Jerry Whitworth, Accused in Espionage Ring : No One Really Knew Fourth Spy Suspect
From his youth, accused spy Jerry Alfred Whitworth was always hiding something from those who thought they knew him best.
He was named class comedian of his high school because he was “always so happy-go-lucky, making everybody laugh.” Hidden from his classmates was the pain of a tumultuous home life.
To his wife, he was a pillar of strength, a man with “a very confident manner” who had “seen the world and met people from different cultures.” To Dave and Adele Olson of Fresno, he was “a sad little orphan boy” their son “drug home from the Navy one day.”
To some, he bragged about becoming an engineer. To others, he talked of becoming a geologist. But when the time would draw near to enroll in a university, he would head back to his enlisted man’s job as a communications specialist in the Navy.
He married into two families, but was a virtual stranger to his in-laws.
And then, there was his longtime relationship with John A. Walker Jr., 47, of Norfolk, Va.
Lifelong friends and close relatives of Whitworth told The Times that they never heard him mention Walker. But the FBI said that Whitworth, a native of the Paw Paw Bottoms near Muldrow, Okla., and Walker were “best friends” and longtime accomplices in stealing U.S. military secrets for the Soviet Union. Authorities have described Whitaker as a member of the most damaging espionage ring uncovered in the United States in three decades.
Whitworth, 45, was arrested Monday in San Francisco on charges of conspiracy to commit espionage. A federal magistrate ordered him held without bail Friday after an FBI agent testified that among the classified documents found in Whitworth’s trailer home in Davis, Calif., were plans for U.S. communications in the event of military hostilities in the Middle East.
That was the most specific description yet of the kind of information allegedly stolen by the spy ring, which the FBI said was headed by Walker, who, like Whitworth, was retired from the U.S. Navy and is now under arrest. Also charged in the case are Walker’s 22-year-old son, Michael, a sailor aboard the aircraft carrier Nimitz, and the elder Walker’s brother, Arthur Walker, 50, a retired submarine officer.
Other than his lawyer, Whitworth’s only visitor since his arrest has been his wife of nine years, Brenda Reis, 30, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Davis.
But this week, Willard Owens expects to make the trip from Paw Paw Bottoms in the shadow of the Ozarks to Whitworth’s San Francisco jail cell. Owens is the accused espionage agent’s favorite uncle. It will be one of the rare times when two twains of Whitworth’s multifaceted life meet.
“I thought I’d let things settle a spell before I go,” said Owens, a plain-spoken soy bean farmer who sits for long moments these days, looking off into space, shaking his head.
At one point last week, Owens walked over to an 8-by-10-inch boyhood portrait of Whitworth on a mantle. Staring into the cherubic face, Owens eyes filled with tears. “Tell me if you see any treason there ,” he said, his voice breaking.
“It’s just too big. It’s just too complicated for me,” Owens said, finally. “Jerry never did cause no trouble, never did fight, never did raise Cain at the drive-in at night, never even got one traffic ticket that I know’d of.”
“He’s got himself involved in something and we’re all just wondering what it could be,” lamented Agnes Morton, Whitworth’s 71-year-old mother, who spent most of last week granting interviews to reporters calling on her back road farmhouse from all around the nation. “He was a great person, still is,” she would repeat time after time. One afternoon, a helicopter from an Oklahoma City television station landed in the field next to her four startled cows. The next day, the hometown newspaper ran a large photograph of Whitworth taken for the 1956 Muldrow High School “Bulldog Memoirs” yearbook.
“That just tickles me no end to see that. It’s just how he looked when he left home,” a smiling Agnes Morton said, momentarily caught up in the circus that has surrounded her since FBI agents jailed her only son a week ago.
Whitworth was born in 1939 in his grandparents’ house next door to the New Covenant Free Will Baptist Church. Paw Paw Bottoms is an area of rolling green hills and neatly fenced farms and a fiercely patriotic population that deals with life in simple truths and doesn’t mask its feelings, even from strangers. Jerry Whitworth was a nice boy from a unhappy home, simple as that, townspeople say.
