The Forgotten Story of a Polish Spy Whose Los Angeles Trial Was a Cold War Flashpoint

16-20 minutes 10/26/2021

At ten o’clock on Tuesday, June 23, 1981, three FBI agents arrived at Hughes Aircraft’s headquarters on East Imperial Highway in El Segundo. A corporate security officer had been expecting them. He summoned Bill Bell.

The agents spoke with Bell for two hours at Hughes, then suggested lunch. Bell agreed. After sandwiches at a deli, they asked Bell to accompany them to a room at the Holiday Inn on Century Boulevard where they could talk more. Bell agreed again. The agents interrogated Bell throughout the afternoon. It was all very civil and businesslike.

Special Agent James Reid showed Bell a translation of a Polish newspaper article on a Polish diplomat assigned to the United Nations in New York who’d defected to the United States. Reid claimed that the defector had given the FBI details on Polish intelligence activities in the United States.

“Did he mention me?” Bell asked. Without waiting for an answer, Bell said, “This is very serious. I would like to talk with an attorney.”

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Reid suggested a public defender or a private lawyer. Bell then slumped in his chair and announced, “I did it. I do not need an attorney.”

“We know everything,” Special Agent James R. Pace replied.

In fact, the bureau didn’t know much. They might have known that the UN diplomat who was the subject of the Polish article wasn’t actually the source of any information about Bell. They definitely didn’t know that the real source was Palevich’s agent, Koryciński, because the CIA kept these details to itself. Indeed, ever since the CIA was formed during World War II as the Office of Strategic Services, it’d maintained a testy relationship with the FBI. The two organizations competed bitterly and cooperated poorly. The FBI was appalled at what it saw as the CIA’s bad judgment in operations around the world; CIA officers called FBI agents “cops.”

The same held true in the Zacharski case. After 250 days of surveillance, FBI agents had gathered hardly any evidence to prove that espionage had taken place and, after Palevich’s tip, the CIA had provided nothing more. While the bureau had been playing cat and mouse with Bell and Zacharski, the pair had boarded airplanes with reams of classified documents that they spirited behind the Iron Curtain—via Chicago, Geneva, and Vienna or direct to Warsaw. Talk about slamming the barn door shut after the horse had bolted. And the FBI had barely enough to bring Bell in.

The FBI’s decision to interrogate Bell appears to have been prompted less by evidence than by word that Zacharski had gotten a promotion and would soon be leaving L.A. While he was masterminding an intelligence collection operation on a massive scale, at PO-LAMCO Zacharski had also churned out $30 million a year in sales. He’d been promoted to president of the company and the family was relocating back to chilly Illinois.

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The FBI interrogators were lucky that their gambit to break Bell paid off. The only way to explain their success, one participant later acknowledged, was that Bell was “weak.” On the same afternoon that he was first questioned, Bell dictated a six-page confession.

Done at five in the afternoon, the agents accompanied Bell back to his office, where he handed them a red notebook that contained lists of the documents that the Poles had requested. Then they went to Bell’s apartment to retrieve more files, along with a camera and film. By the late evening, they were back at the Holiday Inn, where Bell signed his confession. The agents told Bell that in exchange for his cooperation they would recommend a lighter sentence. Bell handed over twenty-two gold coins that he’d stored in a safe deposit box at a Bank of America branch.

A federal prosecutor was brought in. Reviewing the evidence, US Attorney Robert Brewer, a former army captain and Vietnam vet, was unimpressed. What if Bell was mentally disturbed or just making stuff up, he wondered. To build a decent case, Brewer determined, Bell would have to wear a wire and record Zacharski implicating himself.

Three days after their initial hello, the FBI brought Bell to a room in the Brentwood Motor Inn. There a FBI technician Velcro’ed a one-pound tape recorder to Bell’s back with wires running down his limbs. In those days it was state-of-the-art, yet it felt like a Rube Goldberg contraption. Bell worried that it was going to fall apart. “I hope this damn thing works,” he was recorded saying to no one in particular as he fumbled with the machine.

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Bell spent the night at home at Cross Creek Apartments, trying to sleep with the device appended to his back. The next day, Bell came to Zacharski’s door three times. Finally, at 9:20 in the evening, Zacharski answered. He steered Bell onto the second-floor landing. “The bloody guys are all over me,” Zacharski complained. Bell tried to lead the conversation in an incriminating direction. “Didn’t I get you that secret What was it? Secret F-15 data?” Bill asked. “Partially, I guess. Yeah,” Zacharski responded.

The next day, Sunday, Bell returned the recorder to the FBI and was formally arrested. That afternoon, a dozen FBI agents led a phalanx of TV and print reporters to Zacharski’s door. Zacharski was home with Basia and their daughters. The agents rolled into his apartment, ordered that nothing be touched, and escorted Zacharski out in handcuffs: a perp walk the likes of which Cross Creek Apartments had never seen. Zacharski was denied bail and locked in the maximum-security section of the Federal Correctional Institution at Terminal Island.

