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Undercover chef: how the FBI interrogator of a Russian spy arrested in Florida later came down with Havana Syndrome

Vitalii Kovalev worked for years as the executive chef of some of the American East Coast’s most prestigious Russian-themed haute cuisine restaurants. After his arrest following a car chase in Florida in June 2020, evidence emerged that Kovalev, throughout his culinary career, had also been serving as an undercover technical officer for the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service. One of the FBI agents who interviewed the Russian spy after his arrest later suffered symptoms of Havana Syndrome, a phenomenon that, according to a new report by The Insider, 60 Minutes, and Der Spiegel, may have been caused by a directed energy weapon wielded by the GRU itself.

This is a joint report by The Insider, 60 Minutes, and Der Spiegel

It starts with a classic American car chase. And like an episode of Cops, it was all caught on the dash and body cams of Monroe County Sheriff’s deputies in Florida.

Just after 11:00am on June 16, 2020 the dispatcher issues a BOLO alert over the radio: be on the lookout for a white convertible Mustang. The car is traveling at speeds of 110 miles an hour, weaving in and out of traffic on Route 1 heading north out of Key West, Florida. The driver can be seen talking on his cellphone as he veers into head-on traffic. The pursuit carries on for 15 miles, until deputies throw spike strips across the blacktop that blow out his tires and force the Mustang off the side of the road.

Bodycam footage obtained by 60 Minutes shows guns drawn and deputies ripping the driver out of the car as he grabs for his bag on the passenger seat. As the kicked-up dust clears, we see a white male with hands cuffed behind his back and the contents of his beach bag all around him.

There are some odd things in that bag: a soot-covered bowl used to burn paper, pieces of a hotel notepad with bank account information scribbled on them. One officer says, “This is weird though. Look at this, it’s all like…Citibank…Discover Savings – $75,000. It’s all, like, different bank accounts and stuff.” There’s a laptop and a spider’s web of cables and what looks to be a commercially available device, shaped like a walkie-talkie, that can plug into a car and read the information on the onboard computer. It can also erase information such as the onboard GPS data. And also in the bag is a Russian passport.

There are some odd things in Kovalev's bag: a soot-covered bowl used to burn paper, pieces of a hotel notepad with bank account information scribbled on them

The name on the passport is Vitalii Kovalev, born in St. Petersburg in 1985. He has a green card and a New York State driver’s license. Answering his arresting officers, Kovalev speaks in near-perfect English, saying “yes” when a deputy reads him his Miranda rights and asks if he understands he doesn’t have to say anything to the police. But he talks anyway — for nearly 45 minutes in a combination of conversational Russian and English. What’s truly bizarre is that he’s talking to no one in the vicinity; his chatter is all captured on an onboard camera in the back of the cop car where Kovalev is sitting, handcuffed, while the police officers are scouring through his bags' belongings outside the car. But Kovalev’s pauses and responses make it seem as if he’s conversing with someone.

“Yes, because this one, he drove here, too,” Kovalev says. “Because it’s necessary to… needs twenty…Mistakes are unknown, sixteen is fucking a lot ….Yes, five. He could hold five. If weaker, four, four.”

He has no known devices on him after the arrest — no earpiece connected to a cell phone. He is wearing casual clothes and a pair of eyeglasses that are slowly descending down the bridge of his nose. “An agreement is an agreement,” Kovalev continues. “An agreement is an agreement. An agreement is an agreement. An agreement is an agreement…I didn’t kill anyone. I never. I never killed. I never… No, here I’ll be very sad… then I’ll go to Russia.” At this point his glasses fall to the floor, and coincidentally or not, his chatter ends.

Kovalev would plead guilty to charges including resisting an officer and evading police, along with an assault charge for spitting on a nurse giving him a Covid test while in custody (he tested positive). A Florida judge issued a $40,000 bond, meaning he could have paid to get out of jail (he clearly had the money), but for some reason he chose not to.

