Meet Paul Whelan, the Ex-Marine Held in Russia

Michigan native Paul Whelan was not part of the prisoner swap which saw Brittany Griner exchanged for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout – an omission that his brother has called a “catastrophe for Paul”. According to U.S. officials his case is being treated differently by the Russians.

Whelan’s attorney has said his client unwittingly received a flash drive containing “state secrets” while visiting Russia for a wedding in 2018. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Whelan was caught “red-handed,” during a spy mission.

U.S. officials say they are still working for the release of Whelan, who was arrested in Moscow in December 2018, convicted of espionage, and is serving a 16-year sentence in a Russian prison. President Biden says the U.S. “will never give up” working for his release.

Who is Paul Whelan?

Paul Whelan, 52, is a Michigan resident who was born in Canada to British parents and moved to the U.S. as a child. He is a citizen of four countries: the US, Canada, the UK and the Irish Republic.


Whelan joined the U.S. Marine Reserves in 1994, and was deployed to Iraq in 2004 and 2006.

It was during his time in the Marines that he first visited Moscow as part of “The Rest and Recuperation Leave Program,” which authorized 15 days of leave to service members on yearlong deployments to Iraq. Whelan was never married and never had children.

In 2008, however, Whelan who had achieved the rank of staff sergeant, was discharged from the Marines following a conviction by court martial for bad conduct. The charges were related to larceny, dereliction of duty, using another’s social security number, and several instances of insufficient check funds.

His family was unaware of the events.

Court documents released by the military show he was accused of attempting to steal more than $10,000 while on duty in Iraq, where he worked as a clerk, in September 2006. He was also convicted of using a false Social Security number and profile for a military computer system to grade his own examinations, and of writing 10 bad checks totaling around $6,000.

Detroit News

Law Enforcement?

In the early 1990’s Whelan began a career in law enforcement as a parking enforcement officer, dispatcher and school crossing guard. Whelan said he was a Chelsea police officer from 1988-2000. Court records and interviews reveal he was a part-time $7/hour officer in Chelsea (west of Ann Arbor). He filed a whistle-blower lawsuit against the Chelsea PD in 1995, claiming an officer at the scene of a carnie dispute stole groceries. Following the lawsuit, Whelan claimed harassment and threats, and was eventually suspended.

Whelan also said he worked as a deputy for the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department, but Washtenaw County says there is no record of Paul Whelan working for them.

Whelan’s brother, David, said Paul had connections to the sheriff’s office going back to his days as a Police Explorer, a kind of law enforcement version of the Boy Scouts. But he acknowledged that he wasn’t certain Paul was a sheriff’s deputy and said that the two didn’t discuss their work lives.


Corporate Security Expert?

In the early 2000’s Whelan started as an IT project manager for Kelly Services, and was promoted to senior manager of global security and investigations in 2010.

According to court documents, he was in charge of the company’s campus security group, and his duties included managing and conducting investigations, as well as handling some purchasing.

In 2016, Whelan left Kelly Services to become director of global security for US-based automotive components supplier BorgWarner, where Whelan was “responsible for overseeing security” at facilities in Michigan and around the world, a company statement said. It does not have any facilities in Russia.

Ties to Russia?

Since 2006, Whelan made a number of trips to Russia and developed an in-depth knowledge of the country.

One person who deployed to Iraq with him in 2006 recalled Whelan learning Russian while the unit was there, writing the Cyrillic alphabet out on a board. 

It was due to his knowledge about Russia that he was asked to attend the wedding of a fellow former Marine and help assist other Americans in navigating Moscow.

According to what to appears to be Paul Whelan’s profile on the popular Russian social media platform VKontakte, he posted “God save President Trump” — flanked by flag emojis — on Inauguration Day in 2016. A 2010 post referred to then-President Barack Obama as a “moron.” In March 2014, around the time of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Whelan suggested that “Putin can have Alaska, as long as he takes Sarah Palin, too!” 

Whelan’s arrest was a few weeks after Russian national Maria Butina agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors; she pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as an agent for the Kremlin after working for years to infiltrate American political groups, including the National Rifle Association. 

WaPo, BBC, Detroit Free Press, Detroit News, WaPo

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