SAN FRANCISCO — Accused spy Jerry A. Whitworth was lured into a life of espionage for the Soviet Union by a greedy longing for "one big score," a federal prosecutor told jurors Monday as testimony got under way in Whitworth's trial here.
Whitworth is accused of working as a key member of a ring headed by retired Navy Chief Warrant Officer John A. Walker Jr. Federal authorities have described the ring as the most damaging one to operate against the United States in 30 years.
In his opening statement, Assistant U.S. Atty. William (Buck) Farmer said Whitworth leaked sensitive communications information that enabled the Soviets to track the paths of Navy warships, gave Soviets the ability to listen freely to secret messages and made it possible for them to build equipment to unlock the messages.
"There was a secret business, a business that paid in cash, a business that Jerry Whitworth was part of," Farmer said, noting that Whitworth is accused of receiving $332,000 for passing documents over a nine-year period.
From the Soviet's perspective, the operation was "highly important" and had all the characteristics of a "high-level KGB" operation, including payments by Soviets to Walker, the ring's leader, of $1 million, Farmer said.
Whitworth, 46, who quit the Navy in 1983 after a career of 21 years, was a communications specialist in charge of communications on aircraft carriers such as the Enterprise and had unlimited access to communications at bases such as Diego Garcia, a strategic island in the Indian Ocean.
He is charged with 13 counts of espionage and tax evasion. U.S. District Judge John Vukasin could sentence Whitworth to multiple life terms in prison if the retired Navy man is convicted of passing the information to Walker, who in turn passed it to Soviet agents.
Whitworth is the last of four accused members of the Walker spy ring to come to trial. The other three have been convicted or pleaded guilty. Walker pleaded guilty to espionage and was sentenced to life imprisonment. His brother, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Arthur James Walker, 51, was sentenced to life in prison, plus 10 years and a $250,000 fine after his conviction. John Walker's son, Seaman Michael L. Walker, 23, was sentenced to 25 years after a guilty plea.
John Walker is expected to be the government's key witness against Whitworth.
As the trial got under way, Whitworth, a bearded native of Paw Paw Bottoms, Okla., busied himself taking notes. Upon entering court dressed in a blue-gray suit, he smiled at his wife, Brenda Reis, who was seated in a back row.
Tony Tamburello, one of Whitworth's lawyers, opened his case by attacking the government's main witness, describing Walker as a "consummate trickster" and the "personification of deceit."
"The government made a deal with a shark to catch a minnow," Tamburello told jurors.
Although he was a "faithful spy" for the Soviets, Walker passed himself off as a "superpatriot," Tamburello charged. He was a member of the National Rifle Assn., the John Birch Society and the main organizer for the Ku Klux Klan in Virginia.
In addition to recruiting a brother, son and good friend, John Walker tried to convince his daughter, Laura, who was in the Army, to join his ring. When she told him she was leaving the military because she was pregnant, Walker suggested that she get an abortion, Tamburello said. Ultimately, Laura Walker and John Walker's ex-wife, Barbara, turned him into authorities, who arrested Walker on May 21, 1985.
Whitworth's trial is the last in the Walker spy ring cycle, but it is expected to provide the first detailed public account of how the spies operated and offer new glimpses into the value of the material sold to the Soviets.
Some of the information began unfolding with Farmer's opening statement Monday, as he told jurors that Walker's spying began in the winter of 1968. Walker, then a Navy radioman with top-secret clearance, took a cab to the Soviet Embassy in Washington and delivered a single sheet of paper listing the keys necessary for decoding one day's secret messages for the entire Atlantic fleet of U.S. submarines.
After receiving $1,000 in cash from the Soviets, Walker got instructions for future drops.
By the mid-1970s, Walker decided to look for a partner. He settled on Whitworth. They met while both were teachers at the Navy Communications School in San Diego. They shared an interest in sailing, and Walker owned a boat, The Dirty Old Man.
In 1974, the two went to the movie, "Easy Rider," in which the protagonists, two motorcyle-riding drifters, attempt to make one big illicit drug score. As they left the theater, Whitworth remarked that if there were ever a chance to make such a score, he would take it, Farmer told the jurors. That remark "crystalized" for Walker that Whitworth would be willing to join in the espionage, the prosecutor said.
Later, while meeting at a San Diego bar, Boom Trenchard's Flare Path, Walker told Whitworth that he was "doing something and making a lot of money," Farmer said. After swearing Whitworth to secrecy, Walker told his friend that he could make $1,000 to $4,000 for "good crypto," meaning secret cryptographic material.
"As partners, they would share 50-50," Farmer told the jury.
Whitworth had ready access to "good crypto." He had risen to the highest possible rank for an enlisted radioman. He often was in charge of the vault in which secret information was stored. He had "unchallenged access" to the information, Farmer said.