“He was always joking, had a real good personality, and that’s about it,” said Anita Green Israel, a member of Whitworth’s Class of 1957 at Muldrow High and a teacher now in town. “ ‘Course, he was from a broken home, you know.”
Time at Drive-In
Whitworth spent his teen-age years getting mediocre grades, working on his family’s farm and spending Friday nights at Beverly’s Drive-in in Fort Smith, Ark., 11 miles to the east. It was the zenith of anti-Communist fever in America, the heyday of the McCarthy-Era witch hunts, but no one recalls Whitworth--who would later become an Ayn Rand-quoting Libertarian--as a budding ideologue.
Instead, one of his longtime teachers remembers a lonely child.
“He was one of those boys who was like a little pup at my heels,” recalled Don Morton, who taught Whitworth vocational agriculture for four years at Muldrow High and became “like a father figure to him, I guess you could say.” The two stayed in contact and Whitworth visited Morton and his wife, Velma, repeatedly during the last two decades, the last time over Easter, 1984. (The Mortons are not related to Agnes Morton.)
Don Morton took young Whitworth to Future Farmers of America conventions and tractor-driving contests. “He always seemed to be right there, ready to go anywhere you were going, do anything you were doing. He seemed to need a place to belong.”
When it came time to plan a five-year class reunion, Whitworth was one of the chief organizers, even though he was stationed several thousand miles away in the Navy, Israel recalled. “He really wanted to see everybody again,” Israel said. The reunion never came off.
Whitworth’s father left his wife and baby and came to California before Jerry Whitworth was 1 year old. “I only married him anyway to give the boy a name,” Agnes Morton recalls now. “Shouldn’t have done it.”
Raised by Grandparents
Whitworth was raised mainly at his grandparents’ home, where he was sheltered from his mother’s second husband--now dead--and his drinking problem, according to Agnes Morton.
When he was 17, Whitworth enlisted in the Navy. His mother signed for her underage son. “He’d have gone anyway, so why not?” she said. “He always loved the water.”
On his first weekend pass from the Alameda Naval Naval Air Station, the young Navy recruit paid a visit to the Blue Moon Cafe in Mendota, a small Central Valley town that advertises itself as “The Cantaloupe Center of the World.”
Whitworth got a ride down Highway 99 from his new Navy buddy, Roger Olson, in Olson’s sporty Dodge Charger. He was going to see Johnie Ike Whitworth.
“He walked in there and said, ‘Hi, I’m your son, Jerry,’ and his father just kept right on working. Jerry was really hurt,” recalled Dave Olson, Roger’s father. “His childhood . . . maybe there’s an answer in there somewhere,” Olson said.
“He come walking in and I didn’t recognize him until he told me who he was,” Johnie Whitworth recalls now. “I’d never seen him before. Her people didn’t like me, that’s what happened. They broke up the marriage. I got so goddamn mad I left there and didn’t stop movin’ until I saw the ocean.”
Didn’t Work Out
Whitworth tried to establish a relationship with his father during the early 1960s. He had left the Navy and was attending Coalinga College (now Westhills College), and for a time tried to live with Johnie Whitworth and his second wife, Juanita. But the arrangement didn’t work out. “He wanted to be on his own, I guess,” Johnie Whitworth, now 67, recalled. “He still had his kid ways.”
The young college freshman moved into an apartment with Roger Olson in Coalinga, got a job tending bar, then started driving a school bus. His father said that he sent Jerry cash from time to time, but “he never seemed to have enough money. . . . He always spent whatever he had.”
Adele Olson said he spent many hours at their home. She described him as friend-seeking loner who “leeched off us because he wanted family and we were glad to have him.”
Whitworth told his father that he planned to enter the University of California to study engineering after graduation from Coalinga, “but the next thing I knew I got a letter from him and he was back in the Navy. . . . He said he figured it was going to take him too long to become an engineer so he might as well make the Navy a career and stay in permanently.”
