The Mysterious Case of Russian Spymaster Christopher Metsos

Christopher Metsos - the man of 1,000 identities - is a Moscow spy who knows the darkest secrets of a global intrigue.

With a scar on his chest and burn marks etched onto his arms, Christopher Metsos carries his physical imprints as badges of honor, earned through a lifetime in the very heart of Russian espionage.

Among his many roles, Metsos is believed to be the paymaster and controller of the Moscow illegals exchanged in a sensational spy swap on the tarmac in Vienna, Austria in 2010.

As the FBI rounded up 10 Russians during Operation Ghost Stories, Metsos fled. He was arrested in Cyprus and set free on $30,000 bail only to vanish again that evening. It was an audacious escape, but was it really the last chapter of the super-spy's tale?

Robert Christopher Metsos, Russian spy
The FBI is offering a $50,000 reward for info leading to Metsos' arrest


Operation Ghost Stories

Christopher Metsos is thought to have been born as Pavel Kapustin in the 1950s, yet even that trail might wind through mysterious corridors. 

Metsos carried a Canadian passport obtained in the name of a deceased five-year-old boy and had 10 other identities the FBI knew about including Douglas Cox, Sean O'Donaill, Diego Cadenilla, and Jose Antonio. Sometimes Metsos wore glasses; other times a fake mustache. He has a black belt in martial arts and stands almost 6 feet tall with his weight fluctuating between 180 and 195 pounds. His age is difficult to confirm as his birth dates are as varied as his legends but he was likely born in the '50s.

For much of his life, Metsos worked as a Special Reserve Officer - a traveling Illegal sent abroad by Department 1, Directorate S to hand over shopping bags filled with cash, offer a sympathetic ear to a homesick undercover agent, or bark an order from Moscow central - whatever’s required. "He could give them a hug or a kick in the a**," author Gordon Corera writes in Russians Among Us. "Traveling Illegals like Metsos were the glue that kept the illegal operation running."

Oleg Gordievsky, a former KGB Colonel and MI6 double agent who started his career in the illegals program, said such officers are also known as the Nagayev Group after their first commander. Metsos, previously an illegal himself, excelled but his senior role as paymaster to the Operation Ghost Stories’ illegals thrust him into the global spotlight in 2010. According to his FBI Wanted Poster, Metsos acted as an unregistered agent in the US for 12 years between 1993 and 2005 but the details are murky.

He traveled in and out of the US and met agent Richard Murphy at least four times. An intelligence video shows Metsos allegedly receiving money from a Russian delegate to the UN in New York, part of which was given to Murphy and the rest buried in a New York suburb to be retrieved by another agent.

Robert Christopher Metsos, Russian spy

Metsos on the run

His escape, deftly choreographed, left a trail of intrigue spanning continents. US authorities suspected Metsos was headed for Larnaca, Cyprus - a haven for Russian expats in the Mediterranean - and potentially Hungary, where a Kremlin unit might eagerly awaited his arrival.

They issued an international arrest warrant and Metsos was taken into custody, as expected, in Larnaca, Cyprus. In a decision that defied international norms, however, no mention was made of the espionage allegations when he appeared in court. Metsos was ordered to surrender his fake passport - not a game-changer for a wily spymaster - and a Cypriot judge released him. Police even drove him to the bank to withdraw the $30,000 bail money.

“It apparently did not seem surprising to anyone that he had a bank account in Cyprus,” the Cyprus Times noted. “Metsos [handed over] the €27,000, booked a room at the Achilleos Hotel and was never seen again.”

Metsos vanished leaving behind a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on his hotel room door and a riddle that would linger for years. Did ex-Cypriot President Demetris Christofias and his government look the other way? Nothing has ever been proven, although there were rumblings about Christofias, the former head of the Communist Party and a fluent Russian speaker who earned his doctorate in Moscow.

"We are disappointed that suspect Christopher Metsos has been released on parole following his arrest in Cyprus,” a former State Department spokesman said at the time. “We believe he was unnecessarily given the opportunity to get away with it and that's what he did.”

The Mysterious Case of Russian Spymaster Christopher Metsos

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Christopher Metsos - the man of 1,000 identities - is a Moscow spy who knows the darkest secrets of a global intrigue.

With a scar on his chest and burn marks etched onto his arms, Christopher Metsos carries his physical imprints as badges of honor, earned through a lifetime in the very heart of Russian espionage.

Among his many roles, Metsos is believed to be the paymaster and controller of the Moscow illegals exchanged in a sensational spy swap on the tarmac in Vienna, Austria in 2010.

As the FBI rounded up 10 Russians during Operation Ghost Stories, Metsos fled. He was arrested in Cyprus and set free on $30,000 bail only to vanish again that evening. It was an audacious escape, but was it really the last chapter of the super-spy's tale?

