How a brutal assault led a woman to one of the CIA's most valuable Russian spies

 How a brutal assault led a woman to one of the CIA's most valuable Russian spies

On a warm day in late September nearly 10 years ago, Lisa Sales was in the basement of her Virginia home, going through files belonging to her former tenant, a man who had just been arrested and would later plead guilty to assaulting her.

Sales, then in her early 40s, picked up a flash drive in a small glass dish where she kept odds and ends by the printer. She assumed, she later recounted, that it was hers and inserted it into her computer. Instead, she realized the flash drive belonged to her former tenant, and it contained an investment report listing total assets of more than $16 million, a seemingly inexplicable sum for someone who had been paying $2,000 a month to rent a basement room in her house.

Her interest piqued, she started digging for more among the belongings left behind after he was arrested. She came across a handwritten letter in Cyrillic and other financial documents in the recycling bin.

It had been a little over a week since Dmitry Mikhaylov had attacked her. Mikhaylov, a Russian immigrant attending graduate school, had not immediately struck Sales as a multimillionaire. Now she began to wonder about his real background. Could he have ties to the Russian mafia?

Lisa SalesLisa Sales

Lisa Sales. (Alyssa Schukar for Yahoo News)

Even before the attack, there were some unusual things about her housemate. He could be sociable but was also prone to moodiness, particularly when he drank, sometimes bragging about a father in Russia who was in some sort of serious trouble, she recalled. He owned a black Mercedes, a flashy car for a young man still in school, particularly since Sales said he couldn’t legally drive it without restrictions because of a recent DWI conviction.

There were other hints of wealth. He was buying an expensive condo in Falls Church, Va., and she’d seen him buy drinks for a big crowd at the bar on more than one occasion. And now there was the matter of the $16 million.

Sales was suspicious enough to call a neighbor in the FBI, later following it up with a call and email to the bureau’s Washington field office concerning her former housemate’s “suspicious activity” — essentially, his access to a massive trove of money. The field office never responded.

Unperturbed, Sales began her own investigation. Over the next several years, she pieced together documents Mikhaylov had left behind, conducted her own interviews and scoured the internet for information. Sales eventually came to believe the CIA had helped her former tenant move to the United States, and is protecting him as part of a legal maneuver roughly similar to the Justice Department’s witness protection program. The reason, she argues, is that he’s the son of one of the agency’s most valuable assets of the past two decades.

Dmitry Mikhaylov. (Courtesy of Lisa Sales)Dmitry Mikhaylov. (Courtesy of Lisa Sales)

Dmitry Mikhaylov. (Courtesy of Lisa Sales)

Sales’s story occupies a unique place in the era of the #MeToo movement, when women have come forward to speak openly about sexual assault, often perpetrated by powerful figures. The narrative pits Sales against arguably one of the most powerful and secretive institutions in the world: the CIA, with its mission of protecting U.S. national security. As she would later tell one of the agency’s former directors: “I thought we, American citizens here at home, me, who was sexually assaulted, I thought I’m entitled to national security too.”

Most people who believe they’ve become entangled in a web of international espionage might be dismissed as having watched too many episodes of “The Americans.” But Sales, who works for a large national security company, began to connect the pieces of her attacker’s life and family. If she’s correct about the CIA’s involvement, it puts the agency in a difficult position; if it confirms her suspicions, it would potentially endanger someone, a so-called asset who spied on behalf of the United States, making it harder to recruit others in the future.

Those who work, or have worked, in and around the intelligence community say the agency’s responsibilities to its foreign assets don’t end when they reach the relative safety of the United States. “We’re responsible for them for life,” said Joseph Augustyn, former head of the CIA program that resettles those who risk their lives to spy for the United States.

“Unlike witness protection, if you stray from that or break the rules, they’ll kick you out; the CIA will never do that,” said Augustyn, who emphasized he was not familiar with the details surrounding Mikhaylov. “The cases never really are closed.”

Sales, however, wants the answer to a different question: If the CIA is responsible for those spies and their families for life, is the agency also responsible for their crimes?

When Lisa Sales signed up for Roommates.com in the spring of 2011, she was at a low point in her life. Her boyfriend, whom she had been helping launch a hair salon for the previous two years, had recently left her.

Sales, a tall, slender strawberry blonde, had first met her future boyfriend when he cut her hair. Eventually they moved in together, but after his salon got established, the pair broke up, and, Sales alleges, she wanted to be paid for her work there. “He kept saying, since I was his girlfriend, he owed me nothing for nearly two years of work,” she said. She filed a lawsuit against the salon, alleging he was unjustly enriched by her labor, but the case was ultimately dismissed.

Sales was no stranger to financial insecurity or heartbreak. She says her mother was abusive, prone to screaming fits and taking money from her daughter. Her father, a former child actor, died of cancer when she was 21, leaving her largely on her own. She grew up in California, working multiple jobs at a time to pay her way through college at UCLA, studying political science and international relations. She pulled shifts as a police dispatcher answering 911 calls, worked as a salesperson at a clothing store in a mall, and briefly as an assistant at an accounting firm.

When she was accepted to graduate school at Columbia University to study public policy, she worked for the school’s fundraising and curriculum committee, seeking donations for the school across New York City; she graduated in 1994, but with hefty loans she’s still paying off.

However, her degree did get her a foot in the door working on public policy and nonprofit work, issues she cared about. She held a range of jobs, including a position with the New York governor’s office on issues of mental health and substance abuse, then briefly worked on President Bill Clinton’s budget for higher education and student financial assistance — the same kind of aid that helped her get through school.

