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Spy mystery: Was columnist a wife betrayed?

It's one of the more tantalizing mysteries to emerge from the U.S.-Russia spy saga: Could a wife be in the dark even as to her husband's very name?
Image: Vicky Pelaez
In this undated photo, Peruvian journalist Vicky Pelaez is seen on assignment in Lima, Peru. Pelaez and her husband Juan Lazaro were among 10 suspects arrested in a sweep in the United States as part of an alleged Russian spy ring.Diario La Republica / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Vicky Pelaez met her husband, Juan Lazaro — or so he called himself — some 30 years ago in her native Peru. She was a gutsy TV reporter, he a talented photographer and a karate black belt. "To her, he was a hunk," a friend says.

Soon, the two were married and living in a leafy New York suburb, raising a young son along with Vicky's older one, proudly watching him develop into a talented pianist. And now, three decades later, with the family suddenly torn asunder, her lawyer says she likely never even knew Juan's real name: Mikhail Vasenkov.

It's one of the more tantalizing mysteries to emerge from the spy saga that has entranced the world over the past 12 days: Could a wife be in the dark even as to her husband's very name?

And the broader question: Was Pelaez, deported Thursday in a spy swap along with her husband, an enthusiastic secret agent — who like him, was willing to put her loyalty to Moscow over that of her children? Or was she a wife betrayed?

One thing was clear on Friday, hours after Pelaez, 55, and Vasenkov, 66, arrived in Vienna, en route to Moscow: A family was in tatters.

In Yonkers, a gaggle of journalists was parked outside the family's two-story, brick and stucco home, with a patio, dog house and wading pool in the yard, waiting to talk to the couple's 17-year-old son, Juan Jr., and his stepbrother Waldo Mariscal, 38, an architect.

"I guess I feel sorry for the younger kid, unless he was in on it," remarked a neighbor, Jim Carey. "We don't really know if he knew anything."

As for the parents: "They have to live with what they did," he said.

Before noon, the two sons escaped, grim-faced, to a nearby park. When they returned, Mariscal spoke to the media, insisting he didn't believe his parents were spies, and defending their character.

"I don't know about Juan's relationship to Russia. He probably bought some seasoning from a Russian store," Mariscal said. As for his mother: "The only Russian thing that she likes is vodka with passion fruit." He said he didn't know where he and his brother would end up living, though he said the teenager wanted to stay in the United States.

Waldo Mariscal, left, and his half-brother Juan Lazaro Jr., sons of accused spy Vicky Pelaez, leave their home in Yonkers, N.Y., Friday, July 9, 2010. Lazaro Jr., 17, is a gifted pianist who has lived his whole life in the U.S., although he has spent considerable time in Peru, where his mother was born. Mariscal is an architect. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)Seth Wenig / AP

He acknowledged the family would lose their home, since it was paid for by the Russians, but added: "My parents paid for this house with their sacrifices since 1995."

A lawyer for the father noted that the sons had no income. "It's very upsetting. They don't know what to do next," said Genesis Peduto.

As for their parents, they had only 24 hours to decide whether to accept the "all-or-nothing" deal to go to Moscow or face years behind bars, said Pelaez's lawyer, John Rodriguez.

He said Pelaez plans to go back to Peru, where her family has a ranch, and where she hoped to continue writing for El Diario La Prensa, a well-known Spanish-language newspaper.

It was in Lima, the Peruvian capital, that the couple met in the early 1980s. The country was in turmoil, with leftist rebels ascendant. Vicky was working for Channel 2, Frecuencia Latina. The man she knew as Juan Lazaro was not only a talented freelance photographer but a karate black belt who taught the discipline to colleagues.

Delfina Prieto, who worked alongside Lazaro at the Peruvian magazine Punto, called him "a magnificent person, a great companion." She said he always looked out for her and, because she is short, once pulled her up on his shoulders at the presidential palace so she could get a good shot.

But she questioned his origins, as did others. "I would always think, 'This guy has a European accent,'" she said.

Cesar Medrano, another photographer who knew the couple, agreed. "He said he was Uruguayan, but he had a European accent. He looked German." Yet another colleague, Carlos Saavedra, said Lazaro never spoke about his past — "but we never asked."

Does that include Pelaez? It's not known what she knew of his origins. The federal complaint says agents intercepted a conversation inside the Yonkers home in 2002, where Lazaro was heard describing his childhood to Pelaez, saying: "We moved to Siberia ... as soon as the war started(.)"

A key sign of how little she may have known: Her lawyer said Thursday his client "seemed shocked" to learn that Juan Lazaro was not her husband's real name. "I don't believe she knew he had another name," Rodriguez said.

In any case, the two were deeply in love, according to a colleague of Pelaez in Peru, TV reporter Monica Chang. "She was a very passionate woman," Chang said in a TV interview. "To her, he was a hunk."

In Peru, Pelaez established a reputation as a gritty street reporter. Then, in December of 1984, she was kidnapped for a day by members of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, one of the country's main communist armed insurgencies, along with her cameraman.

It was partly because of that ordeal that Pelaez and Lazaro, recently married, left the country for New York, says her sister, Elvira Pelaez.

There, she made a name for herself at El Diario La Prensa as a columnist who praised Fidel Castro and was highly critical of U.S. government policy.

While Pelaez continued to pursue her career as a journalist, Lazaro studied at the New School for Social Research, now called The New School, a university in Manhattan. He taught a class on Latin American and Caribbean politics at Baruch College, also in Manhattan, in 2008.

The two were "a normal couple," very affectionate with one another, said Medrano. He said he met with Lazaro during a visit to New York by a Peruvian president — he didn't remember which — and Lazaro was juggling his studies with a night job cleaning a restaurant.

Elvira Pelaez told reporters Lazaro was an honest and hardworking man who had always been an "incredible support" to his wife. Pelaez dedicated her 2004 collection of columns to her children and to Lazaro, whom she called her "comrade and guide of all dreams."

Manny Patino, a former photographer at El Diario La Prensa and a friend of Pelaez, recalled filming a piano concert of Juan Jr.'s about two years ago.

"They both looked very proud of their son," Patino said. "I think their marriage was legitimate. She was a very good mother. She truly cared for her son."

It is not exactly clear when the espionage activity began, though it appears it was in the 1990s. The couple both pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as an unregistered agent of a foreign country.

A criminal complaint accused Pelaez of receiving a package of cash from a Russian contact in a park "in a South American country" in 2000, and said Lazaro received money in the same park in 2007.

Authorities also alleged the couple passed messages in invisible ink, and that surveillance of their Yonkers home in 2003 revealed "the irregular electronic clicking sounds associated with the receipt of coded radio transmissions."

Perhaps most stunningly, to many, Lazaro said, according to prosecutors, that although he loved his child, "he would not violate his loyalty to the 'Service' even for his son." (Lazaro's lawyer, Robert Krakow, said his client disputes the government's description of his statement — and in fact initially rejected the offer to plead guilty and go to Russia because he wanted to stay with his sons.)

So what happens now? Pelaez may be on her way soon to Peru, where she may shed light on her strange saga. Her children's future is up in the air. But her older son said he was sure they would eventually be together.

"Are we going to reunite?" Mariscal said outside the home. "Yes. We have a nice adobe house in Peru that my mother built little by little."


Noveck reported from New York. Associated Press writers Carla Salazar in Lima, Peru, and Larry Neumeister, Tom Hays and Claudia Torrens in New York contributed to this report.