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Paul Whelan and family continue to fight a year after he’s accused of spying in Russia

Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine accused of espionage and arrested in Russia, listens to his lawyers while standing inside a defendants' cage during a hearing at a court in Moscow on Jan. 22, 2019. (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Defiance runs like a string through the last year of Paul Whelan’s life, tugging at him to remain impervious to the degradation of life in a Russian prison, giving him voice at court hearings, where he decries his more than yearlong incarceration.

It has moored the 49-year-old Michigan man, helping him to remain insistent in his dealings with Russian authorities that he is innocent, a political prisoner held for an unknown ulterior motive.

The Russian Foreign Ministry alleges Whelan is a spy who was caught “red-handed” in an act of espionage when he was arrested Dec. 28, 2018, at his hotel in Moscow. The Federal Security Service (FSB) says its agents found a USB drive containing classified information in Whelan’s room at the Metropol Hotel.

Whelan, who worked as head of global security for Auburn Hills-based BorgWarner, an auto supplier, until his position was eliminated last month, insists that he was set up, and that he was simply a tourist in Russia in December 2018. He was there, he says, to attend the wedding of a friend, a fellow former Marine.

Paul Whelan, center, a former US Marine accused of espionage and arrested in Russia in December 2018, is escorted for a hearing to decide to extend his detention at the Lefortovo Court in Moscow on Oct. 24, 2019. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

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“Russia says it caught James Bond on a spy mission. In reality, they abducted Mr. Bean on holiday,” Whelan told reporters during a detention hearing at Moscow City Court in October.

In the days leading up to his arrest in Russia, he led tours of Moscow historical sites for the wedding party of his friend, said his twin brother, David Whelan.

And he shared Christmas dinner at a steakhouse in Moscow with Ilya Yatsenko, a Russian man he’d met a decade earlier during one of his trips to the country.

Over about a half-dozen visits to Russia since 2006, Whelan got to know Yatsenko — or so he thought — even visiting Yatsenko’s parents and siblings in the town of Sergiev Posad, about 50 miles northeast of Moscow, David Whelan said.

It was Yatsenko who gave Whelan key evidence in Russia’s case against him: a USB drive containing government secrets, David Whelan alleges.

“Paul expected there to be photographs on it and something else was put on that drive in order to entrap him,” he said.

The Detroit Free Press tried to contact Yatsenko, calling three phone numbers culled from Paul Whelan’s contacts by his family. All three phone lines were out of service or disconnected. The Free Press also emailed an address believed to be Yatsenko’s, but never received a reply.

Ever since his brother’s arrest, David Whelan has tried to bat down conspiracy theories and disinformation about what Paul Whelan was really doing in Russia.

“There was an expectation — certainly developed by the media — that, well, if Paul’s been charged with espionage, there must be something there,” David Whelan said. “And not realizing that the Russians charge people with espionage all the time, and there’s nothing there.

“And so the conspiracy theories are just, I mean, they’re just crazy. … He really did just go for a wedding. He was supposed to go to the wedding in September. The wedding party had visa issues. And so they went in December.

“It couldn’t be a more normal activity. … Only in hindsight do people say … ‘he must have been a CIA operative. He must have been a … ’ you know, all these other things. He was really just a tourist and I think we’ll eventually be able to confirm that.”

Meanwhile, his brother waits it out in a Russian jail, which is taking a hefty toll.

In the days immediately after Whelan’s arrest, he said he was denied such basic things as toilet paper and soap in the prison.

His family set up an account through the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, and now a State Department employee uses money from that account to buy necessities and delivers them along with fresh produce and other supplies to the notorious, 19th-century Lefortovo Prison in Moscow.

Whelan has reported that the guards at the prison have threatened, abused and harassed him. He hasn’t been able to make a single phone call in more than a year of imprisonment. His mail is censored, and visits from his lawyers and embassy representatives are extremely limited.

“This is typical prisoner of war isolation technique,” Whelan told journalists at a court hearing in May, according to The Associated Press. “They’re trying to run me down so that I will talk to them.”