That was in late 1961 or early 1962, Johnie Whitworth said, only about three or four years before Whitworth may have begun spying for the Soviets, the FBI said. It was also about in this same time period that Whitworth was telling his friends, the Don Mortons in Muldrow, that he planned to attend the University of Arkansas to study geology.
In the ensuing years, Whitworth attended numerous communications schools and served aboard a communications relay ship, a supply ship and three carriers. He was twice stationed at a naval communications center on Diego Garcia, an island in the Indian Ocean, and twice at San Diego.
Records show that Whitworth and Walker served together in 1970 at the naval communications school in San Diego, but it is not clear if that was their first meeting.
Whitworth’s 23-year Navy career was typical of that of thousands of others, although he received a number of minor citations, including five Good Conduct ribbons. He rose to the rank of senior chief petty officer at retirement, the second highest rung on the enlisted man’s ladder.
From 1973 until his retirement as a senior chief radioman in 1983, FBI affidavits state, Whitworth’s work “usually involved security clearances and crypto-communications duties.” The FBI says that Whitworth stole a wide variety of sensitive documents.
It was also during those years in San Diego that Whitworth was first wed, a marriage he rarely spoke of after it ended in divorce a short time later. Some of his close friends and relatives had no recollection last week of that marriage, which took place in 1967 when Whitworth was 28.
His first bride was 19-year-old Evelyn Margaret Woodhouse, a San Diego State University student with a strong interest in philosophy.
“As far as I knew, they met through a mutual interest in philosophical problems, philosophical discussions,” said Barbara Woodhouse, Evelyn’s mother. “He had a great number of books on the mind and the health of the mind.”
Barbara Woodhouse barely knew her son-in-law when the two married--she had only seen him once or twice--but she hoped that he was the right tonic for her emotional daughter.
“I was very pleased with her decision,” Woodhouse said. “He was older than she, and I thought he might help her with some emotional problems that I was not able to solve.”
Marriage Broke Up
But the marriage soon started to disintegrate.
Ten months after the newlyweds exchanged vows before a municipal judge, they were separated. When Whitworth was out on sea duty, his young wife filed for divorce, according to records in San Diego County. Whitworth was served notice while stationed aboard the USS Ranger, which was docked in San Francisco.
The divorce settlement was typical for a young couple of that era. The papers indicated that Whitworth made $400 a month, and they listed community property of a 1968 Triumph TR 250, a set of books and a motorcycle.
“He was very upset . . . deeply hurt,” Woodhouse said. “He wanted to know what he had done wrong. She didn’t want to see him. He was just left a relatively young man with a divorce and he didn’t know why. . . .”
Evelyn eventually remarried and divorced a second time. Her second husband, Frank O. Gilbert, said she never mentioned Whitworth.
Whitworth finally got some clue to the breakup of his marriage about 12 years later, completely by chance. It came in the form of a telephone call from a now-retired Navy man, who had started dating Woodhouse when her marriage to Whitworth was over.
The ex-Navy man, who spoke only on the condition that he not be identified, said he had spotted Whitworth’s name on a roster of Libertarian Party members and remembered that he had been married to Evelyn. He decided to give him a call. It was then that Whitworth learned for the first time that Evelyn had died, apparently by suicide, in March, 1974.
“He seemed kind of shocked,” the man said.
The conversation lasted perhaps 45 minutes. The man left without strong impressions of Whitworth, except that he seemed “like a working stiff, a (Navy) lifer.”
The retired Navy man recalled that Whitworth said he worked in military communications, but knowing that that was a classified area, he did not ask about details of Whitworth’s work.
One other thing the retired sailor recalled: while Whitworth’s name was on the Libertarian mailing list, he did not seem to have particularly strong leanings toward the Libertarian Party, an organization that favors increasing individual liberties by limiting government activities and supports the repeal of laws that limit personal behavior.
“The one perplexing aspect is that if he was an individualist, why would he stay in the military where you have to take orders,” the man questioned.
Sometime after the two met, Whitworth’s evidently removed his name from the Libertarian mailing list.
