A 21-year-old Army intelligence specialist from Orange County is missing from a U.S. military base in West Germany, and Army officials said Thursday they are concerned that he may have defected to East Germany.
Spec. 4 Michael Peri, who was trained to analyze electronic warfare signals, such as those of radar, was reported missing Feb. 21 from the 11th Cavalry Headquarters in Fulda, West Germany, according to a Pentagon spokeswoman, Army Maj. Kathy Wood. A military vehicle the Laguna Niguel soldier had checked out was found two days later about 30 miles northeast of Fulda near the village of Obersuhl and just a mile from East Germany, she said.
Army officials reached in Fulda said they are baffled by Peri's disappearance and called the abandonment of his vehicle so near the East German border "suspicious."
Peri's worried relatives said Thursday that they have been told only that he is missing, and they rejected any suggestion that he might have defected. But they recalled that during a visit last Christmas, he seemed extremely interested in espionage and spoke of joining the CIA.
"He told me that he was going to put in his time in military intelligence, and after he came out he was going to go back to college," said Peri's uncle, Bob Andre, who lives in La Habra. "Then, with his college degree and a background in intelligence, he was going to apply for a job with the CIA."
Andre and his wife, Jackie, said the young soldier seemed enthusiastic about the military and living in Europe when he attended their Christmas party. Another relative told them at the time that Peri was dating a German girl, Bob Andre said.
Peri, a 1985 graduate of La Quinta High School in Westminster, was last seen on the base in Fulda at 9 p.m. on Feb. 20 and was reported missing the following morning when he did not show up for daily formation.
A laptop computer also is missing from the base along with Peri, who would have had access to certain classified information, spokeswoman Wood said. Peri had an exemplary military record and was nominated twice for best soldier in his unit, she said. An investigation is under way to determine what information he may have worked with and the significance of the material for East Germany.
In addition, the Army has requested assistance from the West German authorities in the search for Peri. While she acknowledged concern that he may have defected, Wood said there is still no proof.
"We have no evidence at this point that proves he is anything but missing," she said.
An Army spokesman in Washington said the only similar incident he could recall was the 1987 defection of Pvt. 2nd Class Wade Evan Roberts. Roberts, of San Bernardino, left his base at Giessen, West Germany, and moved with his German girlfriend to Moscow, where authorities said they would be given political asylum.
After eight months, however, Roberts and his wife became disenchanted with Soviet life and returned to the United States after being promised that he would not face desertion charges if he came back and stood trial. He was eventually convicted of being absent without leave and given a bad conduct discharge.
Before going to the Soviet Union, Roberts considered defecting to East Germany but decided against it after being told he would have to undergo a six-month political orientation course.
Although other U.S. citizens have received asylum in the Soviet Union, Roberts' defection was the first by a member of America's armed forces since the Vietnam War. In 1967, four American sailors appeared on Soviet television and spoke out against the war, and the following year an Air Force staff sergeant did the same.
Jackie Andre said that her sister, Winnie Peri, the soldier's mother, had been distraught since she was notified more than a week ago that her son was missing. But family members said they do not believe he would have voluntarily crossed into East Germany.
"I doubt it, I really do," Bob Andre said. "I think that would be a very remote possibility."
Peri was "a very together young man," Jackie Andre said. "He didn't drink and he wasn't a carouser. He wasn't wild at all, more on the quiet side."
Peri's mother spoke briefly to reporters Thursday at the family's sprawling hilltop home in Laguna Niguel. "My son is missing," Winnie Peri said. "That's all we know. We're just praying to God that Michael's safe."
Her husband, Fred R. Peri, arrived home early Thursday afternoon from his job as contract administrator at Fluor Daniels Corp. in Irvine. "All I know is my son is missing," he said tersely.
The family had lived all over the globe, moving as needed for his father's career. Although Michael Peri graduated from the Westminster high school, he had spent two years of his high school career abroad, at the Salzburg International Preparatory School in Austria and Evander High School in South Africa. Peri requested that a high school transcript be sent to Humboldt State College, but it was not clear Thursday if he had ever attended classes there.
The family moved from La Habra to South Africa, Chicago, and Westminster before finally settling last year in Laguna Niguel.
In West Germany, Peri had friends in the military and some social acquaintances in Fulda, but no serious romantic relationships, according to Lt. Col. Jake Dye, an Army spokesman in Fulda.
"He left behind a brand new car . . . skis, a computer, stereo equipment, all his clothes," Dye said. "Just about everything he had. If there is anything missing from his apartment, we don't know what it is.
"There were some German girls, but no lasting relationships," Dye said a local investigation has determined. "We really don't know (what happened). It's strange. A good soldier leaves all of his personal possessions behind (and) there's no real indication that something might be happening."
Times staff writer Jim Carlton contributed to this story.