Born in July 28, 1937, the son of studio salesman for a Warner Brothers. His father was a drunkard who cruelly beat his wife and children. John’s hatred for his father prompted him to spend a week plotting his murder (he decided against it). Eventually, his father abandoned the family.
In 1955, John Walker was arrested for burglarizing a gas station. Having confessed to several other crimes, a judge took the advice of John’s older brother and allowed him to join the Navy rather than serve jail time. John’s brother Arthur was a Naval Lieutenant Commander and believed the discipline would be beneficial to his younger brother. John felt immediately that he was smarter than others with whom he served.
John Walker was stationed in Boston Massachusetts and met a young woman named Barbara Crowley. The two began dating and when Barbara became pregnant they married. Barbara gave birth to a daughter (Margaret) and the family moved to Norfolk, Virginia after John was transferred to serve on a submarine as a radioman.
The bar was largely a failure and the pressure contributed erratic behavior from John. He began engaging in adulterous affairs and constant arguments with his wife. Barbara, likewise unhappy, turned to a surprising lover, John’s older brother Arthur.
When John was transferred to Norfolk Virginia, he left Barbara and his family behind to look after the bar. In his new assignment, he served as watch officer in the radio room of the Atlantic Fleet headquarters. In his position, he obtained information on every U.S. submarine in the Atlantic Ocean. Despondent over monetary issues as well as his crumbling marriage, John decided to seek money out for the classified information he was privy to.
In 1967 John stole a key list, a document with codes used to encrypt and decipher classified messages. He took a copy of it and marched into the Soviet embassy in Washington, D.C. He explained to a KGB officer that he was interested in turning over military secrets in return for monthly payments from the Soviets. After looking over the document, the KGB officer agreed. Ignoring instructions from his Soviet handlers, Walker began spending money freely, raising the suspicions of his wife. She pried open a metal lock box in John’s office in which she found photographic materials as well as maps and instructions for dead drops. She confronted John and he admitted that he was a spy. Barbara accompanied him to one of his dead drops (later claiming that she wanted to show support for him and their marriage).
John passed on information related to nuclear submarine classifications to the Soviet until he was transferred to San Diego, California to teach radio operations. Worried about losing access to vital information, he looked to develop another source. He found this source in Jerry Whitworth, one of his students. Walker wanted to retire from the Navy so that Barbara, angered over their marriage, would not be able to inform on him. Whitworth, newly assigned to Naval satellite communications school, readily agreed to participate.
Upon returning to Norfolk, John retired from the Navy and divorced Barbara. She and the children moved to Maine while he opened a private detective agency His scheme with Whitworth ran smoothly until Whitworth began asking for more money and threatening to quit. Walker attempted to obtain more money from the Soviet s but also decided to try to find more resources. He began with his children, approaching Margaret and Cynthia, both of whom rejected his advance. Although his daughter Laura entered the U.S. Army.at his urging, she left the service after becoming pregnant. The KGB agreed to give Whitworth a pay raise, allowing his operations with Walker to control.
Not content with just two resources, John focused his attention on his son Michael. After getting involved with petty crimes in Maine, Michael was sent to live with his father. John befriended his son, getting women for him and engaging in smoking marijuana with him. John urged his son to use moderation with drugs and with other vices and also hired him to work with him on weekends with his detective agency. He began guiding him towards seeking a position in the Navy and Michael enlisted upon graduation from high school.
After being assigned to a ship, Michael was surprised when his father approached him to join his spy ring. Michael accepted and after being stationed aboard the U.S.S. Nimitz, he was assigned to dispose of top secret messages by burning them in a furnace. Instead, he rifled through the large bags of documents, taking those of interest out and destroying the rest. He also uncovered the codes needed to open safes containing more top secret information, which he passed on as well.
In 1984, Barbara Walker discovered that John seemed to have an unlimited source of money but had refused to provide her with alimony payments. She threatened to expose his spy ring, not knowing that her son Michael was involved in it. He and Michael discussed informing her of Michael’s involvement so as to head off possible exposure but both neglected to do so.On November 17, 1984, Barbara contacted the Boston office of the FBI, informing them that her former husband was a spy.
Barbara was initially considered a vindictive ex-wife but a report of the discussion landed on the desk of Norfolk-based FBI agents Joseph Wolfinger and Robert Hunter. After she passed a polygraph test and provided specific details about dead drops, she also told them that John had tried to recruit her daughter Laura. Hunter was dispatched to Buffalo, New York where he interview Laura. She corroborated Barbara’s story leading the FBI to place a wiretap on John’s telephone. Evidence gathered from this wiretap prompted agents to set into an action a plan to catch him in the act of passing classified documents.
After dispatching cars and a small aircraft to tail Walker, surveillance lost him as he cased his dead drop location. Barbara had told the FBI that John often did a practice run beforehand so agents waited, hoping that he would return and make a drop. After making the drop, he drove to another location to pick up his payment but when he was unable to find one he went back to his drop where he found the information missing. Worried, he returned to his hotel to think.
At 3:30 AM, Walker’s telephone. The front desk clerk told Walker that he van had been struck by a car and suggested that he come to the front desk. A suspicious Walker suspected a plot but decided to check things out any way. Brandishing a gun, he checked the hallway and then went back to his room to grab incriminating evidence which he sought to hide. As soon as he exited his room, two FBI agents burst from an adjoining room with guns drawn and placed him under arrest. The information in his possession when he was arrested contained documents discussing all of the members of his spy ring. As the FBI found more and more evidence against the ring, John decided to cooperate by testifying against Jerry Whitworth and detailing the extent and reach of the ring in an attempt to gain a lenient sentence for his son Michael.
John Walker, Jerry Whitworth and Arthur Walker all received life sentences for their roles in the spy ring. Michael Walker received a 25 year sentence but was parole in 2000 after serving 15. Walker’s spy ring was considered one of the made damaging ever in United States history. The extent of damage has been difficult to assess but the U.S. government has had to spend more than $1 billion changing codes and equipment compromised by Walker’s activities.
John Walker died on August 28, 2014 in a Federal prison hospital in North Carolina.