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John Walker Jr., a former American sailor convicted during the Cold War of leading a family spy ring for the Soviet Union, has died in a prison hospital in North Carolina, officials said Friday.

He died Thursday at the Federal Medical Center in Butner, Federal Bureau of Prisons spokesman Chris Burke told the Los Angeles Times via email. Prison officials did not release a cause of death, and the North Carolina Medical Examiner’s office had no immediate information on the cause of death. He was 77.

His brother Arthur J. Walker, who made $12,000 for selling classified documents to Soviet agents through John, died in the same federal prison in Butner in July. He was 79.

John Walker Jr. was said to have throat cancer. He was set to be released in May, according to federal authorities.

When the family espionage ring was uncovered, John was cast by authorities as its amoral mastermind, a manipulator who got his son, Michael, his older brother, Arthur, and his best friend, Jerry Whitworth, to join him.

John Walker Jr. started spying in 1967 during his naval career and sold the KGB “vital U.S. cryptographic secrets that had allowed Russian agents to decipher approximately one million coded Navy dispatches,” wrote Pete Earley, author of “Family of Spies: Inside the John Walker Spy Ring.”

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(Staff writer Steve Chawkins contributed to this report.)

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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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