Several days later, Zacharski and Bell were arraigned at the First Street Courthouse in downtown L.A. They spent a few minutes in a holding cell together. Bell cowered in a corner like a child, staring at Zacharski with tears in his eyes. Zacharski walked over to him. “Bill, they know nothing,” Zacharski said. “Bill, Bill, let’s shake. I am your friend.” From jail, Bell called his contact at the Burbank Daily Review and urged him to find a publisher for his novel so he could pay his legal fees. There were no takers.

The trial of United States v. Marian Zacharski began on October 13, 1981. It marked a rare prosecution of an Eastern European intelligence agent on US soil. Most other cases had ended with expulsions. But the United States had a new president, Ronald Reagan, who wanted to be seen as tougher on Communism than his predecessor, Jimmy Carter. Zacharski made a good target. As a businessman, he had no diplomatic immunity. He was what is known as an “illegal.” Judge David Kenyon, a longtime Hollywood attorney whom Carter had appointed to the federal bench, presided.

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Robert Brewer was the ideal prosecutor. In Vietnam, he’d been involved in highly classified missions so he was comfortable when Department of Justice officials told him that many of the details of the case had to remain secret—in particular its genesis: the defection of Jerzy Koryciński. The Justice Department sent out John Dion, the head of its counterintelligence section, a standoffish presence who worried Brewer initially. As Brewer noted, Dion was “aware of so many facts in this case that he, (a) can’t tell me about, and (b) can’t tell me that he can’t tell me about.” Dion turned out to be a tremendous asset, offering expert counsel as Brewer sought to fashion a workable prosecution out of the evidentiary slim pickings provided by the FBI.

When Brewer heard Bell’s tape, he realized it was a thin reed on which to build his case. “God, it’s not as good as I had hoped,” he remembered thinking. As 60 Minutes and other nationwide TV news shows clamored for a piece of the story, Brewer began to have the waking nightmare of a prosecutor as his high-profile case wobbled toward collapse. The FBI agents worried Brewer. “They were bad,” he recalled. “They had no concept of the rules of evidence, of the pressure of a trial. Of proving a case beyond a reasonable doubt. And they were terrible witnesses.” Brewer did, however, have an ally: history.

Zacharski’s trial unspooled against a backdrop in the United States of increasing fears of the Soviet threat. Two espionage cases had recently erupted: a first lieutenant in the air force who’d worked on the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile program had pleaded guilty to spying for the USSR, as had a warrant officer at the US embassy in Paris. Just days before the trial began, Egypt’s leader, Anwar Sadat, a bulwark against Russian influence in the Middle East, had been assassinated. Then there was the internal situation in Zacharski’s homeland. Even casual readers of newspapers at the time could not escape news about Communist Poland. Since August 1980, Poland had been rocked by strikes that would soon lead to the creation of the independent Solidarity trade union. Solidarity would mount the most serious challenge to Moscow’s domination of Eastern Europe since 1968’s “Prague Spring,” when Czech leader Alexander Dubček’s modest attempt to attain “socialism with a human face” was met with a Soviet invasion. Just a month before Zacharski’s trial commenced, Edward Gierek, Poland’s Communist leader, had been purged from the Polish United Workers’ Party because of the economic crisis and the resulting mass protests.

On October 13, 1981, the day the trial commenced, the local daily, the Los Angeles Times, ran a front-page story in which Polish farmers accused their Communist overlords of being worse than their Nazi occupiers during World War II. Five days later, a soldier, Minister of Defense and General Wojciech Jaruzelski, was appointed chief of Poland’s Communist party. Jaruzelski’s ramrod posture, bald pate, and dark glasses became an internationally caricatured symbol of Communist intolerance. Outside Poland, Solidarity’s foreign affiliates staged rallies and marshaled international public opinion. In L.A., potential jurors at Zacharski’s trial were asked if they cracked Polish jokes, had heard of Frédéric Chopin, or knew the nationality of Polish pope John Paul II.

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Zacharski’s defense attorney, Edward Stadum, noted in his opening remarks that this case differed from other espionage cases “in which people have been caught entering the Soviet embassy in Mexico City with a microfilm in their pockets.” Basically, he argued, there was no proof. Other than a few murmurings by Zacharski on the tape, he was right. Still, Stadum felt that the weight of current events—specifically, the increasing exposure of Poland as an international bad actor—had already determined the outcome. “It was,” he later said, “like arguing against an oncoming steamroller.”

Brewer called forty-eight witnesses and did his best to make a case based on the flimsy evidence provided by the FBI. Bill Bell spent several days on the stand, admitting guilt and fingering Zacharski. Brewer wasn’t shy about venturing some courtroom razzle-dazzle. Brewer had Major General Richard Larkin, the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, testify in full dress uniform although Larkin had already retired, On November 16, the jury found Zacharski guilty of conspiring with Bell to obtain and deliver national defense documents.

