Suspected Spy Felix Bloch Leads G-Men and the Press on a Wild Spook Chase

updated 08/14/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/14/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Peering out from behind the screen door of his daughter's Chappaqua, N.Y., home, Felix Bloch tried to be philosophical. "People don't always get what they deserve—good or bad," he wanly observed. "And sometimes they get things good and bad that they don't deserve."

Last week it was still hard to say whether Bloch, 54, deserved the treatment he was getting from the swarms of tight-lipped FBI agents and a horde of nosy reporters who were suddenly dogging his every step. Two weeks after word leaked out that the high-ranking American diplomat was suspected of being a spy for the Soviets, no formal charges had been filed. Authorities in Washington mostly refused to discuss either motives or evidence in the case. The one thing they did disclose was that Bloch, a 30-year State Department veteran, had been secretly videotaped last spring handing over a briefcase to a known Soviet agent in Paris. Officials were also reportedly hoping to question an Austrian woman, described in Austrian news stories as a call girl, with whom Bloch was said to have had a longtime "friendship."

Whether the cat-and-mouse surveillance was intended to deter a possible defection to Moscow or to intimidate Bloch into cooperating with the government, it seemed deliberately heavy-handed. Technically free to move about as he pleased, Bloch found himself the star attraction in a traveling road show made up of journalists, TV camera crews and FBI agents in dark glasses. The moment he climbed into his car, the unwelcome retinue would stow their walkie-talkies, cellular phones, cameras and shotgun microphones to set off in Keystone Kops pursuit. Holing up first in his father's Manhattan apartment, then in his daughter and son-in-law's house in the plush exurb of Chappaqua, Bloch quickly became a national curiosity: a dour, round-faced, balding man who may have sold out his country, calmly walking Mephisto, a small white dog.

Around the stakeout, the assembled media and law-enforcement officials were besieged themselves by neighborhood youngsters hawking everything from lemonade (50 cents a cup) to access rights for family bathrooms ($2 per pit stop). One baby-faced entrepreneur, 14-year-old Ronen Shapiro, claimed to have cleared $27 in one day from selling cold drinks. "We were also selling coffee and doughnuts at midnight," he says. "It was my idea—hey, it's New York!" An even bigger beneficiary was Stephen Messer, an 18-year-old student, who ferried in roast beef, Virginia ham sandwiches and potato chips from a nearby deli. Not all the local merchants, however, were expecting to cash in on their town's sudden celebrity. Sitting in his office at Anytime Anywhere Travel, owner Hugh Aronson doubted that he would be doing business with Bloch. "I don't think Felix is going to be flying anywhere in the near future," he said.

The prospect of having Bloch and his untidy entourage cluttering their bosky neighborhood even one more day distressed many residents to the point of exasperation. Understandably enough, the tacky lawn chairs favored by network cameramen, the wads of discarded fast-food wrappers and the constant activity didn't go down very well in a neighborhood where houses routinely sell for $400,000. Standing on her immaculately groomed front lawn as Bloch strolled past with his pursuers close behind, one elderly matron could contain herself no longer. "What do you think you're doing to us?" she screeched at the press with perfect enunciation. Less logically, FBI agents complained that reporters on the scene were somehow compromising their "covert" surveillance operation by taking pictures and asking questions.

At first, the imperious Austrian-born Bloch, who served from 1983 to 1987 as the second in command at the U.S. embassy in Vienna, pretended not to notice the commotion he caused each time he emerged for his constitutionals with Mephisto. Gradually, though, his hard-guy manner began to soften just a bit. Having some fun with his followers, he took Mephisto twice around the block, dropped off the pooch, then did 10 more laps by himself, about nine miles—leaving the trailing pack of journalists and G-men drenched with sweat and panting. "I wanted to exercise my masochistic streak," said Bloch. On a subsequent stroll he cheerfully invited local teenagers to join the ragtag parade.

Plainly, however, the ordeal was taking its toll. "I think Mephisto is awfully confused," he said. "I think he is upset by this." After just a few days in Chappaqua, Bloch—who is now on paid leave from his estimated $80,000-a-year State Department job—picked up and moved to his apartment building in the posh Washington enclave of Kalorama. The reporters and FBI surveillance teams were right there to meet him. So now another set of neighbors will have to wait for the end of their ordeal, for the dog to bark and the caravans to move on.

—Bill Hewitt, Sue Carswell in Chappaqua

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