But in 2011, with no income from the salon or a romantic partner, she faced the loss of the house she had purchased out of foreclosure in 2008 — a two-floor, single-family home not far from George Washington’s historic Mount Vernon estate along the Potomac River. Then she found herself looking for a tenant.

Soon after she posted the ad on Roommates.com, she was contacted by Dmitry Mikhaylov, a Russian immigrant of Ukrainian descent. He said he was looking for a short-term lease while he completed his graduate degree at Virginia Tech and searched for a job. Sales said she had hoped for a female housemate, but the only applications came from a handful of men. Mikhaylov was the most eager to make arrangements, responding to her questions quickly. He was also looking for a furnished room, which she could provide, Sales recalled.

Lisa Sales Lisa Sales

Sales outside her home in Alexandria, Va. (Alyssa Schukar for Yahoo News)

While D.C. and its nearby suburbs are fairly transient places, full of young professionals, interns and students filtering in and out of group houses, Sales wasn’t used to sharing her home and wanted to be sure about Mikhaylov. “I was nervous about welcoming somebody into my home,” she testified later.

They first met in person when Mikhaylov came over for a Memorial Day weekend tag sale that Sales held out of her garage. Ten years younger than she was and about the same height — 5 feet 8 inches — he struck her as friendly and sociable. He ordered pizzas for the group, and Sales gave him a tour of the neighborhood and introduced him to some of her friends. She felt an easy rapport with the Russian graduate student.

They decided on a short-term agreement for a room in the basement. He signed a lease on her birthday at the end of June, she recalled, and agreed to pay $2,000 a month for six months and split the utilities down the middle.

For the next few weeks, Sales’s new housemate seemed ideal. They spent time with each other’s friends, hosting dinners or going out with friends for meals in Virginia and Washington, including a birthday celebration for Mikhaylov at the W Hotel that overlooks the White House. One neighbor recalled seeing Mikhaylov take Sales’s dog, Halo, for runs around the neighborhood.

Sales began to treat Mikhaylov like a younger brother, according to her friends. He helped her translate messages from Belarusian children she had hosted as part of a charity working with youth affected by the Chernobyl disaster. By both their accounts, Sales and Mikhaylov became friends. She recalled telling him she’d dance at his wedding someday.

Lisa Sales with her dog Halo Lisa Sales with her dog Halo

Sales with her dog, Halo. (Alyssa Schukar for Yahoo News)

There were hints, however, that Mikhaylov’s life wasn’t that of your typical immigrant graduate student. This was particularly the case, according to Sales, after a few drinks, when he talked about his father.

She recalled one evening when Mikhaylov lined up a row of mini-bottles of liquor, drinking them while sitting on her kitchen floor next to her double oven. According to Sales, he said his father was “kind of an important person” who worked for “the company,” a vague reference that’s sometimes used in movies and TV to refer to the CIA, though she didn’t make that connection at the time.

His father had been a “bad boy,” he said. And because of his father’s transgressions, Mikhaylov couldn’t return to Russia out of fear for his own safety. (In later court proceedings Mikhaylov denied saying this. “Yes, I am able to return to Russia,” he testified in 2015.)

Sales initially disregarded those details as drunken bravado. People often reinvent themselves when they come to new places. And she wasn’t even sure what he meant about his father working for “the company.”

“I thought he worked for some international law firm,” she said. “I don’t know why even I jumped to that. I wasn’t thinking the freaking CIA.”

By the fall, the housemates’ friendship showed signs of fracturing. Although Mikhaylov had signed a six-month lease, he unexpectedly approached Sales in early September to see if he could cut the arrangement short. He said he was trying to buy a condo in Falls Church.

They discussed it briefly but didn’t reach a conclusion. Sales was only a few weeks into a new job at Booz Allen Hamilton, a major Pentagon contractor, where she was working on military-community partnerships. At the time, she was depending on the extra income from Mikhaylov’s rent to get her back on her feet, to afford the mortgage and to pay for a new car she needed to get to work.

In later court testimony, Mikhaylov recalled that financial disputes were beginning to cause some problems in his relationship with Sales. He said they agreed to split the utilities down the middle, but that Sales inflated that price to a flat rate of $357 each month. (She claimed that both parties had initialed and agreed to the amount.)

Mikhaylov also said he expected his security deposit of $2,000 to be kept in a bank account. But, he alleged, he found out it went to pay off Sales’s credit card. He said he saw a “copy of the check on my online banking.” During cross examination, Sales said she “did not recall” using the security deposit to pay off a credit card.

These conflicts aside, they were getting along well enough to go out together one Friday evening. On Sept. 16, 2011, Sales was planning to attend a surprise farewell party for a friend moving to Chicago. The plan was to meet at Chili’s off of Richmond Highway in Alexandria. On her way out the door, hoping to make it in time for the surprise, she got a call from Mikhaylov, who wanted to tag along. She waited for him.

Mikhaylov had news of his own to celebrate that day. He had gotten a new job offer from Computer Sciences Corp., a major federal government contractor. He remembered telling Sales the good news. “I thought she was happy for me,” he later testified. “And she invited me to come and celebrate.”

When they got to the restaurant, Mikhaylov headed for the bar and Sales ordered a margarita and greeted her friends. Mikhaylov recalled in later testimony having several beers and tequila shots.

