Officials say money, not politics, motivated accused spy Betting parlor employees say Lipka was a regular

February 25, 1996|By Ann LoLordo and Sandy Banisky | Ann LoLordo and Sandy Banisky,SUN STAFF

MILLERSVILLE, Pa. -- From the coins he traded to the dollars he bet on the ponies to the cash he allegedly pocketed as a Soviet-paid spy, money mattered to Robert S. Lipka.

For 30 years, he parlayed his interest in foreign currency into a business. For nearly as long, Mr. Lipka gambled -- he had a personal account at an off-track betting parlor not far from his home in the Pennsylvania countryside. And it was cash, not Communist ideology, that moved Mr. Lipka to spy, federal investigators say.

Government officials say they don't know how much Mr. Lipka allegedly earned selling national defense secrets to Soviet agents from 1964 to 1974. The 50-year-old father of three is accused of spying soon after he began working as an Army clerk at the National Security Agency at Fort Meade.

But whatever he earned, it wasn't enough, Mr. Lipka groused to an undercover FBI agent, according to a government affidavit released after Mr. Lipka's arrest Friday. And when he was lured back into the spy business in 1993, he "demanded" the cash he was owed from decades ago, according to the affidavit.

When FBI agents escorted Mr. Lipka Friday morning from his home, his neighbors learned the affable, stay-at-home dad with the bad back was not just "a regular guy." He lived a modest, unassuming life and money matters always seemed a bit hazy.

"He told me he was on government disability for 15-20 years," said Kevin Rosini, a former neighbor in Lancaster who coached the Lipka boys at a summer parks program.

Mr. Lipka and his wife, a postal worker, moved to a $168,000 brick colonial across from a cornfield in Millersville in November 1994. It was a trade up from the $76,000 semidetached house in a Lancaster subdivision where the couple had lived for several years with their two sons. The move came soon after Mr. Lipka received a sizable settlement -- apparently in excess of $250,000 -- for a back injury he sustained two years earlier during a Super Bowl party at a men's club in Lancaster. He boasted about his new house to his Lancaster neighbors.

"He described it as a mansion," said Gina Forte. When she asked how he could afford it, Mr. Lipka told her, "Did you ever bet on horses? Well, you know, I won a huge amount of money on racing. You should try it."

"He did love to brag," Mrs. Forte said.

He also loved to gamble. Employees at the Penn National Off Track Wagering parlor in York say Mr. Lipka was a regular, coming four or five times a week. As many as 1,000 patrons play the horses daily, but the staff all knew the heavyset Mr. Lipka, nicknaming him "Big Bob." They remember him as talkative and jovial.

"He didn't talk much about anything but the horses he was playing," said Rob Marella, the evening manager at Penn National OTB parlor. "He told me he was retired. He was just a horse fan with a convenient place to go."

Years earlier, his gambling strained his first marriage. His wife, the former Patricia E. Davis of Baltimore, divorced him in July 1974 after a rocky 8-year marriage. She cited his gambling and abusive behavior.

"He lost money playing cards. Finally we had to take out a loan to cover his gambling debts," she said in court papers. Mr. Lipka's former wife, who reportedly is cooperating with the FBI in the espionage investigation, got no financial settlement from her husband, according to court records. The couple had one child, Kelly, who lives in Maryland.

Mr. Lipka's alleged cloak-and-dagger past surprised his middle-class neighbors in Millersville. He drove a blue van and often picked up his sons from the park on summer afternoons. He was a Penn State fan, and had a big flag in front of his house last fall. He frequently wrote letters to the hometown newspaper.

"I turn on the news and there's his picture," said Mr. Rosini, the Lancaster neighbor. "I said, 'Wow!' "

Mr. Lipka sits today in a Philadelphia jail, and the news of his arrest made the front pages. Until now, readers of the Lancaster New Era knew him as their coin columnist and opinion writer.

In his letters to the editor, Mr. Lipka was prolific, said Marvin Adams, news editor of the Lancaster paper. He wrote on a variety of topics, from the federal government to gambling to school lunches. His point of view "seemed to be more on the liberal side," Mr. Adams said. The letters were "a little long and sometimes a little outrageous."

His most recent letter ran last Sunday, a long discussion of radio host Rush Limbaugh's "obvious methods to subvert and distort the truth." Mr. Adams said the newspaper edited out a reference that compared Mr. Limbaugh to Hitler propagandist Joseph Goebbels.

After federal agents descended on Mr. Lipka's neighborhood Friday and charged him with espionage, the staff at the Penn National betting parlor no longer thought of him as Bob.

"We nicknamed him 007," said Dan Simmons, a clerk at the door.

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