Defense engineer pleads guilty after trying to forge ‘The Americans'-type pact with phony Russian spy
It looked easy enough on the FX television series “The Americans,” in which a pair of married Russian spies, posing as U.S. citizens, enlist the aid of Americans to steal national intelligence secrets.
It’s not so simple in real life, however.
That’s what a defense contracting engineer learned the hard way Monday after agreeing to plead guilty to selling sensitive satellite information to an undercover FBI agent who masqueraded as a Russian intelligence officer, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles.
Gregory Allen Justice, 49, of Culver City had been accused of economic espionage and violating the Arms Export Control Act, federal authorities said. He is expected to be sentenced Sept. 18 and faces up to 35 years in prison.
Justice worked on commercial and military satellites sold to the U.S. Air Force, Navy and NASA, federal court records show. As an engineer, he had access to proprietary trade secrets, including anti-jamming technology, encryption plans for communication with satellites and technical data covered by the United States Munitions List, federal authorities said.
Because some of the trade secrets were sensitive, they were restricted, under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, from being disseminated outside the U.S.
But, according to court records, Justice bypassed multiple measures taken by the defense contractor to maintain secrecy.
Authorities caught wind of Justice’s actions in November 2015 when they ran a check of his computer and noticed he had inserted a USB device containing five folders with detailed mechanical drawings and design information for a satellite program.
That set off alarms within the intelligence community and sparked an investigation into Justice’s personal life.
‘I know it’s not like real life but I like spy movies’
Federal authorities discovered Justice, who had been working at the defense firm since 2000, had spent more than $4,000 for several online courses, including “Spy Escape and Evasion,” “Legally Concealed,” “Fight Fast” and “Survival Publications.”
When authorities searched his car, they found handwritten notes with addresses for the Consulate General of Russia in San Francisco and the Embassy of the Russian Federation and its Office of the Defense, Military, Air and Naval Attaches, both in Washington, D.C.
Then in February 2016, Justice began talking and meeting with the undercover agent, whom he thought was a spy, federal authorities said.
During their first meeting at a coffeehouse in February, the agent explained to Justice that he was “very, very important to the Russians,” court documents said.
Justice, who used a fake name, said he had an ailing wife who required expensive medical care.
He explained, “My hope for initiating this relationship is that we can both benefit. You can get something that will maybe help you, and I can get something that will help me.”
The agent asked, “Is there anything in mind particular or…”
“Right now I just need money,” Justice responded.
He then offered to provide the agent with information on surveillance satellites on “a little flash drive,” according to court records.
“So what I’m offering is basically everything on our servers, on our computers. The plans, the test procedures, that’s what I have access to,” he told the agent.
Justice later revealed he was using a phony identity to remain anonymous.
“I know it’s not like real life but I like spy movies,” he told the agent.
Justice explained that he had loved the TV drama “The Americans” and had an affinity for espionage characters Jason Bourne and James Bond, according to court records.
Money trail leads to another woman
The FBI learned, through surveillance, that Justice’s wife was confined to her home. In an interview with The Times last year, his father, William Justice, said his son’s wife had a variety of health issues, including diabetes and chronic accident-related back pain.
The FBI did not disclose the name of Justice’s employer, but his father said he worked for Boeing Satellite Systems in El Segundo.
Mounting medical bills had put financial pressure on the couple, federal authorities said.
In a recorded phone conversation with his wife, federal authorities said, Gregory Justice told her that he was canceling all of her medical appointments because he couldn’t come up with money to make repairs to their car to take her to them.
But bank records disclosed that Justice was spending his money on another woman and lavishing her with gifts.
From December 2015 to May 2016, Justice sent FedEx packages containing more than $21,000 to a mysterious woman who lived with her son and boyfriend in an apartment in Long Beach, according to court records.
As authorities dug through his computer files, they found photographs of a woman. When investigators conducted a reverse-image search on Google, they discovered something was amiss.
FBI officials said the woman, who was identified as C.M. in the affidavit, had misrepresented herself and had been sending him photographs of a model in Europe.
Investigators uncovered text messages from the unidentified woman. In them, she asked for cash payments.
Justice bought her a Dyson fan; two televisions; a grill; kitchen furniture; an iPhone; a purse and blanket, according to court records. He also paid for 86 purchases through Amazon.
Plans to build ‘The Americans’-type relationship
Between February 2016 and July 2016, Justice received several $500 or $1,000 cash payments from the undercover agent in exchange for USB thumb drives containing sensitive files with satellite information, the FBI said.
Days after their first meeting, Justice and the agent reunited again in Los Angeles County.
This time, according to federal authorities, Justice said he wanted to know more about the spy’s intelligence agency.
In an attempt to explain the undercover work, the agent explained that he worked for Russia’s external intelligence agency, but said “the simplest way to explain” what he did was to refer to “The Americans.”
Federal officials said Justice and the agent met six times.
During one exchange, Justice and the agent described how they “wanted to try to build the type of relationship depicted in the TV show ‘The Americans,’” according to a plea agreement.
At their final meeting in July, federal officials said, Justice offered to take the agent on a tour of his employer’s production facilities and military spacecraft.
He said he would bend the rules to allow the agent to wear glasses that take photographs inside the facility, according to court records.
Already a subscriber? Thank you for your support. If you are not, please consider subscribing today. Get full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.
The perils of parenting through a pandemic
What’s going on with school? What do kids need? Get 8 to 3, a newsletter dedicated to the questions that keep California families up at night.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.