After one or two drinks, Sales was tired. She had a few errands to run, so she told Mikhaylov she’d be across the street at Target and Lowe’s and would come back for him. By the time she returned, sometime before midnight, she recalled, he had lined up a row of shots along the bar for the last call. The drinks were for him and a newly acquired drinking buddy.

When the bar closed down, he tried to get Sales to give the new friend a ride, which she declined. He reluctantly followed her out, and got in the passenger seat of her Jeep.

Sales said he became “belligerent” on the car ride home, and dumped a bottle of Diet Coke in the car. When they got home, she asked him to clean the spill, and she took out her dog for a walk.

Their accounts of the events that followed sharply diverged. Sales said he tailed her as she walked her dog, yelling incoherently at her. She rushed home, worried he would wake the neighbors.

Halo Halo

Sales’s dog, Halo. (Alyssa Schukar for Yahoo News)

In testimony, Mikhaylov admitted to having had several drinks, but denied he was intoxicated or that he might have forgotten certain events of the evening. He said that when the pair arrived home they “started talking about what my plans are, what I’m going to do next. We discussed the new job that I got. And eventually we started talking about the living situation, because I had several complaints.”

Mikhaylov said they discussed the utility bills, and his frustration that it was a fixed amount. Sales “became very upset and agitated,” he recounted. For 30 minutes or so, they argued in the kitchen before he went to bed, he testified.

Sales, who has maintained a detailed and consistent account of that evening for many years, said something very different happened after she left for her bedroom. Past midnight, as she was changing, Mikhaylov “came barreling in, flying through the doors of my bedroom,” she later testified. In interviews and testimony from court proceedings, she described a violent assault.

“First he went after my dog,” she recalled in later testimony. “He picked her up twice and threw her against the dresser.”

Then Mikhaylov “lunged at me,” she said. “He threw me to the ground. He sat on me. He took his knees and he spread my legs. And he was wearing — I will never forget this for as long as I live — he was wearing a red leather belt around his jeans. What guy do I know that even owns a red leather belt?” she recalled wondering. “And he unbuttoned the top button of his jeans. He kept me pinned with his other hand, and then he unzipped his pants and started to touch himself.”

She remembered him yelling unintelligibly in Russian and English. At one point he complained about “the utilities and the rent,” though most of it didn’t make much sense, she recounted. “I was just shocked,” she testified, “because he was screaming at me that he’s going to f*** me for a bit.”

According to Sales, the struggle lasted four or five hours. “I kept trying to pull away,” she said. “I tried to get away from him. And he was just grabbing me. And I tried to get over from my back to my front and crawl away on my knees. And he kept pushing me down and sitting on me. He grabbed whatever he could grab. He was grabbing my limb, my foot, my leg, my hair, whatever he could grab.”

One of the most terrifying moments was when “he had tried to grab me and strangle me in the bathroom,” she said during an interview, a memory about which she also testified in court.

At some point in the struggle, she found herself on the floor at the top of the stairs, Mikhaylov pulling her feet. She eventually broke free and managed to make it back to her bedroom, locking and then barricading the door with furniture. Mikhaylov continued screaming outside, but eventually fell silent.

Sales wasn’t sure where Mikhaylov went, and though she found her phone buried in the bedsheets, she didn’t call the police. Instead, she texted a friend, Phil Katauskus, a D.C. lawyer, and fell asleep, exhausted.

Sales later testified that she didn’t immediately call 911 because the idea of police and sirens showing up in her quiet residential neighborhood seemed overwhelming to her. “I was embarrassed,” she said.

The doorbell woke Sales around 9 a.m. There was no sound to indicate Mikhaylov’s presence, so she went downstairs to answer it.

She was momentarily surprised to find her neighbor Amy Montero and her young daughter waiting on the doorstep. Drained by the previous night, Sales had forgotten that she had arranged to host a few friends, including Montero and Katauskus, the friend she had texted after the assault. They had arranged for a spa day at the house with a professional masseuse, followed by wine and cheese.

Montero, who had no idea what had happened in the hours before her arrival, remembered Sales being visibly shaken that morning. “She was agitated and moving almost robotically,” recalled Montero in an interview years later. “It was so not like her.” Katauskus recalled that Sales had “saucer eyes,” with a vacant stare as if she’d “seen a ghost.”

Sales took Montero aside briefly to say something horrible had happened, but didn’t go into details while Montero’s daughter was present. That evening, after her friends left, Sales went over to Montero’s house to tell her about the assault. There were bruises visible on her arms and legs, Montero later testified in court.

After visiting with Montero, Sales returned home, where she locked herself in her bedroom, sneaking away now and again to walk her dog or grab a snack. She occasionally heard Mikhaylov downstairs.

Over the next couple of days, Montero and Katauskus both urged Sales to call the police. But she was reluctant to do so. She had only recently applied for a security clearance, and she wasn’t sure how involving the police might complicate things for her at work. She was just getting started in a new position as a defense and intelligence analyst, which involved consulting at the Pentagon on various projects, including community partnerships. “I did not want people knowing this had happened to me,” she said.

Meanwhile, her assailant was still living in her house. The next time she saw him was a few days after the attack. As she ducked out of the house to walk the dog, he pulled up in his car in the driveway and asked if she had a “problem” and if she “knew who she was messing with,” she wrote in her application for a protective order later that month.

