Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Family of Spies: The John Walker Jr. Spy Case

The Story


John A. Walker's last drop point (FBI)
John A. Walker's last drop
point (FBI)

John Anthony Walker Jr. stopped his van alongside a deserted road just north of Washington D.C. on the night of May 19, 1985, and after making certain no one was watching him, stepped out and dropped a paper grocery bag near a utility pole and a tree with a No Hunting sign nailed on it.whaaa

The bag was meant to look like trash carelessly discarded by some thoughtless commuter, but hidden inside were 129 stolen classified U.S. Navy documents, eight-by-ten inch copies of military secrets wrapped in a white plastic trash bag to protect them from rain.

At the same moment Walker was depositing his package, an agent for the Soviet Unions KGB was leaving a paper grocery bag five miles away along another rural road. His bag contained $200,000 in used $50 and $100 bills. The idea behind this dead drop exchange was simple. Walker and the KGB agent were about to swap secrets for cash without ever meeting face-to-face.

John Anthony Walker Jr.'s last delivery to the KGB
John Anthony Walker Jr.'s last
delivery to the KGB

Having dropped off the stolen Navy documents, Walker headed north to retrieve the KGBs grocery bag stuffed with cash. The KGB agent, meanwhile, began driving south, traveling along a different road en route to the stolen Navy secrets. The KGB had choreographed every step of its meetings with Walker since his initial contact with the Russians in late 1967. After their first meeting when Walker had boldly strutted into the Soviet Embassy in Washington and offered to sell Navy secrets for cash there had been only one other face-to-face encounter in the U.S., a rendezvous two weeks later with a KGB agent in a shopping center. Since then the Russians had met him in person only in Europe. All other exchanges had been done through dead drops and after a stunning eighteen years of spying, Walker had become such an old hand at them that his KGB handler had once gushed: You are the most experienced, the very best!

Goddamn right! Walker had replied.

So far, the May 19th exchange seemed routine, but when Walker arrived at the KGBs predetermined drop point to collect his $200,000, he couldnt find it. Worse, when he raced back to his drop point to check on his bag of Navy secrets, it too had disappeared. He had checked both sites several times, conducting a methodical search through the weeds, bushes, and tall grass, but both bags were missing. Shortly before midnight, he gave up and drove to a nearby Ramada Inn where he checked into room 763.

Walkers first thought was that the FBI had finally discovered him, but he was confused because no one had tried to arrest him in the dead drop area. Maybe the Russians had simply screwed up, he thought, and left his money in the wrong location. It had happened twice before. Maybe they had aborted the drop because they had seen something that had frightened them. Unable to sleep, he began going over different scenarios in his mind when the telephone in his room suddenly rang. It was 3:30 a.m.

Yes, Walker answered.

This is the front desk, an excited male voice announced. Theres been an accident! Someone has hit your blue-and-white van in the parking lot. Youd better get down here quick!

Okay, Walker replied. Be right down. He suspected it was a trick. He had used the same ploy himself while working on divorce cases as a private investigator in Norfolk, Virginia, to lure cheating spouses out of a motel room. But who was trying to draw him out?

Walker peeked through the motel window. He could see the parking lot, but not his van, which was parked around a corner. The fact that he didnt see a dozen police cars outside gave him hope. Time was running out, though. If the FBI had unmasked him, it would be only a matter of minutes before federal agents came bursting in. The first thing he had to do was to destroy the envelope that the KGB had given him several months earlier in Vienna, Austria. It contained hand-drawn maps of the dead drop route, directions about where he was to leave his bag of secrets, and black-and-white photographs of the predetermined drop points. There was only one problem. If he burned the instructions, he wouldnt be able to use them again, and the Soviets had told him that if a dead drop was ever aborted, both sides should simply try the exchange again exactly one week later. If he destroyed the instructions, he wouldnt be able to find the drop site the following Sunday and get his $200,000 payment.

Greed and ego quickly overruled caution. Walker scanned the room for a place to hide the envelope. Room 763 was standard motel fare: a double bed, a night table, two chairs, a small table with a smoked-glass ash tray, a dresser, mirror, and combination radio-television. Better to hide the envelope outside his room. Then, if it were found, the FBI couldnt prove it belonged to him. He had noticed an ice machine next to the elevators when he first arrived and decided to hide it there. Tucking the envelope under the pillow on the bed for temporary safekeeping, he slipped his .38 caliber revolver from its hip holster and prepared to open the door. I didnt know who was on the other side of the door and if it was some kid waiting to rob me, I was going to waste him, he said later. He jerked open the door. The corridor was empty. He hustled down the hallway, gun drawn. No one was around. Maybe someone really had hit his van. Hurrying back to his room, he grabbed the envelope and raced toward the ice machine.

