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Vicky Pelaez: Can someone be married to a Russian spy and not know it?

Vicky Pelaez: A willing spy for Russia or a wife deeply betrayed? Or something in between? Exactly what the Peruvian journalist knew is one of the more tantalizing mysteries to emerge from the Russian spy saga.

By Jim FitzgeraldAP National Writer, Jocelyn NoveckAP National Writer / July 9, 2010

Peruvian journalist Vicky Pelaez is seen on assignment in Lima, Peru. Vicky Pelaez and her husband Juan Lazaro were among 10 suspects arrested in a sweep in the United States on June 27 as part of an alleged Russian spy ring and charged with conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government.

Diario La Republica/AP/File


Yonkers, New York

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.

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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.

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