The confrontation convinced her it was time to listen to her friends. That evening, Katauskus drove her to a nearby Fairfax County police station. The police interviewed her for several hours and conducted a physical examination. Records obtained by Yahoo News confirmed Sales’s interview with the police about the assault, described in an incident report as abduction and unspecified “non-forcible sex violation” — defined as sexual conduct without a victim’s willing consent — that resulted in “apparent minor injury.”

After speaking with Sales, a police officer interviewed Mikhaylov, who said that “because he had been drinking, details of the evening may have escaped him,” according to the report. “He remembers throwing the dog but he said that occurs on a regular basis. Mr. Mikhaylov stated that he regularly goes to Sales’s bedroom but does not remember going into her room that night.

“Mr. Mikhaylov would not give me any statements of admission or denial of the accusations of the evening,” the officer wrote.

The officer who interviewed Sales urged her not to return home, where Mikhaylov was still living, she recalled. That same night, the officers obtained a warrant, arrested Mikhaylov and charged him with abduction and sexual battery.

Like thousands of other people accused of sexual assault, Mikhaylov pleaded down the original felony charges to assault and battery, which are misdemeanors. He later testified that the only reason he pleaded guilty at all was that he had no family in the area, and without access to his cellphone or money, he couldn’t contact anyone for help while he was incarcerated. However, according to court records, his sister in Norway arranged to pay for an attorney shortly after the arrest and he was able to retain a local criminal defense lawyer.

“It was impossible to prepare for a defense in this case because, well, first of all, I couldn’t get bond, so I couldn’t get out,” he said. “My attorney explained to me that since I don’t have any place to stay, I will need to wait in jail until the trial.”

In the end, he spent less than a month in jail for the assault, a punishment Sales argues was far too light. In Virginia, felony abduction, the original charge, can result in up to 10 years in prison, while assault and battery, a misdemeanor, carries penalties of up to a year in jail.

At least he was now out of her house. After his arrest, someone from the office of the attorney representing Mikhaylov came to Sales’s house to pick up his belongings. Not everything was retrieved, however. She says some of his things were left behind, including items he’d discarded in the recycling bin or the nearby trash can.

Over the next couple of months, Sales started going through what was left behind.

“Hello my son. Dima, thank you for your postcard and your greetings,” Valeriy Mikhaylov wrote to his son, using the diminutive form of Dmitry. “Today is March 1, 2011, Tuesday, and the first day of spring. The weather is frosty and sunny. I just came back from a walk. I feel well and my mood is good. Soon it will be six months that I’ve lived in Lefortovo.”

Moscow’s Lefortovo prison is not just any prison, but the place where many of Russia’s most high-profile criminals and spies are kept. It’s the same place Russian authorities held American Paul Whelan, the former Marine the Russians accused of espionage, for over a year. Lefortovo is where Valeriy Mikhaylov, Dmitry’s father, was imprisoned while waiting to be tried.

Sales found the Russian-language letter, handwritten in loopy Cyrillic script on lined graph paper and stamped with a Lefortovo seal, among the documents Dmitry Mikhaylov left behind in her house. She got several different people over the years to help her translate it, including a former colleague and native Russian speaker posted to the National Defense University in Washington.

Lisa Sales holds a handwritten letterLisa Sales holds a handwritten letter

Sales holding a handwritten letter in Cyrillic that she found among her former tenant’s belongings. (Alyssa Schukar for Yahoo News)

She also found an investment report in Valeriy Mikhaylov’s name listing total assets of more than $16 million. Sales now had two vital pieces of information about Dmitry Mikhaylov’s father: He had U.S. investments worth millions of dollars, and he was in prison in Russia. The question was, why?

On Sept. 28, 2011, at 3:42 p.m., Sales emailed the Washington field office of the FBI, with the subject line “PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL MATERIAL,” offering information on Dmitry Mikhaylov and his father. She wrote that she believed the younger Mikhaylov “has fiduciary responsibility” for his father, who was incarcerated in Moscow and yet had millions of dollars in U.S. accounts. “I am not certain why a man with his means would elect to enter into a lease arrangement with me and become my roommate,” she wrote. The FBI never responded to those initial phone calls and emails.

Sales said she also reached out to a police detective at the time. The officer referred the information she came across to the Fairfax County Police Department’s financial crimes unit. However, even when she checked back with her friend, the detective, over a period of months, she said, nothing ever came of it.

She decided to contact the FBI again. Her neighbor the FBI agent recommended that this time she visit the field office in person. Sales asked a friend, Greg Gadson, a retired colonel who lost both legs in a bombing in Baghdad, to go to the FBI office with her.

Gadson, reached by phone, recalled encouraging Sales to report what she knew. “Are you going to be conquered by this or are you going to conquer it?” he recalled asking her. He believed her pursuit of answers was a way of dealing with what happened to her. “Trauma manifests in so many ways,” he said. “You just have to take it on.”

Sales met with a special agent, she recalled, who listened to her story and appeared sympathetic. But even this agent, whom Sales described as a “breath of fresh air,” eventually responded to follow-up emails she sent to tell her that his supervisor had told him to drop the matter. There was nothing more he could do for her.

Since she wasn’t receiving any answers from law enforcement, Sales chose to funnel that energy into a civil lawsuit filed in 2013 against Dmitry Mikhaylov, alleging personal injury. By now, she had become “obsessed” — to use her own description — with finding answers about Mikhaylov and his father.