Robert Christopher Metsos, Russian spy
The FBI is offering a $50,000 reward for info leading to Metsos' arrest


Operation Ghost Stories

Christopher Metsos is thought to have been born as Pavel Kapustin in the 1950s, yet even that trail might wind through mysterious corridors. 

Metsos carried a Canadian passport obtained in the name of a deceased five-year-old boy and had 10 other identities the FBI knew about including Douglas Cox, Sean O'Donaill, Diego Cadenilla, and Jose Antonio. Sometimes Metsos wore glasses; other times a fake mustache. He has a black belt in martial arts and stands almost 6 feet tall with his weight fluctuating between 180 and 195 pounds. His age is difficult to confirm as his birth dates are as varied as his legends but he was likely born in the '50s.

For much of his life, Metsos worked as a Special Reserve Officer - a traveling Illegal sent abroad by Department 1, Directorate S to hand over shopping bags filled with cash, offer a sympathetic ear to a homesick undercover agent, or bark an order from Moscow central - whatever’s required. "He could give them a hug or a kick in the a**," author Gordon Corera writes in Russians Among Us. "Traveling Illegals like Metsos were the glue that kept the illegal operation running."

Oleg Gordievsky, a former KGB Colonel and MI6 double agent who started his career in the illegals program, said such officers are also known as the Nagayev Group after their first commander. Metsos, previously an illegal himself, excelled but his senior role as paymaster to the Operation Ghost Stories’ illegals thrust him into the global spotlight in 2010. According to his FBI Wanted Poster, Metsos acted as an unregistered agent in the US for 12 years between 1993 and 2005 but the details are murky.

He traveled in and out of the US and met agent Richard Murphy at least four times. An intelligence video shows Metsos allegedly receiving money from a Russian delegate to the UN in New York, part of which was given to Murphy and the rest buried in a New York suburb to be retrieved by another agent.

Robert Christopher Metsos, Russian spy

Metsos on the run

His escape, deftly choreographed, left a trail of intrigue spanning continents. US authorities suspected Metsos was headed for Larnaca, Cyprus - a haven for Russian expats in the Mediterranean - and potentially Hungary, where a Kremlin unit might eagerly awaited his arrival.

They issued an international arrest warrant and Metsos was taken into custody, as expected, in Larnaca, Cyprus. In a decision that defied international norms, however, no mention was made of the espionage allegations when he appeared in court. Metsos was ordered to surrender his fake passport - not a game-changer for a wily spymaster - and a Cypriot judge released him. Police even drove him to the bank to withdraw the $30,000 bail money.

“It apparently did not seem surprising to anyone that he had a bank account in Cyprus,” the Cyprus Times noted. “Metsos [handed over] the €27,000, booked a room at the Achilleos Hotel and was never seen again.”

Metsos vanished leaving behind a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on his hotel room door and a riddle that would linger for years. Did ex-Cypriot President Demetris Christofias and his government look the other way? Nothing has ever been proven, although there were rumblings about Christofias, the former head of the Communist Party and a fluent Russian speaker who earned his doctorate in Moscow.

"We are disappointed that suspect Christopher Metsos has been released on parole following his arrest in Cyprus,” a former State Department spokesman said at the time. “We believe he was unnecessarily given the opportunity to get away with it and that's what he did.”

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Robert Christopher Metsos, Russian spy
Christopher Metsos was last seen in 2010


Lost in espionage's labyrinth

One of Metsos’ potential escape routes was via northern Cyprus, the Turkish-run enclave that is not recognized by the US. Metsos' legacy extends beyond his vanishing act, however. A laptop computer Metsos brought to Cyprus was confiscated as he tried to board a flight to Budapest. The laptop was unusable, however, as the computer files reportedly self-destructed.

Kevin P. Riehle, who spent almost 30 years in the US government as a counterintelligence analyst studying foreign intelligence services, said it is unlikely Metsos (aka Pavel Kapustin) would resurface again using his own name(s).

“If he does travel abroad it will be under a completely new identity and passport,” Riehle said. Instead, Riehle believes it is possible that Metsos/Kapustin is staying put in Russia and following in the footsteps of other agents who became trainers for Moscow’s illegals program. American spies Lona and Morris Cohen, for example, were arrested as part of the Portland spy ring in England and later moved to Moscow where they helped train a new generation of Russian illegals.

In another breathtaking turn of events, American lawyer James B. Donovan helped the CIA facilitate the exchange of KGB Colonel Rudolf Abel for the Soviet-captured American U2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers, a story told in the Tom Hanks' movie Bridge of Spies.

“Rudolf Abel - real name William Fisher - was also known as being a trainer after he was arrested in the United States and traded back to the Soviet Union in the 1960s. He used his experience abroad to help future illegals to train for their future jobs,” Riehle said. “So that’s probably the type of thing Metsos/Kaputstin is doing.”

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