But his brother said the tactic isn’t working.

“The Russian media reported that Paul was defiant,” David Whelan said. “Our family is glad that that is how his continued fight against injustice is perceived by the Russian government. Ongoing attempts to get Paul to plead guilty and outlandish stories … only show how desperate the FSB is becoming in the face of this defiance.”

FAMILY FINDS STRENGTH IN RESISTANCE

A similar kind of strength has run through the entire Whelan family these last 12 months.

Paul Whelan’s older sister, Elizabeth, stood in solitary protest outside the Russian Embassy in Washington in November, holding a sign that said “#FreePaulWhelan” in Cyrillic.

Near Toronto, David Whelan bought Christmas presents for Paul, insistent that his twin would have gifts, even if he wasn’t home in Michigan to open them this year.

In Manchester, near Ann Arbor, his parents, Rosemary and Edward Whelan, make a daily ritual of writing to him. And they hold out hope that their son will come home. They don’t know when, but they remain insistent that it will happen.

“I write every day and send cards,” Whelan’s mother said. “His Valentine and 50th birthday cards, for March 5, have all been mailed in good time. Mail from Paul seems to come at two monthly intervals in large bundles.”

His trial is likely to come this spring, said his English-speaking attorney, Olga Karlova, in an email to the Free Press. She said she and Vladimir Zherebenkov, the lead defense attorney on the case, are spending more time this month with Whelan, reviewing the evidence the Russian government plans to present at his trial.

“We are planning to do it more intensively, from morning till evening with a break for lunch,” she said. The timing of Whelan’s trial will depend on how quickly they can translate the evidence and prosecution’s documents into English, and strategize his defense.

“We want to do it very thoroughly,” she wrote. “We do not want to miss any details. … If everything is as we plan, the core hearings could be in March.”

At their meetings, Karlova said Whelan is “in a good mood, joked very much.”

He hasn’t lost his sense of humor, or his wanderlust, she said, explaining that they talk a lot about traveling the world.

That’s despite struggles with his health.

Whelan has lost weight in the last year and has an inguinal hernia, which means tissue is protruding through a weak spot in the abdominal muscle wall.

His brother said Whelan was scheduled to have the hernia surgically repaired in early 2019, after his trip to Russia. But since he was arrested, that didn’t happen.

“You can go for years without it being a problem,” David Whelan said. “Except when it becomes a problem, it becomes an emergency. If it becomes strangulated … then he’s in the position where he needs medical care right away.”

An ambulance was called to the Moscow courtroom in August, where Whelan had appeared for a detention hearing.

“He was moving to another cell and they force(d) him to lift his own items and take it with him,” Karlova told the Free Press in an email message on the day of the incident. “These items were heavy enough to make his hernia worse. We have submitted an appeal, which was supported by Paul, to make an operation on his hernia.”

The judge stopped the court proceedings so Whelan could be evaluated, Karlova said, but he has opted not to have surgery until American doctors are allowed to review his situation and make a recommendation.

That his incarceration has dragged on so long, his health is failing, and little action has been taken on the part of the U.S. government to bring Whelan home is a sore spot for his family.

“We have an overriding frustration with the approach that has been taken so far, which is the American government as a whole — the State Department and administration, in particular — is … going to let the Russian judicial process play out and take this to trial, as if Paul actually could possibly be a spy, and therefore needed to be on trial,” Elizabeth Whelan said.

“And I think that this is ridiculous. … Russia has a legal system but not a judicial system. Everybody knows that once you get on this conveyor belt, that the end result before you’re popped off at the other end is 100% chance of conviction and sentencing.”

REPORTS FROM MOSCOW OFFER HOPE, CAUSE FOR CONCERN

While Whelan’s family has been bolstered by seeing his insolence in video clips and media reports of his court hearings, Russian authorities have expressed frustration.

