From Soldier to Spy: A Baffling About-Face

Times Staff Writer

While living with his family in South Africa, Michael Peri carried the U.S. flag for a drill team made up of uprooted American teen-agers called "The Patriettes."

Residing about 100 miles northeast of Johannesburg in the industrial Transvaal province, Peri became protective of all things American. The California native was so concerned that the nasal Afrikaner clip would creep into his speech, a family friend recalled, that he acquired a Texas twang.

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

Once considered a model soldier, Peri was described by Army prosecutors in his court-martial as a Judas who acted out 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 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 12 days.

"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 soldier. "I can't believe that he would do this. I can't accept it at all."

Peri's disappearance was also baffling to officials of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Fulda, West Germany, where he 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 Feb. 20. He returned March 4 and surrendered, but even after his court-martial, authorities are at a loss to explain what happened.

"The question we have never been able to answer is why," said Sgt. Maj. Dale McInnis, spokeswoman for the 5th Army Corps in West Germany.

Peri had an international childhood. 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. The Peris moved eight times before Michael was 20.

The family lived for about three years in South Africa while Fred Peri worked on the construction of a refinery, said 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 School the following year.

Another job transfer took the Peris back to Orange County in 1983, and moves to different houses caused Michael to switch from Fountain Valley High School to La Quinta High School in Westminster before graduating with mediocre grades in 1985.

Michael Peri joined the Army Reserve 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 his parents suggested during wrenching testimony at his sentencing hearing that it may have been a difficult path for a shy young man.

"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."

Michael 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 at his trial, Peri tried to show his remorse by saying he would fight on the front lines in the event of a war.

"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."

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, 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," such as the 11th Armored Cavalry, "can go to your head."

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

Prosecutors depicted Peri as a cunning young man whose fantasies of espionage and intrigue were fueled by a magazine article that he read three days before his departure to East Germany. 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, said Maj. Michael Graham, the lead prosecutor.

During testimony last week, the commander of Peri's regiment said intelligence work is duty for which only soldiers of above-average intellect are selected. Col. John Abrams described Peri as "a smart kid and a trusted analyst."

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

A jury 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 five 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 described Peri's decision to go to East Germany as "a screw-up" by a 22-year-old but 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 (him) being loyal."

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