Then one day, as the civil suit wound its way through the courts, she had a breakthrough. She stumbled upon a 2012 blog post written by Joseph Fitsanakis, a professor and intelligence expert at Coastal Carolina University. The title of the post was “Russian colonel was ‘most successful CIA spy’ in recent years.”

Fitsanakis’s post was based on a Russian media report from earlier that year. In June, the Moscow District Military Court convicted Valeriy Mikhaylov of high treason and sentenced him to 18 years in prison for passing what the Russian daily Kommersant said were “thousands of secret and top-secret documents” to the CIA.

According to Kommersant, Valeriy Mikhaylov was a career officer in the FSB, Russia’s internal security service, working out of the agency’s headquarters in Moscow’s Lubyanka Square. The newspaper said he volunteered to spy for the CIA in 2001, delivering thousands of reports intended for President Vladimir Putin and other top Kremlin officials.

According to the Russian prosecutor, Valeriy Mikhaylov spent six years spying for the United States, allegedly copying reports to USB sticks and leaving them in hidden spots, known as “dead drops,” around Moscow for CIA officers to retrieve. Kommersant claimed that the CIA considered him “one of its most successful agents in recent years.”

The spying continued until 2007, when Valeriy, by then in his mid-50s, retired from the FSB and ended up in the United States. (Public records confirm that he first surfaced in Virginia in 2007, connected to multiple post office boxes and apartments in Falls Church and Arlington.) That same year, Dmitry arrived in the United States to study at the George Washington University School of Business.

Three years later, however, Valeriy returned to Moscow, where he was arrested. How he got to the United States with a large pile of money is unclear, but why he went back to Russia is an even greater mystery. Either way, it meant his adult son, Dmitry, was left by himself in Virginia. He moved into Sales’s basement around the same time his father left.

The National Resettlement Operations Center is a little-known part of the CIA that helps to exfiltrate, relocate and resettle people who spy for the agency. The center exists thanks to an obscure section of Public Law 110, the legislation that created the CIA, that allows the agency to resettle up to 100 people each year for their services to the U.S.

The NROC (often called “n-rock”) operates a bit like a social service agency for spies, providing resettled families with help getting jobs, a house and car, psychological and substance abuse counseling, language training and even legal assistance. In many cases, NROC operates like the FBI witness protection program, providing spies with new identities to protect them from possible retribution.

According to former CIA officers who have both recruited and resettled Russian spies during their careers, those resettled face exceptional danger these days, given Putin’s penchant for vengeance against Russians who commit espionage. Family members of former Russian spies for the United States have mysteriously disappeared or had accidents, while some former assets have been lured back to Russia under some pretense, only to be arrested and imprisoned.

Not all former spies live under false identities; some find it too difficult to cut themselves off from friends and family for life. But living in the open carries risks: For example, in 2019, reporters showed up on a former spy’s doorstep. Most famously, the Kremlin sent operatives to poison former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal, who spied for the British, with the nerve agent Novichok alongside his daughter Yulia on a park bench in Salisbury, England, in 2018. The Kremlin is suspected of using that same deadly substance last summer against Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who barely survived. An investigation by Bellingcat implicated the FSB in the attack.

Alexei Navalny Alexei Navalny

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. (Babuskinsky District Court Press Service via AP)

It’s that threat that makes former U.S. intelligence officials wary of talking about the Mikhaylov case. “Whether he assisted the U.S. or not, look no further than the recent Navalny poisoning to understand why speculating, especially about someone already in jail, would be reckless,” said Dan Hoffman, a retired three-time CIA station chief who served in Moscow.

Sales says that part of her is sympathetic to Valeriy Mikhaylov’s plight and doesn’t want any further harm to come to either him or his son. But she wants to prevent future abuse.

She contrasts the Mikhaylovs, whom she sees as privileged at least financially, with herself, struggling to pay for education and living expenses. “I didn’t have any help. I didn’t have near the money or near the support,” she said.

Valeriy Mikhaylov, however, remains imprisoned. Intelligence community veterans said his decision to return to Russia is not unheard of among defectors, no matter how irrational it might appear. He made a mistake and fell victim to the same trap others had in the past — assuming he could safely travel when, in fact, he could not, said one former CIA official.

The motivations for deciding to go back, temporarily or permanently, vary, they said. Some spies, perhaps believing that their former colleagues in Russia are not aware of their treasonous activities, become “convinced of their invincibility” and decide to visit former lovers or relatives back home, said a former CIA official. “They hear the siren song of family members.”

Lefortovo PrisonLefortovo Prison

A view of Lefortovo prison in Moscow. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)

Joseph Augustyn, the former head of the resettlement program, was struck by the similarities between Mikhaylov’s case and that of another former Russian spy for the CIA, Alexander Zaporozhsky, who “gave insight and intelligence that led to the arrest of Aldrich Ames.” Zaporozhsky was also a former colonel who was lured back to Russia and sentenced to 18 years’ detention. However, he was one of the men traded back to the United States in July 2010 in exchange for Russian sleeper agents, known as “the illegals.”

Augustyn, who said he routinely lunched with Zaporozhsky in the Washington area before his ill-fated return to Russia, recalled one meal in particular in Tysons Corner, Va., during which the former Russian colonel declared he was going back to Moscow to see friends. Augustyn and his colleagues couldn’t convince him not to go. Russian security forces arrested him at the airport upon his arrival in 2001. Mikhaylov may “fall into the same kind of spy folly,” Augustyn said. “I know better, I can do this, I’m smarter, I can’t get caught.”

