John A. Walker Jr., a former Navy officer who in 1986 pleaded guilty to recruiting his son, a brother and a friend into a spy ring that stole military documents and sold the information to Soviet agents, died Thursday at the federal prison complex in Butner, North Carolina. He was 77.
His death, at the prison medical center, was confirmed by Chris Burke, a spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons.
Walker was a Navy communications specialist when he began spying for the Soviets at the height of the Cold War in 1967. After his arrest in May 1985, the government said he had led one of the most damaging spy operations in U.S. history. All four members of it were convicted.
Walker worked alone initially and by most accounts without an ideological motive. Stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, and struggling financially, he first sold the Soviets information that allowed them to read encrypted messages, initiating the transaction by walking into the Soviet Embassy in Washington. By the 1970s, he had brought in Jerry A. Whitworth, a Navy radioman who was a close friend. Whitworth passed Walker classified Navy cryptographic data that U.S. officials said the Soviets were particularly eager to receive.
In 1980, when Walker learned that his older brother's car radio business was failing, he encouraged him to find a job with a Navy contractor to gain access to documents. The brother, Arthur, did just that.
John Walker persuaded his son, Michael, a clerk with a fighter squadron in Virginia Beach and later on the aircraft carrier Nimitz, to smuggle secret documents under his jacket, including some Michael had saved from shredding.
"My father was pleased and said it looked like we were on a roll," Michael Walker said in court. "He told me to go ahead, keep it up."
How much each man was paid was not always clear, but Whitworth admitted in court to receiving $332,000.
Among the information the men provided were descriptions of changes made to U.S. submarines that helped the Soviets make improvements to their own submarines. Some of the encrypted information allowed the Soviets to track U.S. submarine and ship movements.