Woman made stunning discovery about her husband that turned their happy life upside down

When her American husband ripped off a Russian oligarch and went on the lam, Katya Nadirova entered a surreal world, realizing she didn’t know the man she married. She told Women in the World how she survived the ordeal

Leigh Sprague, Katya Nadirova and their two young children pictured early in the marriage, before Sprague's life spun out of control. (Courtesy Katya Nadirova)

The following is a first-person account of Katya’s story, as told to Abigail Pesta.

I was home alone on a Monday when my husband’s colleagues began calling, urgently looking for him. We were living in Moscow, and my husband, an American lawyer, had taken our kids to Paris for a long weekend. I had a bad feeling about the phone calls—my husband had been acting very odd of late. For one thing, he had been spending massive amounts of money. He was working for one of Russia’s richest and most powerful oligarchs, and he made a good salary, but still, he was spinning out of control. I told him about the calls when he returned home that evening, and he jumped in the car to go to the office.

He did not come home.

I called him late into the evening, with no reply. Two of his male colleagues appeared at my door around 10:30 that night, asking where he was. I had no clue.

I first met my husband, Leigh Sprague, when I was around 20 years old. I was finishing college in Moscow, where I had grown up, and working part time for an American think tank. He worked there as well and sat right next to me; we often went out with colleagues after work. A blond, blue-eyed 25-year-old from Wisconsin, he seemed like a gentle, kind soul. He began inviting me to dinner or to see movies at his place; there weren’t that many restaurants in Moscow at the time, the early 1990s. I was young and not very confident in myself, and it was exciting to have the attention of this handsome guy. We had been seeing each other for just a few months when he said he had been accepted at Columbia University Law School in New York City. He wanted me to go to America with him. Since I would need a visa, he said we should marry.

I had fallen crazy in love, but it was too soon to be making that kind of decision. I had been to New York once before and didn’t love it, and I knew I would have to start from scratch, trying to find a job with no contacts and a degree from a foreign college. Still, I wanted to be with him, so I decided to make the leap. We had a small wedding in Moscow, with just a few family members and friends attending. No wedding dress, no ring. We had no money. But I imagined we would have a good partnership. Leigh was gentle and caring, and I thought I would be always protected by him in life.

We got off to a rocky start. We had both misjudged how all-consuming law school would be. He buried himself in his studies and had no time for me, and I became terribly lonely. One night I packed my bags to leave, but he persuaded me to stay. I decided I would give him my emotional support through this difficult time, in the hopes that things would get better. And so I spent my nights swimming in the university pool, and my days looking for jobs. Finally I found one, working as an administrative assistant for an executive recruitment firm on Fifth Avenue. Things started looking up; I had my own life. When Leigh finished law school, he began working at a prominent New York law firm, and I started working toward a master’s degree from Columbia.

In 2001, Leigh got laid off, and I had just graduated, so we were both looking for work. It was a difficult time for America and a bad time to be looking for jobs in New York — right after 9/11. He got an offer from an American firm to go to Moscow, and I thought that sounded great. I would be closer to my family, and we could start our own family there. And so we went. 

We rented a huge apartment in the middle of the city, and I got a job at a United Nations office. Two years later, I gave birth to my daughter, and three years after that, to my son. We bought a beautiful apartment in one of the best parts of the city, and I focused on raising our kids. Leigh got a job working in the legal department for a big aluminum company, owned by the notoriously wealthy oligarch Oleg Deripaska. The company made a great offer, and Leigh thought he would work there for a few years and save for our nest egg. He began flying around the world on private jets for work — London, Paris, Hong Kong — and staying in fancy hotels. We took vacations as a family across Europe. We lived well.

Yet over the next few years, Leigh grew distant — working late, not answering his phone when I called. It felt as if he was hardly ever home. When I tried to talk to him, he brushed me off. He seemed to be disappearing in his work — or something; I did not know what. Our relationship went into limbo. The kids and I began spending the summers in Malibu, where we rented a place. In December of 2009, we were all supposed to go to the Maldives for vacation as a family; I hoped the trip would help us all reconnect. Right before the trip, Leigh said he couldn’t go, due to meetings at work. He said he would join us later. I went with the kids, but he never came. When we returned home, he picked us up at the airport in his pajamas. I asked him what was going on — it wasn’t like him to go anywhere in his PJs. As usual, he dismissed my concerns. I knew something was terribly wrong, but he would not talk to me.

I got my answer a few months later. One day he announced, “I have to tell you something.” I didn’t know what was coming, but I figured it would explain his bizarre behavior. He confessed that he was addicted to drugs — the painkiller codeine, specifically, which he said he got from cough medication. Immediately I felt I needed to help, to support him in battling an addiction — the same way I felt years ago when he started law school. But he wouldn’t let me help, or get help himself; he wouldn’t go to rehab. Instead, he began randomly disappearing, sometimes not coming home at night. It became impossible to talk to him; the drugs had changed his personality. He was unemotional, ever more distant. I agonized over what to do. The kids were so young, I didn’t want to divorce, but I knew I would probably need to leave him. We could not go on like this.

In the summer of 2010, things got even weirder. Leigh wanted to buy a home in Malibu, and I went along with it, thinking we could move there and then divorce and raise the kids in America, where they would have more opportunities. So he bought a house with an ocean view, and said he was going to make a few renovations. In early 2011, I went to look at schools in Malibu, and I stopped by our new home. I couldn’t believe what I saw: There was a team of men — around 10 of them — working on the house, doing massive renovations, putting an addition on the home. In the yard, I saw several large metal storage containers, and I asked one of the contractors what was inside. “Those are the cars,” he said.