“He’s threatening the penitentiary officers and he makes all kinds of arrogant accusations,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a news conference in Washington in December. “For example, he is saying that he will put a drill to the head of the officer.”

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs later posted to its Facebook page an image of an office hole punch that resembles a drill and is used to bind documents. It alleges Whelan threatened to use it against prison guards.

Soon after, Rebecca Ross, a spokeswoman at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, changed her Twitter profile picture to a series of three triple-hole punches in red, white and blue.

The Whelan family watched the live-streamed video of the news conference and were stunned by Lavrov’s claims.

“It starts to press your incredulity. You can’t believe a foreign government is making weird sorts of allegations like that,” David Whelan said. “So, I mean, on the one hand it’s disappointing that it was so crazy, and on the other hand, we’re glad that their perception appears to be of Paul that he is being very defiant because we want him to be defiant as far as he can be.

“I think if you’re in that sort of situation, where you’re clearly being deprived of your rights, the rule of law isn’t being followed even within that country, but certainly not the rule of law as understood by Americans or Westerners, then I think one of the only things you have is the ability to be strong internally. And I think that’s how it’s playing out. What they see as defiance is his inner strength trying to avoid having to confess, to avoid having to plead guilty to charges he knows are false.”

Whelan was denied Thanksgiving dinner when Julie Fisher, then-chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, tried to bring him a special meal.

And at his latest detention hearing on Christmas Eve, Whelan was not allowed to speak to the news media. Still, he held up a sign that said, “No espionage. No evidence. No red hands,” Ross tweeted.

During an interview in mid-December inside his office in Toronto, David Whelan said it’s seeing that kind of resistance from his brother that gives him hope.

“There’s a feeling amongst my family, and not just my family in North America, but our family extended across Europe, that we’re not going to let the Russians change how our family works,” David Whelan said. “If Paul can be defiant in Lefortovo, then we can be defiant from wherever we’re located.”

Whether that means standing outside an embassy in protest, writing letters and lobbying Congress and the White House to take action, or an act as simple as buying a Christmas gift.

“We know that people are having conversations that we aren’t privy to at the State Department, at … the National Security Council level, at the embassies,” David Whelan said. “We know that those conversations are happening.

“So, we will continue to think of Paul and pay his bills and buy him presents and think of him and send letters to him in the same way that we always have. Because you never know when that day is going to come that he does come back.

“Hopefully, he will come back while my parents are alive. Hopefully, he’ll come back while Flora, the dog, is still running around happy. But he will eventually come back.”

If Whelan is convicted of espionage, he could be sentenced to up to 20 years in a Russian prison.

His brother said the family will have to make some hard choices in the year ahead about whether to let go of his Novi apartment and move his belongings to storage, especially now that BorgWarner has eliminated his job.

“He will come back to no job, no apartment, no income, you know? No health care. Everything will just be sort of completely shattered for him,” David Whelan said. “So we’re going to try and just nurse as much of that as we can to make it last as long as possible because it would be terrible to come back and also be bankrupt, and … to essentially have not been able to pay any of your bills and have just every part of your life destroyed.”

Leading up to his arrest in Moscow, Paul Whelan’s life took several sharp turns that are hard to follow, and even harder to explain.

He and his twin were born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, to British parents. They were the youngest of four siblings.

The family moved to Michigan when they were boys, and grew up in Ann Arbor. Paul and David Whelan graduated from Huron High School in 1988, David Whelan said.

Because their grandparents were from Ireland, Paul Whelan was eligible for — and received — citizenship in all four countries.

He went on to attend Northern Michigan University in the fall of 1988, and continued his education there until December 1990, but did not obtain a degree. A spokesman for the school told the Free Press that Whelan was a management major when he arrived, and left the school as a political science major.

He later received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Colorado Technical University. However, CTU would not confirm the dates those degrees were awarded or what Whelan’s subjects of study were.

Whelan also worked for local law enforcement organizations, including the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department, the Richmond Police Department and the Keego Harbor Police Department, while also enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves.