According to Dr. David Charney, a psychiatrist in Alexandria, Va., who has counseled multiple convicted spies — including former FBI agent Robert Hanssen, who was convicted of passing secrets to Moscow — Mikhaylov could have been lured back by FSB promises of good treatment “because it would be an embarrassment to CIA to have someone cross over and then return back to Russia.” That is what happened with Vitaly Yurchenko, who defected to the United States in 1985 but within a few months returned to the Soviet Union, receiving an award from the Kremlin for his service.

Vitaly Yurchenko Vitaly Yurchenko

Former KGB agent Vitaly Yurchenko in 1985. (Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images)

Little information about Mikhaylov’s return is available from the Russian side. Kommersant claims the FSB “managed to lure” him back to Russia but provides no details. The Moscow District Military Court’s spokeswoman, Irina Zhirnova, who had been widely quoted in the Russian press in the aftermath of Valeriy Mikhaylov’s 2012 trial and conviction, could not be reached. Multiple calls over a span of several weeks met with the same response: Zhirnova was “on vacation.” Efforts to track down Valeriy Mikhaylov’s defense lawyer, Alexey Tikhomirov, were also unsuccessful.

Answers from U.S. officials are similarly elusive. The CIA declined to comment on a detailed list of questions about its alleged relationship with Valeriy and his son, Dmitry. Yahoo News also spoke to more than a dozen former intelligence officials about Valeriy Mikhaylov, and while more than half of them confirmed his role spying for the CIA, all declined to speak in detail about what sort of information he provided to the U.S. government. None were certain why he returned to Russia.

The confusing details of the case even led some former U.S. intelligence officers to speculate that Mikhaylov may have been a double agent all along, said a former military intelligence officer who was privy to some of the reports about the case. “There’s no forgiving those kinds of guys,” the former intelligence officer said.

There is ultimately no direct proof that the Mikhaylovs were resettled by the CIA — and if they were, they clearly did not choose to change their names — but there is one major tantalizing hint of U.S. government assistance: the $16 million, which according to court records had at least at one point been under the control of Dmitry Mikhaylov.

Several former intelligence officials and historians said they were shocked by the amount. “Holy cow, that’s crazy!” said intelligence historian Mark Stout, adding that if the CIA paid Valeriy Mikhaylov that much, it would place the Russian intelligence officer “in the very, very, very top ranks of the most valuable assets we’ve ever had.” Stout noted that Alexandr Shcherbakov, the Russian spy who provided “the smoking gun evidence” that unmasked Robert Hanssen as a Kremlin mole in the FBI, earned only $7 million.

However, former CIA officers with firsthand knowledge of the agency’s recent operations in Russia were not as surprised. A former senior CIA official told Yahoo News that the $16 million payout did not shock him, explaining that high-level sources can make that amount of money. “We pay very well for people working for the U.S. in Moscow at such a high level,” the former official said.

Asked what level of intelligence a spy would have to be delivering to the CIA to be paid $16 million, former CIA Director Leon Panetta chuckled. “In the pretty damn good intelligence category,” said Panetta, who headed the agency when Mikhaylov returned to Moscow and was arrested. “There’s no price list at the CIA, but I think if you’re talking about that kind of money you have to believe that the intelligence was pretty important,” said Panetta, who said he was unable to comment on classified matters related to the case.

As for the CIA helping a spy’s relative, that wouldn’t be that unusual, according to Panetta. “If a family member starts getting in trouble and you know that anything [that] becomes high profile and could be reported in the press could tip off the adversary as to the location of that individual, you would try to see if there was not a way to be able to control that situation and try to prevent the matter from becoming highly publicized,” he said.

When reached by Yahoo News with questions about his father over the phone, Dmitry said he was “not responsible for him.” He declined to comment about whether he knew if his father worked for the CIA, was paid millions of dollars for that work or was currently imprisoned in Russia. Dmitry said he came to the United States on a student visa to attend George Washington University. He denied coming to the U.S. with his father, though public records list the two living together in Virginia in 2010.

In a follow-up email, Dmitry Mikhaylov wrote, “I am not in touch with my father and I do not represent him in any shape or form.”

The letter from Valeriy Mikhaylov to his son, uncovered in Sales’s basement, offers the only hint from the Mikhaylovs themselves of what happened. “Everything is because I made a mistake, believing in my lucky star,” Valeriy wrote. “Now I will have to pay for it by spending a long time in captivity.”

Early in 2015, as Sales’s civil case against Dmitry Mikhaylov continued, she got an unexpected call from the FBI. It was the sympathetic agent she had spoken with earlier that year, and he had some news: Mikhaylov had been arrested again, this time for pulling a gun on a young couple who had been drinking coffee in their car outside a convenience store on a cold day, demanding their parking spot, Sales recalled.

A Falls Church police incident report filed on Nov. 2, 2014, confirmed that Mikhaylov had brandished a firearm in a public parking lot and pointed it at two young people, and public records confirm he pled guilty to brandishing the weapon. According to Sales, who said she spoke to one of the people in the car, Mikhaylov pulled a small gun from the console of his car and had his finger on the trigger, terrifying the couple. The man at the steering wheel whipped the car into reverse and sped away, heading directly to the Falls Church police station. He did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Yahoo News.

The knowledge that Mikhaylov had acquired a firearm made Sales furious — and frightened. Her protective order had been renewed once following his attack on her, but not again. Unsure of what else to do, Sales contacted security officers at her job, Booz Allen, hoping to alert them to any potential security concern, she said. They interviewed her in a remote Virginia office she’d never been to before, she recalled, but nothing appeared to come of it.

