied at Harvard’s JFK School of Government and subsequently took a senior position at a Boston consulting firm. When their parents were arrested, son Tim had just finished his sophomore year at George Washington University in Washington, DC. In 2018, Alex was a Canadian citizen with a surname of “Vavilov” (born Alexander Foley) living in Toronto.  During a BBC interview, Alex said he and his parents in Russia had watched The Americans. When questioned about the TV show, Mr. Vavilov stated, “On the one hand you can relate to some things, on the other it’s Hollywood.”

Then there were Mikhail Kutsik and Nataliya Pereverzeva “Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills” who lived in Seattle, WA, with identities stolen from the deceased.  Both attended University of Washington earning degrees in business. During a FBI surveillance, an incriminating message was intercepted stating, “You were sent to USA for long-term service trip. Your education, bank accounts, car, house etc.—all these serve one goal: fulfill your main mission, i.e. to search and develop ties in policymaking circles in U.S. and send intels to C.” At the time of their arrest, the “couple” had moved to Arlington, VA with their two young children.

Vicky Peláez and Mikhail Anatolyevich Vasenkov (Juan Lazaro) came to the U.S. via Peru. “Married” in 1983, Peláez was a TV reporter. The “couple moved to New York and later had a son. Little is known of their exploits, other than money laundering, Vicky’s far-left writings, and their arrests for taking part in sleeper cell operations. When the “couple was deported, their son Juan Lazaro, Jr. an accomplished concert pianist, stayed in the U.S.

The Toebbe’s case appears to be greed rather than sleeper cell activity. We may never know what foreign country the Toebbes chose for this breach of trust, but thankfully our government was informed.


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Jay Hicks is an author, instructor and consultant. With a special kinship for military personnel, Jay provides guidance on successful civilian career transition and has co-authored “The Transitioning Military Series”. He is the co-founder of Gr8Transitions4U, where advocating the value of hiring military personnel is the key focus. More about Jay and his passion can be found at