A U.S. serviceman from Orange County who had once been described as a model soldier pleaded guilty today to espionage charges for crossing into East Germany and giving Communist officials U.S. defense secrets.
He said he left the West because he was "frustrated" with his military duties.
Spec. 4 Michael A. Peri, 21, of Laguna Niguel, changed his earlier plea of innocent as part of an undisclosed pretrial agreement just as his court-martial began.
Sentencing Is Friday
Peri faces sentencing Friday in the courtroom in Fulda, West Germany. Since the crime was not committed during wartime, the maximum Peri could receive is life in prison, according to Sgt. Maj. Dale McInnis, spokeswoman for the 5th Army Corps.
Peri, an intelligence specialist once recommended for a Soldier of the Month award for his superior performance, disappeared with an Army laptop computer Feb. 21 from the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Fulda, where he was stationed.
A military vehicle that he had signed out was found two days later a mile from the East German border near the village of Obersuhl. On March 4, Peri walked through the gates of the base at Fulda and turned himself in to military police.
During four hours of testimony today, Peri said he had intended to sever all ties with the U.S. Army and "start over somewhere else," according to a report in Stars and Stripes, the Army newspaper.
"I really didn't have a plan," Peri said. "My primary reason was to leave behind all the frustrations and problems at work. Everything had been wrong. I wasn't enjoying myself. I wanted to start over somewhere else."
Peri told a military judge that he took the laptop computer with him because "I didn't think the Soviets would have one. It was a bargaining chip to keep them from doing something to me. It would show them I wasn't an American plant."
He said he climbed a fence at the East German border and walked south along a patrol route until he was spotted by soldiers and taken to a nearby East German military station. East German officials in civilian clothes took Peri to a house in East Berlin, where he was questioned for several days, Peri told the military court.
He said he asked to return to the West on March 3 when his East German interrogators asked him if he wanted to stay or leave.
Peri said he did not realize how damaging the information he had given to East Germany was until he was questioned upon his return. Military authorities have declined to reveal the nature of the information Peri passed.
The courtroom was cleared of spectators several times during today's hearing when classified information was discussed. Among those in attendance were Peri's parents, Fred and Winnie Peri, and his sister, Desiree.
In addition to the espionage charge, Peri pleaded guilty to being absent without leave, violating an Army regulation prohibiting unauthorized travel within the 1-kilometer East German border area, and theft of a military vehicle and computer.
Peri was described by relatives in March as "a very together young man" who planned to go to college after his Army stint and hoped to work for the CIA. As a teen-ager, Peri lived all over the globe as Fred Peri's career took the family to South Africa and Europe until 1983.