Meet Robert Kelly. He Says He Infiltrated Castro's Spy Service And Tricked Miami Exiles

Robert Kelly certainly has the tricks of the spy trade down pat.

He talks in mysterious acronyms, like "NOC" -- which stands for "no official cover." He refuses to have his photo taken. He talks about elaborate take-downs and ruses straight out of a Burn Notice plot.

Getting the full truth is much harder. But as tough as it is to verify, Kelly's story is fascinating.

Kelly first approached me over the summer, with a great hook: A white American without a lick of Spanish, Kelly says he infiltrated Castro's spy service, known as the Intelligence Directorate or DI, and spied on a range of Miami's exile community -- including Rep. Illeana Ros-Lehtinen -- for the dictator.

And Kelly says that, in reality, he was working as a double agent for the FBI the whole time.

Verifying Kelly's tale is much, much trickier, which is why I never ended up writing a story about his claims. But now Kelly is appearing on MegaTV, the Spanish language Channel 22, to tell his tale. (His first segment, an interview with Maria Elvira Salazar, aired last night at 8 p.m.).

In light of Kelly's local TV interviews, I think it's worth revisiting what he told me. Click through for the whole story.

I met Kelly in an empty food court with his wife, Suad Leija.

Kelly's connection to Suad is the easiest part of his story to verify. Leija, a pretty, raven-haired Mexican about half Kelly's age at 23-years-old, has been interviewed on CNN and profiled in the Chicago Tribune.

Leija was born into an extensive Mexican crime family, the Castorenas,  who dominated the fake-documentation business around the country for years. Her step-father, Manuel Leija-Sanchez, ran the family's Chicago ring, until Suad started cooperating with the FBI and a federal sting took down the family.

Robert Kelly, a muscular man in his 40s, says he met Suad in Nicaragua and helped convince her to cooperate in the investigation into her family.

But Kelly says the untold side of Suad's saga is his own role as a double agent working for Castro's secret service and the FBI. Here's how he says it happened:

Kelly was working in Costa Rica, running an Internet business. He hints that he may have also been working undercover for U.S. agencies, but won't go into details. Kelly says when the Elian Gonzalez saga erupted in Miami, he saw the controversy as a way to infiltrate Cuba.

Kelly says in 1999 he set up a site called The Voice of Cuba that was rabidly in favor of returning Elian to Cuba, and helped seed it around the web. Within months, he says Cuban agents in Costa Rica contacted him and asked him to visit the embassy.

Over the course of the next year, Kelly says he refined his relationship with the Cubans. Eventually, the flew him to Havana, where Kelly says he passed a long vetting process with a handler in the DI.

"I played the role of the dumb, white American to a tee," Kelly says. "My lack of Spanish was a major asset in convincing them I was the real deal. What spy agency would send a guy who doesn't speak Spanish to infiltrate Cuba?"

Once he'd earned an assignment from the DI, Kelly says he approached the FBI and let them in on his game. They code named him "Lazarus," Kelly says, and ran him out of their Miami office.

Kelly says his assignments included missions to spy on prominent exiles including former South Florida Democratic chairman Gus Garcia, Ros-Lehtinen, Jose Basulto of Brothers to the Rescue, and current County Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz.

I called Diaz, and he said he didn't remember anyone by the name of Robert Kelly, although he allowed that "I'm really bad with names." He laughed at the idea that he'd been spied on by a double agent, but added, "I'm pretty sure I was followed a couple times by Castro's guys during the Elian saga."

So is Kelly the real deal? His story is certainly detailed enough to be true.

But without some serious inside sources at the FBI or the DI, it's almost impossible to say. Judy Orihuela, the spokeswoman for Miami's FBI office, declined to comment when I called her about Kelly's tale.

"That's your proof right there," Kelly told me with a gleam in his eye. "They would have denied my story up and down if it weren't true. Instead they just gave you a 'no comment.'"

Another segment on Kelly on MegaTV is scheduled to air tonight.

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink