• U.S.

American Notes: Nov 4, 1985

5 minute read

ESPIONAGE Cutting a Deal for a Navy Spy

After FBI agents caught John Walker Jr. trying to pass classified documents to a Soviet agent in rural Maryland last May, authorities said that Walker, a retired Navy chief warrant officer, had been spying for about 17 years. In betraying top-secret details of the military’s communications systems, they said, Walker apparently recruited his son Michael, a clerk aboard the U.S. aircraft carrier Nimitz, and several other helpers. Last week, three days before he was to go on trial before Federal Judge Alexander Harvey II in Baltimore, Walker accepted a plea bargain. Government sources confirmed that both he and his son will plead guilty this week.

The settlement, which Judge Harvey must approve, remains secret. But sources indicated that Walker, 48, will probably be sentenced to life in prison, while his son, as part of the deal, will get a lighter sentence. The elder Walker is expected to testify against Jerry Whitworth, a former Navy chief radioman accused of supplying him with communications secrets for sale. Whitworth pleaded innocent last week to the charges. Walker’s older brother Arthur, a retired Navy lieutenant commander, was convicted in August on similar charges and is awaiting sentencing.

DEFENSE A Not-So-Hard Hat

High-tech fighting machines are by no means the only Pentagon purchases that suffer defects. The latest snafu concerns new combat helmets. Introduced in 1983 to replace the “steel pots” in use since 1941, the helmets are made of Kevlar, a man-made fiber that is lighter, yet stronger than many metals. But after buying three-quarters of a million at $85.20 apiece, the Department of Defense discovered that three manufacturers had delivered defective versions made with scrap material. Army officials say that even though the second-rate helmets offer more protection than the old steel models, “We ordered a vicuña coat and got something that wasn’t.”

The helmet is only the latest sartorial gaffe foisted on the fighting man. Last year the Army admitted that its cotton-nylon fatigues, introduced in 1980, tore easily and were unbearably hot in warm climates, and the Pentagon canceled a new combat boot that tended to fall apart. Said one Army expert: “We don’t even like to talk about that one.” Like the boots, the faulty helmets will probably be replaced. But there is a defect in the process of trying to correct the defect: the military is still trying to trace the units that are wearing the helmets.

TENNESSEE Jailhouse Jam

Underfinanced and overcrowded, the Tennessee prison system is not unlike those in many other states. Last week a federal judge in Nashville reacted by hanging out a NO VACANCY sign. U.S. District Court Judge Thomas A. Higgins ruled that no more inmates can be accepted at the state’s 13 men’s prisons and three inmate-reception centers, where prisoners overflow into gyms and administrative offices. Only once before, in Alabama in 1975, have all a state’s jails been closed because of overcrowding.

Tennessee’s jails were packed in 1982 when riots broke out, and another judge declared conditions so bad they were unconstitutional. Last week, with the population at a bulging 7,800 and authorities worried about the possibility of more violence, Higgins barred the gates. The ruling means that prisoners will stay longer in county jails, which already hold 3,500 inmates convicted of state-level crimes. State Attorney General W.J. Michael Cody has asked the judge to allow the state to imprison murderers, rapists and armed robbers. Prison authorities are hoping that the legislature will approve emergency measures to allow earlier releases for well-behaved prisoners.

CALIFORNIA Win Some, Lose Some

How sweet it was earlier this month when Elliott Dixon scratched off the concealing film on one of California’s new instant-winner lottery tickets and discovered he had won $1,000. How bitter he was when he learned that none of the money would be his to enjoy. All of his winnings were confiscated by the state to go toward payment of a $2,100 child-support debt. Moaned the winner-loser: “I don’t mind seeing my debts reduced, but I would have rather made the decision myself.”

California’s hugely popular new lottery (first-month revenues: more than $240 million) has provided a bonanza to the state. Winners’ names are run through computers to determine whether they owe money for such things as income taxes and student loans. So far, 60 people have had their winnings reduced by $94,000 to help pay off debts. The state will reap far more when winners of $10,000 to $2 million are announced. Most vulnerable are the 300,000 people, mostly fathers, who owe more than $1.3 billion in child support. For them, and for recipients of food stamps and other forms of welfare whose benefits would be halted if they won, the thrill of winning may prove to be hollow.

FLORIDA Miami Virtue, Miami Vice

It was an extraordinary profession of innocence. Wearing his customary cowboy hat, Miami Police Chief Clarence Dickson led 30 top officers to Cedars Medical Center for drug-screening tests, which they passed. On the same day, 500 of the department’s 1,020 rank-and-file policemen also submitted urine samples for testing, with results due next week. Said spokesman Jack Sullivan: “The guys were just tired of all the bad publicity.” Drug-financed corruption in South Florida has provided the real-life inspiration for more than a few scripts on NBC’s Miami Vice, but recent events have particularly tarnished the police image. Investigators unearthed a badge-selling scheme, touching off investigations of three area police departments by the FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. A suburban Miami policeman has been arrested on charges of robbery, kidnaping and attempted murder, while two city officers. were charged with cocaine possession. Detectives are also looking into the whereabouts of $150,000 missing from police undercover funds. Last week’s urine-test lineup indicates that honest officers are more than a little concerned.

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