Novi businessman Paul Whelan waits for mercy in a Moscow prison, trapped in a web of espionage.
For six days after his Dec. 28 arrest, he was held alone in a cell in Moscow’s Lefortovo detention facility without access to toilet paper or soap. Though he speaks a bit of Russian, he couldn’t string together enough Russian words to ask the prison guards for his glasses, his twin brother, David Whelan, told the Free Press.
It wasn’t until Jan. 2, when he was granted a visit from U.S. State Department employees, that Paul Whelan could ask for those basic necessities and also for intervention from the U.S. government to negotiate his release.
Whelan, 48, was arrested at Moscow’s swanky Metropol hotel after allegedly receiving a USB drive loaded with the names of employees of a Russian agency, according to Russia’s Rosbalt news service. The news service is run by the wife of a former KGB officer who has ties to Russian President Vladmir Putin, according to openDemocracy, a British-based nonprofit media organization.
Whelan was indicted on a charge of espionage.
His court-appointed attorney, Vladimir Zherebenkov, told Interfax that bail was requested, but Whelan is to remain in custody until at least Feb. 28. If he’s convicted, he could be imprisoned in Russia for up to 20 years.
His family remains insistent that Whelan is not a spy. Rather, they say, he was a world traveler who’d made visits to Russia before and was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. He had gone to Moscow Dec. 22, they say, to help a friend who was getting married. His plan was to help the wedding party get around the city through Jan. 1, and then go on to St. Petersburg. He was supposed to return to the United States Jan. 6.
Whelan is the director of global security for the Auburn Hills-based auto parts supplier BorgWarner. Prior to that, he worked in global security for Troy-based Kelly Services and also served in the Marine Corps, doing two tours of duty in Iraq.
It was during his final tour in Iraq that Whelan was charged with larceny after trying to steal $10,000 and bouncing about $6,000 in checks, according to the Washington Post. He also used another person’s Social Security number in trying to advance his own rank and pay. He was court-martialed and discharged for bad conduct in 2008.
His tarnished service record and criminal history, some experts in espionage say, would have made it unlikely that he was an American spy.
As the world watches the often-strained relations between the United States and Russia, David Whelan gave a wide-ranging interview about his brother, and explained what the family is doing to try to bring Paul Whelan home. (The interview was edited for brevity and clarity.)
QUESTION: U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman Jr. was able to visit Paul Whelan in Lefortovo prison on Jan. 2. What did Huntsman tell you about your brother’s well-being and his state of mind?
ANSWER: He told us that Paul seemed to be in good health and good spirits, given that he was being detained by the Russians. … That was great to hear.
There were some surprises, I guess. We didn’t realize that he was going to have to buy his own toilet paper, and that if he didn’t speak Russian, the staff at the prison wouldn’t answer him in English.
The embassy was able to find out what he needed in the case of his eyeglasses. They helped us set up a transfer fund here. We’re making progress that way. That’s been really good.
Q: Other than toilet paper, what else will Paul Whelan have to buy at Lefortovo?
A: Pretty much anything other than food. But even with food, we were told that we might want to give him extra money. He’ll need to buy things like razors, toilet paper, soap, things that would be on-hand anywhere else.
Q: Can you explain the reasons why your brother would have citizenship in four countries — Ireland, England, Canada and the United States? It had to be a good deal of work to secure all those passports, and it probably was costly, too. Why was it worth it to him to go through all that trouble?
A: I don’t think it’s that expensive. I seem to recall getting a passport recently when I was renewing my Canadian citizenship that it was only $150 or $200. So from a cost perspective, doing that every 10 years or so isn’t that onerous.
My grandfather came from Ireland to England and my father came from England to Canada, and that’s where we were born. So we were eligible for British and Canadian citizenship because we were born in Canada to British parents.
And then, the Irish changed the law in the early part of the century to allow grandchildren of Irish citizens to get Irish citizenship. So he just thought it’s an opportunity to have that, so why not?
It was as much probably a genealogical interest as much as anything. It’s one of those things where it’s like, well, you start with two, so getting two additional ones doesn’t actually seem that peculiar.
