Brother: Novi man arrested in Russia as spy is innocent

Detroit News staff and wire reports
Marine Corps. Staff Sgt. Paul N. Whelan stands in front of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on a two-week trip during his deployment to Iraq. Whalen, now retired and living in Novi, was arrested in Russia during a different trip on allegations that he is a spy. His brother says he is innocent and was there for a wedding.

Washington — The brother of a Novi man arrested in Russia on espionage charges said Tuesday that he’s innocent and was in Moscow to attend a wedding.

Paul Whelan, 48, was arrested in Moscow on Friday. The Russian Federal Security Service, in announcing the arrest three days later, said Whelan, a retired Marine, was caught “during an espionage operation” but gave no further details.

“We are deeply concerned for his safety and well-being,” his brother, David Whelan, said in a statement posted on Twitter. “His innocence is undoubted and we trust that his rights will be respected.”

Paul Whelan is the director of global security for BorgWarner, an Auburn Hills-based automotive components supplier, the company confirmed Tuesday. He has worked there since January 2017 and is responsible for overseeing security at facilities around the world.

Novi resident Paul N. Whelan, a former Marine, was arrested Friday in Russia for alleged espionage. His brother, David Whelan, says he is innocent and was there for a wedding.

BorgWarner does not have any operations in Russia, said Kathy Graham, a company public relations supervisor, though it does have customers there.

"We understand it was a private trip," Graham said. "He was not there on company business. ... Since we did learn about it, we have contacted the government about it and offered our assistance to help Paul."

The Russian spying charges carry a prison sentence of up to 20 years.

David Whelan said the family last heard from Paul Whelan on Friday, “which was very much out of character for him, even when he was traveling.”

The morning of his arrest, he had taken a group of wedding guests on a tour of the Kremlin museums. The last time anyone heard from him was at about 5 p.m. and then he failed to show up that evening for the wedding, his brother said.

“It was extraordinarily out of character,” David Whelan said. 

The family feared he had been mugged or was in a car accident, David Whelan said, and it was when searching the internet on Monday that he learned of the arrest. “I was looking for any stories about dead Americans in Moscow, so in a way it was better than finding out that he had died,” he said.

The State Department confirmed to The News on Tuesday it had received formal notification from the Russian Foreign Ministry of the arrest and was pushing for consular access.

"We have requested this access and expect Russian authorities to provide it," according to a State Department spokesperson.

The department did not identify Whelan or provide any information about the case, citing “privacy considerations.”

In an interview on CNN Tuesday, David Whelan said a blackout period of 72 hours is in place and after that, his brother will be able to speak with consular officials and hire a lawyer, which his family is working on now.

After his brother served multiple tours in Iraq and traveled extensively including to Russia, Whelan said his brother is competent while abroad. He said he was in Moscow, assisting family members to navigate the city and metro for the wedding.

"Paul is a kind soul," Whelan said in the interview. "He is very generous. My children know him for his large laugh."

David Whelan said he has no idea why his brother was targeted by the Russian security services. Paul Whelan had traveled to Russia in the past for work and to visit friends he had met on social networks, his brother said.

Paul Whelan did multiple tours in Iraq with the Marine Corps, his brother said. The Huron High School graduate spent two weeks on leave in Russia to explore post-Soviet era Moscow and St. Petersburg, according to a 2007 Marine Corps article.

He later was a senior manager in the global security and investigations group for Troy-based office staffing company Kelly Services, according to an interview Paul N. Whelan gave to Security Magazine in 2013. The role involved preventing workplace violence.

Heather Klee, a spokeswoman for the company, said a Paul Whelan worked for Kelly until February 2016.

His family has reached out to Whelan's representatives, the U.S. Embassy and State Department officials. They also created a "freepaulwhalen" Twitter page.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, who was recently appointed the ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, declined to comment on Whelan’s situation on Tuesday.

The arrest comes as U.S.-Russian ties are severely strained, in part over Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

A Russian gun-rights activist, Maria Butina, is in U.S. custody after admitting she acted as a secret agent for the Kremlin in trying to infiltrate conservative U.S. political groups as Donald Trump was seeking the presidency. She pleaded guilty in December to a conspiracy charge as part of a deal with federal prosecutors.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed the case is fabricated and that Butina entered the guilty plea because of the threat of a long prison sentence.

Detroit News Staff Writer Breana Noble and the Associated Press contributed.