One day last fall, Railroad Switchman Lyman Mintkenbaugh of Castro Valley, Calif., got a call from his brother James, 46, an Arlington, Va., real estate salesman who had recently come West and moved into a mountain retreat at Arnold, Calif.
"James was having one of his mood fits," Lyman recalled last week, "and had to go off and be by himself. But I figured I'd better get up there because he said he might do something drastic if he couldn't talk to someone." What James wanted to talk about, it turned out, was his twelve years as a Russian spy, which he described as "a lark to make some money." Lyman urged James to do "what mother always taught us be honest," and call the FBI. James did, and within hours agents were up at the mountain questioning him.
The Same Old Story. As a belated result, last week James Mintkenbaugh and an old pal, Army Sergeant Robert Lee Johnson, 43, were arrested as spies. It was, according to an FBI complaint filed in Alexandria, Va., the same old squalid story. In February 1953 Johnson, then stationed in Berlin with Army Intelligence, made contact with the Russians at their East Berlin headquarters, agreed to photograph classified documents for them in return for $300 a month. A few months later, Johnson recruited Mintkenbaugh, also in the Army in Berlin, to work with him. A male Russian agent named "Paula" gave Mintkenbaugh a 35-mm. camera, along with a quick course in developing microdots and hiding microfilm.
Three years later, the two returned to the U.S. and were discharged from the Army. Johnson soon re-enlisted for duty at a Nike missile site in Los Angeles, the FBI complaint said, "for the specific purpose of continuing his work for the Soviets."
Mintkenbaugh worked for a while in his family's ice cream parlor at Campbell, Calif., then was summoned back to Berlin by "Paula," who gave him orders that led to a job as courier between Russian agents in the U.S. and Johnson.
Mintkenbaugh performed that chore for three years. In 1959 he went to Moscow and attended a special Soviet spy school, returned to the U.S., got himself a cover job with an Arlington real estate firm and settled into bachelor quarters. Meanwhile Johnson, still busily spying away, was transferred to the Pentagon as an Army courier. He moved his wife and two children to Alexandria, not far from where Mintkenbaugh was living.
$2,000 Withdrawal. Just what happened next remains fuzzy. But on Oct. 1, Mintkenbaugh was summarily fired from his real estate job. Next morning, after withdrawing $2,000 from his bank account, Johnson disappeared. More than a month later Johnson surrendered to Army authorities in Reno, Nev., was subsequently court-martialed for being AWOL and given a routine job, well away from classified material, at Washington's Fort McNair. As for Mintkenbaugh, he went to California, had a little chat with his brother, and turned himself in to the FBI.
Presumably hoping to round up more members of the spy ring, the FBI delayed until last week in making any arrests. By that time, when Johnson was pinched in the Pentagon, his wife was in a mental hospital and their children were in foster homes. Both Johnson and Mintkenbaugh will stand trial in federal court on charges of selling U.S. defense secrets. The maximum penalty: death.