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John T. Downey dies at 84; CIA agent imprisoned by China for 20 years

John T. Downey obituary: CIA agent spent 20 years in Chinese prisons, became Connecticut judge

John T. "Jack" Downey, a former CIA agent who survived more than 20 years in Chinese prisons during the Cold War before becoming a Connecticut judge, has died. He was 84.

Downey died Monday at a hospice in Branford, Conn., a month after being diagnosed with cancer, according to his son, Jack Lee Downey.

The elder Downey graduated from Yale University and joined the Central Intelligence Agency a year before his plane was shot down during a botched cloak-and-dagger flight into China in November 1952. He spent the next 20 years, three months and 14 days in Chinese prisons. He was released in March 1973, shortly after President Nixon publicly acknowledged Downey's CIA connection.

After returning to the United States, he graduated from Harvard Law School and was appointed to the Connecticut bench in 1987.

Jack Downey said his father's years of imprisonment shaped his life in every possible way.

"He could have very justifiably come out of this extremely bitter and cynical about human nature and all things. He miraculously wasn't," said Downey, whose mother was born in China and met his father in Connecticut.

John Downey and another CIA paramilitary officer, Richard G. Fecteau, of Lynn, Mass., were on their first overseas assignment when their plane was shot from the night sky in a Chinese ambush. Both survived, and Fecteau was kept behind bars for 19 years. Their pilots, Robert C. Snoddy, 31, of Roseburg, Ore., and 29-year-old Norman A. Schwartz of Louisville, Ky., were killed in the crash.

The secret mission was smothered in U.S. government denials, but bits and pieces of the story emerged over the years, revealing a tale of personal triumph, tragedy and CIA miscalculations from the early years of the spy agency's existence.

Their mission was to recover a spy working for the CIA in the Manchuria region of northeastern China. Downey and Fecteau had been assigned to a covert program that airdropped noncommunist Chinese exiles into the area to link up with disaffected communist generals, but the agent they were picking up had betrayed the Americans.

Downey was well known to the Chinese operatives because he trained them. When Downey was captured, a Chinese security officer pointed at him and said in English: "You are Jack. Your future is very dark."

Downey and Fecteau were hauled off to prison — first in the city of Mukden, then in Beijing — interrogated and isolated in separate cells. Each spent long stretches in solitary confinement.

The CIA in 2011 released an hourlong film, "Extraordinary Fidelity," which blends documentary footage and re-enactments to tell the officers' story. The film details efforts by CIA officials in Washington, throughout the men's imprisonment, to keep their financial affairs in order and provide assistance to their families, who did not even know the men were alive until a show trial was held in Beijing two years after the crash.

In 2013, Downey received the CIA's Distinguished Intelligence Cross, the agency's highest honor of valor.

Born April 19, 1930, in Wallingford, Conn., Downey had lived in New Haven, Conn., for 40 years.

Besides his son Jack, an assistant professor of religion at La Salle University in Philadelphia, Downey is survived by his wife of 40 years, Audrey Lee Downey; and a brother, William F. Downey of New York City.

news.obits@latimes.com

Melia writes for the Associated Press.

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