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Q: Did it help him at all to have those passports and multiple citizenships in traveling the world?
A: I’m not sure. … I can travel on a British and Canadian passport. If you’re traveling into the EU (European Union), it’s faster than if you can go through with any EU passport than it is with a North American passport.
But I don’t know he necessarily took advantage of those benefits.
Q: How are you managing the stress of dealing with the media, working with the embassies of four countries to ensure Paul’s needs are met and also lobbying Congress and politicians?
A: Paul’s got three siblings. His other brother is handling contacts with the embassy, and his sister is handling the focus on the Congress. The embassy has mostly been working with my brother, Andrew Whelan, in North Carolina. Elizabeth is in Massachusetts.
Q: Have you all met in one place since Paul’s arrest?
A: So we’ve been using online collaborative tools, sharing documents and content that way.
We email constantly, make conference calls, and then each of us is also doing our part of the work. It’s an awful lot of collaboration.
We all have day jobs. My sister has the most flexibility. She is a portrait artist. She is going to try to go down and have a space in Washington, borrow a room from someone we know and talk to Congress and senators and speak to them about Paul.
It takes time. We’ve focused on governments where Whelans are — Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina.
We’ve had Sen. (Marco) Rubio’s staff reach out, and Haley Stevens, the incoming congresswoman in Paul’s district. Sen. Debbie Stabenow has been responsive and helpful in understanding what we need to do now as for the next steps.
There are a number of different ways of getting Paul out of jail and bringing him home. Most of that will be us lobbying Congress, speaking to members of the House (of Representatives) and senators. Having a resolution passed by the houses, and hoping for behind-the-doors negotiations between President (Donald) Trump and the president of Russia.
What we are going to focus on is maintaining awareness of Paul’s situation, stay in contact with the embassy and remain aware of his needs and any potential violation of his rights and maintain public awareness.
Q: Have the consulates in Canada, England or Ireland met with Paul or had any success in getting movement in his case?
A: Other countries have not been able to have access to him … but it’s a huge positive that there are now four governments that are keeping an eye on Paul.
The family has spoken to representatives of the UK, Irish, and Canadian governments since Friday. The U.S. Embassy has indicated it will continue to lead on consular efforts, since Paul entered Russia on a U.S. passport.
We’re hoping this week to see Paul receive another consular visit.
Q: The Russian news service Rosbalt has reported that Paul was caught with a USB drive containing classified information. What do you know about the details of Russia’s espionage case against him?
A: I have seen that it has been reported by sources, but so far the Russians haven’t given any details about the allegations of espionage. We’re waiting for when that comes because there have been so many rumors.
I’m not sure that there are any additional requirements for them to do anything at this point. We knew that when he was detained, there was a 72-hour window for anybody detained by a foreign government. First, the detainee’s home country is notified, and then the 72-hour window kicks in.
And that’s why it was almost six days from when Paul was detained by the police on the 28th to when he was actually visited by State Department employees on Wednesday the 2nd.
So, that was a time period. I’ve heard various other dates as far as how long he’ll be held or when the evidence may be accumulated for his trial, but as far as I know, there are no more so-called required dates for the Russian government to provide any information.
Q: Have you been in touch with President Trump or with the Trump administration, and are you surprised there has yet to be any sort of formal or public statement from the president?
A: No, the family hasn’t had any formal or, as far as I know, any contact with the Trump administration. But I think that our perspective is that we aren’t professional politicians or involved in this sort of diplomatic activity. So we’re going to focus on what we can do and I have faith that the American government will be concerned enough about Americans being arbitrarily detained in foreign countries that they will be taking the proper steps — whether we see them or not — that they think are appropriate at the time.
We hope that eventually if we can get people to speak to their senators and their congressional representatives to let them know that they’re concerned about Paul and about all Americans’ rights to travel, let Ambassador Huntsman in Moscow know that there is that concern and have that slowly work up to (U.S. Secretary of State Mike) Pompeo.
I think that we’re doing our part to ensure that there is that awareness, there is that concern being raised, and then we’ll leave the executive branch and the legislative branch to make the best choices they can about how best to bring him home. I think we’re all working toward the same goal.
