Defector tells tale of spy days After Czech soldier left homeland, he had much to tell ex-foes

October 23, 1997|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

Boris Stegmar was born in a little border town in Czechoslovakia, and but for an uncanny ability to pull apart and reassemble anything electronic, he might have spent an unremarkable lifetime there.

Instead, he's wandering through a dimly lighted room above a Pasadena television repair shop looking for a place to sit, drink a beer and talk about something he doesn't usually talk about.

Speaking publicly about his experiences for the first time, he recounts the story of his life and how he became a spy. His account is supported by documents he provided and public records.

Born in Communist Czechoslovakia in 1958 to a divorced office worker, he was an only child. He and his mother lived in a small flat in the Hungarian border town of Bratislava.

He didn't like school much. He wasn't good at it. Other children picked on him because his mother and his father, a construction engineer, were not married. He spent a lot of time with his mother or alone, pulling apart radios and household appliances. By high school, the only class in which he excelled was physics.

He remembers a frozen winter morning when Russian tanks rumbled into the country to overthrow the liberal Communist leader Alexander Dubcek. Stegmar was 10, and he thought it was a parade.

"I put a jacket on, all excited," he says. "I ran outside. My mother and grandmother came out screaming, 'It's a tank.' They dragged me back into the house. I never did like Russians ever since. I hate when people ask me if I'm Russian because of my name."

He studied physics and electronics in college, then took a job working as a camera operatorat a national broadcasting company covering sports. He also played a 12-string acoustic guitar in an American bluegrass and country western band.

A year later, he was drafted into the Czech air force.

"If they only knew what was going to happen to them," he says, holding his Budweiser so tightly it begins to fold. "That one decision changed the course of my entire life."

In the winter of 1979, he arrived at Zatec Air Force Base, a huge Iron Curtain military complex in northern Czechoslovakia. It was a strategic base, he says, far more important than Americans realized from their satellite imagery.

Two fighter pilots sat in MiG 21s on the runway around the clock, and the base was a haven for high-ranking Communist leaders in a time of war.

His commanding officers, recognizing his affinity for electronics, put him in charge of coding and deciphering for the air base. Three times a week, he changed the codes that gave planes, air traffic and the control tower access to Czechoslovakian air space, the base and its computers.

Stegmar became a sort of high-ranking fix-it man. He read every manual for every machine on the base -- partly out of boredom, partly out of interest. He could recircuit computers, light up airstrips and change radar installations.

Because he was on call 24 hours a day, he says, the officers had him sleep in the tech room.

His cot was set up beneath a 20-by-20 foot blueprint of the base. The large grid was the last thing he saw every night for four years as he fell asleep.

Besides that map, his other diversion in his perch on the fourth floor of the control tower was a radio he built, powerful enough to tune into Radio Free Europe, the anti-Communist broadcast that the United States beamed to the nations behind the Iron Curtain. masked the squawking from the tower speakers that carried the base communications channel.

One winter night as he lay huddled in his cot, he knew he had to get out -- not just away from the base but out of his country.

"I just wanted to get out," he says, "to go somewhere where I didn't have to whisper to talk."

He and his wife, Iveta, defected to Italy. During an interview at the U.S. Embassy in Rome, a man in a U.S. Army uniform asked his name. He asked where he came from. Then he asked what he did for a living. "I said, coding and deciphering for the Zatec Air Base," Stegmar recalls. "He put his pen down, looked at me and picked up the phone."

A half-dozen men in suits escorted him to another room, fingerprinted him and asked for every piece of identification he had. They told him they would check out his story and he should come back Monday. On his way out, they handed him an 8 1/2 -by-11-inch sheet of paper and told him to draw a map of the base.

He knew the paper they gave him wouldn't do. He went to a store and bought four poster boards and a roll of tape. He lined them up and taped them together. For 48 hours, he worked on the boards, pressing his eyes closed to call up the memory of the wall he'd stared at for four years.

"I drew every bunker, every private quarter, every ammunition depot, every radar installation, all mile markers, compass degrees, elevation, altitude -- everything," he said.

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