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Former Tampa FBI agent Joe Navarro details 'unprecedented' Cold War spy sting in new book

TAMPA — A faint quiver of cigarette smoke in a mobile home in Tampa launched the most extensive espionage investigation in FBI history, a case that brought down a Cold War spy ring so successful that it had left the West wide open to a Russian attack.

As national attention focuses on Russian meddling in U.S. elections, a new book by a former FBI agent in Tampa highlights the potential lethality of foreign intelligence and the agency's role in disrupting black operations involving Americans who might live right next door.

On Aug. 23, 1988, Joe Navarro was assisting the U.S. Army Intelligence Security Command on an assignment: find and interview a twenty-something Tampa man named Roderick James Ramsay about his time stationed with the Army at Bad Kreuznach, West Germany, in the early '80s. Ramsay was one of many former associates of a man named Sgt. 1st Class Clyde Lee Conrad, a suspected spy. The interview should have been routine.

Navarro, who had joined the FBI in the mid-1970s, drove an Army intelligence agent to Ramsay's last known address in a mobile home park northwest of the Tampa airport. He knew little about the assignment, or Ramsay, but Navarro was tuned to the subject's body language when he answered the door.

Ramsay was lean and tall, and seemed mostly at ease during the standard interrogation. But when the Army intel agent asked Ramsay about his association with Conrad, Navarro noticed something odd.

"His cigarette shakes — not the familiar jitters I've been seeing but a good, hard tremor," Navarro writes in his new book, Three Minutes to Doomsday, a real-life spy thriller. "Before the question, a velvety smooth contrail of smoke. Thirty seconds afterward, smooth again. But in between, at the precise moment (the intel agent) mentions Clyde Conrad's name, the contrail breaks up into a sharp zigzag that Rod has no more control over than his circulation."

Navarro, who has an uncanny ability to read body language, noticed the same pattern several more times during the interview in the mobile home, then later at the nearby Pickett Hotel. The hint of nervous reaction was enough to prompt Navarro to persuade his bosses to let him launch a full-on investigation in which he befriended Ramsay, met with him routinely for more than a year, and compiled enough information to send Ramsay and several associates to prison.

Ramsay had been recruited to steal documents by Conrad, who was selling classified secrets about European defenses to Czechoslovakia and Hungary from the Army's 8th Infantry Division. He funneled sensitive documents off base and copied them before destroying them.

The investigation, which agents called "unprecedented" and the most extensive in FBI history, disabled a spy ring that had compromised sensitive intelligence about NATO's plans to defend Europe against a Soviet attack during the Cold War.

At Ramsay's sentencing in federal court in Tampa in 1992, the commander in chief of the European Command noted that the espionage had left the West so stripped of defense that its defeat "would have been assured" had the Soviets launched an all-out war.

Navarro's Tampa-centric book offers a vivid play-by-play of dozens of meetings as he matches wits with Ramsay, a former Army sergeant whose IQ was close to genius.

The investigation took a toll on Navarro, then in his 30s.

"It just gradually wore me out," he said. "I never expected that."

The book suggests Ramsay, an avid reader who was socially awkward, came to think of Navarro as a mentor and father figure. But Navarro knew all along he could potentially nail Ramsay for criminal espionage.

"The FBI recruits people who are very ethical, very moral. I grew up a Catholic. Things were very clear in my family about what is right and what is wrong. And this was the first time in my bureau career where day after day I had to lie," he said. "Here I was having to live a lie, to lie every day, both to the suspect and to his mother, who did nothing wrong, who was a very nice lady. I think at a subconscious level it does affect you."

The book is sprinkled with Navarro's insight into how body language can betray one's true feelings. When Ramsay answered the door for their first meeting, for instance, his hands moved to his neck, an evolutionary inheritance from his hominid ancestors who learned to protect their necks from big cats when threatened.

In subsequent meetings, Navarro scripted everything from handshakes to how to walk into the interrogation room to seating arrangements in order to give the agents an edge.

Navarro's account suggests Ramsay didn't actually mind becoming the center of the investigation. He is portrayed as "a brilliant, needy, inchoate sucker, ready to sign up for the riskiest schemes," Navarro writes. In fact, court records show Ramsay made only $20,000 for three years of espionage activity that sent him to prison for decades.

Navarro wondered why Ramsay told him so much. He asked Ramsay's defense attorney, Mark Pizzo, now a U.S. magistrate judge. According to Navarro, Pizzo said his client thought he could outsmart Navarro. But Ramsay wound up trusting the agent.

The betrayal upset Navarro, even as Ramsay sent him Christmas cards from prison.

