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People Top 5
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- June 17, 1985
- Vol. 23
- No. 24
The Walker Naval Family Stands in the Dock—accused of Spying for the U.s.s.r.
A federal grand jury has handed down a six-count indictment charging that John A. Walker, 47, and his 22-year-old son, Michael—a seaman on the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Nimitz—conspired to funnel secret Navy documents to the Soviets sometime after April 1983 until John's arrest on May 20. Both father and son have pleaded not guilty on all counts. In a family spy imbroglio that has rocked the proud Norfolk Naval Base, John's brother Arthur J. Walker, 50, a retired Navy lieutenant commander and onetime submarine-warfare expert, has also been arrested for espionage. So has Jerry Whitworth, a retired Navy radioman, of Davis, Calif.
According to the FBI, John Walker, a much-decorated ex-Navy chief warrant officer, had been working for the Soviet Union since the late '60s. The FBI had been tailing Walker and wire-tapping his home and office—Walker has his own Virginia Beach detective agency—for the past six months, reportedly on a tip from his ex-wife, Barbara. On Sunday, May 19, federal agents followed the suspect north from Norfolk into the Washington, D.C. area. At 8:37 p.m. they watched him at Partnership Road in Poolesville, Md. standing by a tree posted with a "No Hunting" sign. An hour later an FBI agent retrieved from the site a brown paper bag containing more than 120 classified documents. The G-men spotted Soviet diplomat Aleksey Gavrilovich Tkachenko nearby and waited for him to move, but he never picked up Walker's bag or the dummy bag left at the tree by the agents. About four hours later they arrested Walker, who allegedly pulled a revolver. Tkachenko left the U.S. a few days later.
According to Lonzo Thompson, 30, a former Navy man who worked briefly at Confidential Reports, Inc., Walker's detective agency, it's ironic that the private-eye-cum-spy was caught by the FBI. "He had contempt for the FBI and the Naval Investigative Service," Thompson told one reporter. "I'd like to ask him how he feels about being bagged by them." Probably not so good. By most reports Walker—a pudgy man who wore polyester suits, a tousled brown hairpiece, and cheap wire-rimmed glasses—lived in a 007 fantasy world of romanticized undercover assignments. He teamed up with a stunning 29-year-old brunette, Laurie Robinson, as a partner in the detective agency. He cruised the scene, variously, in a single-engine airplane or a houseboat (à la Travis McGee) or a Chrysler New Yorker, and he dated a Norfolk policewoman. He saw all the James Bond movies and added an "s" to his initials to call himself "Jaws," apparently after 007's memorable antagonist. He devoured stacks of spy novels and hoarded at least some of the tools of the trade: a cane that doubled as a pistol, expensive electronic bugging devices, telephoto cameras, handguns and shotguns. He considered himself an undercover virtuoso, sometimes disguising himself as a priest, a Boy Scout leader, a longhaired doper or a newspaper reporter. "Everybody was a suspect to him," says Thompson. "He enjoyed setting people up. I'll tell you, I was surprised he was arrested for espionage. I thought, if he ever got arrested, it would be for blackmail."
He had a strong hold on his son. "Michael was a good boy," says Robinson, "and would do anything you asked him to do. But he lacked good judgment, I guess." Robinson describes an investigation in which Michael, before joining the Navy, conducted all-night surveillance of a house in Virginia Beach. Michael sat in the car, watching the house, even after he saw all the occupants leave and drive off. "He knew the people left," says Robinson, "but he was told not to break surveillance, so he didn't." According to Robinson, "John coerced Michael into going into the Navy. He thought it would teach him discipline." Robert Bastian, 21, Michael's classmate at the private Ryan Upper School in Norfolk, says, "Michael idolized his father. Whatever he said was law. I still can't believe this happened. I talked to Rachel, and she is devastated."
Rachel is Michael Walker's wife of 18 months. She was watching the evening news on the day her husband was arrested aboard the Nimitz, after investigators found a box with 15 pounds of secret material near his bunk. A local reporter called just as the story flashed across the screen. "Oh my God! Oh my God!" she screamed into the phone. She sobbed to the reporter that she thought she was going to die, then apologized and hung up.
Arthur Walker was arrested by the FBI seven days later. Arthur, who holds a "secret" clearance at VSE Corporation, a naval contractor in Chesapeake, Va., allegedly admitted to the Bureau that he'd received $12,000 for the sale to the Soviets of a confidential file about five U.S. Navy ships. During his years at VSE, the company has earned more than $137 million from Navy contracts, including missile and spacecraft engineering development projects. Arthur Walker's Virginia Beach neighbors were shocked to discover just who had been living next door. "Nobody can picture him as a spy," said Lori Scarfato, 26. "He always wore the same windbreaker and seemed kind of meek." There was another side to Walker, however, that he showed to Laurie Robinson. "He loved happy hour over at Diamond Jim Brady's," she remembers, "sitting around talking about divorce and custody cases. There he was Mr. Personality."
Withal, Robinson, who probably knew the three men as well as anybody, has been struggling to understand the man who apparently cast her as a sort of exalted Miss Moneypenny. "See this picture?" she says, sitting in her paneled office and pointing to a color photo of Ronald Reagan. "[John] was a big admirer of the President. He wrote a letter to the White House concerning a kidnapping and got this. He donated a lot of time to a bureau for missing children and was a member of a society for battered wives. It just doesn't fit, does it? John's been one of my dearest friends. He's been with me through thick and thin. Obviously he enjoyed thinking he was living the life of James Bond. He's told me many times that if he had a choice between taking a vacation and work, it would be work. He thought of working as a vacation. He just didn't know when to quit."
- Jane Sims Podesta.
September 28, 2016
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