Who is Paul Whelan, the Michigan man held in Russia?

Kristen Jordan Shamus
Detroit Free Press

When women's basketball star Brittney Griner was released last week from the Russian prison system — traded for convicted Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout — the nation's eyes turned to the man who was left behind: Michigan's Paul Whelan.

Whelan, a former Marine who lived in Novi, was the head of global security for BorgWarner when he was arrested Dec. 28, 2018. He has been imprisoned in Russia for nearly four years, accused of espionage. He was convicted in June 2020 during a closed-door trial and sentenced to 16 years of hard labor in a work camp.

This is his story to date.

Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, center, was arrested in Moscow in December 2018 and waits for a hearing in a court in Moscow, Russia, Friday, May 24, 2019.

Who is Paul Whelan?

Paul Nicholas Whelan was born in March 1970 in Ottawa, Ontario — Canada's national capital. His parents, Edward and Rosemary Whelan, immigrated to Canada from Britain.

He has a twin brother, David; a sister, Elizabeth; and another brother, Andrew. The family moved to Ann Arbor when the twins were young; they went on to graduate in Huron High School's Class of 1988.

Whelan is now a U.S. citizen but holds passports in four countries — the U.S.; his native Canada; Britain, where his parents were born; and Ireland, where his grandparents were born. He never married and has no children.

He testified in a 2013 court deposition that he worked as a Chelsea police officer in 1988-2000, and also worked for the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office. Whelan joined the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves on May 10, 1994, according to his service record.

More:Michigan man remains imprisoned in Russia though Brittney Griner is freed

More:Paul Whelan and family continue to fight a year after he's accused of spying in Russia

Paul Whelan poses in front of a Washtenaw County Sheriff's vehicle in this undated photo.

Whelan was hired in 2001 by Kelly Services, a Troy-based company that offers consulting and temporary workers to businesses around the world. He took a military leave of absence from Kelly Services in 2003-08 to serve in Iraq, he testified.

At Kelly Services, Whelan's title was senior manager of global security and investigations. His job included campus security as well as electronic and IT-related security.

He started working in early 2017 for BorgWarner, company spokeswoman Kathy Graham told the Free Press in a previous interview. Whelan was global security chief when he was arrested and accused of spying.

According to business licensing records, Whelan also ran an online firearms business known as Kingsmead Arsenal. The business was started in 2012, and its address is the same as Whelan's apartment on Wellington Drive in Novi. 

He also testified in the 2013 deposition that he has a federal firearms license. 

Was Paul Whelan given a bad-conduct discharge from the Marines?

Yes. Whelan worked as an administrative clerk and administrative chief and was deployed in the war against Iraq in 2004 and 2006.

He rose to the rank of staff sergeant in December 2004, but a few years later was convicted in special court-martial of attempting to steal more than $10,000 while at Al Asad Airbase in Iraq. Other related convictions included dereliction of duty, making a false official statement, wrongfully using other people's Social Security numbers and bouncing checks.

He was given a bad-conduct discharge in December 2008 at the rank of private. Whelan's last place of duty was Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in California. 

More:Accused spy Paul Whelan was discharged from Marines for bad conduct

Paul Whelan in an undated photo in Iraq.

While stationed in Iraq, Whelan was part of “The Rest and Recuperation Leave Program,” which authorized 15 days of leave to service members on yearlong deployments to Iraq, according to a 2007 story posted on the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing page of the Marine Corps website. The military paid for the travel and most service members chose to return home, but others could travel abroad.

Whelan spent his two weeks in Russia, saying in the interview that the leave program “gives those of us who are single an opportunity to travel throughout the world wherever we want to go and experience the diversity of culture.”

During his military career, Whelan received awards that included the Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation and Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal.

Novi District Court records show that Whelan was also involved in landlord-tenant disputes in 2007 over nonpayment of rent while he was on active service in the military. Court records also show a case was filed against Whelan in 2011 by a Norfolk, Virginia-based debt collector for $1,210.35.

