FBI claims sailing couple Kendall and Gwen Myers spent 30 years feeding State Department secrets to Cuba
Kendall and Gwen Myers were preparing to sail their 37-foot sloop in a 10-day cruising rally around Chesapeake Bay when FBI agents arrested them on charges of having spied for the Cuban government for 30 years.
“I felt they had arrested Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny,” says a neighbor at Hartge Yacht Yard in Galesville, Md., echoing the sentiments of others who knew the congenial boating couple.
The arrests took place June 4 — a Thursday — at a Washington, D.C., hotel. By the weekend, former Cuban leader Fidel Castro had weighed in, questioning why the United States had waited so long to make the arrests. Pointing out that the federal indictment claims the couple had spied for idealistic reasons and not for money, Castro said, “People like that deserve every honor in this world. … I can’t help but admire their disinterested and courageous conduct on behalf of Cuba.”
A U.S. State Department retiree and his wife, 72 and 71, respectively, are arrested and charged as spies, and the tale unfolds like a John le Carré plot — filled with Cold War intrigue. To their fellow boaters, the Myerses were gracious and intelligent conversationalists — good all-around company. To the Cubans, the government claims, Kendall was Agent 202 (like the Washington area code), his wife Agent 123.
As its investigators worked to uncover the extent of secrets passed to Havana, the FBI sent other agents to Galesville to search Helene, the Myerses’ 2006 Malö 37 Classic. Their marina neighbors say they saw men with bolt cutters and “strange bulges under their shirts” going aboard Helene. One of those neighbors was Larry McDonald, the source of the “Santa Claus” quote picked up by newspapers across the country.
On Saturday, McDonald says, he learned that another marina neighbor was a cousin of Kendall Myers. “Together, we pulled the Myerses’ dinghy out of the water and stowed it on deck, concerned that it would get stolen if left in the water — a picture of it having been in the paper along with the information that the owners were incarcerated,” says McDonald. “He told me that his and Kendall’s great-grandfather was Alexander Graham Bell. Not pertinent information but interesting, nonetheless.”
Michael Locatell, of Discovery Yachts in Seattle, the importer that sold the Myerses the Malö 37, says he has not been questioned by the FBI. In fact, until he was contacted by Soundings, he hadn’t made the connection between news accounts of Cuban spies and two people he describes as “wonderful to work with as customers.”
“I am flabbergasted because I have a totally close, more than a normal business relationship with them,” says Locatell. “We had many dinners together and shared a lot of conversations about his background and what he did. And I just find this to be flabbergasting. I had political conversations with them, and he shared his views with me. … He never, ever said anything derogatory about U.S. policy toward Cuba — never, not once.”
McDonald, too, says the couple never mentioned Cuba. McDonald and Locatell knew, instead, about the couple’s summer plans to cruise Maine and Nova Scotia. But information leading up to their arrest indicates the Myerses did indeed have a plan to cruise to Cuba, which Kendall called “going home.”
Recruited in ’70s
According to arrest records, Walter Kendall Myers began spying for Cuba in the late 1970s, recruited from academia by a Cuban “talent scout.” Myers had served as a communications specialist in the U.S. Army Security Agency in the 1950s, and had earned a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. He went on to perform contract work for the State Department and was an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins.
According to the FBI, his Cuban recruiters originally tasked Myers with getting a full-time job at either the CIA or State Department. For the next 30 years, the FBI says, he and his wife passed secrets to Cuban operatives, using tradecraft techniques right out of spy literature. The Cuban government, authorities say, would instruct him on what information it sought using coded messages that Myers received over a shortwave radio set. Using his top-secret clearance at State, he allegedly would then research the topic, and he or his wife would deliver the information by swapping supermarket shopping carts with their Cuban handlers, and other covert techniques.
Myers retired from the State Department on Halloween 2007, apparently under a cloud of suspicion. But it wasn’t until April 15, 2009, that the FBI initiated an undercover operation that would lead to the Myerses’ arrests. The FBI says one of its agents made contact with the couple, pretending to be a Cuban intelligence operative. The couple allegedly opened up to their new contact during three face-to-face meetings and made the incriminating admissions that led to their arrests.