His former employers have some conflicting opinions about his work.

He was hired by former Richmond Police Chief Dennis Watkins in April 1998 as a part-time officer.

Whelan had an excellent work ethic, followed the rules and was a stellar employee, said Watkins, who is now retired and lives in Monroe County. But when Watkins left the department in October 1998, his replacement, then-Richmond Police Chief Dennis Privette, fired Whelan.

Privette, who also is retired now and lives in Macomb County, said within his first week on the job as chief of Richmond’s police force, there was a complaint from a resident about Whelan. He declined to detail the nature of the complaint, saying only this:

“I hate to go into this, but I don’t have anything good to say about him. I’m gonna tell you that right now.

“A lady, it involved something with her son. She was afraid to prosecute. … I had a responsibility to interview her. She was worried about reprisals or, you know, vendettas. … So I gave her my word that I wouldn’t discuss it with anybody except the then-city manager, who was Darwin Parks at the time. So Darwin Parks said, ‘You do what you think is right.’

“So, long story short, the first week I was there, I called him in. He was part time, and I pretty much told him: ‘You’re no longer working at my pleasure because of that.’ … We all make mistakes and that, but I had no choice to do what I did.”

The Free Press contacted Darwin Parks, who has since changed his name to Darwin McClary, to verify Privette’s account of Whelan’s firing.

“I have no specific recall of Mr. Whelan’s time with the City of Richmond and will unfortunately be of little or no help to you in this regard,” said McClary, who now works as city manager of Albion, in an email message.

Jon Moore, the current city manager for the City of Richmond, confirmed that Whelan worked as a part-time officer from April-October 1998, but noted that “he was an at-will employee. … As an at-will employee, there was no reason given (for his termination.) … That’s the only information we have.”

Watkins said he didn’t know the reasons why Whelan was fired in Richmond, but whatever the complaint was, it didn’t impede his career.

When Watkins moved on to serve as the police chief of Keego Harbor in 1999, he hired Whelan again.

Because Whelan was active in the Marine Reserves at the time, Watkins said he was only interested in part-time work for the department. Otherwise, he said, he would have offered Whelan a full-time job.

His work was so good, he said, Mothers Against Drunk Driving gave Whelan an award.

It wasn’t long before Whelan’s career moved out of law enforcement and into corporate America.

In 2001, Whelan was hired by Troy-based Kelly Services, which offers consulting, temporary workers and workforce solutions for businesses around the world, according to his testimony in a 2013 federal court deposition.

Whelan said at the time that his title was senior manager of global security and investigations for the company. His job included campus security as well as electronic and IT-related security.

For at least a portion of his time at Kelly Services, Whelan’s boss was Thomas Catalano.

“Paul worked for me as a security manager while I was the chief security officer and vice president at Kelly Services,” Catalano said in an email to the Free Press. “I retired in 2014 and lost touch with him. I only saw Paul one time since then, probably back in 2015.

“I hope and pray repatriation efforts being taken on different levels are successful in bringing Paul home. I have nothing further to share regarding Paul,” said Catalano, who also noted that he himself was employed with the U.S. Secret Service for more than two decades at assignments around the world. He retired as an assistant to the special agent in charge of the Detroit Field Office before taking the job with Kelly Services.

Whelan took a military leave of absence from Kelly Services to serve in Iraq twice — in 2004 and again in 2006, according to his service record — working as an administrative law clerk and administrative chief for the Marine Corps.

He initially joined the Marine Reserves in 1994 and rose to the rank of staff sergeant in December 2004.

While stationed in Iraq, Whelan was part of the Lamplighter’s Club, a group of service members who got together to enjoy good cigars.

“It’s one of the unique pleasures that anyone can take advantage of, as everyone should take advantage of a fine cigar once in a while,” Whelan said in a 2007 interview posted on the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing page of the Marine Corps website.

Whelan also was part of “The Rest and Recuperation Leave Program,” which authorized 15 days of leave to service members on yearlong deployments to Iraq, according to another 2007 story on the website. The military paid for the travel, and most service members chose to return home. But there also was an option to travel abroad during that leave time.

