SAN FRANCISCO — Testimony by FBI agents Monday in the trial of accused spy Jerry Whitworth revealed the cloak-and-dagger activities surrounding the capture of former Navy man John A. Walker Jr., the convicted Soviet spymaster that the prosecution says recruited Whitworth into espionage.
The testimony involved secret drop sites, signals passed by way of crumpled soft-drink cans, meticulous efforts by Walker to cover up his espionage activity and details of Walker's arrest, including a description of a few tense seconds when the spy and two FBI agents faced each other with drawn pistols.
Federal prosecutors contend that Whitworth, a retired Navy radioman, was paid $332,000 for passing classified documents to Walker between 1974 and 1983, and that Walker sold the information to Soviet agents. Whitworth, 46, is charged with 13 counts of espionage and tax evasion, and faces life in prison if convicted. Walker has pleaded guilty to espionage charges and been sentenced to life in prison.
Focus on Arrest
As Whitworth's trial entered its third week, testimony focused on Walker's arrest May 20, 1985, and a search of his home that produced spy equipment and papers that outlined and unraveled his espionage ring. The prosecution is laying the groundwork for Walker's scheduled appearance as the star witness against Whitworth.
FBI Agent David Szady told the jury that Walker's intricate movements to detect and evade surveillance on May 19, 1985, were "probably the longest, most complicated and most involved" that he had seen during his 12 years in counterintelligence.
Walker left his home in Norfolk, Va., at about noon that day. He spent the afternoon and evening driving in circles and stopping and starting along lightly traveled roads in rural Maryland, Szady testified.
Unknown to Walker, FBI agents were monitoring his movement from three airplanes and from 20 cars in the area.
Still, the 40 to 50 agents involved in the surveillance lost their quarry for three hours during the afternoon, only to spot him again at about 8 p.m., Szady said.
Drop Near a Tree
Then, agents watched as Walker stopped near a large tree and left behind a grocery bag, Szady said. The bag was picked up by the FBI and contained garbage set on top of a package of documents that had been stolen from the aircraft carrier Nimitz, where Walker's son, Michael, was stationed. Michael since has been convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison for his involvement in the ring.
As agents watched Walker, they also spotted Soviet Vice Consul Aleksei G. Tkachenko, accompanied by a woman and a child, driving on the same roads.
Szady said he suspected that Tkachenko would have dropped a package of his own, but sounding somewhat irritated, added that an agent mistakenly picked up a crumpled 7-Up can that Walker had left on the roadside to signal Tkachenko that he was making a drop that night.
Szady said Soviets often use crumpled cans to signal agents, believing litter attracts little attention and that no one would pick it up.
"Orange peels are big, too," he said.
The FBI began watching Tkachenko after Walker's arrest May 20, 1985, Szady testified, but noted that as an accredited diplomat at the Soviet Embassy, Tkachenko was immune from criminal prosecution in the United States.
Flight to Moscow
Tkachenko left his apartment in Alexandria, Va., with his wife and two children on May 23, 1985, and flew to Montreal and then on to Moscow. He has not returned to the United States.
Another FBI agent, Robert Hunter, testified that the FBI tailed Walker to a Ramada Inn in Rockville, Md. At about 3:45 a.m. on May 20, 1985, agents lured him out of his room by telling him on the telephone that a drunk driver had crashed into his van.
As Walker pressed a button for an elevator down to the parking lot, two agents appeared, their guns drawn. Walker turned quickly and aimed a .38 caliber pistol at the agents.
"I didn't want to kill him. I wanted to talk to him," Hunter said, explaining why he did not shoot.
Walker dropped his gun after several seconds.
Walker had with him an envelope that contained a detailed map of rural Maryland, plus two pages of handwritten instructions about the drop and several photos of the sites where he was supposed to place crumpled cans and leave the documents.