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.
Army Spec. 4 Michael Peri, who was trained to analyze electronic warfare signals, such as radar, was reported missing Feb. 21 from the 11th Armored Cavalry headquarters in Fulda, West Germany, according to Army Maj. Kathy Wood, a Pentagon spokeswoman. A military vehicle he had checked out was found 2 days later about 30 miles northeast of Fulda near the village of Obersuhl, and just a mile from East Germany, she said.
Jeep Location 'Suspicious'
Army officials reached in Fulda said they are baffled by Peri's disappearance, calling the abandonment of his vehicle so near the East German border "suspicious." If this is a defection, it would be only the second time a member of the U.S. Armed Forces has defected since the Vietnam War, according to an Army spokesman in Washington.
Worried relatives of Peri, who graduated in 1985 from La Quinta High School in Westminster, said Thursday that they have been told only that he is missing. They rejected any suggestion that he might have defected but 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 his time in military intelligence and after he came out, he was going to go back to college," said Peri's uncle, Bob Andre of 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 a family Christmas party at their home in December. Another relative told them at the time that Peri was dating a German woman, Bob Andre said.
Jackie Andre said 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."
The tall, blond-haired soldier completed an 18-week intelligence course at Ft. Devens, Mass., in March, 1988, and, according to the Andres, asked to be stationed in West Germany. Military officials said that Peri was last seen on the U.S. 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 portable computer is missing from the base along with Peri, who would have had access to certain classified information, according to Wood, the Pentagon spokeswoman. An investigation is under way to determine what information he may have worked with and the possible significance that the material might have for East Germany, she said. In addition, the Army has requested assistance from West German authorities in the search for Peri.
Wood said that Peri had an exemplary military record and was nominated twice for best soldier in his unit. 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.
Peri's parents, Fred and Winnie, anxiously waited in their Laguna Niguel home Thursday for further news from the Army. "My son is missing," a tearful Winnie Peri said. "That's all we know. We're just praying to God that Michael's safe."
Fred Peri, a contract administrator at Fluor Daniels Corp. in Irvine, said only: "All I know is my son is missing."
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."
As a teen-ager, Peri lived all over the globe, moving frequently as his father's career took the family to South Africa, Chicago, Westminster and, late last year, to a $400,000 hilltop home in Laguna Niguel. Peri attended high school at the Salzburg International Preparatory School in Austria in 1981-82 and Evander High School in South Africa in 1982-83.
The family returned to the United States in 1983 and he spent a semester at Fountain Valley High School before transferring to La Quinta.
According to a form Peri filled out at La Quinta, he lettered in track while attending the South African school. His goal was to compete in the 1988 Seoul Olympics in long-distance bicycle racing.
In a letter of recommendation, Peri's English teacher at La Quinta gave him high marks.
"I find Mike's work in senior English to be superior," instructor Sue Hill wrote. "And somehow, in the course of a year, Mike manages to convey a feeling of confidence and a sense of complete control in what he does and how he thinks. He seems to have positive goals and a true direction in his life. . . . This is a sophisticated young man who has traveled all over the world. . . .
"He is creative, industrious, hard-working and independent. He maintains a part-time job while maintaining high grades at La Quinta. I would recommend this student for special consideration for admission, scholarships or honors."
After his graduation from La Quinta, high school records show that Peri requested that his high school transcript be sent to Humboldt State University in Northern California, but it is not clear whether he enrolled there. According to relatives, he served a stint in the National Guard before enlisting in the Army.
In 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, citing a local investigation. "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.
"The investigation is ongoing. . . . We're not eliminating any possibility," Dye said.
An Army spokesman in Washington said that 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 pregnant German girlfriend to Moscow, where Soviet authorities said they would be granted political asylum.
Returned to U.S.
After 8 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.
Times staff writer Jim Carlton contributed to this story.