Kovalev spent 26 months in jail in Florida, from June 2020 to August 2022. 60 Minutes learned that during that time, Kovalev drew the attention of the FBI. During the 6 months after his arrest, FBI agents spent about 80 hours interviewing him.

The reason the story of Vitalii Kovalev is relevant to the joint investigation 60 Minutes, The Insider and Der Spiegel have conducted into Anomalous Health Incidents, more commonly known as Havana Syndrome, is because of what happened to one of the case agents who interviewed him for those many hours.

The story of Vitalii Kovalev is relevant to the investigation into Havana Syndrome because of what happened to one of the FBI agents who interviewed him

Carrie is an active FBI agent and we are not revealing her full name. She was authorized by the FBI to speak with 60 Minutes about her personal experience but was not allowed to discuss her case work. Several other sources described Carrie as experienced in counter intelligence work and made a name for herself in the Bureau for work against Russian and other intelligence operations in Florida.

While Kovalev’s statements to the FBI are classified, sources have told 60 Minutes that after the rounds of interviews were completed, he was offered the chance to sign a document confessing to working as an illegal Russian agent, but he declined and went back to jail. A few months later, Carrie was hit with symptoms consistent with Havana Syndrome while she was home in Key West.

“All of a sudden, it was like somebody flipped a switch, and bam, inside my right ear, it was like a dentist drilling on steroids,” Carrie told Scott Pelley on 60 Minutes. “It was like a high pitched, metallic drilling noise, and it knocked me forward at, like, a 45-degree angle this way. Immediately [I] felt pressure, and pressure and pain started coursing from inside my right ear, down my jaw, down my neck, and into my chest, while that sound was concentrated inside my right ear.”

“All of a sudden, it was like somebody flipped a switch, and bam, inside my right ear, it was like a dentist drilling on steroids”

Carrie says she was hit a second time about a year later at her new posting in California. She is still suffering debilitating symptoms that she says left her “not the same as I used to be.”

Kovalev told the authorities he was an unemployed chef from New York who was only in Key West to visit the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum. A source with knowledge of the investigation told 60 Minutes he had traveled down the East Coast, booking rooms at the Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C. and then at another hotel in Miami. But he never checked out of them. Behaving like a spy, he kept his reservations active, likely to hide his actual location. When police asked him why he ran from them he said simply, “I don’t know.” And we don’t know for sure what he was doing in Key West. There were no pictures of Ernest Hemingway’s house in his phone. A source told us there were pictures of one of the tallest buildings in the town and the lock to the front gate.

Key West is a known target of foreign intelligence – especially Russian foreign intelligence – because of the several U.S. government and military facilities in the area.

Scanning social media and open-source records, 60 Minutes, The Insider, and Der Spiegel found Kovalev had worked as the executive chef at three popular Russian haute cuisine restaurants, two Mari Vannas — one in New York, the other in D.C. — and Ariana Soho (shuttered in 2015). The restaurants were popular in the late 2010s in both cities. Russian hockey players, international pop stars, and U.S. government officials regularly ate there, often within feet of one another. And Kovalev was the top chef of record in both 2012 and 2013. We found a petition for a non-immigrant visa for Kovalev, sponsored by the D.C.-based Mari Vanna. His talents in the kitchen earned him write-ups from local food critics and spots on morning TV cooking segments. But there was much more to Kovalev’s talents than his modern take on borscht.

Kovalev had worked as the executive chef at three popular Russian haute cuisine restaurants, but there was more to his talents than his modern take on borscht

As part of his U.S. visa application we found the equivalent of Kovalev’s university transcript. He was a 2009 graduate of the St. Petersburg State Marine Technical University, Russia’s leading naval engineering institute. Kovalev studied in its military engineering department, and his transcript shows he earned credit hours in classes like “protection of state and commercial secrets,” “electroacoustic transducers,” and “digital signal processing techniques.” His graduate thesis was titled, “Efficiency of Helicopter Noise Detection Channels.” While studying at this institute, Kovalev was employed as an engineer at the Elektroavtomatika engineering and R&D lab, a wholly owned subsidiary of MIG, the Ministry of Defense's military aircraft manufacturer. The company boasts on its now defunct website that it is the leader in development of advanced onboard navigation systems for the military industry.