At the sentencing hearing, on December 15, Judge Kenyon addressed defendant Marian Zacharski from the bench. For the defense, the timing could not have been worse. Two days earlier in Poland, General Jaruzelski, declaring that “our homeland is at the edge of an abyss,” had imposed martial law and had ordered the arrests of thousands of Solidarity activists.

While an audience of men and women waiting to be sworn in as US citizens looked on, Kenyon told Zacharski that the United States “will not tolerate spies.” Zacharski believed his case was being used to warn those in line to become Americans—“Don’t become spies!”—and send a message to Poland, too. Kenyon then sentenced Zacharski to life in prison. Figuring that he’d probably be exchanged at some point, Zacharski didn’t appeal. Basia and the two girls returned to Poland. A week later, President Reagan devoted his Christmas address from the Oval Office to the martial law crackdown in Poland. He urged Americans to place a candle in their windows as a sign of support for the Poles.

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At the Federal Correctional Institution in Memphis, Zacharski, now Prisoner No. 73820–012, was visited on occasion by FBI Special Agent James Reid, who tried to convince Zacharski to defect. He showed Zacharski a paper signed by the president. “The only thing missing was the number of millions they were going to pay me to talk,” Zacharski claimed. “I didn’t sign.”

In late October 1984, in the middle of Zacharski’s third year in prison, Reid vowed that Zacharski was never getting out. “We never negotiate with people who kill priests,” he told No. 73820–012, even though Reid was there to do exactly that: negotiate. The reference was to Jerzy Popiełuszko, a Roman Catholic priest who’d been murdered by Polish secret police earlier that month. “Why are you such a patriot?” Reid asked. “I don’t have the genes of a traitor,” Zacharski replied.

Zacharski’s case made waves throughout the American national security establishment; his refusal to flip only added to his élan. In a speech, then FBI director William Webster labeled Zacharski’s exploits “a textbook example of espionage.” Over the next few years, numerous confidential US government reports lauded Zacharski’s tradecraft. The Defense Department called him “a skilled salesman and master persuader and well-equipped for his task.” A congressio- nal report praised Zacharski for his “extreme caution and practiced subtlety.” The Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence observed that a focus on Bill Bell’s credulity “can lead us to ignore Zacharski’s skill.” An unnamed “federal spy hunter” called Zacharski a “real pro.”

US Senate investigators were less professional than Zacharski. They concluded, incorrectly, that Zacharski had been involved with Polish Intelligence from the start. They claimed that Zacharski came to the United States “fitted with suitable camouflage” of a salesman. No one seemed to realize that he was an accidental agent. In the assessment of America’s intelligence community, Marian Zacharski was a superspy.

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Zacharski’s prosecution came to a head in Los Angeles just as another spy faced his own life-and-death crisis in faraway Warsaw. Ryszard Kukliński, the aforementioned Polish army colonel and asset for the CIA, was in danger of being outed and needed to flee Poland. In early November 1980, just as Judge Kenyon was preparing to sentence Zacharski, Kukliński’s American handlers packed him, his wife, and their two sons up in a car, covered them with rugs and Christmas presents, and drove them across Communist Poland and East Germany to safety in the West. In 1984, a Polish military court sentenced Kukliński to death in absentia. His crimes: treason and desertion.

At the CIA, the exploits of both men reinforced an image of the excellence of Polish spies; both were seen as courageous, creative, bold, and professional despite the fact that Zacharski served the Warsaw Pact and Kukliński was, as the great Polish American strategist and former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzeziński put it, “the first Polish officer in NATO.” One had spied for Poland out of a love of adventure. The other had spied on Poland out of a love of Poland. Still, in the minds of many CIA officers and among many Poles, as well, the fates of these two agents became intertwined.

At the CIA, John Palevich reviewed Zacharski’s case files and was deeply impressed. Zacharski had worked alone as an “illegal” without diplomatic immunity, thousands of miles from a Polish mission. He had an instinctive feel for espionage and, in the Pole, John saw a reflection of his younger self. “He was on his own for years. There wasn’t anyone giving him any guidance. He did it himself,” Palevich said. The pair were connected in another way. Palevich had always befriended his agents; the same was true for Zacharski with Bill Bell. “If we hadn’t had a source, he would’ve gotten away with everything,” Palevich noted. “He had excellent tradecraft, really, really impressive.” Palevich promised himself that if the opportunity presented itself, one day he would like to work with, not against, the likes of Marian Zacharski.


Excerpted from FROM WARSAW WITH LOVE: Polish Spies, the CIA, and the Forging of an Unlikely Alliance by John Pomfret. Published by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2021 by John Pomfret. All rights reserved.

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