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Retired colonel accused of spying

George Trofimoff, former colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, is accused of being paid by the KGB for military secrets. He faces life in prison if convicted of the espionage charge.

By LARRY DOUGHERTY

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 15, 2000


TAMPA -- Wearing a sports shirt, shorts and Nike sneakers, the man arriving to meet a friend Wednesday at the Tampa Airport Hilton looked like he could be anybody's grandfather. His errand was anything but casual, according to federal prosecutors, who said he was at the hotel to collect money for spying for the former Soviet Union.

Without warning, FBI agents seized 73-year-old George Trofimoff and whisked him to the federal courthouse downtown.

According to an indictment unsealed Wednesday, Trofimoff was paid $250,000 by the KGB for secrets learned as a U.S. intelligence officer in Germany between 1969 and 1994.

Trofimoff, a retired colonel from the U.S. Army Reserve, is the highest ranking U.S. military officer ever charged with espionage. If convicted, he faces life in prison.

Since 1995 he has lived in Melbourne, on a street called Patriot Drive in a gated community filled with retired military families and, on Wednesday, flapping American flags to commemorate Flag Day.

A son of Russian emigres, Trofimoff was born in Germany, enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1948 and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1951. Sometime around 1969, federal prosecutors say, Trofimoff was recruited for KGB work by a close childhood friend who had grown up to become the archbishop of the Russian Orthodox Church in Vienna.

Trofimoff worked with a Minox camera, and boxes of film he re-glued shut after taking pictures of secret documents, the indictment said.

He delivered the exposed film to his friend the archbishop, or to KGB handlers he met in Austria, the indictment said. Trofimoff's KGB nicknames were "Antey," "Markiz" and "Konsul," and he spoke in a pre-arranged code to confirm the identity of his KGB contacts when he met them, the indictment said.

Trofimoff obtained classified U.S. information while working as the civilian chief of a U.S. Army interrogation unit in Nuremberg, Germany, from 1969 through 1994, his indictment charges.

The Joint Interrogation Center was set up by the Army, the Air Force and European allies in 1955 to debrief defectors and refugees from the Soviet bloc, according to an Army spokeswoman. Most details of the center remain classified. The program was discontinued in 1995.

As civilian chief of the Army's operations there, Trofimoff had access to U.S. estimates of Soviet bloc military capabilities, and to other U.S. intelligence documents, the indictment said.

It was valuable information because it revealed what the United States knew about the Soviet Union, prosecutors said.

In December 1994, Trofimoff and the archbishop were charged with spying by German authorities. But they were released because the charges could not be substantiated within a five-year statute of limitations. The United States has no such limit on espionage charges.

Trofimoff was arrested Wednesday after arriving to accept payment for past work from someone he believed to be a representative of the SVRR, Russia's successor to the KGB, prosecutors said.

Federal agents are assessing the extent of damage Trofimoff might have caused. U.S. Attorney Donna Bucella, an Army Reserve officer, called the allegations "very disturbing."

They said the KGB secretly awarded Trofimoff the Order of the Red Banner, for his service to the Soviet state.

Trofimoff made his first appearance in federal court Wednesday afternoon in Tampa. He looked out at the audience with a worried expression, as if seeking a familiar face. Looking back at Trofimoff were a host of federal agents who have been investigating him for seven years.

In a high, thin voice, Trofimoff told a federal magistrate he was worried about his 50-year-old wife, Jutta, who was waiting in the car back at the hotel. Even though he lives in a $235,000 house and gets retirement pay from the Army, he said he didn't have money to hire a lawyer.

The magistrate ordered Trofimoff held without bail until a court-appointed lawyer can represent him at a bail hearing next week. Federal prosecutors let Trofimoff know his wife had returned home.

A woman who lives a few doors down from Trofimoff in the Indian River Colony Club in Melbourne said the arrest was a "complete shock."

"I'm sorry to hear about it," said Barbara Schroeder, wife of a longtime military man.

"We saw a lady out there this morning with an FBI T-shirt on. My granddaughter said, "What's that?' I said it was just her T-shirt."

Trofimoff is known in the neighborhood as an avid gardener and tennis player. He worked part time as a bagger at a nearby Publix.