To this “undercover source,” as the FBI agent describes its agent, Kendall Myers expressed his reluctance to get back into the spying business. He said he and Gwen felt “a little burned out.”
According to a sworn statement from the FBI, Myers told the operative he and his wife were enjoying retirement. “It gives us a chance to be with each other more. It gives us a chance for me to concentrate on teaching. And it gives us a chance to sail,” Myers is quoted as telling the agent.
The couple allegedly recounted to the agent how they had spent an entire evening with Castro during a surreptitious visit in 1995 to Havana. They also talked about how Helene would facilitate their escape from the United States if need be.
Here’s how the FBI describes those exchanges in a sworn statement to a federal judge:
“In responding to a question regarding how they might escape ‘from the States,’ Kendall Myers stated that they did not need false travel documents to cross the border because, ‘We’re sailing there.’
“Gwendolyn added, ‘We’ve always said we’ll just come on a boat … then we have our place to live (on the sailboat). Nobody has to put us up, we have our own place to live there. … I mean, we wouldn’t be a burden. …’
“Kendall Myers acknowledged that it ‘would be nice’ to travel to Cuba ‘in the near future.’ Myers indicated that they could sail to Cuba on their sailboat and that ‘they already had the charts and a cruising guide’ to do so. Later, Kendall Myers stated that, ‘Our idea is to sail home.’ ”
Regarding the possibility that the United States might lift the ban on its citizens traveling to Cuba, the FBI says Myers confided to the undercover agent that Cuba shouldn’t hope for it.
“You don’t want all those Americans. Believe me … the trouble with this country, there’s just too many North Americans,” Myers is quoted as saying.
According to their yacht broker, the Myerses had sailed for 20 years aboard their Island Packet 29, including a cruise of the Bahamas. “It would have been quite an adventure for that boat, so they are really good sailors, even though they are quite advanced in age,” Locatell says.
Locatell says the couple paid about $350,000 for their Malö, having entered into the deal after a visit to the factory in Sweden. Unlike most people who buy European boats with cash, Locatell says the Myerses had financed the purchase. They became proud owners, and Gwen Myers posted this tribute on the Malö Web site:
“Greetings from Gwen and Kendall Myers. We have the most beautiful boat! It is 8 p.m. here; we are having a drink and are practically melting in our chairs while repeating to one another, ‘We have the most beautiful boat.’ Today the temperature was around 60 degrees and the wind from 4 to 8 knots. We sailed the good ship Helene on the Bay for four hours. Kendall sailed, then napped for an hour on a pad behind the helm’s seat. I used a finger to occasionally touch the wheel while the boat sailed herself. Clouds were mesmerizing. No other boats around, so thoroughly relaxed. Our only comments were how well balanced she is, how smoothly she sails, and how fast she is in any wind. Two weeks ago we took her on her first sail of the spring and were surprised by a 24-knot gust. She took the blow like a champ, rounding up to wait for us to ‘come to!’ We just want you to know how happy we are with our decision to purchase this gem from you!”
‘Boat of the year’
Apparently Cruising World magazine agreed with the Myerses’ assessment. After sailing Helene (without her owners aboard), Cruising World editors declared the Malö 37 “2009 Import Boat of the Year,” describing the vessel as “rock solid, luxurious below and a delight to sail.” You can view images of Helene by photographer Billy Black on the Cruising World Web site.
All of which puts America’s Malö importer in a bind. This acclaimed model had been scheduled to go to the fall boat shows for the third year in a row, but now probably will not be going. “I was nervous about building another boat, so I didn’t have a demo for this year, so I was going to provide a skipper to bring the boat back to the Annapolis boat show this year [after the Myerses’ New England cruise],” Locatell says. “They’d deliberately kept the boat very clean. They hadn’t even put any artwork up, so I could continue to show it, all because of my friendship with them.”
Even if the bank doesn’t take possession of Helene, the U.S. government might. The Myerses face up to 35 years in prison for espionage, but also because Kendall Myers allegedly defrauded the U.S. government whenever he took his State Department salary. According to court papers, the Feds plan to seize “any and all interest that [the Myerses] have in property derived from proceeds obtained directly or indirectly from a wire fraud scheme.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2009 issue.