O.C. Soldier Led Unusual Life : Peri as Spy: Unbelievable to Those Who Knew Him

Times Staff Writer

While living with his family in South Africa, Michael Peri carried the U.S. flag for a drill team founded by his mother, a group of uprooted American teen-agers who called themselves the Patriettes.

Like many other youths living in the expatriate colony about 100 miles northeast of Johannesburg, Peri became protective of all things American. He was so concerned that the nasal Afrikaner clip would creep into his U.S. accent, a family friend recalled, that the California native acquired a Texas twang.

A decade later, the same young man who struggled to retain his American identity has admitted betraying his country. Spec. Michael A. Peri, an intelligence analyst for the Army, pleaded guilty to espionage and was sentenced on Saturday to 30 years in a military prison.

Once considered a model soldier, Peri was described by Army prosecutors during his court-martial as a "Judas" who acted on his spy fantasies by slipping into East Germany with U.S. military secrets and giving away the store.

The picture that has emerged of the young soldier since he returned from the Eastern bloc nation and surrendered in West Germany is unfamiliar to those who thought they knew him best. Family friends and military buddies expressed disbelief that the Michael Peri they knew could become a foreign agent, if only for a confused, brief moment.

"He's a good, wholesome kid who went into the Army because he was looking for direction," said Linda Later, a Salt Lake City publisher who became close friends with the Peri family while living in South Africa. Later recently helped line up defense attorneys for the accused soldier. "I can't believe that he would do this. I can't accept it at all."

Authorities at a Loss

Peri's disappearance was also baffling to officials of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Fulda, West Germany, where Peri had been stationed. The young soldier, described as well-liked and highly trusted, left behind a new Honda Civic, a stereo, skis and clothing when he fled to East Germany with a laptop computer and military secrets last Feb. 20. He returned and surrendered 12 days later, but even after his court-martial, authorities are at a loss.

"The question we have never been able to answer is why," said Sgt. Major Dale McInnis, spokeswoman for the 5th Army Corps in West Germany. Peri has not been accessible by the media since his return from East Germany.

Peri, described by friends as an average American kid, led an international childhood that was anything but typical. The second of Fred and Winnie Peri's three children, Michael spent his early years in a middle-class neighborhood of La Habra. But Fred Peri's career as a project engineer for Fluor Daniels Corp., an international firm based in Irvine, soon took the family all over the globe. They moved eight times before Michael turned 20.

The family lived for about three years in South Africa while Fred Peri worked on the construction of a refinery, according to Later, whose husband also worked for Fluor Daniels there. Young Peri and his sister, Desiree, traveled to Austria to attend the Salzburg International Preparatory School in 1981-82 and then returned to South Africa to enroll in Evander High Sc hool the following year.

Another job transfer took the Peris back to Orange County in 1983, and additional house moves caused Michael to switch from Fountain Valley High School to La Quinta High School in Westminster before graduating with mediocre grades in 1983. Michael Peri joined the Army Reserves and, after completing a two-year tour, moved briefly with his family to a Chicago suburb. In 1987, after his parents returned to California and began construction on a house in Laguna Niguel, Peri entered active duty and qualified for an elite intelligence training course.

California, Africa, Europe--to many it might sound like a glamorous life. But it was a difficult path for a shy young man, and one that his parents apologized for during wrenching testimony at Peri's sentencing hearing.

"This is not my Michael," Fred Peri told a military jury. "He's a quiet, unassuming young man. He's been under a lot of stress. Maybe when we raised him, we didn't teach him how to deal with stress. We insulated him."

Winnie Peri described her turbulent childhood in an alcoholic family and said that, as a result, she had been overprotective of her children.

"Maybe we did spoil our children," she testified. "We helped them along the way. I didn't have possessions when I grew up. I wanted them to have it better than I had it. We've given them an opportunity not to grow up, not to mature. I see that might be wrong now."

Peri said that he made an impulsive mistake when he crossed into East Germany with a computer and four floppy discs that contained details of U.S. troop movements in West Germany and Army estimates of Soviet military strength. He complained that he felt overworked and unappreciated in his job as an intelligence specialist for the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Fulda.

And, as he pleaded for forgiveness, Michael Peri the red-blooded American appeared again.

"People don't think I have remorse for what I've done," Peri said, crying. "But I'm willing to join combat arms . . . and put my life on the line in a front-line unit during the war."

To Sean Regan, who served with Peri in a Los Alamitos Army Reserve unit from 1985 to 1987, the combat offer reflected Peri's early patriotic enthusiasm. Regan, who is no longer a reservist, was a junior noncommissioned officer assigned to help train Peri in intelligence analysis.

"He was a good guy, and he really seemed to enjoy the work we were doing," said Regan, of Westminster. "When you're dealing with national security and you get your (security) clearance, you get something that only 2% of the country can get."

But, Regan noted, working for a "glorious unit on the front lines," such as the 11th Armored Cavalry, "can go to your head."

"You're planning war, and moving tanks and troops. It's a game, it's like chess. To me, that's very exciting, and that's how Mike felt too."

In an interview in March, Peri's uncle, Bob Andre of La Habra, also recalled the young soldier's interest in intelligence work. Michael Peri had spoken during a visit home last December of pursuing a career with the CIA, Andre said.

"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," Andre said. "Then, with his background in intelligence, he was going to apply for a job with the CIA."

Prosecutors depicted Peri as a cunning young man whose fantasies of espionage and intrigue were fueled by a magazine article that Peri read three days before his flight. Peri seemed fascinated with the story, about the Marine spy scandal at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, and bragged to friends about his high-level security clearance, according to Maj. Michael Graham, the lead prosecutor.

"He was the proverbial fox in the chicken house," Graham said. "He violated the trust his unit had placed in him. And like Judas betrayed Jesus at the Last Supper, Specialist Peri kissed off his friends, kissed off his family, kissed off his unit and kissed off his country."

A jury panel of five officers deliberated only two hours before returning with a sentence of 30 years in prison. According to the terms of a plea agreement, Peri's sentence will be reduced by 5 years if he serves his first three years in prison with good behavior. At the earliest, Peri could be paroled in 10 years.

"That kid was working 100 hours a week over there in a highly stressful job with nobody he could talk to," said Michael A. Martinson of Brea, who has known the Peri family since they were neighbors in La Habra in 1963 and described Michael as like his own son.

"I think the Army made an example of him, and I find it impossible to believe that he did what they say he did. Up until the last, I was hoping that he would be exonerated."

Later, who has been in daily contact with Fred and Winnie Peri, described the parents as "numb" following the sentencing. And although Later described Peri's decision to go to East Germany as "a screw-up; 22-year-olds screw up," she insisted that the soldier is no spy.

"If anything, Mike's on the klutzy side," she said. "If I were on a mission and Mike were on a mission, I'd worry about him screwing up. Not about being loyal--just making a mistake."

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