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International Spy? Or Just A Guy At A Wedding In Moscow?

An undated photo of Paul Whelan, a U.S. citizen detained in Russia for suspected spying, provided by his family.
An undated photo of Paul Whelan, a U.S. citizen detained in Russia for suspected spying, provided by his family.

"Next stop, Moscow…"

That’s the message Paul Whelan added to his profile on the Russian social-media site VK, which he last accessed via mobile phone mid-afternoon on December 28. It was shortly after that that his family started to worry.

The 48-year-old former U.S. Marine, who his twin brother says speaks just enough Russian to get around, had traveled to Russia several times. He was there this time to help with the wedding of a fellow Marine who was marrying a Russian woman, multiple media outlets cited his brother, David Whelan, as saying.

On December 31, the family finally learned Whelan’s whereabouts: he was being held by Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) on espionage charges that carry a potential prison sentence of up to 20 years.

Since then, little information has trickled out about where the U.S. citizen is being held, or what the specific charges are against him. Little is also known about the man who has served as director of global security for the Michigan-based automotive-components supplier BorgWarner since 2017.

Born in Canada, Whelan grew up just outside of Detroit, Michigan, and now lists nearby Ann Arbor as his current place of residence on the VK page he has had for more than a decade.

The most recent post on his page shows Whelan on board a Bombardier Challenger business jet. The post doesn't list where Whelan was headed on the trip, but does show emojis of a champagne bottle and clinking champagne glasses.

A screenshot of Whelan's VK page.
A screenshot of Whelan's VK page.

Two of the three videos he has posted on the site are in Russian, including one entitled: "The Army is a Mirror of the State" (Армия -- зеркало государства). Meanwhile, four of his "noteworthy pages” on VK are in Russian, including the Russian version of National Geographic.

A May 2016 picture on his page shows Whelan in a Spartak Moscow football shirt, though it’s not clear where the photo was taken.

Between 1990 and 2008, Whelan served several tours in Iraq as an active-duty reservist.

In a 2007 article posted on the official United States Marine Corps website, Whelan talks about going to Europe during a furlough while being deployed in Iraq. One of the pictures in the article shows Whelan standing on the banks of the Moscow River with the Kremlin behind him.

At BorgWarner, Whelan's job involved overseeing security for facilities, assets, and people, at the company’s plant in Auburn Hills, Michigan, and around the world.

Whelan's last social media post was "Next stop, Moscow ..."
Whelan's last social media post was "Next stop, Moscow ..."

"BorgWarner has been in contact with the relevant U.S. government authorities and has offered our full cooperation in order to help our employee and the U.S. government," the company said in a statement.

Aside from his work at BorgWarner, Whelan appears to also run an online gun dealership called Kingsmead Arsenal that was founded in 2015. The address listed for the business is in Novi, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit.

After that, the electronic paper trail falls off.

A few social website postings celebrating Christmas, Canada Day, and New Year's appear, some in Cyrillic.

One posting from November 9, 2016, cheers the election victory of President Donald Trump.

"Forward President Trump!!" the post, written in Cyrillic, reads.

RFE/RL tried a phone number Whelan listed on one post, but was unable to connect.

The White House has yet to comment on the case surrounding Whelan.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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