On a steamy Sunday last July, at about half-past noon, a caravan of unmarked SUVs exited the FBI’s Washington, D.C., field office, an eight-story concrete building that exudes all the charm of a supermax prison. The cars moved swiftly across the city; speed was critical. There were indications that the target, who had canceled the lease on her apartment and packed her belongings, was about to take flight.
Just before one o’clock, the SUVs turned off Wisconsin Avenue and into a parking lot at 3617 38th Street NW, a low, red-brick apartment building near American University. Armed agents in bulletproof vests filled a narrow corridor outside apartment 208. Inside, Maria Butina was watching the Wimbledon men’s final on TV and preparing for a long drive in a U-Haul truck to South Dakota. Having just graduated from American University with a master’s degree in international affairs, she was about to start working as a consultant in the cryptocurrency industry. Her boyfriend of five years, a 57-year-old Republican activist named Paul Erickson, would be traveling with her to his home in Sioux Falls.
“Everything was boxed up,” Erickson told me. “The last thing to do was to pack the electronics, to unplug the TV and the internet. And then pound! Pound! Pound! I answered the door, and there was a team of six agents in the hallway.” Three of the agents surrounded Erickson while the other three went after Butina. “The team went in, dragged her out, spun her around, cuffed her in the hallway, and announced her arrest,” Erickson said.
According to federal prosecutors, Butina’s graduate studies, and her relationship with Erickson, were just a cover; in reality she was a clandestine Russian agent