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John A. Walker Jr., a convicted spy who masterminded a family operation that sold military secrets for nearly two decades and enabled the Soviet Union to decipher more than 1 million classified messages sent and received by U.S. Navy vessels, has died in a prison hospital. He was 77.

His death Thursday at a penitentiary in Butner, N.C., was confirmed by Federal Bureau of Prisons spokesman Chris Burke. The cause was not disclosed.

The FBI arrested Walker in 1985 with his son Michael, brother Arthur and best friend Jerry Whitworth. Arthur died in the same prison hospital in July. Officials said it was one of the most damaging U.S. espionage rings ever uncovered.

John Walker was a Navy warrant officer when he started selling shipboard secrets to bail himself out of financial problems at a failing South Carolina bar he owned. He lured family members into the spy operation with prolonged sales pitches, and once even used his mother, Peggy, as an unwitting courier. When he treated her to a European vacation in 1979, he had her carry back a money belt in which he had secretly stashed $24,000 in KGB earnings.

Walker made more than $1 million as a spy, officials estimated.

He finally was turned in by his ex-wife, Barbara Crowley Walker, who knew about his spying for years, and his daughter Laura, whom he had unsuccessfully tried to recruit. He later described them as part of “the group of misfits and weaklings that brought me down.”

After Walker pleaded guilty to espionage in 1986, U.S. District Judge Alexander Harvey II gave him a life sentence and denounced him in court.

“Your motive was pure greed and you were paid handsomely for your traitorous acts,” the judge said. “I look in vain for some redeeming aspect of your character.”

Walker said he saw no contradiction in working for both the Navy and the KGB.

“The fact of the matter is I did perfect work for both governments at the same time,” he told the Washington Post in 1989. “Neither of them have complaint. My work for the U.S. Navy was extraordinary, exemplary. My work for the Soviets was also exemplary.”

(EDITORS: BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)

In his 2008 autobiography, “My Life As a Spy, Walker said he had been working for the greater good. In earlier interviews, he unhesitatingly said he did it for the money, but in his book, he claimed to be “reducing the prospect of war” by making information available to both sides.

(END OPTIONAL TRIM)

American officials said the secret documents gave the Soviet Union a trove of invaluable information about U.S. military operations, including the inner workings of American spy satellites, the authentication codes required to launch nuclear missiles, and the precise location of the underwater sensors used to track Russian submarines.

Vitaly Yurchenko, a high-ranking KGB agent who briefly defected to the U.S., called Walker’s family network “the most important operation in the KGB’s history.”

Born in Washington, D.C., on July 28, 1937, Walker had an unhappy childhood in Scranton, Pa., where his alcoholic father was a late-night radio disc jockey. After several brushes with the law, Walker dropped out of high school at 17. At the urging of his older brother Arthur, who was by then a sailor, John Walker joined the Navy.

As a communications technician stationed in Norfolk, Va., Walker illegally copied a sheaf of documents about secret Navy codes. In 1968, he walked them into the Soviet Embassy in Washington. It was the first of his contacts with KGB agents, many of which took place in Vienna.

When the Navy required a routine renewal of Walker’s top-secret security clearance, he forged the necessary forms. Meanwhile, he photographed documents with a miniature camera or copied them on the office photocopier.

“Kmart protects their toothpaste better than the Navy protects their top secrets,” he once told a reporter.

After retiring from the Navy in 1976, Walker became a private investigator. But he kept the secrets flowing with material supplied by his Navy friend, radioman Jerry Whitworth. In later years, he recruited his brother Arthur, a Navy retiree who worked for a defense contractor, and his son Michael, a sailor on the aircraft carrier Nimitz.

Arthur was serving a life sentence when he died. Whitworth was given a sentence of 365 years.

In a deal with prosecutors, John Walker agreed to plead guilty in return for giving investigators a full accounting of his espionage and securing a less severe prison term for his son. Michael received a 25-year sentence and was released in 2000.

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)

Even when facing many years in prison, Walker was unrepentant.

In an interview with Pete Earley, author of a 1988 book about the case called “Family of Spies,” Walker still seemed astounded that FBI agents were so unappreciative when they arrested him.

“Here I was, a person who had run a successful — perhaps the most successful — spy ring in the nation’s history, and all these bastards were worried about was getting out a goddamn press release,” he said. “Getting public attention was more important than using me as a double agent.”

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©2014 Los Angeles Times

Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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Topics: t000002953,t000047707,t000138183,t000047682,t000047680,t000015427,t000002458,t000002478,t000027855,t000003142

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