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Missing Southland Soldier Returns to His Base in Germany

March 06, 1989|JEFF MITCHELL and JEAN DAVIDSON | Times Staff Writers

Michael Peri, an Army intelligence specialist from Orange County who authorities feared had defected to East Germany has turned himself into military police in West Germany, unharmed and carrying a portable computer he had apparently taken with him.

U.S. military officials were interrogating Peri on Sunday and declined to reveal where the soldier had been for 11 days or why he left the base without permission. He has not yet been charged in the incident, Army spokesman Lt. Col. Jake Dye said by telephone from West Germany.

Peri, 21, a specialist fourth class whose parents live in Laguna Niguel, disappeared from his 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment office in Fulda, West Germany, Feb. 20.

Peri's jeep was found two days later about a mile from the East German border, prompting military officials to speculate that he may have defected and taken sensitive Army information possibly stored inside a personal computer that was reported missing at the same time.

But at 5 p.m. Saturday, 11 days after he left the base, Peri turned himself in.

Computer Underneath Arm

"He was dressed in civilian clothes and had the computer underneath his arm," said Dye. "He just walked up to the gate, identified himself and surrendered."

Peri, who has been nominated twice for best soldier in his unit, has been permitted to talk with the base chaplain and legal advisers, but not family members, Dye said. He is being held in a detention center inside the Fulda base.

"He is being questioned by military police and Army intelligence officers right now. He is aware that his actions have created quite a stir," Dye said. "It may well be through tomorrow before we announce what he's being charged with and even that might be premature. It all depends on Peri's cooperation."

Dye said that the Army has no evidence that the young soldier actually did cross the border into East Germany. Peri's jeep, while found a short distance from the border, was also less than a mile from the village of Obersuhl.

"So far, we don't know if he stayed there or not. It's a small village, but you can get accommodations for food and lodging," Dye said, adding that Peri's jeep was in working condition when it was found.

Information Not Disclosed

Military officials have declined to say what information, if any, Peri was carrying in the portable computer.

Last week, the Pentagon had launched an investigation with the help of West German authorities to determine exactly what Peri was working on at the time of his disappearance, according to spokeswoman Maj. Kathy Wood.

Wood could not be reached for further comment Sunday.

According to Dye, Peri had "access to classified information, but we do not know exactly what he was working on when he disappeared."

Family members in Orange County said Sunday that they had not spoken with Peri since his return to the base and were not told why he had been missing for 11 days, but they were relieved that he was back, unharmed.

"The Army wouldn't tell us where he was. I couldn't tell you either. He's the only one that could tell you what happened and they won't let us speak to him," Ken Peri, Michael's brother said. "It was a real relief to know that he was safe. It was a pretty wild week for our family."

Speculation Rejected

Ken Peri said that he would not allow himself to believe Army officials' speculation that his younger brother attempted to defect to East Germany.

"He's a good kid. He wouldn't do anything like that. It just doesn't make sense."

Peri's aunt, Jackie Andre, said she was concerned that the Army would not tell them where Peri was during his 11-day absence.

"I'm just as curious as everyone else," Andre said. "The main thing is that our prayers were answered. He's safe, healthy and back on the base."

Peri's parents, Fred and Winnie, were unavailable for comment Sunday.

Lived Abroad

Peri, a 1985 graduate from La Quinta High School in Westminster, lived abroad as a teen-ager, attending schools in Austria and South Africa. Late last year, the family took up residence in a $400,000 hilltop home in Laguna Niguel.

Relatives said that the tall, blond-haired soldier had expressed an interest in continuing work in the intelligence field after leaving the Army. In 1983, Peri completed an 18-week intelligence course at Ft. Devens, Mass. In March, 1988, Peri asked the Army to station him in West Germany.

Peri had planned to return to college after leaving the service to get a degree that would then enable him to apply for a job with the CIA, according to Bob Andre, Peri's uncle.

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