Q: What are the consulates from the other countries where your brother is a citizen telling you? Are they willing to help? Are they willing to meet with him at the Lefortovo prison?
A: Paul requested consular access, and so each of those are working with Paul. I believe that there is an issue as there was with the United States.
There is a privacy act that limits the ability of the government to share information about the detainee, even with their family. And so until there is a waiver of that right by Paul for each of these different countries, they can’t share information that they know about his detention.
When the U.S. Embassy staff presented that waiver form, it’s just a form that says I waive my rights under the privacy act so the government can share my information, the Russian officials blocked Paul’s ability to sign it.
Apparently, they just didn’t allow the embassy staff to give him the paper.
Q: Interfax is reporting that the Canadian embassy staff will be able to see him. Have you been able to confirm that?
A: I don’t know. I think that there was some communication between my brother and someone at the Canadian consulate, just sort of at a high level. We knew that somebody is involved, but we don’t have any more detail than that. But that’s our assumption is that this week, once the holiday in Russia is over — it’s the orthodox Christmas — that the other countries will be able to gain access to him, and then we may be able to learn more from them at that time.
Q: How are your parents coping?
A: I think they’re coping as well as you’d expect. My mum is in her late 70s and my dad is in his 80s and we’re doing our best to try to shield them from media attention. Just the additional stress that it must be to have your son in the hold of the Russian government without knowing what’s going on, and then at the same time seeing his entire personal life — and decisions and choices he had made that you weren’t aware of — on display for the entire world are probably quite challenging.
So we do our best to keep them informed about what we’re doing so everybody realizes that no matter what happens, we’re all still working towards the same goal of getting him back to his family.
Q: Were there things that have surprised you that have come out in the press about Paul Whelan? What are the things the family did not know? Were any of you aware, for instance, of his bad-conduct discharge from the Marines?
A: I don’t know about my siblings, but I don’t believe any of us did. I certainly did not know. I was very surprised.
Q: Paul said in a 2013 deposition that he had a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. Do you know what colleges he attended and what degrees were obtained and what specifically he studied in college?
A: I think that’s accurate. It’s not the sort of thing you check with people, but I believe he got his bachelor’s at Northern Michigan and I believe his MBA was at Phoneix, an online program.
Q: Do you mean the University of Phoenix?
Q: What did he study?
A: I don’t know.
Q: You’ve said your brother was a world traveler and has been to Russia multiple times. How often did Paul Whelan visit Russia?
A: To my knowledge, he’s been there three times, and many more times to the U.K., and two or three times to other European countries.
Q: When did your parents leave England and move to Canada? And why did they move?
A: I believe it was just job opportunities to get to Canada, and it was the same reason they emigrated from Canada to America. Gosh, for sure it was in the early ’60s. Whether it was ’63 or ’64, I’m not clear for when they arrived in Canada.
I was born in Ottawa in 1970. My parents left England to come to Canada, and for the same reason they emigrated from Canada to America.
Q: What did your parents do for a living?
A: Dad was a metallurgist, a physicist who works with metals. He worked for a mining company called Amax. They used to be, well, they’re not based in Ann Arbor, but they had a research facility in Ann Arbor, and that’s where he worked.
And mum worked with libraries. She was at Ann Arbor Public Library for a little bit, and … she also worked for the University of Michigan Law Library.
Q: Can you speak specifically about the wedding that Paul Whelan was attending in Russia? Who was his friend, and who was he marrying?
A: No. I only know a couple of the names and we’re concerned about their privacy and their safety, so we’re not sharing any additional information.
We haven’t had any contact except for the very first contact, which I guess would have been around Dec. 31, when we knew he had gone missing. His friend contacted us and let us know he had followed a missing persons report with the American Embassy
Q: Is he being held in solitary confinement?
A: No. My understanding is that he is in a single-person cell. I don’t know that it’s actually solitary confinement. I think it’s just the normal induction of new prisoners is that they are in a cell by themselves for a period of days.
Q: Have you spoken yet with the lawyer who has been assigned to represent Paul Whelan in Russia?