“What cars?” I asked.

“They’re really nice cars,” he said. “Rare cars.” I didn’t believe him; I thought he must be joking. Leigh didn’t have the money to buy a bunch of rare cars. The contractor didn’t have a key, so we couldn’t open the containers. I called Leigh, demanding answers. We had no financial transparency in the marriage. I knew he made a good salary — but not this good. He said, “Why do you care? You have enough money to live on.” I said, “I’m not in the loop — you’re sidelining me.” He would not give me any specifics. “Your job is to raise the kids!” he shouted. I realized I was trapped in a marriage with a person I no longer knew.

Soon after my return to Moscow, in the spring of 2011, Leigh took the kids on a weekend trip to Paris. That’s when his colleagues came calling. The night he disappeared, the two men at my door said they would wait outside for him to return so they could talk to him. I looked out the window and saw two big SUVs parked on the street, their lights shining into my windows. I closed the curtains. I panicked. I began running around my home, frantically tidying up, trying to distract myself. I was in a state of deep shock, trying to understand what had happened. After calling Leigh’s phone and getting no response, I went to bed, thinking that in the morning I would have a message from him. I slept only a few hours. When I woke up, there was no message, and the SUVs were still parked outside. My husband had vanished.

The next few days were terrifying. Russian authorities searched my apartment and grilled me about Leigh. I noticed that I was being shadowed, with strange men trailing me around town. I didn’t know who they were. I felt like my life was imploding. I was in a state of constant panic; I couldn’t sleep. I kept calling Leigh’s family, but they said they didn’t know his whereabouts, and then cut off all communications with me. I wanted to keep my kids’ lives as normal as possible, so I continued to take them to school, but I feared for their safety since I was being followed. I called the U.S. Embassy in Moscow for help. Officials took notes, but they said there was nothing they could do since no one knew where Leigh had gone or what he had done.

Finally, I found out. 

In the parking lot of my apartment complex, Leigh’s colleagues confided that he had stolen “a lot of money” from the company. At that point, I didn’t know how much money was involved, but I believed he had taken it. It would explain the recent spending frenzy. It also explained why these men were so intent on finding him. Any company would want its money back. I felt ashamed that my husband had done such a thing, hurting other people as well as our family.

The gentle man I had married had become a chameleon, completely unknowable. I felt hurt and betrayed by his lies; I wondered why he had blown up our family. But I didn’t let myself fall apart — I couldn’t afford to do so. I became very focused, for the sake of my children. I hired a lawyer in America. I told him I wanted a divorce. My lawyer began a manhunt for my husband. He hired a private investigator to watch our home in Malibu, thinking Leigh might show up there.


Years after discovering the wild double life her husband led, Katya Nadirova is remaking her own life.

And sure enough, he did. The private eye followed his comings and goings from our home in Malibu for a few days. Turned out, Leigh was living it up, driving around in his classic cars with a pair of new puppies, as if he had no problems in the world. I couldn’t believe it. My husband was living a double life. At some point I learned from my lawyer that Leigh had stolen $15 million from the oligarch — and had bought an entire fleet of classic cars. He had secretly bought more than a dozen of them, stashing them in California. Among them: a rare Bugatti, a Peugeot, a Mercedes-Benz.

My lawyer served Leigh the divorce papers. The next few weeks were surreal. I learned from my lawyer that my husband had forged my name on joint bank accounts without my knowledge; I don’t know why he did so. My lawyer hired a handwriting expert to show that I had not signed the documents. Leigh absconded to Israel, basically living as a fugitive. The FBI began an investigation, as some of his stolen cash had gone through a U.S. bank. Eventually, Leigh returned to America and in 2013, he pleaded guilty to transporting stolen funds in foreign commerce, and was ordered to pay restitution to the U.S. government. The feds ended up auctioning off more than a million dollars worth of the cars he’d bought with the stolen money.

In the spring of 2014, Leigh went to prison in California, sentenced to 50 months. He wrote about his exploits on a personal blog and in Politico magazine. He said he had stolen the money using a slush fund. He said he had first taken $10 million without being caught, and brazenly decided to snatch $5 million more. He also did an interview with NPR. I sat down and listened with my kids, so they could hear the words come from their father’s mouth. They loved him, but they understood that what he had done was wrong. We all were deeply shocked to hear him speak so casually about his theft. He said he had been carried away by greed.

I sold the apartment in Moscow and moved to California with the kids. I looked for jobs and entered a very difficult phase, as I tried to reboot my life. I felt emotional and uncertain about the future, but I had to keep it together for the kids. I focused on my health, swimming as often as I could, eating right. I tried to look forward, not back, and do one thing a day to help myself get on track, such as writing to potential employers. I tried not to let myself sink into feelings of hopelessness and regret. I reached out to as many friends as possible. I never knew I had so many people who genuinely care for me. They gave me their shoulders to lean on, they helped me keep my sanity with their love and support. I decided to treat the whole ordeal as a project — one that I would need to successfully navigate for the sake of my children and myself. I reminded myself that I never could have foreseen how Leigh would change. I had married young, before I had a chance to really get to know him, or myself.

Now I live in Brooklyn, New York, with the kids, making ends meet with part-time jobs while I look for full-time work. Leigh got out of prison last year and is living in Minnesota. The kids, who are 14 and 10, visit him there. I teach them to work hard, and never to take what isn’t theirs. I take it day by day. My love for my children inspires me to keep moving forward. I never really knew how strong and resourceful I could be. Betrayal is scary, betrayal demolishes you, betrayal makes you feel powerless. I have learned that you have to stay strong and focused, and keep your loved ones in your heart. Then you can overcome anything.


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