She then approached the CIA. When she called the agency, the employee on the line was unhelpful and tried to redirect her to local law enforcement or the FBI. She said the person promised to relay her information to the appropriate personnel, but didn’t ask for her name or contact details. “I spent four minutes on the phone with the CIA in total and had to fight to get an investigator on the line,” she wrote in an email to the FBI agent who had alerted her to Mikhaylov’s third arrest. But even that agent had run out of options to help, he told her repeatedly.

Sales was becoming convinced that the CIA was actively helping Dmitry Mikhaylov with his legal issues. When calling the CIA directly failed, she contacted one of her elected representatives from Virginia, Sen. Mark Warner, then the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. She cornered him for a brief conversation at a women’s summit he hosted in Virginia Beach, and followed up with a staffer of his, who met her for coffee.

She later spelled out her grievances to one of his staffers in an email she sent in 2017. Why, she asked, did there seem to be no serious consequences for Dmitry Mikhaylov’s actions?

“If I fail to pay my bills (student loans, lawyers, medical, etc.), or lose my house, I also lose my secret clearance and then my job,” she wrote. “Please help me and others who have been subjected to violence” by those involved in the CIA’s resettlement program.

“We are unintended consequences, but not soldiers in this war,” she continued.

Eventually, after Sales signed a privacy waiver, Warner’s office managed to deliver a brief statement from the CIA. “Senator Warner has contacted the CIA on your behalf and has confirmed that the CIA does not support Dmitry Mikhaylov financially or legally,” wrote a staffer in April 2018.

Lisa Sales and Jenna McLaughlinLisa Sales and Jenna McLaughlin

Sales with Yahoo News reporter Jenna McLaughlin. (Alyssa Schukar for Yahoo News)

Sales wasn’t satisfied. In her view, while federal and local officials were polite to her, no one was doing anything concrete. A friend shared a timeline Sales had compiled of her case with Rep. Mike Rogers, a Republican from Michigan who had served as the chair of the House Intelligence Committee. Sales said her friend told her that Rogers said the government often runs into problems with defectors and their families.

When reached by Yahoo News, Rogers, who left Congress in 2014, said Mikhaylov’s name “rang a bell,” but declined to comment on the specifics of the case. He confirmed that the intelligence community sometimes encounters former foreign spies with psychological or substance abuse challenges. “I can’t say that is highly unusual,” he said, though he clarified that assault would be more disturbing and far less common.

By May 2018, Sales’s frustration was boiling over, and a friend invited her to attend an event at the National Press Club in downtown D.C., hoping to distract her. Sales had no idea what the purpose of the event was, but it turned out that the cast of the Showtime spy drama “Homeland” would be featured in a panel discussion with retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, who had been CIA director from 2006 to 2009, a period that covered Valeriy Mikhaylov’s departure from Russia and arrival in the United States. Seated in the audience, Sales began furiously typing up a question on her phone. She was the first one to be called on.

“Speaking of morality, Gen. Hayden, this is for you,” Sales said. “I want to ask about unintended consequences for American citizens at the hands of foreign spies invited to our America. What happens when we invite the family, the son of FSB Col. Valeriy Mikhaylov, and that son retaliates against American citizens? That son sexually assaults and attempts to shoot people? Does our government take any responsibility or leave it up to local law enforcement? What do we do about this?”

Sales’s question appeared to catch the former CIA director off guard, not to mention the cast of “Homeland.”

Gen. Michael Hayden (Ret.), Howard Gordon, Mandy Patinkin, Claire Danes and Lesli Linka GlatterGen. Michael Hayden (Ret.), Howard Gordon, Mandy Patinkin, Claire Danes and Lesli Linka Glatter

Retired Gen. Michael Hayden, left, and members of the cast of “Homeland” listen as Sales asks a question at a 2018 event at the National Press Club in Washington. (The Hayden Center via YouTube)

“Thank you for the question, and perhaps you and I can talk afterwards, but your question exceeds my knowledge in terms of background,” Hayden replied “When we talk, if and when I learn more, we’ll see how that works.”

Sales took him up on the offer and approached him after the event. He promised to schedule a private meeting with her in his office, she said. But her multiple emails to his assistant never produced a meeting, she says.

Larry Pfeiffer, Hayden’s former chief of staff, spoke to the former CIA director about Sales’s case after being contacted by Yahoo News (Hayden has been recovering from a stroke he suffered in November 2018). According to Pfeiffer, Hayden recalled reaching out directly to Langley on Sales’s behalf, passing on the information to someone there who could respond to it — though he didn’t recall Sales asking for a follow-up meeting. “Her story is a troubling one and we hope she finds solace and justice,” Pfeiffer wrote.

As Sales continued her investigation, she also pursued her civil case against Dmitry Mikhaylov. Since the attack, she says, she sought treatment for what she describes as extensive injuries. She consulted with orthopedic surgeons and went to physical therapy, according to medical records she submitted as evidence. She’s had a total of three surgeries since the attack, and says she still suffers from nagging knee pain. She has yet to have the surgery on her cervical spine that her doctor has recommended.

Her first civil suit, in 2013, quickly ended in a mistrial after Sales alleged in testimony that Mikhaylov abused drugs and alcohol, information the parties had agreed to exclude from the case because it might prejudice the jury. The judge ordered a new trial.

