"Tell my mother I'm safe" was the message relayed by an anonymous telephone caller to a Laguna Hills woman. It is apparently the only word received from Richard and Emilie Smyth, a Huntington Beach couple who disappeared two months ago.
"Word is word, regardless of how indirect," Gene Manns said, referring to the terse message she received second-hand from her daughter a few weeks ago.
Richard Kelly Smyth, a computer engineer and U.S. adviser to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, fled shortly before he was to stand trial Aug. 20 on charges that he illegally exported electronic timing devices used in nuclear weapons to Israel. His wife, a former Huntington Beach elementary school teacher and mother of their five grown children, apparently accompanied him.
"Although I'm not comfortable, I'm much happier (since receiving the message)," said Manns, who lives with her husband in a Laguna Hills retirement community. She said the more she thinks about the Smyths' disappearance, the more she thinks "he (Smyth) did the right thing."
An international manhunt is under way for Smyth, according to U.S. government prosecutors. The couple was last seen by family members Aug. 10.
Smyth, 55, had pleaded not guilty to a 30-count indictment and was free on a $100,000 bond secured by his Huntington Harbour home. Foreclosure proceedings were filed Oct. 4 against the Smyths' vacant Cotuit Circle home, which is for sale along with 175 frontage feet of waterfront property.
Friends and family members say they are still shocked by the Smyths' disappearance. And Manns and other family members who gathered for a family dinner at an Orange County restaurant in early August had said Smyth was distraught over the upcoming trial. If convicted on all counts, Smyth faced 105 years in prison and fines in excess of $1.5 million.
Friends and colleagues describe Smyth as a brilliant but absent-minded engineer. Smyth taught graduate computer science classes at the University of Southern California and served as an adviser on aeronautical research to NATO.
Last May, he was attending a NATO meeting in Europe with his family when he learned of the indictment. After that, Smyth had said he was "astounded" by the charges. Relatives said, however, that he was quite casual about his defunct consulting and export business, Milco International Inc. He relied mostly on his wife and grown children to fill out paper work and process orders, they said.
The government alleges that Smyth illegally shipped to Israel about 800 electronic devices called krytrons. The small devices, featuring four colored wires protruding from a glass bulb, resemble old-fashioned TV tubes. Krytrons cost about $75 each. The indictment charges Smyth with 15 violations of the Arms Control Act and 15 counts of making false statements to the government. The latter charges are for allegedly describing the devices as electronic equipment, not krytrons.
After the charges were filed, an Israeli Embassy spokesman in Washington said Israel used the krytrons for "defense-related research and development for conventional weapons only." Israel has since returned about 460 krytrons at the request of the United States.
Thousands of Uses Cited
There are "potentially thousands of uses for krytrons," according to federal court documents filed by attorneys for Wellesley, Mass.,-based E G & G Inc., the sole manufacturer. The government removed krytrons from the restricted munitions list Jan. 1. However, they were restricted when Smyth allegedly shipped them.
Meanwhile, an international search for Smyth continues. After Smyth failed to appear for a pretrial hearing Aug. 14, federal District Judge Pamela Ann Rymer issued a warrant for his arrest.
"We are actively investigating the case and continue to pursue leads which we hope will result in Smyth's apprehension in the near future," Assistant U.S. Atty. Bill Fahey, the government prosecutor, said. He said he is "still hoping to find him by the end of the year." Fahey said he had heard rumors of messages from the Smyths, but declined to discuss them.
In late August, Smyth's son-in-law, Randy Risvold, told The Times that he was sure Smyth had left the country. Risvold's published remarks prompted a Los Angeles federal grand jury to reopen its investigation.
Risvold and his wife, Dawn Smyth Risvold, who served as Milco exports vice president, testified Sept. 5 about Smyth's whereabouts and business affairs, according to Michael Abzug, the Risvolds' attorney.
"They answered every question posed to them," Abzug said in a recent interview. "As far as I know they (the Smyth children) are just trying to put their lives together. . . . It's a real tragedy."
The Risvolds, who live in Irvine, declined to be interviewed.