A: A family member has … spoken with an English-speaking staff person in Mr. Zherebenkov’s office. We received the contact information from U.S. Embassy staff. We have not exchanged anything other than our own contact information but we now have a conduit so that if Mr. Zherebenkov, who doesn’t appear to speak English, and the family want to communicate, we can do so.
Q: Are you trying to get him other legal representation?
A: Not at this time, no, we’re not trying to get him other legal representation for a number of reasons.
The client has to select the lawyer. And so while his family can try to select a lawyer for him, he doesn’t have to accept that lawyer.
And so, normally what happens is that when somebody has been detained, the embassy makes a list of local lawyers who speak English, and then the detainee will look at that list and either take one of those recommendations or perhaps they know or will contact their family and ask for additional information.
But what’s happened is that he has a lawyer and we were not a part of his lawyer selection and the lawyer does not speak English.
I think at this point, we are leaving the selection of legal representation as it is.
We were told that it’s going to be extremely expensive for Paul to be defended in the Russian legal system. We’ve been told he may have to pay up to a million dollars in legal fees.
Q: How fluent is Paul Whelan in Russian?
A: I would not call him fluent in Russian. I think he knows enough words to get around the country, but he didn’t even know enough to be able to ask for his eyeglasses. So whatever level that is, I think it’s a very rudimentary level of understanding.
Q: Can you please tell me about the business he runs out of his home, Kingsmead Arsenal?
A: I can’t, other than it’s my understanding that he got a gun dealer’s license, as you can in the states, in order to purchase weapons and sell weapons, firearms that he has in his own collection.
I don’t know how big a collection he has, but he has a few in his possession.
Kingsmead is the name that my parents gave to their farmhouse in Manchester, Michigan. And I think he probably thought it was a funny thing to call it Kingsmead Arsenal.
I don’t know that it was ever incorporated as such. I mean, perhaps it was, but I don’t think there is an actual entity that is operating under the name of Kingsmead Aresenal.
Q: There is actually. It licensed in 2012, and business filings show that he made nearly $250K last year and noted that Kingsmead had five employees. Is that accurate?
A: Wow. That’s totally news to me.
Q: Is there any chance that his gun business with Kingsmead Arsenal could be tied somehow to his arrest in Russia?
A: No. I think he would have been extremely wary of doing any sort of weapons dealing in a foreign country. But then again, I didn’t know that he apparently has a company that sells $250,000 in weapons.
Q: Most experts we’ve spoken with say that Paul Whelan’s bad-conduct discharge from the Marines makes it unlikely that he’s a spy, but lots of people have asked how he managed to get hired in 2001 by Kelly Services given his criminal background. Do you know how he landed at Kelly Services?
A: No. I don’t know.
Q: Was he close with others from the Marines? One of Paul Whelan’s co-workers at Kelly Services told the Free Press a friend from the Marines got him a job there in 2001.
A: That could be right. I have a feeling that there were some other either Marines or people with past military who were working at Kelly at the same time
Q: Did he talk at all about his work at Kelly Services? He was there a long time, from 2001 to 2016. Did he discuss what he did, what he liked and didn’t like about his work there or why he left?
A: It’s been so long, I’m not sure I remember. It’s been a couple of years. I think he enjoyed the travel. He just enjoyed the challenge of doing the corporate security work he did, which was going in and looking at the physical buildings and looking for ways to improve the security and doing investigations, that sort of thing.
Q: How close were the two of you? You’re twin brothers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you were close.
A: I know some families see each other all the time and they all live in nearby locations. Paul and I would email and call probably a few times a year, and email probably more often. I’m not a fan of telephones, no matter what. We would interact occasionally, and then we would often see him when we were down in Michigan. I would go down with the grandchildren and my wife and visit my parents, and Paul was at the house. So we would see him a couple of times a year.
Q: In these uncertain times between the U.S. and Russia, do the strained relations amplify your concerns at all for Paul, his safety and the likelihood of his release?
A: It does because I think where … there was an arbitrary detention, as there has been, we would have expected the wheels of the geopolitical system to move in a certain way. They don’t seem to be moving as they have in the past, and that does create a good deal of uncertainty for us.
