How a Nickel and a Paperboy Brought Down a Cold War Spy

Image credit: 

In 1957, Vilyam "Willie" Genrikhovich Fisher (aka Rudolf Ivanovich Abel) was convicted of conspiracy to “act in the United States as an agent of a foreign government without notification to the Secretary of State,” conspiracy to “obtain American defense information” and conspiracy to “transmit defense information to the Soviet Union.” The Brooklyn Eagle described the Soviet intelligence officer as a “shabby, bird-faced man,” a guy whose neighbors would never assume to be a spy. That ability to blend in and escape suspicion was what allowed him to operate in the U.S. as part of a network of spies for almost a decade. And he might have never been caught were it not for a Russian turncoat and a newspaper delivery boy who thought he’d been stiffed.

The Hollow Nickel

On Monday, June 22, 1953, 14-year-old Jimmy Bozart, a delivery boy for the Brooklyn Eagle, was making the rounds and collecting payments. At 3403 Foster Avenue in Brooklyn, a neighbor broke a dollar for one of his customers, and Jimmy left the building with a handful of coins. One of them, he thought, had a odd ring as they jingled together. He pulled out the coin, a nickel, and rested it in his finger. It felt lighter than the other nickels.

He threw the nickel to the ground, and Jefferson’s face went one way and Monticello went the other. Secured in one half of the busted coin was what appeared to be a tiny photograph.

In the comic books and pulp detective fiction Jimmy read, this was spy stuff. He’d stumbled onto something big, maybe some sort of secret code or plan. He told a friend at school, who told his dad, a NYPD officer. The cop passed it up the chain of command, and the department turned it over to the FBI. Agents from the New York field office, also suspecting a coded message, confiscated Jimmy’s nickel and set about finding out where the coin came from and what the numbers meant.

The agents determined that the face of the coin was from 1948, while the reverse side came from another coin minted between 1942 and 1945. They discovered a small hole in the “R” in “In God We Trust,” drilled through the face of the coin so that a needle or other fine point could be inserted to pry the container open. The mysterious slip Jimmy found inside was a microphotograph, showing a series of numbers arranged in columns. There was no key, and agency cryptologists and code-cracker machines were unable to make any headway.

Meanwhile, agents chased down leads on the coin’s source. The ladies who gave Jimmy the nickels had no idea that they had a hollow coin. Magic shops and novelty retailers who dealt in trick coins were consulted, but none had ever seen one quite like what the agents had.

The bureau, unable to make heads or tails of the nickel, put the case on hold.

The Defector

A break in the case came four years later when a man named Reino Hayhanen called the U.S. embassy in Paris and then showed up at its door seeking help. He revealed that he was a KGB officer and, after operating in the U.S. for 5 years, was being recalled to Moscow. He could not bear the thought of returning to the USSR so, on his way back, he stopped in Paris to turn himself in and defect.

American intelligence officers brought him back to the States to explain how he and his fellow spies operated. He showed them the subtle signals they used to arrange meetings, like a pushpin stuck in a certain telephone pole, and the dead drops they used to pass messages, like a crack in a concrete step near a subway station. The Soviets, he explained, had given the spies a number of hollowed out objects in which to hide their communications: Screws. Pens. Flashlight batteries. Coins.

Someone remembered the hollow coin that the FBI had been working with and, with Hayhanen’s help, they broke the code. The coded picture, it turned out, had been meant for Hayhanen. It was a welcome message from Moscow upon his arrival in America. Through some mishap, he never received it, and the coin wound up circulating around New York City for months.

Spy vs. Spy

Hayhanen also helped authorities identify other Soviet agents working in the U.S., including “Mikhail,” Hayhanen’s initial contact there, who turned out to be a former Soviet U.N. functionary who had already returned home, and “Quebec,”  a U.S. Army sergeant who had worked in the garage of the U.S. embassy in Moscow and had been recruited “on the basis of compromising materials." They had a harder time identifying “Mark,” Hayhanen’s most recent handler, who was still operating without diplomatic cover under a number of false identities. Hayhanen didn’t know where Mark lived or what name he was currently using, but he did know a few details from their infrequent meetings.

Mark, Hayhanen said, was in his 50s, with a medium build and thinning gray hair. He took photographs in his free time, and was pretty good at it. Once, he even took Hayhanen to a storage room to see his photo supplies and some of his pictures in a storage unit and studio in the heart of Brooklyn.

Hayhanen took the FBI to the building, and a search of it led them to Emil R. Goldfus, a photographer who kept a studio there and also used to rent a storage room. Agents spent weeks watching Goldfus’ studio and apartment, waiting for him to show himself. After finally getting a photo of him with a hidden camera, they confirmed with Hayhanen that they had the right man and moved in to make an arrest.

Goldfus admitted that that was not his real name and that he was Rudolf Abel, a Soviet citizen, but would not confess to being a spy and was uncooperative during questioning. At his apartment, though, agents found a treasure trove of espionage equipment: fine-tipped drills for hollowing out coins, rings and cuff links to store messages, a book on cryptography, maps of Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York City and State, radio tubes, high-speed film, a radio capable of receiving messages from Russia, multiple false passports and other IDs, and scores of cryptic missives written in English and Russian.

Fisher/Abel was tried and convicted a few months later, with Hayhanen among the witnesses testifying against him. He was sentenced to concurrent prison terms of of 30, 10 and 5 years for the three charges, but only served about 4 years. He was released in 1962 in exchange for American pilot Francis Gary Powers, who had been shot down in Soviet airspace and held prisoner.

More from mental_floss...

January 3, 2013 - 9:00am
submit to reddit