"That's bothered me a long time," Navarro said. But "I think it's been settled in my mind, because . . . everything I did was sanctioned. It stood up to Bureau policy, the Department of Justice, judicial scrutiny. A judge looked at the case (and said), 'This is really impeccable. No lines were crossed.' I think it's something every undercover officer should be aware of. You can be victimized, even if you're doing the right thing."

Navarro said he did not contact Ramsay while working on the story, the rights to which have been bought by George Clooney's production company, Smokehouse Pictures.

"I tried to be fair as to how it took place," he said. "My job wasn't to malign him. My job in writing it was to tell a story about what I confronted. And what I confronted was a guy who could be a witness. And one thing led to another."

"In all honesty," he continued, "I hope he's behaving himself. I hope he's staying out of trouble. I hope he's paid his dues."

Ramsay, out of prison since 2013, lives in the Town 'N Country area west of Tampa. Roommates on two visits promised to relay a message from a Tampa Bay Times reporter, but Ramsay never responded.

Navarro's biggest case — his white whale — left him emotionally and physically exhausted. He spent nine months recovering, mostly in bed, pondering how no security system is truly safe and espionage is always a threat. He went back to work and eventually retired after a 25-year career with the FBI.

He now lectures about human behavior and has written several books about reading body language.

He said his skill at behavior analysis, which "runs like software," can sometimes be difficult to live with. His wife will notice when he is analyzing her body language and tells him to knock it off. He has seen children at the YMCA where he exercises betray body language that suggests they have been abused.

"There's a line in Sherlock Holmes when he's asked, 'What do you see?' " Navarro said. "He answers, 'Unfortunately, everything.' "

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8650. Follow @gangrey.

Florida's history of spies

American culture is fascinated with spies, and Florida has links to some of the most intricate espionage cases the country has seen. Here are a few high-profile cases from recent years.

George Trofimoff

It took 25 years for authorities to capture George Trofimoff. Decades of providing highly classified documents to the Soviet Union finally caught up with him when he was arrested at a Tampa hotel in 2000.

The former high-ranking civilian employee of the Army was a naturalized American citizen and the son of Russian emigres. He worked at the Joint Interrogation Center in Nuremberg, Germany, and processed highly sensitive American intelligence. He would photograph documents and share intel on American knowledge of the military capabilities and size of Soviet armed forces.

Trofimoff sent his reports to a prominent Russian Orthodox priest, who had recruited Trofimoff to the KGB and later went on to become the archbishop of Vienna.

Trofimoff, 73, had been living in a military community in Melbourne at the time of his arrest.

The most Florida fact of all? He worked as a bag boy at Publix.

Roderick James Ramsay/Clyde Lee Conrad

Another decades-long espionage scheme ended in Tampa in the 1980s where FBI agents arrested one of several American soldiers who sold military secrets to Eastern Europe during the Cold War.

Roderick James Ramsay was part of a spy ring of American military members that operated in Germany for decades. Ramsay and others, including Sgt. Clyde Lee Conrad, were stationed in West Germany and collected sensitive intelligence on how the United States and its allies planned to protect Europe in the event of an invasion.

They would stuff duffel bags full of documents and plans, stash them at a safe house and use a video camera to record the pages before burning them.

Authorities nabbed Conrad first, in West Germany, who led them to Ramsay. The former Army sergeant with a near-genius IQ had followed his mother to Florida, later moving into a friend's house and then living out of his car.

Investigators arrested him at a Tampa hotel, and he served 23 years in prison.

Cuban Five (aka: Miami Five)

This group of Cuban nationals was convicted of spying in the United States in 2001. As their name implies, their work was focused in Miami, though the Cuban government claims they were there to spy on exile groups, not Americans.

The Cuban Five would infiltrate anti-Castro exile groups in South Florida and send the message back through radio transmissions and coded electronic phone messages. Things got dicey in 1996 when Cuban fighters shot down two planes that were carrying U.S. citizens working with an exile group. The FBI arrested the Cuban Five in Miami in September 1998.

Gerardo Hernández, Fernando González, Antonio Guerrero and Ramón Labañino were released in 2014. The fifth member, René González, was released in 2011.

As for their reputation in Cuba, they're kind of a big deal. They are celebrated as agents working to prevent terrorist attacks, not spies, and their faces adorn murals and stamps.

Carlos and Elsa

The longtime Florida International University psychology professor and his wife were accused of spying for Cuba's communist government for decades. The couple targeted their spying on Cuban-American exile groups and prominent individuals in Miami.

The professor's attorneys argued he was not a Cuban intelligence agent or a supporter of Fidel Castro. They said in court that he was trying to open avenues of communication between the two countries.

Carlos Alvarez eventually pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of conspiracy to become an unregistered foreign agent. Elsa Alvarez admitted that she knew what her husband was doing but failed to report him. He received five years in prison. She got three years.

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