Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Robert Philip Hanssen: The Spy who Stayed out in the Cold

On the Road to Oblivion

When Hanssen failed to return home on February 18, his wife Bonnie became worried and drove to Dulles Airport to look for him. There she was surrounded by FBI agents who took her to a nearby hotel and interrogated her for eight hours. At first she didn't believe the charges despite catching her husband spying for the Russians two decades before. She thought Moscow had blackmailed him.

The next morning there was yellow police tape around the perimeter of their property in Northern Virginia and the word spread. On a leafy, sylvan cul de sac in a small town there was a spy living next doorthe most damaging spy in history.

The Hanssens' home in Vienna, Va.
The Hanssens' home in Vienna, Va.

The children rushed home from their universities to offer support. They too, were incredulous.

"She is obviously devastated," said Richard McPherson, a headmaster at one of the Opus Dei-affiliated schools attended by the Hanssen children. "She has known this man for 35 years. She is praying it turns out to be blackmail because if it turns out he got himself into a bind and couldn't get out of it, then that would be some comfort."

Plato Cacheris, defense attorney
Plato Cacheris, defense attorney

Bonnie hired famed lawyer Plato Cacheris to take the case. Cacheris had represented a who's who of notables: CIA spy Aldrich Ames, White House intern Monica Lewinsky, Iran-contra scandal figure Fawn Hall, and Watergate defendant John Mitchell were a few.

At first, Cacheris seemed to be mounting a defense. "They always talk like they've got a great case," he said of the government. "We'll see." But after seeing the government's case he began working toward a deal. The Feds were pressing for the death penalty and to spare Hanssen lethal injection would be a victory in itself.

In June 2001, Cacheris and the FBI cut a deal. Hanssen would receive life imprisonment without possibility of parole. Bonnie would receive a widow's pension, about $38,000 a year. In return, his client would tell everything he knew and agree to take polygraph tests on demand, which would verify whether he was telling the truth. In his 25 years at the FBI, Hanssen had never taken one.

While he was being debriefedat a detention center that later held September 11 figures John Walker Lindh and Zacarias MoussaouiBonnie and the children visited every week. Hanssen will spend the rest of his life at a federal prison in Lewisburg, Penn. It is a three-hour drive from Washington and his family has promised to be there each weekend. Bonnie Hanssen's Catholic faith does not allow her to waver, and when asked the inevitable questions about the future she always answers the same way.

"I'll never divorce him. I love him and I'll pray for the salvation of his soul every day for the rest of my life."

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Adrian Havill is the author of The Spy Who Stayed Out In The Cold: The Secret Life of Robert Hanssen, which the Washington Times recently called  "a meticulous account." He lives just six miles from the Hanssen family's Northern Virginia house and interviewed more than 100 people for his account of Robert Hanssen's life.

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