A new trial began in January 2015. Sales testified that the attack had caused severe injuries to her knees, neck and wrist that had already been operated on and would require further surgery. Mikhaylov’s attorney argued that her injuries were the result of a car accident that happened in the late 1990s and that she was attempting to get treatment on Mikhaylov’s dime.

In the 2015 trial, Mikhaylov said he and Sales had argued over money that night, but he denied attempting to sexually assault her or physically abuse her in any way. He said the argument that night took place in the kitchen and lasted “probably half an hour” before he “went to bed.”

Ultimately, the jury largely believed Sales. They awarded her just over $300,000 in damages for assault and battery and for infliction of emotional distress. In 2016, Mikhaylov appealed the decision to the Virginia Supreme Court, which determined that the judges in Fairfax County had made legal errors. The case was remanded to a lower court.

Finally, on May 30, 2018, seven years after the initial police report was filed, a jury at the Fairfax County Circuit Court entered a judgment against Mikhaylov for a total of $360,000 in damages for assault, battery and false imprisonment. (Sales says she received only about $160,000 in the end, and part of that was paid to medical experts involved in the case.)

Nearly seven years after the assault, Sales had something resembling acknowledgment of what she went through — if not from the CIA, then at least from members of a jury.

In person, Sales looks as if she’s walked straight out of a corporate brochure advertising its Washington workforce. She is composed and methodical in describing her investigation into the Mikhaylovs.

She has kept meticulous logs of everything she’s done to obtain information about them. She used to save copies of emails and papers under code names as her paranoia increased, eventually providing copies to trusted friends in case anything ever happened to her. “I had to find a way to compartmentalize it and still continue to do the research and connect the dots,” she explained during an interview in Washington last winter.

Even if she hasn’t found all the answers, her investigation has impressed some of the intelligence experts she’s contacted. Fitsanakis, the professor who wrote the blog post about Valeriy Mikhaylov’s case, recalled being struck by both Sales’s story and her meticulousness. “She knows the business first of all,” he said, referring to the broader national security bureaucracy. “She’s followed all the right channels … and nothing comes out of it.”

Sales still lives in the same house where the attack took place. Her only roommates these days are her husky, Halo, five Siamese cats and two sugar gliders, small marsupials native to Australia. Since the civil trial, Sales has had no direct contact with Dmitry Mikhaylov, who still lives in Virginia and now works at the World Bank, he told Yahoo News. During a telephone conversation with Yahoo News, he continued to deny attacking Sales. He insisted she was “a scammer” who was only after his money — an accusation Sales vehemently denies.

In the meantime, Valeriy Mikhaylov remains in prison. While his name has surfaced multiple times over the years as the subject of a potential spy swap, former CIA officers and national security experts say they aren’t optimistic that will happen anytime soon, because the United States is unlikely to give up the people Moscow wants most, such as the Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

“Until we have someone of value who America is willing to trade … they’re not going to be swapping him anytime soon,” said Mark Galeotti, a Russian security services expert and director of the private consultancy Mayak Intelligence. “All we have really are a bunch of pawns, and they want a queen.”

Sales recognizes that her story is unusual, and as a national security professional, she appreciates why the CIA has to protect its sources to get the intelligence the U.S. government needs. “I understand why it needs to happen,” she said in a recent interview nearly 10 years after the assault. “But there’s a fine line.”

It’s not entirely clear what the CIA could do in this case. Even if Dmitry Mikhaylov was resettled by the CIA, he’s now subject to American law, and there’s no proof the U.S. intelligence community has helped him evade punishment. As for the $16 million, if the CIA did pay this money to Valeriy Mikhaylov, there’s nothing to stop him from using it to support his son.

Sales has her own ideas about what justice might look like. “Our federal government needs to take responsibility,” she says.

A public admission would be a start, she says. She’d love for a lawmaker or another senior national security official to meet with her and hear her out. She’d also like to see the Senate Intelligence Committee hold hearings about the CIA resettlement program and the problems defectors and their families create once resettled, perhaps including testimony she could provide. However, she admits it may not be likely that much will change when it comes to the national security bureaucracy, at least not publicly, as so much of the information is sensitive.

Still, she is committed to telling her story. “How many others can there be?” she asks. “Even if there’s one, it’s too much.”

While Sales acknowledges that her chances of getting what she wants from national security institutions are slim, she’s channeled her energy in recent years into women’s rights, including the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. The decades-long battle for a constitutional amendment that would guarantee equal rights for men and women has recently been revived, with the House removing the deadline for national ratification. The main barrier is in the Senate, where it’s expected to face Republican opposition.

Sales, who by now is used to Sisyphean tasks, is still hopeful. She wears a silver bangle and a necklace with the initials “ERA” on it, and has an encyclopedic knowledge of what it would take to get the act passed.

Her involvement in women’s issues has provided her with a sense of community. Even if her personal story’s link to international espionage is unique, her broader experience is a shared one. Sales recounted giving a speech about the assault on Valentine’s Day in 2019 at the Virginia state Capitol in Richmond, where she was approached by multiple women after the event to speak about their experiences.

“I stepped 3 or 4 feet away from the podium, and this one woman came right up to me. She said, ‘Thank you so much for telling your story. It’s my story too.’”

Lisa Sales Lisa Sales

Sales wearing a necklace in support of the Equal Rights Amendment, a cause she is passionate about. (Alyssa Schukar for Yahoo News)

Suzanne Smalley contributed reporting to this story.

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