Spy ring mastermind John Walker dies in NC prison
By Denise M. Watson | The Virginian-Pilot (MCT) | Published: August 30, 2014
Nine months before he was to become a free man again, the mastermind of one of America's most devastating spy rings has died in federal prison.
For 18 years, John A. Walker Jr. sold U.S. secrets to the Soviets, both as a cryptologist in the Navy in Norfolk and after he retired. It was estimated that he pocketed about $1 million.
He eventually enlisted espionage help from his brother Arthur; his son, Michael; and a Navy friend, Jerry Whitworth.
The security breach was considered one of the biggest in the nation's history.
Walker, 77, had been sentenced in 1986 to two life terms, plus 10 years, but his actual prison stay was to have been much shorter because of federal parole guidelines at the time. He had suffered health issues in recent years, including throat cancer. The cause of his death Thursday was not released.
Robert Hunter, the FBI agent who arrested him, described him as one of the most treacherous men he'd ever met.
"I think the man was pure evil," said Hunter, who is retired and lives in Virginia Beach.
Walker's espionage career began in 1967 while he was working at what is now Norfolk Naval Station. He stole and sold to the Soviet Union "key cards," which allowed its intelligence officers to unlock more than 1 million top secret and classified messages.
High-ranking Soviet officials later would say that Walker's information allowed them to have an invisible seat at the Pentagon: They could monitor the Atlantic Fleet, for instance, and follow U.S. troop movements around the world.
Many speculated that the Soviets shared the information with their allies, including the North Vietnamese during the late 1960s and early '70s, and that Americans were killed in the Vietnam War because of Walker's deception.
The information Walker gathered was considered invaluable to America's most feared Cold War enemy.
"If there had been a war," a Soviet defector once said, "we would have won it."
John Anthony Walker Jr. was born in the nation's capital July 28, 1937, the second of three boys. The family followed the father to jobs in several locations, including Richmond, and eventually settled in Pennsylvania.
John Walker was the most reckless of the children, becoming a petty thief and dropping out of high school. His older brother, Arthur, who was in the Navy, persuaded a judge to allow Walker to join the military and straighten out his life.
John Walker signed up for the Navy in 1955, married and had four children.
He began spying shortly after being stationed in Norfolk. Nine years later, in 1976, he retired after becoming concerned that he couldn't continue to steal secrets without being caught. He had faked a security clearance once in his career and did not think he could do it again.
After leaving the military, Walker opened a detective agency in Virginia Beach and often disguised himself, sometimes as a priest or a newspaper reporter, while digging up information.
He also began to look for others who were in the military who had access to classified information.
Walker found a partner in crime in his son, Michael, who had joined the Navy and stole documents from what is now Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach and the aircraft carrier Nimitz.
In the early 1980s, John Walker encouraged Arthur to get a job with a military contractor and photocopy classified documents pertaining to ships.
John Walker's friend Jerry Whitworth, stationed in California, copied documents from several duty stations, including some where Walker had worked.
The Soviets had warned their top spy not to tell friends and family about his activities, but Walker's wife, Barbara, learned of his activities in the late 1960s.
The couple divorced in 1976, and she tipped off the FBI eight years later after learning her ex-husband had tried to recruit one of their daughters into the spy ring. She did not know their son was involved.
The FBI began trailing Walker, and he was living in Norfolk when he was arrested in May 1985. Agents had followed him from his Ocean View home to the Maryland outskirts of Washington and tracked him leaving classified documents for a Soviet contact.
The discovery of Walker's espionage shook the military. Shortly after his arrest, the Navy changed the way its personnel handled classified information. The Department of Defense established a review committee to examine its policies and incorporated tougher security procedures that remain in place today.
People who worked with him, and FBI agents who later arrested him, called him not only arrogant but also perhaps a sociopath, because of both his espionage and his recruitment of family and friends into his web.
Michael Bell met Walker in the early 1980s when Bell started managing a security company that employed Walker. In a recent interview, Bell said he did not like Walker the minute he saw him. Walker liked to brag about his boat and plane, and Bell heard from clients that Walker, as an investigator, would often lie and stage events to doctor evidence. Bell learned after Walker's arrest that the spy had even wiretapped Bell's phone and had been listening to his conversations.
"I took pride in my work," said Bell, who lives in Virginia Beach. "I was a criminology major, a police officer, an insurance investigator. Johnny Walker was not an investigator. He was a liar and a thief.... I've met murderers, rapists, child molesters. If I had to rank him, Johnny Walker is right up there with them."
A 1985 People magazine article described Walker as a "pudgy man who wore polyester suits, a tousled brown hair piece, and cheap wire-rimmed glasses" who lived in a romanticized James Bond world of covert operations. He was known for lavishing money on boats, jewelry and girlfriends, even while married.
Walker, in his 2008 memoir, "My Life as a Spy," insisted that money was not his sole motivation for selling out his country.
Instead, he said, he operated from a "Don Quixote-like" attitude and wanted to end the Cold War by sharing America's plans with the Soviet Union. In doing so, he said, the Soviets would see that the United States had no intention of going to war.
Michael Walker was released from prison in 2000 after 15 years and moved to Cape Cod, Mass., where he goes by his middle name of Lance. Barbara Walker died in 2009. Arthur Walker, who was given three life sentences plus 40 years for his involvement in the spy ring, died in prison July 5.
The lone surviving member of the spy ring, Jerry Whitworth, continues to serve a 365-year prison sentence.
©2014 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
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