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Press Release

Berkeley County woman sentenced for willful retention of top secret national defense documents and international parental kidnapping

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Northern District of West Virginia

MARTINSBURG, WEST VIRGINIA – Elizabeth Jo Shirley, of Hedgesville, West Virginia, was sentenced today to 97 months of incarceration for unlawfully retaining a document containing national defense information and 36 months of incarceration for committing international parental kidnapping. The sentences will run concurrently.

Shirley, 47, pleaded guilty to one count of willful retention of national defense information and one count of international parental kidnapping in July 2020. Shirley admitted to unlawfully retaining a National Security Agency (NSA) document containing information classified at the Top Secret/Secret Compartmented Information (TS/SCI) level relating to the national defense that outlines intelligence information regarding a foreign government’s military and political issues. Shirley also admitted to removing her child, of whom she was the non-custodial parent, to Mexico with the intent to obstruct the lawful exercise of the custodial father’s parental rights.

“Shirley betrayed the trust of the American people when she took classified information from her work with the Intelligence Community,” said Assistant Attorney General John C. Demers for the National Security Division. “She then sought to profit from her betrayal by seeking to sell this information to Russia, one of America’s foremost adversaries, in order to further her criminal abduction of her daughter. This sentence will hold Shirley accountable for her violations of the American people’s trust, and serves as a warning to others who would seek unlawful profit at America’s expense.”

“Shirley held a position that required the highest level of trust,” said U.S. Attorney Bill Powell for the Northern District of West Virginia. "When she committed these crimes, she not only broke that trust, she potentially endangered the very people who employed her and her neighbors. National security is one of our highest priorities. Shirley deserves her sentence and not a day less.”
“Ms. Shirley was trusted with our nation’s highest-level documents when she was given a high-level security clearance," said Special Agent in Charge Michael Christman of the FBI’s Pittsburgh field office. "But she betrayed that trust and put our country at risk by stealing classified national security documents, which she later hoped she could sell to Russian officials. We must safeguard this information from foreign adversaries. Today’s sentence shows the FBI will not let anyone get away with putting the lives of American citizens at risk.”
Shirley served on active duty with the U.S. Air Force, and in August 1994, the Air Force granted Shirley her first TS/SCI security clearance. After leaving active duty, Shirley served in the U.S. Air Force Reserves and later in the U.S. Navy Reserves. While serving in the Air Force, she worked on assignments with the NSA. From May 2001 to August 2012, Shirley held various positions with the U.S. 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. In connection with these positions, Shirley held TS/SCI security clearances at various times.

In July 2019, Shirley took her six-year-old daughter to Mexico with the intent 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 with her to Mexico national defense information, which she had unlawfully retained. While in Mexico, 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.”

On Aug. 13, 2019, the U.S. Marshals Service and Mexican law enforcement located Shirley and her daughter at a hotel in Mexico City. Mexican authorities arrested Shirley pursuant to an arrest warrant the West Virginia State Police (WVSP) had obtained on a charge of concealment of a minor from a custodian. 

The FBI subsequently 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. Pursuant to the search of the storage unit, the FBI located the NSA document underlying the willful retention of national defense information offense. In addition, pursuant to searches of the electronic devices, the FBI 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.

The FBI Pittsburgh field office and WVSP investigated this case. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jarod J. Douglas and Lara K. Omps-Botteicher and Trial Attorney Evan N. Turgeon with the National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section prosecuted the case on behalf of the government. The Webster County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office cooperated in the investigation and prosecution of the case. 

Chief U.S. District Judge Gina M. Groh presided.

Updated January 25, 2021

National Security