Whelan spent his two weeks off in Russia, saying in the interview that the leave program “gives those of us who are single an opportunity to travel throughout the world wherever we want to go and experience the diversity of culture.”

He returned several times to Russia after that initial trip, and made friends during those visits. On his now-defunct personal website, Whelan created web pages for some newfound Russian friends — many of whom were young men with ties to the Russian military.

The website also included photos of the family dog, a list of his favorite books, photos and stories about fellow Marines, links to his favorite websites, as well as anti-Muslim rhetoric, pictures and comics under the heading: “The War on Terrorism.”

During his military career, Whelan received awards that included the Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation and Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal.

But in 2008, Whelan was convicted at a special court-martial on several charges related to larceny involving writing bad checks and using someone else’s Social Security number. He was given a bad-conduct discharge at the rank of private.

The same year, the first mention of Kingsmead Arsenal, his online firearms business, was made on his website. There, he invited people to click on a link to see firearms “that are right for your shooting and hunting needs.”

Despite his court-martial and felony conviction, Whelan continues to hold a federal firearms license that doesn’t expire until October 2020. Kingsmead Arsenal is registered to the same address as his Novi apartment.

Whelan never married, and never had children, his brother said.

“He has ties to Flora the dog,” David Whelan said. “He loves that dog. … I think Paul’s status as far as family and stuff is one of the things that has gotten a number of look-ats, and it’s really not relevant.”

David Whelan said he’d prefer to leave his brother’s past in the past, and that dwelling on his background or the family’s background isn’t doing anything to “move Paul’s case forward.”

AN ORDINARY TRIP TAKES A DISASTROUS TURN

In early 2017, Whelan left Kelly Services and began to work for BorgWarner as head of global security, said company spokeswoman Kathy Graham.

BorgWarner has 30,000 employees around the world with 68 locations in 19 countries, but it doesn’t have facilities in Russia, Graham said.

Although BorgWarner operates no facilities in Russia, the company does have a history of doing business there.

BorgWarner supplied Kamaz Inc., Russia’s largest truck-maker, with turbochargers, fan drives and high-performance fans, according to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission documents.

And Kamaz’s top officer, Director General Sergei A. Kogogin, was co-chair of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2018 political campaign. The largest shareholder in Kamaz is Rostec Corp., which manufactures military-grade rocket launchers, bombs, aircraft, ammunition and high-precision artillery munitions. Its top officer is Sergey Chemezov, who is among the most powerful people in the FSB.

BorgWarner sponsored Whelan’s visa, his lawyers have said, and in messages they’ve relayed to his family, Whelan said he believes his arrest might be tied to politics involving U.S. sanctions.

BorgWarner declined to comment on those claims.

“As a general policy BorgWarner does not comment on travel of any of its employees, nor does the company discuss information about individual customers,” said Graham in an email to the Free Press in 2019. “Paul was not in Russia on company business. We are deferring to the State Department.”

Although Whelan has gotten plenty of support from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman Jr., Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has had little to say about his case.

Just a few days after Whelan’s arrest in Moscow, Pompeo issued the following statement: “We’ve made clear to the Russians our expectation that we will learn more about the charges, come to understand what it is he’s been accused of, and if the detention is not appropriate we will demand his immediate return.”

But since then, Pompeo has been silent about Whelan’s case.

President Donald Trump hasn’t said anything, either.

At a court hearing in June, Whelan, who is a Trump supporter, made an appeal directly to the president for his release.

“Mr. President, we cannot keep America great unless we aggressively protect American citizens wherever they are in the world,” he told reporters while standing inside a glass cage in Moscow City Court. He also asked for assistance from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, then-British Prime Minister Theresa May and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar.

“I am asking the leaders and governments in Ottawa, Dublin, London and Washington for their help and public statements of support.”

The last time David Whelan saw his twin brother was at Thanksgiving in 2018.

“We were talking about how he had not wanted to go to Russia at Christmas because he was worried about my parents,” he said. “My mom had an accident on the ice … the previous March and he was worried that she was going to slip on the ice again and break a hip.

“He was concerned that we would come down to make sure that they were fine that the snow was being cleared, that they wouldn’t have to do all those sorts of things. And that was our last conversation.

“He was not at all worried about going (to Russia). He was looking forward to having a good time, seeing tourist sites that he’d seen before, like the Kremlin.”

David Whelan said he reassured his brother that he’d look in on their parents while he was away.

“It was just such an anodyne (conversation),” he said. “And then, to have this happen, it’s just, it’s just crazy.”

CALLING IN THE CAVALRY

The Whelan family had no idea what heartache 2019 would bring.

The worry began just before the new year, when the Whelans got an email from Paul’s friend in Russia saying that he didn’t show up to the wedding he was supposed to attend on Dec. 28, 2018.

“We knew that something had gone wrong,” David Whelan said. On New Year’s Eve, the first Russian media reports surfaced, and the following day, the story of his brother’s arrest exploded in the American news media.

The family quickly divided tasks based on their strengths.

Overnight, David Whelan — who is the director of legal Information at the Great Library for the Law Society of Ontario — became a media guru, handling media calls and interviews. His brother Andrew Whelan became the point person for dealing with the embassies. Their sister, Elizabeth Whelan, a portrait artist, became a lobbyist.

“It was not easy,” David Whelan said. “If it looked like we were organized, it was because it was sort of like ducks in the water with their feet paddling madly underneath, you know?

“And so the person who is the most detail-oriented got the job of dealing with the embassies, and the person who was the best at marketing and relationships, that was the person who got the government. And me as the sort of the lawyer-educated person, I got the other stuff. Spokesman was sort of the short straw, but it was one of those things that you just sort of sit down and say, ‘So, now what am I going to do?’ “

Elizabeth Whelan lives on Chappaquiddick Island in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Massachusetts. The tiny speck of land is connected by sandbar to Martha’s Vineyard, and is most famous for the scandal in the 1960s when the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy drove his car off a bridge and into the water, killing his companion, Mary Jo Kopechne.

She had never before lobbied Congress or pressed for action on an issue with a presidential administration.

But after her brother’s arrest, she found herself taking two ferries, a bus and a train to Washington about a dozen times within 12 months, making the rounds at congressional offices, talking to politicians, diplomats, anyone who might be able to play a role in her brother’s exoneration and release.

It’s a pace she expects to continue in 2020.

“You have to keep a certain amount of presence and remind people, you know, that this is still a hot issue,” she said. “Your physical presence there helps underscore that the asks still need to be answered. And, you know, that you need more information. … I know Washington better than I ever thought I was going to.”

It’s been especially challenging given the ever-shifting political sands, and the evolving cast of characters within the Trump administration. The special counsel investigation by Robert Mueller into Russian election meddling in the 2016 presidential race, and the impeachment proceedings that continue now, haven’t helped matters.

Elizabeth Whelan met with former U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton in June. He tweeted about their visit, writing: “Russia has provided no evidence of wrongdoing” in her brother’s case.

She thought she’d successfully courted an administration ally, but by September, Trump had ousted Bolton from the job.

“If I look at it kind of from a distance, it’s actually been quite a very interesting year to be in Washington as frequently as I have.” she said. “At the beginning of the year, I was trying to talk to people who were tough on Russia to help find enough voices to stand up and say, ‘Hey, put a stop to this! This is ridiculous what you’re doing.’

“And over the course of the year, a number of those people who I would have said were tough on Russia have become a lot softer on Russia because of the general movement within the Republican Party, too. I think, perhaps not overtly supportive of everything that Russia is doing, but definitely because of a lack of very clear direction from the administration as to what the foreign policy toward Russia should be.”