Q: Russia’s Foreign Ministry reported Saturday that a Russian citizen Dmitri Makarenko was arrested by U.S. officials in Saipan on Dec. 29. He was then taken to Florida, where he was indicted on charges of exporting defense items without a license, attempting to export such items and money laundering. What are your thoughts on this news?
A: I had read that report as well. And I think that’s one of the things that can become a distraction.
We’re really focused on getting him out, and it’s hard to know whether any of these dots are connected to his situation or whether they are just separate activities that all seem to be happening at the same time.
I’ll give you another example, Paul’s old website, paulnwhelan.com. That domain name was purchased about 60 days ago. I think to myself, why would somebody buy that domain name in mid-November? You end up with all those events happening. And it’s really hard to know whether these events are related or not or even if they’re connected to one another.
Q: Is there any indication of who purchased that domain name?
A: There are a bunch of pieces of information, but I think that it’s probably set up in a way that’s going to be very hard to find out who the owner is. It was created on Nov. 11, 2018. Usually, the date it’s created on is when it was first purchased — unless it had been transferred from someone.
It just seems like a very odd thing to have happened.
Q: The website paulnwhelan.com is where Paul had posted pictures and made references to visiting Russia, honing his language skills and befriending Russians, including a soldier. The archive of the site dates back to 2008. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?
A: It doesn’t make a lot of sense.
I think that the challenge for us is to maintain focus on the Paul we know, and our only goal, which is to get him home. I think you guys are doing a great job digging into the information that’s there.
From our perspective, it’s hard because we’re finding out a lot of things about him that maybe we didn’t know or maybe we didn’t realize had occurred in the way they did, and are not presented. That’s difficult. But I think your interview has been very thorough.
Q: In discovering all these things about your brother that you didn’t know, has that changed your point of view at all, your perspective that he’s innocent and was not a spy?
A: No. I absolutely don’t think he is a spy.
Q: All right, but do you think he could have been up to something he shouldn’t have been doing over there?
A: I’m not sure. That’s a lot harder to say. And if someone were to sift through my past, maybe they would find things that don’t look so great in hindsight.
I just think he is the sort of person based on his experience as a traveler, and based on his professional experience that he would have known that Russia in particular, and a number of other countries — not just Russia — might be more risky to do something that’s on the edge of lawbreaking because you don’t necessarily know if you can rely on the rule of law as you would if you’re in America. And so I just don’t think he would have taken risks like that.
Q: And yet he had a Russian social media account, essentially the equivalent to their Facebook.
A: I think that is one of the interesting things is that Facebook is really the social media platform for most of the western nations. I think you’ll find people in France and England and all over using it. And so although it’s the American social media platform, it’s also the social media platform for many other countries.
The thing that’s different is that VKontakte is very much a Russian and Cyrillic-based tool, and so it has a much narrower draw. So, on the one hand yes, it’s strange that he had an account. On the other, if he was trying to interact with his Russian friends, it’s probably more likely they were going to be on there rather than they would have been on Facebook.
I don’t know that I find it that strange. In the same way that people choose to be on or not to be on LinkedIn to share business information. Sometimes you choose to join a network because the people you’re trying to interact with are there.
Q: Did he have a lot of friends in Russia?
A: I don’t have any idea of the number, but it’s my understanding that he had friends that were Russian. One of them flew to Toronto for training at some point. He was in IT, I think, and called me up and just dropped off a present of Matryoshka dolls or something.
So he was connected with these people.
Q: What is the Twitter handle @FreePaulWhelan?
A: I made that page. It is where I’m going to post statements from the family. I’m not sure how much use it will get, but was an early hope to focus on Paul but many people have just followed my personal account. I will RT any FreePaulWhelan tweets from my own account as well, in light of that. I made it because it was still unclear how best to get the story out about Paul’s arrest.
Q: What else do you want people to know?
A: It’s important for us to have Paul’s story told, unfortunately warts and all, but the more we get that out of the way, I think, the more we can focus on getting him out and getting him home.
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