Five years after he was charged in a sealed federal indictment and almost two years after he was captured by U.S. agents in the Indian Ocean nation of the Maldives, accused Russian hacker Roman Seleznev finally seemed ready to face justice in the United States.
He hadn't attempted to escape from a federal detention center near Seattle, for example, though it was something he and his father, a Russian lawmaker, had reportedly discussed last fall on a monitored prison phone.
He has almost completely stopped acting as his own attorney and running afoul of the American legal process.
And he seemed pleased with what is now the sixth set of attorneys hired to represent him.
But in keeping with the halting legal pace by a defendant the Secret Service says is a multimillionaire and "one of the world's most prolific traffickers of stolen financial information," Seleznev's new defense team is asking that his upcoming criminal trial, set for next month, be delayed again.
Seattle attorney John Henry Browne, whose clients have included serial killer Ted Bundy and U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who murdered 16 Afghan civilians, was hired by Seleznev two months ago and says he is still plowing through 10,000 pages of documents, 4.75 terabytes of forensic images and other evidence.
With related charges of racketeering and conspiracy filed against Seleznev in Las Vegas and Atlanta involving several more terabytes of discovery material, "it is simply not possible for counsel to prepare for trial and effectively represent Mr. Seleznev in a trial on May 9," Browne said.
Seleznev, who Russian officials say was kidnapped by the U.S. in anticipation of trading him to Russia for secrets-leaker Edward Snowden (which the U.S. denies), faces up to 30 years in prison on accusations of bank and wire fraud and computer theft of credit card numbers from hundreds of U.S. businesses.
The targets of his suspected Internet hijackings — using malware he is accused of electronically planting from overseas — included the Phoenix Zoo, the Boeing Employees Credit Union of Seattle, City News Stand in Chicago, the Latitude Bar in New York City, and a collection of West Coast restaurants and pizzerias — among them, outlets of the Zpizza chain of Newport Beach.
American Express, MasterCard and Visa have reported a collective $35 million in losses related to the case, and prosecutors say they're finding indications of more thefts on Seleznev's confiscated computers. As many as 2 million credit card numbers were downloaded and then sold on the black market through Seleznev's operation in recent years, the government claims.
Seleznev, 31, first came to the Secret Service's attention seven years ago after he was accused of downloading credit card numbers from a restaurant in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. An electronic trail led to other U.S. businesses, and by 2012 to a sealed indictment initially charging him with 18 criminal counts — since expanded to 40.
Because of the considerable evidence and exhibits, Browne says going to trial next month would be "a miscarriage of justice." In a court filing last week, Browne and his associate Emma Scanlan said that they "realize that this request … may cause frustration for the government as it faces the prospect of another continuance due to a change in counsel," but that it should be done in "the best interests of the public and the defendant." A ruling is yet to come.
Browne has also filed a motion to have some of the evidence thrown out, saying the government "intentionally or as a consequence of gross incompetence" mishandled Seleznev's laptop computer. A forensic expert for the defense says some of the computer data has been changed and it's possible the government has altered the files. Assistant U.S. Atty. Seth Wilkinson denies that, saying, "All of the computer activity was the result of routine, automatic operating system activity," not human interaction.
Also at issue is the legality of Seleznev's July 5, 2014, arrest.
Seleznev was passing, with his wife and child, through security at Male International Airport in the Maldives, which has no extradition treaty with the U.S. Asked to step out of the line, Seleznev was reportedly turned over to U.S. agents in a prearranged handoff and flown to Guam for a hearing. Four flights later, detoured by a hurricane and slowed by two planes with mechanical trouble, he landed in Seattle.
The Russians, including Seleznev's father, Valery, a member of the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, likened the arrest to "extraordinary rendition" flights that have been used by the U.S. to transport suspected terrorists to "black sites," or secret prisons overseas.
FBI Director James B. Comey has since made it clear that such apprehensions are legal tactics in the war against computer thieves.
"It's too easy for those criminals to think that 'I can sit in my basement halfway around the world and steal everything that matters to an American,'" he told the CBS show "60 Minutes." "We want them looking over their shoulders when they're sitting at a keyboard."
They also should be aware of the government's warrantless eavesdropping, done legally in prison. Seleznev and his father found that out during an international phone call in August. Speaking in Russian, Seleznev's father asked, "What can we discuss, your escape plan or what?" and went on to chat with him about tampering with a witness and delaying a hearing by staging a medical emergency, according to prosecutors and a transcript of the call. His father said he had "found some 'magicians'" who were "ready to create a miracle," leading to a fake illness and his son's hospitalization.
One of Seleznev's then-attorneys called the escape remark "clearly a facetious reference" that was lost in translation.
Anderson is a special correspondent based in Seattle.