Whitworth always strived to be an intellectual, friends say. He had a habit of reading philosophy books and the Wall Street Journal and enjoyed watching the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour on public television. He enjoyed listening to classical music and preparing gourmet meals. At other times in his life, Whitworth had a penchant for sail boats and riding his motorcycle on long highway trips.
Whitworth met his current wife, Brenda Leah Reis, in 1971. She was a 16-year-old high school student from rural Kintyre, N. D., and he was a veteran sailor, aged 31. The Navy introduced them.
Reis was a winner in a U.S. Navy-sponsored science contest, which awarded her an all-expenses trip to San Diego. Whitworth, then teaching rudimentary electronics and radio techniques at the Naval Training Center, was one of those assigned to escort the young students on their tour.
Reis returned to high school after the trip, graduated, then enrolled at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. But she hadn’t forgotten Whitworth. The two were now corresponding.
Brenda Reis said in an interview last week with the San Francisco Examiner that she found Whitworth to be someone with “a very confident manner, " someone she could lean on. At one point in her studies, she said, she was discouraged and ready to quit, but Whitworth encouraged her to continue, helped pull her out of a depression.
Moved to California
Love bloomed through letters and tape recording and in May, 1976, after Reis had completed three years at the university, she moved to California.
The two were married on May 24, 1976, in Las Vegas. The witnesses were courthouse employees whose names were stamped, not signed, on the marriage license.
After moving to San Diego, Reis had little contact with her family, according to her brother, Bob Reis, of Grand Forks.
“They were married about four years before we knew they were married,” the brother recalled. “We don’t communicate that much. They have their life and we have ours. Maybe a phone call at Christmas.”
Reis said he spent a week last year visiting the couple in Davis, but came away with few impressions about his brother-in-law. “I don’t know that much about the individual,” he said.
“During the 12 1/2 years that I have known Jerry, he has never said or done anything which would make me suspect that he would cause harm to the interests of this country,” Brenda Reis said of her husband in a statement released last week by her lawyer. “I will stand by him.”
Brenda Reis received a bachelor’s degree in biology from San Diego State University in 1978. Whitworth then was transfered to Alameda. Reis said she intended to go to medical school in the Bay Area but changed her mind and began work as a research assistant, co-authoring nutritional studies sponsored by the University of California, San Francisco.
Home in San Leandro
Later in 1978, the pair paid $58,000 for a beige stucco townhouse in San Leandro, southeast of the base.
“They were private. I really didn’t see them, except for the annual homeowners’ meetings,” said Sandy Fadden, manager of the Red Carpet Realty office up the street and the realtor who sold their house for $91,000 in November, 1983, shortly after Whitworth retired from the Navy.
Fadden recalled nothing unusual about the couple. They seemed intelligent, professional, nice. As escrow was closing, Fadden helped out by picking up their mail. She noticed nothing out of the ordinary, except that they received several catalogues for gourmet food and fashionable clothing. Nor was the house unique. Probably because they were often out of town and had expensive stereo equipment, Fadden figured, they had installed burglar alarms.
Upon his retirement, the Whitworths moved to the Sacramento suburb of Davis, where Brenda was now a doctoral candidate in nutrition. Reis is expected to receive her doctorate in September after completing her dissertation, a university spokesman said.
Whitworth and Reis leased a modest trailer in the quiet Rancho Yolo Mobile Home Park on the east side of Davis. The was only one hint of any wealth--the two late model cars parked in the driveway. The car Whitworth normally drove, a Toyota Celica Supra, still bore a Defense Department sticker that would allow him entry to the Naval Air Station in Alameda.
Neighbors Know Little
The couple’s neighbors knew little about them, despite the fact that they lived there almost two years. One next-door neighbor said she did not know Whitworth’s name, and knew Reis only as Brenda.
On those rare occasions when neighbors talked to the unemployed Whitworth, they said he was friendly but never spoke long.