Was Paul Whelan a spy?

The Russian Foreign Ministry alleges Whelan was caught "red-handed" in an act of espionage. Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), a successor to the Soviet Union's KGB, says its agents found a USB drive containing classified information in Whelan's room at the swanky Metropol Hotel in Moscow. 

Whelan insists that he was set up, and that he was simply a tourist. He was there, he said, to attend the wedding of a friend, a fellow former Marine.

In the days leading up to his arrest, he led tours of Moscow historical sites for the wedding party, David Whelan told the Free Press in a previous interview. And he shared Christmas dinner at a steakhouse in Moscow with a Russian man named Ilya Yatsenko, whom he'd met a decade earlier during one of his trips to the country.

Over about a half-dozen visits to Russia since 2006, Whelan got to know Yatsenko — or so he thought — even visiting Yatsenko's parents and siblings in the town of Sergiev Posad, about 50 miles northeast of Moscow, David Whelan said.

More:Paul Whelan’s employer BorgWarner has Russian ties

Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine accused of spying in Russia, arrives to attend his hearing at a court in Moscow on August 23, 2019.

It was Yatsenko who gave Whelan key evidence in Russia's case against him: a USB drive containing government secrets, David Whelan alleges.

"Paul expected there to be photographs on it and something else was put on that drive in order to entrap him," he said. 

At the time, then-President Donald Trump made no public statements about Whelan's arrest. Trump administration officials made careful and measured statements about him.

More than a year after her brother's arrest, Elizabeth Whelan said: "This is ridiculous. Russia has a legal system but not a judicial system. Everybody knows that once you get on this conveyor belt, that the end result before you're popped off at the other end is 100% chance of conviction and sentencing."

She was right. Whelan was convicted of espionage in a Moscow courtroom in June 2020. John Sullivan, then-U.S. ambassador to Moscow, described the conviction a "mockery of justice." 

Whelan was taken to IK-17, a gulag in the Republic of Mordovia, about an eight-hour drive southeast of Moscow. There, he spent hours each day cutting threads from newly made prison uniforms. He later was promoted to sewing buttonholes. 

The U.S. House and U.S. Senate both have passed resolutions demanding Whelan's release. The U.S. State Department now considers him wrongfully detained and has been insistent that his conviction was a sham.

Auburn Hills-based BorgWarner.

Does Paul Whelan's work history have ties to Russia?

Though Whelan said he traveled to Russia as a tourist, he entered the country on a business travel visa supported by BorgWarner Inc., he told his lawyers in Moscow.

The Auburn Hills-based auto supplier BorgWarner has 49,000 employees working among its 93 sites around the world, but spokeswoman Graham told the Free Press in 2019 that it didn't have any locations in Russia. The company would not confirm that it sponsored Whelan's Russian business visa.

"As a general policy BorgWarner does not comment on travel of any of its employees, nor does the company discuss information about individual customers," said Graham in an email to the Free Press at the time. "Paul was not in Russia on company business. We are deferring to the State Department regarding updates to his situation."

Although BorgWarner operates no facilities in Russia, the company does have a history of doing business there. 

BorgWarner supplied Kamaz Inc., Russia's largest truck-maker, with turbochargers, fan drives and high-performance fans, according to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission documents. BorgWarner parts are used in nonmilitary Kamaz trucks and Nefaz buses, and its total sales to Kamaz in 2013-15 through non-U.S. subsidiaries was $12.1 million.

"For over 15 years, BorgWarner has supported (Kamaz) with advanced air-flow technologies, and we are looking forward to continuing the successful collaboration," Daniel Paterra, who was then BorgWarner's president and general manager of thermal systems, said in a 2015 news release about the Dakar Rally, an off-road rally in South America in which Kamaz trucks are used.  

What did Trump say about Whelan's case?