While studying at Russia’s leading naval engineering institute, Kovalev was employed as an engineer at the Ministry of Defense's military aircraft manufacturer

And yet, after two months of a cooking certificate program and some time in the kitchens of a few restaurants in Saint Petersburg, he was off to New York and D.C. on a special talents visa to run high-profile kitchens.

The Insider’s investigative team dug into records on the Russian side that paint a much different picture of the man who cooked for celebrities — and who had a young wife, Maria, living in Brooklyn.

The team found that Kovalev had a military secrets clearance at level X3, an inevitable perk given he had worked as an electronics engineer in a military engineering facility. That is not the highest level of clearance in Russia, but it does indicate that, due to the secrets he knew, in 2012 Kovalev could not have left Russia to work as a chef without special clearance from the Federal Security Service, or FSB, one of the successor agencies of the Soviet-era KGB.

Due to the secrets he knew, in 2012 Kovalev could not have left Russia to work as a chef without special clearance from the FSB

Kovalev got out of prison in Florida in August of 2022. We are told he had been warned about going back to Russia, that spending 80 hours with the FBI might not sit well with authorities there. But in September 2022 he flew home via Belgrade and posted a picture of himself having drinks with friends on Instagram. “You won't believe it. Right now in St. Petersburg :),” Kovalev posted.

But he didn’t stay long, according to travel records obtained by The Insider. In October he told friends he was leaving on a “business trip” and to contact him through the mail. Records show that in December he took a train from St. Petersburg to Rostov-on-Don, near the Ukraine border. On New Year's Eve 2022, he crossed into the Luhansk region of Ukraine via the Russian border crossing at Novoshakhtinsk.

On New Year's Eve 2022, he crossed into the Luhansk region of Ukraine via the Russian border crossing at Novoshakhtinsk, where his digital trace goes cold

From there, Kovalev’s digital trace goes cold as, evidently, he himself did. A death certificate for him was issued on February 8, 2023. Typically in wartime, the Russian authorities conduct investigations into how their soldiers are killed on the battlefield. In this case, no such investigation was carried out. Kovalev’s death certificate states that he died from traumatic hemothorax and multiple fractures of the ribs, wounds caused by unclarified military actions during a period of active service. According to military records, Kovalev was not mobilized — not officially, at least. He was a reserve officer and was never supposed to leave Russia without express permission.

Was he sent to the front explicitly to die, either at the hands of Ukrainian forces or at those of his own side? What was he doing in the United States, under what seems to have been the elaborate cover of a four-star chef?

Kovalev’s family announced his death to friends on social media on March 1, 2023. He was buried at Kazan cemetery in St. Petersburg the next day.

“I assess that I was targeted — because I pissed off the wrong people for doing what I was doing,” Carrie, the FBI agent who interviewed Kovalev, told 60 Minutes. “And all I was doing was my job and trying to protect my country.”

Kovalev was known by the U.S. government to be a technical officer for the GRU and a member of the FSB cyber unit called the 16th Directorate

After production was complete on the 60 Minutes story and a television promo was released showing clips of the car chase and arrest of Vitalii Kovalev, 60 Minutes and The Insider were approached by a former senior U.S. government official who worked in counterintelligence. That source said he recognized Kovalev from his appearance in the promo and remembered his case. Kovalev, the source said, was known by the U.S. government to be a technical officer for the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service, as well as a member of the FSB cyber unit called the 16th Directorate. Other members of the 16th Directorate, or Center 16, have been indicted for a widespread hack of controls at energy infrastructure objects — like power plants — in the U.S. and elsewhere.

As our joint yearlong investigation has shown, there is compelling evidence linking Havana Syndrome to a directed energy weapon wielded by operatives of GRU Unit 29155.

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