“Where it makes it difficult for me is that these particular legislators then don’t really know exactly how to respond to Paul’s wrongful detention. It puts them in a spot, they’re not sure which way to go. And then, to avoid having to make a statement, they then try to avoid me.”

What it comes down to, Elizabeth Whelan said, is that this issue is not about politics, but right vs. wrong.

“For a U.S. citizen of any party who is wrongfully detained by any foreign power, this should be an easy thing for people to support, for members of Congress, for the public to support,” she said.

“It is a shame that … Paul’s issues have become wrapped up in other political agendas. … This is about an American citizen in need of help.”

In September, Elizabeth Whelan wore a dress in a shade of plum — neither suggesting support for Republicans with red or Democrats with blue — as she stood in a room in the basement of the Capitol surrounded by politicians and lawyers to announce House Resolution 552. Introduced by U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills, the resolution later passed unanimously, and called on Russia to release Whelan or produce the evidence that proves he’s a spy.

A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate by U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, but has yet to receive a vote.

“I think there’s also strong support in the Senate,” Elizabeth Whelan said. “However, with everything that’s going on right now, there doesn’t seem to be a very good reason to push the Senate part of the resolution forward. I think it’s better to let some of this other impeachment stuff happen first, and then seeing what progress has or has not been made on Paul’s behalf.”

Through her efforts, Elizabeth Whelan made a connection with Republican strategist David Urban, who led Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign in Pennsylvania, a historically blue state that was pivotal in securing Trump’s election.

“It’s almost my obligation to help them out,” Urban said during a December interview with the Free Press.

“Paul’s story could be your story or my story or anybody’s story: An American citizen in Russia picked up and detained for no apparent reason,” Urban said. “Or, you know, allegedly for quote-unquote spying, right? That’s pretty outrageous. And so I think it’s incumbent on me and others to do everything in our power to make sure we get him released soon as possible, get him back to his family, get him back to America, the people he loves.”

Urban declined to describe his interactions on behalf of the Whelan family with the president or his administration.

“I’m not going to characterize any conversations I have had with the president or not, but I will tell you that I’ve discussed Paul’s case at the highest levels of the government with officials at the highest levels of our government and I know that they are aware,” Urban said. “They are working, trying to secure his release.

“I think there’s a concern that direct involvement by this president would raise the stakes and make Paul’s release not more likely, but less likely because the Russians would … see some value in detaining Paul. … If the president of the United States is out on a limb, pushing publicly for his release, and openly for his release, I think that makes it in some instances, much more difficult to get Paul released and less likely.”

And so, until his trial, or until something happens behind the scenes at the highest levels of government, the Whelan family marches on.

David Whelan in Ontario, sending out periodic email messages to the news media with updates. Elizabeth Whelan making the long journey from Massachusetts to Washington every month to press for action. Andrew Whelan, continuing to ensure his brother is getting support from the embassies of the U.S., Canada, Britain and Ireland. Rosemary and Edward Whelan in Michigan, writing letters and sending cards to a son who remains a prisoner thousands of miles away.

“The Whelan family is not going to stop asking for attention to be brought to this,” Elizabeth Whelan said.

She’s writing another letter to the Russian ambassador to the United States, asking for a meeting.

She will send the letter, then wait for a reply. The waiting, she said, is excruciating.

Even though she already knows what the outcome of his trial will be.

Even though she’s convinced her brother is not a spy.

“I do not believe there’s anybody who really thinks Paul is a spy,” she said. “I have not spoken to anybody in the administration, the NSC, Congress or the State Department, who believes that Paul actually was over there spying. So, if that is the case, and we know that this is political hostage-taking in order to extract concessions from the U.S. government, then why are we not pushing harder to resolve this?”

So, they remain steadfast, and hope that the defiance their brother has shown, the element that seems to keep him upright, standing and fighting through it all, carries them, too.

“The cavalry doesn’t come to your rescue even though you want them to, so we have to be the cavalry,” Elizabeth Whelan said.

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© 2020 Detroit Free Press

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.