Trump didn't speak publicly about Whelan's arrest during his time in office. But the former president took to his social media platform, Truth Social, this week to criticize the deal that President Joe Biden's administration made to swap Griner for Bout.

"I turned down a deal with Russia for a one on one swap of the so-called Merchant of Death for Paul Whelan," Trump wrote. "I wouldn’t have made the deal for a hundred people in exchange for someone that has killed untold numbers of people with his arms deals. I would have gotten Paul out, however, just as I did with a record number of other hostages. The deal for Griner is crazy and bad. The taking wouldn’t have even happened during my Administration, but if it did, I would have gotten her out, fast!"

David Whelan took to Twitter, saying: "Former President Trump appears to have mentioned my brother #PaulWhelan's wrongful detention more in the last 24 hours than he did in the 2 years of his presidency in which Paul was held hostage by #Russia (zero). I don't suggest he cares now any more than he did then (zero)".

Cherelle Griner, wife of WNBA star Brittney Griner, speaks after President Joe Biden announced Brittney Griner's release in a prisoner swap with Russia, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. Also attending are Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, and Vice President Kamala Harris.

What did President Joe Biden do?

Biden met with Elizabeth Whelan over the summer to assure her of his commitment to freeing her brother.

In the Dec. 8 announcement that Griner was coming home, Biden said: "We’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan. This was not a choice about which American to bring home. … Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul's case differently than Brittney's. ... We will never give up."

WNBA star Brittney Griner deplanes at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas, following her release in a prisoner swap with Russia, Friday, Dec. 9, 2022.

How did Paul Whelan's family respond when Griner was freed but he was not?

Though they were disappointed that Whelan wasn't freed along with Griner, the family supported Biden's decision to make the one-on-one trade, David Whelan said.

"There is no greater success than for a wrongful detainee to be freed and for them to go home," he said. "The Biden administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn't going to happen."

Since then, he said the family has been overwhelmed by the swell of support for his brother.

"Even in these hyper-partisan days, we have received emails and donations from people of what seems to be all political perspectives sending Paul their best wishes and hope for a speedy return home. Americans pulling together for an American," David Whelan said.

"Paul has continued to call home on a daily basis and speak to our parents. We have been sending him updates about the support shown through GoFundMe donations as well as the many people indicating they're writing him letters and cards. ... In the months ahead, those will bring Paul great comfort. If he ever worried that he'd been forgotten, I think this will provide Paul reassurance that he remains in people's prayers."

White House staff met virtually Monday with Elizabeth Whelan, who was told her brother's freedom remains "as high a priority as the President has," David Whelan said.

Are there ongoing discussions with the Russian government to free Whelan?

Yes. Senior Biden administration officials told journalists last week that the negotiations continue.

"We have every reason to expect that the channel will remain open to continue to negotiate for Paul Whelan’s release," the official said. "The Russians know, directly from us in multiple channels, how unacceptable we find his detention, how urgent we regard his release, and how committed we are to breaking through the impasse and finding ways that will achieve the result for him that we’re so glad to achieve — to have achieved for Brittney."

David Whelan said that's positive news.

"These initial steps give us hope that the third time is the charm," he said.

CNN reported that the Russians have asked to swap Whelan for Vadim Krasikov, a colonel who served in Russia's domestic spy organization.

But that deal isn't a simple one because Krasikov is not in U.S. custody. Convicted of murder, he is serving a life sentence in Germany.

Ned Price, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, declined to confirm that report Monday.

"I’m not in a position to speak to the veracity of that specific report," he said.

"The Russians have not yet been in a position to negotiate constructively or seriously regarding Paul Whelan because they have consistently treated him differently than other American wrongful detainees," Price said. "That is not going to deter us in any way whatsoever. We are going to be committed, we are going to be creative, and we’re going to be relentless in our efforts to see Paul Whelan released."

Contact Kristen Shamus: kshamus@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus.

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