John Walker, mastermind of notorious spy ring, dies in U.S. prison

WINSTON-SALEM N.C. (Reuters) - A former U.S. Navy warrant officer who orchestrated a spy ring for the Soviets that was considered one of the most damaging security breaches in American history has died at a federal prison in North Carolina, a prison spokesman said on Friday.

John Anthony Walker Jr. died on Thursday at the prison complex in Butner, Federal Bureau of Prisons spokesman Chris Burke said. He was 77.

Walker began his Cold War-era espionage scheme while working as a Navy warrant officer and communications specialist. He provided secrets to the Soviets for more than 17 years and compromised at least 1 million classified messages, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Authorities said he also masterminded a family of spies, recruiting his brother Arthur, his son Michael and a good friend - all of whom had security clearances - to help him gain access to top-secret information after he retired from the Navy.

Had the United States and Soviet Union gone to war, the leaks by Walker and his ring would have been devastating, the FBI said.

“I think the man was pure evil,” retired FBI agent Robert Hunter, who arrested John Walker, told the Virginian-Pilot newspaper.

The paper said Walker was estimated to have earned more than $1 million for his spy work.

A tip from Walker’s ex-wife helped lead to his arrest in May 1985, the FBI said.

He was sentenced in November 1986 to life in prison. But under sentencing laws at the time, he was due to be released next May, Burke said.

His brother Arthur Walker died in July at age 79 at the same North Carolina prison complex.

Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Eric Beech