"He could be kind of a jolly guy, but he could be mean," said Chris Burns, a young bagger who worked with Trofimoff. "He would get real, real mad at you when you left the carts out."

The indictment identified Trofimoff's close childhood friend and eventual KGB recruiter as Igor Vladimirovich Susemihl. Susemihl was a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church who served as archbishop in Vienna, temporary archbishop of Baden and Bavaria, and metropolitan of Vienna and Austria. He died last year.

The Soviet Union had forbidden the church's operation and had persecuted many of its followers. Wednesday's indictment claimed that the KGB exploited church officials to further intelligence gathering.

A professor who specializes in Soviet and Russian studies at the University of South Florida, Darrell Slider, said the value of the intelligence Trofimoff allegedly provided was that "it would give an immediate heads-up to Russian intelligence about who had showed up on our doorstep and basically what they were giving us."

"A lot of that is technical, strategic information, military plans, where the forces are," Slider said. "Probably a lot of this was already known, and provided confirmation."

Slider said Trofimoff didn't appear to have direct access to the names of U.S. spies operating overseas. He said the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the defection of former KGB agents who are now revealing details of their operations, are helping to make cases against former Soviet spies.

"The real mystery is why Trofimoff decided to live in the U.S.," Slider said. "If he were someone who was doing some high-level leaking, they would have found a place for him in Russia. He wouldn't have decided to retire in Melbourne."

-- Times staff writers Sara Fritz, Angela Moore and Adam Smith and researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Larry Dougherty can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or dougherty@sptimes.com

The list of charges

A federal indictment returned Wednesday charging retired Army Reserve Col. George Trofimoff with spying against the United States for the Soviet Union alleged at least 32 acts, including that he:

Secretly took classified U.S. documents relating to national defense away from the Nuremberg Joint Interrogation Center.

Secretly photographed classified U.S. documents relating to national defense.

Photographed the contents of classified U.S. documents relating to national defense.

Hand carried boxes of exposed film to KGB intelligence officers.

Turned over to the KGB photographs of documents from the Joint Interrogation Center that he thought would be of value to the KGB and could not be traced to him.

Received periodic cash payments . . . from KGB officers.

Received cash bonuses from the KGB.

Received about 90,000 deutsche marks from the KGB.

Used an oral recognition signal or statement, called a "parole," when he met with a KGB officer.

Concealed from his wives his espionage activities and the true nature of the money he received from the KGB.

Was awarded the Order of the Red Banner.

(The Order of the Red Banner is the oldest Soviet award and was presented to citizens and non-citizens for special bravery, self-sacrifice and courage displayed in defense of the socialist homeland, including special bravery and courage displayed in accomplishing special assignments and special bravery and courage displayed in support of the state security of the Soviet Union.)

-- Source: Office of the U.S. Attorney, Tampa.

Other spies

Some notable U.S. and military spying cases:

1999: The federal government investigated suspected espionage at the Los Alamos National Laboratory regarding the sale of nuclear secrets to China. Nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee was indicted in December on 59 counts of mishandling nuclear weapons secrets but has not been charged with deliberately passing secrets to a foreign government.

1994: Aldrich H. Ames, above, a 31-year veteran of the CIA and a former top counterespionage official, and his wife, Rosario, passed classified information to the Soviet Union in what was called the most damaging case in U.S. history. Ames is blamed for the deaths of at least nine American agents in the Soviet Union. He is serving life in prison with no chance of parole.

1985: John Anthony Walker, retired Navy communications specialist, pleaded guilty to espionage charges for dropping off secret documents to a Soviet contact near Washington. He is serving a life sentence.

1982: Army Warrant Officer Joseph George Helmich was sentenced to life in prison after he admitted during his espionage trial in Jacksonville that he had sold military secrets to the Soviet Union.

1981: The Justice Department announced an investigation into whether Christopher M. Cooke, an Air Force missile officer, had broken espionage laws by making unauthorized trips to the Soviet Embassy in Washington. The U.S. Court of Military Appeals ruled on Feb. 22, 1982, that Cooke could not be court-martialed because of an immunity deal he had reached with investigators.

-- Times researchers Caryn Baird and Cathy Wos contributed to this report and information from the Associated Press was used.

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