WASHINGTON — The Marine Corps on Friday pared down its espionage case against Sgt. Clayton J. Lonetree, a former guard at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow accused in a sex-and-spy scandal, dropping charges that he allowed Soviet agents access to sensitive areas of the building.
Facing assertions by defense attorneys that some evidence against Lonetree was questionable, the commanding officer of the Marine base at Quantico, Va., ruled that accusations involving the Soviet agents--the most dramatic charges in the case--should be dismissed as inadmissible hearsay.
The commander, Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen Jr., also ordered that Lonetree's prosecution will be on a "non-capital" basis, meaning that the death penalty will not be sought. However, Petersen refused to set aside all the charges as Lonetree's attorneys had demanded, ruling that there was sufficient evidence to proceed with his court-martial.
Lonetree's lawyers last month filed court papers seeking a civilian trial instead of a court-martial, partly to avoid the possibility of a death penalty. But New York attorney William M. Kunstler, who is helping to defend Lonetree, said that request probably will be abandoned now that the case against Lonetree has been reduced.
Petersen said in a brief statement that the court-martial was tentatively scheduled to begin July 15 on 13 counts of conspiracy and espionage, including charges that Lonetree passed to the Soviet Union the names of some U.S. intelligence agents.
Lonetree, 25, also stands accused of passing secret documents to the Soviets that included diagrams of embassy office space.
"If convicted, the maximum penalty for these offenses is a dishonorable discharge, confinement for life, forfeiture of all pay and allowances and reduction to the lowest enlisted pay grade," Petersen's statement said.
In effect, the case reverts to the original charges filed against Lonetree after he was arrested last December and was interrogated by the Naval Investigative Service. The case had taken on a deeper significance in March when investigators disclosed that a second Marine guard at the Moscow embassy, Cpl. Arnold Bracy, had confessed that he and Lonetree, working together at night, allowed Soviet agents to roam through sensitive areas of the building.
Bracy told investigators that he and Lonetree agreed to this scheme after being compromised by sexual liaisons with Soviet women. The accusations that two Marines had worked in tandem gave a new dimension to the case and spurred congressional inquiries into the selection and training of mostly single young servicemen for isolated duty in hostile posts like Moscow.
Bracy, however, subsequently recanted his statement about collaborating with Lonetree, claiming that he had given it under duress to agents of the Naval Investigative Service.
Petersen's ruling appeared to support this claim, indicating that investigators have developed no independent evidence to support Bracy's original claim of collaboration.
'Evidence . . . Is Hearsay'
"In its current form, the evidence on these charges (involving Soviet agents) consists principally of hearsay which is not admissible at trial," he said. "The investigation continues with all concerned government agencies cooperating with the Naval Security Investigative Command."
Kunstler said Friday that he was "very grateful" for Petersen's action.
"We didn't think they would dismiss all the charges," Kunstler said. "But they have eliminated the heaviest ones. We're back down to charges arising from the first statement that Lonetree made himself."
He said military investigators have been unable to obtain independent evidence against Lonetree. "So I don't think the espionage case can stand up. I think he will be found guilty of fraternization," Kunstler said.
He was referring to a Marine Corps rule banning U.S. Embassy guards from fraternizing with women in a hostile country such as the Soviet Union.
Following charges against Lonetree and Bracy, the Pentagon ordered all 28 Marine guards in Moscow and six Marines at the U.S. consulate in Leningrad to be returned home to Quantico for further questioning in the expanding case.
Two additional arrests were made. Staff Sgt. Robert S. Stufflebeam, a guard supervisor in Moscow, was accused of improper fraternization with Soviet women. Sgt. John J. Weirick, who was assigned to El Toro Marine Air Station at Santa Ana, Calif., was arrested on suspicion of espionage while serving at the consulate in Leningrad in 1981 and 1982.
Pentagon sources say that the Marine Corps has asked the Justice Department to assume the prosecution of Weirick because the statute of limitations under military law has expired, the Associated Press reported Friday. The Justice Department reportedly has not decided whether to take the case.