A 47-year-old woman is accused of taking her 6-year-old daughter and top secret government documents to Mexico to try to broker a deal with Russian officials.
She didn’t have custody of the girl — or permission to take the classified documents, according to Justice Department officials.
Elizabeth Jo Shirley, of West Virginia, pleaded guilty on Monday to charges of “international parental kidnapping” and taking national defense information, the U.S. Department of Justice said in a news release. She faces up to 13 years in federal prison and $500,000 in fines.
“Ms. Shirley had a duty to safeguard classified information,” FBI agent Michael Christman said in the release. “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.”
Shirley previously served in the U.S. Air Force, where she was given her first Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information security clearance, prosecutors said.
According to the news release, she later served in the Air Force and U.S. Navy reserves and worked on assignments with the National Security Agency.
From 2001 to 2012, Shirley continued her work with several federal agencies — including the Office of Naval Intelligence, the Defense Department, the Department of Energy, and the National Cyber Investigative Joint Task Force, prosecutors said.
In July 2019, Shirley was scheduled to return her 6-year-old daughter to the girl’s father and stepmother, who have primary custody, according to court filings.
Instead, Shirley reportedly told them she was having car trouble and would bring her daughter back the following day. They then went to the airport, prosecutors said.
A license plate reader captured Shirley’s vehicle two miles from the Baltimore-Washington Airport, according to court filings. When American Airlines canceled their flight, a hotel employee told the FBI the airline paid for them to stay at a nearby Days Inn.
The father received exclusive custody in family court after Shirley failed to return their daughter, according to court filings. The 6-year-old was reported missing two days later.
U.S. Marshals and law enforcement officials in Mexico found Shirley and her daughter at a hotel in Mexico City in August, prosecutors said.
According to Monday’s news release, Shirley had stolen national defense information containing “a foreign government’s military and political issues” that she planned to give to Russian officials.
“Shirley took her six-year-old daughter to Mexico with the intent to make contact with representatives of the Government of Russia to request resettlement in a country that would not extradite her to the United States,” the release states.
Officials also found a message intended for Russian officials from Shirley regarding “an urgent need” to have “items shipped from the USA related to [her] life’s work before they are seized and destroyed,” prosecutors said in the release.
The FBI later raided a storage unit Shirley had in West Virginia where they found the National Security Agency documents, an Office of Naval Intelligence PowerPoint containing classified information and messages she had drafted to Russian Government officials, according to the release.
Shirley’s daughter was subsequently returned to her father, and Shirley has been in a West Virginia jail since September.