Reis, in her statement, said her husband had been studying to become a stockbroker since he retired from the Navy. According to close friend Adele Olson of Fresno, Whitworth recently flunked the exam to become a registered stockbrokers.
While the FBI was following their every move, Whitworth and Reis were planning a move of their own, back to the Bay Area, where Reis hoped to begin work this month at Ames Research Center in Mountain View on a project researching the effect of weightlessness on bone degeneration. After Whitworth was arrested, the couple canceled the move.
When the moving man visited their mobile home last month to give them an estimate, he noticed that Whitworth had a large collection of computer equipment--a total of three separate home computer systems, he estimated.
Less than six months after Whitworth’s 1983 retirement, the FBI in San Francisco began receiving letters, signed, “Rus, Somewhere, USA.” Authorities believe that Whitworth was the author.
In the first letter, dated May 8, 1984, “Rus” said he has been involved in espionage for several years, passing “top secret cryptographic key lists for military communications.” He offered to cooperate with authorities, so long as he received immunity and they did not disclose his identity. The letter said that at least three other persons had been recruited into the spy ring.
The next letter was dated May 21, 1984. It again asked for immunity. The writer said the ring had been operating “more than 20 years.” In a final letter, dated Aug. 13, 1984, the author said he had concluded that “it would be best to give up on the idea of aiding in the termination of the espionage ring previously discussed.” No more letters arrived.
Within a year, the FBI began making arrests, first of John Walker, the retired Navy communications specialist who ran a Norfolk private detective agency, then Walker’s son, Michael, who is accused of passing documents to his father who sent them on to the Soviets, then John Walker’s brother Arthur, and finally, last Monday, Whitworth.
In the searches of Walker and Whitworth’s homes, authorities discovered letters Whitworth wrote to Walker, apparently in the last year or so.
In the first letter, addressed, “Dear Johnnie,” Whitworth said he was not working and had applied for no jobs. He mentioned that he was thinking about looking for a job in computer sales or stock brokerage.
“I realize this doesn’t fit in with your advice and counseling over the years,” he wrote. “Your help has been rewarding and I greatly appreciate all that you’ve done for me in the past.
“I can’t specifically say what it was, but I believe it relates to psychological benefits one gains from autonomous decision making. In other words, striking out independently in pursuit of one’s goals.
“In all honesty, I was happier in the ‘60s and ‘70s than I’ve been since. I have agonized over this decision. I hope you can understand and respect it.”
In another letter, Whitworth talked about his wife’s job prospects and said he was again working at becoming a stockbroker.
“There have been many reflections on my decision to retire and subsequent decision. . . . When it gets to the bottom line though, I believe that once Brenda and I are into our new careers that I’ll be happy with my strategy and that it will succeed. This period (October, 1983, to now) has been rough on my mental health at times.”
One of the items found by the FBI in Whitworth’s trailer was an envelope labled “Job Advertisements.” Inside was a classified ad for a communications specialist, requiring security clearance.
John Walker enclosed the personal letters in an envelope allegedly to his Soviet contact, evidently trying to explain why Whitworth had stopped being a source of information. But in a note by Walker to the Soviets, the accused head of the spy ring predicted that Whitworth’s resolve would weaken.
Referring to Whitworth by the initial “D,” Walker wrote: “D continues to be a puzzle. He is not happy but is still not ready to continue our cooperation. Rather than try to analyze him for you, I have simply enclosed portions of two letters I’ve received.
“My guess . . . is he is going to flop in the stockbroker field and can probably make a modest living in computer sales. He has become accustomed to the big spender life style and I don’t believe he will adjust to living off his wife’s income, he will attempt to renew cooperation within two years.”
Whitworth appeared in court twice last week, each time wearing a brown suede wind breaker, once wearing Levis, the other time wearing gray slacks. Bespectacled and balding with a trimmed beard, he said nothing to the magistrate and showed no emotion. He faces life in prison if convicted.
Times staff writers Ralph Frammolino in San Diego, Dan Morain in San Francisco and Richard C. Paddock in Davis contributed to this story.