Stop! FBI!

Walker spun to his right. Two FBI agents wearing bulletproof vests had jumped out from a room opposite the elevators. Their revolvers were pointed at his heart. As soon as Walker dropped his gun, both men rushed him. FBI Agent James L. Kolouch pushed Walker against the wall, ripped his brown hairpiece from his head, quickly frisked him, and yanked off his thick-soled running shoes while agent Robert Hunter stood guard, his gun pointed at the back of Walkers head. Once Kolouch was certain Walker was not carrying concealed weapons, he was pushed into Room 750 where he was ordered to strip. Different agents seized each piece of clothing as he undressed, examining them in microscopic detail. They even took his metal-framed glasses and inspected them for microdots. Naked, surrounded by FBI agents, without his toupee and now nearly blind, Walker began to loose his natural bravado. He tried desperately to reassure himself. I thought, I am too important of a spy to be prosecuted...They can use me as a double agent. I know more about espionage than the FBI and CIA combined! Then, he had another thought: What real evidence do they have against me? The KGB isnt going to testify.

It was at that moment that FBI Agent Hunter decided to further unnerve Walker. He had a typewritten letter brought into the room and placed where Walker could see it. He immediately recognized the document. He had typed it himself in his den at home and sealed it inside the Navy documents that he had stolen for the Russians. Obviously, the FBI had found the grocery bag that he had left during the dead drop. Did they also get his $200,000? The KGB had warned him against putting anything personal in dead drops, but he had ignored that advice. Worse, Walker had mentioned the other spy rings members in his note. He had used code names, but he knew that identifying them would be childs play for the FBI. Walkers 22-year-old son, Michael Lance Walker, a seaman aboard the U.S.S. Nimitz, a nuclear aircraft carrier, had supplied all of the 129 stolen documents in the bag. There were also personal letters in the bag from John Walkers best friend, Jerry Alfred Whitworth, a naval communications specialist, who had been an active member of the ring for 10 years. Plus, Walker had mentioned a third spy, his own older brother, Arthur, another Navy veteran who worked for a defense contractor.

Taken to an isolation cell in the Baltimore City Jail, he began going over every step he had made in the past 24 hours. How had the FBI learned about the dead drop? What mistake had tipped them off? The more he thought about his capture, the more certain he became. Barbara Crowley Walker, his ex-wife, had to be the FBIs source. His brother, Arthur, had warned him several months earlier that Barbara was threatening to turn them in. But John Walker had not taken her seriously. Why should he? She had threatened him so many times that he had assumed her most recent rantings were a joke. As he sat in jail thinking, he decided that he had only made one mistake as a spy. I should have killed Barbara, he later explained. I should have assassinated her in the beginning. I should have put a f hole in her head.

Walkers arrest and the discovery of his spy ring stunned the country. Even though Christopher John Boyce and Daulton Lee, two spoiled California youths (whose lives were depicted in the book and movie The Falcon and Snowman), had caused a stir when they were caught selling classified information in the 1970s from a defense contractor to the KGB, the last major spy case that had involved Americans had been the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg scandal in the 1950s. While no one was surprised when foreigners betrayed their countries, there was a strong belief that U.S. citizens simply were immune to espionage. Walkers arrest shattered that illusion and sparked what the media quickly dubbed The Year of The Spy. Following Walkers arrest, seven other U.S. citizens would be accused of spying before the yearend. In Moscow, meanwhile, Walker was celebrated as the KGBs most successful Cold War spy. From 1967 until 1985, he had provided the KGB with vital U.S. cryptographic secrets that had enabled Russian agents to decipher coded military messages. Soviet KGB General Boris Aleksandrovich Solomatin, who oversaw Walker, later called him the most important spy ever recruited by Russia. John Walker gave away the keys to your most secret code machines, Solomatin bragged, giving us the equivalent of a seat inside your Pentagon where we could read your most vital secrets. KGB officer Vitaly Yurchenko was more blunt: Walker was the greatest case in KGB history. We deciphered millions of your messages. If there had been a war, we would have won it.


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