WV mom pleads guilty to kidnapping and trying to sell secrets to Russia

West Virginia

Elizabeth Jo Shirley, 47, of Hedgesville, pled guilty to one count of “Willful Retention of National Defense Information” and one count of “International Parental Kidnapping.” July 6, 2020 (Photo Courtesy WBOY)

WASHINGTON (WOWK) – A West Virginia woman has admitted to unlawfully retaining a document containing national defense information and committing international parental kidnapping.

According to the Department of Justice, Elizabeth Jo Shirley, 47, of Hedgesville, pled guilty to one count of “Willful Retention of National Defense Information” and one count of “International Parental Kidnapping.” 

Shirley admitted to unlawfully retaining a National Security Agency (NSA) document. DOJ officials say the document contained information classified at the TOP SECRET/SECRET COMPARTMENTED INFORMATION level relating to the national defense, outlining intelligence information regarding a foreign government’s military and political issues.

She also admitted to taking her child, of whom she was the non-custodial parent, to Mexico intending to obstruct the custodial father’s lawful parental rights.

Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers said Shirley attempted to offer the classified information to the Russian government.

“When Shirley took classified information from her work with the Intelligence Community and later fled to Mexico, she violated the confidence placed in her by the American people,” said Demers.  “She doubled down on this betrayal when she sought to offer classified information to the Russian government.  We are grateful for our law enforcement partners’ timely work to locate and arrest the defendant in Mexico.  Given Shirley’s troubling conduct after fleeing the United States, the damage to national security could have been far greater had law enforcement not acted swiftly.  Shirley will now be held accountable for betraying the trust of the American people.”

DOJ officials say Shirley served on active duty with the United States Air Force, and was granted her first TS/SCI security clearance in August 1994. She served in the United States Air Force Reserves after leaving active duty and later in the United States Navy Reserves. While serving in the Air Force, she worked on assignments with the NSA. 

Shirley held TOP SECRET/SCI security clearances at various times from May 2001 to August 2012, Sin connection with positions at the United States Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the National Cyber Investigative Joint Task Force, and at least five different cleared defense contractors, according to officials.

“High level security clearance requires a commensurate level of trust.  Shirley breached that trust and attempted to put our country at risk.  National security is one of our highest priorities and always will be.  Shirley will now face the consequences of her actions,” said U.S. Attorney William J. Powell.

In July 2019, Shirley took her six-year-old daughter to Mexico in July 2019. DOJ officials say she intended to contact representatives of the government of Russia to request resettlement in a country that would not extradite her to the United States.  Shirley took national defense information, which she had allegedly unlawfully retained, with her to Mexico. While there, Shirley prepared a written message to Russian government officials, referencing “an urgent need” to have “items shipped from the USA related to [her] life’s work before they are seized and destroyed.”

“Federal government employees and contractors with high level security clearances pledge to protect classified information from foreign adversaries. It’s an essential responsibility in guarding our country’s national security,” said FBI Pittsburgh Special Agent in Charge Michael Christman.“Ms. Shirley had a duty to safeguard classified information. Instead, she chose to break the law and trust placed in her and made plans to pass national defense information to Russian officials, which could have put our citizens at risk. The FBI does not take these violations lightly and will work to hold wrongdoers accountable to keep our country safe.”

The United States Marshals Service and Mexican law enforcement located Shirley and her daughter at a hotel in Mexico City August 13, 2019. Mexican authorities arrested Shirley pursuant to an arrest warrant the West Virginia State Police had obtained on a charge of concealment of a minor from a custodian, according to the DOJ.

The FBI executed search warrants on numerous of Shirley’s electronic devices, including devices she took to Mexico in July 2019 and devices the FBI seized from her Martinsburg storage unit in August 2019. The FBI found the NSA document underlying the Willful Retention of National Defense Information offense while searching the storage unit. FBI officials also found an Office of Naval Intelligence PowerPoint presentation containing information classified at the SECRET level and messages Shirley had drafted to Russian Government officials while in Mexico, the latter of which the Central Intelligence Agency has determined to include information classified at the SECRET level while searching her electronic devices.

Shirley faces up to ten years of incarceration and a fine of up to $250,000 for the national security charge and up to three years of incarceration and fine of up to $250,000 for the kidnapping charge, according to the DOJ.  Under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, the actual sentence imposed will be based upon the seriousness of the offenses and the prior criminal history, if any, of the defendant.

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