Couples Accused as Spies Were the Suburbs Personified

They raised children, went to work in the city each day, talked the small talk with neighbors about yard work and overpriced contractors. In short, they could have been any family in any suburb in America.

In Montclair, N.J., a woman who lived next to the Murphy family described them as “suburbia personified.” They asked their neighbors for advice about the best middle schools to send their two young daughters. Richard Murphy mowed the lawn; Cynthia Murphy would come home from her job as a financial-services executive, daffodils and French bread in her hands.

“We would talk about gardening and dogs and kids,” said one neighbor, Corine Jones, 53.

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Miles away in Yonkers, there lived another ordinary couple, Vicky Peláez and her husband, Juan Jose Lázaro Sr. They doted on their two pet schnauzers and their teenage son, Juan Jose Lázaro Jr., a classical pianist.

The elder Mr. Lázaro had been known among his students at Baruch College for his outspoken left-leaning politics, and his comments in class offended some but earned respect from others, just as Ms. Peláez’s columns for El Diario La Prensa, one of the country’s most popular Spanish-language newspapers, had earned her a following of both fans and critics.

And in Cambridge, Mass., there was Donald Heathfield and his wife, Tracey Lee Ann Foley. He received his master’s degree in public administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 2000; she worked for a real estate company, passing a background check before she was hired.

Movies, books and television shows have taken to depicting suburbia as a place where not all is as it seems, where people with decent jobs and decent homes mask their secret double lives, and that seemed to be the case here: The three couples were among 11 people arrested as part of a ring that prosecutors said spied for the Russians under deep cover inside the United States.

Relatives, friends, classmates, neighbors and co-workers of the three couples expressed shock at the arrests, and they searched their memories for signs that something was amiss, but mostly came up blank.

“I didn’t know they were spies, but I know what they weren’t,” said Stanley Skolnik, 67, a neighbor of the Murphys. “They weren’t unusual.”

Some of those who knew the couples said there might have been clues, too subtle to cause concern. A neighbor asked Ms. Murphy, who received her M.B.A. from Columbia Business School last month, if she was from Russia, after hearing her accent. Ms. Murphy said that no, she was from Belgium.

Classmates of Mr. Heathfield at Harvard thought highly of him, but “his work was a little bit mysterious,” said Craig Sandler, a classmate who is the president of State House News Service, a news organization in Boston.

But there were also those who were skeptical that federal investigators had arrested the right individuals, saying that they did not believe the accusations and, in the case of Ms. Peláez and Mr. Lázaro, that their pro-Communist political views made them targets of the investigation.

On Tuesday afternoon, as Waldo Mariscal, Ms. Peláez’s son from a previous marriage, walked out of the family’s house in Yonkers, he was asked if Ms. Peláez and Mr. Lázaro had any connection to Russia.

“Yes,” Mr. Mariscal said. “Russian music. Tchaikovsky.”

Unlike other Americans accused of spying over the decades, the three couples did not shy from leading private lives that were in many ways quite public. Ms. Murphy kept a page on the networking Web site LinkedIn. Another of the 11 arrested, Anna Chapman, ran a real estate Web site and said she wanted to start a venture fund to broker partnerships between American and Russian businessmen.

In her native country, Peru, Ms. Peláez had earned acclaim as a television reporter for Frecuencia Latina, and was briefly kidnapped in 1984 by a group of leftist insurgents.

At El Diario, where she had worked for more than 20 years, Ms. Peláez’s columns had a following, broaching topics that were openly sympathetic to Cuba, Haiti and Venezuela and that were critical of the Bush and Obama administrations. Her work was reprinted on leftist Web sites, including some sponsored by the Cuban government.

“It’s not like I’m defending Vicky just for the sake of defending her, but I know her as a dedicated mother and a compassionate woman who would take food out of her mouth to give to someone who needs it,” Mónica Chang, a friend of Ms. Peláez’s who worked with her at Frecuencia Latina, said in a telephone interview from Peru.

The authorities said that of the three couples, all but Ms. Peláez had assumed false identities. And while neighbors and relatives detailed all the ways that they were typical families, the criminal complaint filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan detailed their alleged work as secret agents.

Ms. Chapman had met regularly with a Russian government official since January, the complaint said. On Saturday, after a meeting with an F.B.I. undercover agent posing as a Russian consulate employee, she bought a cellphone and provided a false name and address: 99 Fake Street.

Ms. Peláez and Mr. Lázaro were accused of receiving packages of money from representatives of the Russian government. Surveillance of their Yonkers home in 2003 revealed “the irregular electronic clicking sounds associated with the receipt of coded radio transmissions,” according to federal court papers.

In fall 2008, the elder Mr. Lázaro taught a class on Latin American politics at Baruch College. Students said he denounced the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and praised the health and educational systems in Cuba; among the required reading was “The Secret History of the American Empire: Economic Hit Men, Jackals and the Truth About Global Corruption.”

Reporting was contributed by Lisa W. Foderaro, David Gonzalez, Abby Goodnough, Nate Schweber, Scott Shane and Benjamin Weiser.