Back in the Day: The Spy who Went to Armijo High
By Tony Wade
Published in the Fairfield Daily Republic on April 25, 2014
The 1952 Armijo High School La Mezcla yearbook featured the usual senior superlatives such as “Most Athletic,” “Most Popular,” etc. It did not include “Most Likely To Commit Espionage,” but if it had, James Durward Harper would have been pictured.
On Oct. 15, 1983, the FBI arrested Harper, then 49 and working as a freelance electrical engineer in Mountain View. He was charged with selling Minuteman missile secrets to the Soviet Union over an eight-year period.
Harper’s wife, Ruby Louise Schuler, worked as a secretary for a defense contractor in Palo Alto that did research on ballistic missiles. He copied classified documents at night and on weekends and then, between July 1979 and November 1981, passed them on to Polish intelligence officials, who in turn passed them on to the Soviet Union’s security agency, the KGB.
Ruby Louise Schuler died of cirrhosis of the liver at age 39, four months before Harper’s arrest.
Harper was paid $250,000 for the approximately 100 national defense secrets he stole. The Soviet agents involved in procuring them were given commendations by then-KGB leader Yuri Andropov.
An FBI affidavit stated that the extremely sensitive research by the Department of Defense involved the ability of the United States’ Minuteman missiles to survive a pre-emptive nuclear attack by the Soviet Union.
Whether he was motivated by twinges of conscience or a fear of prosecution is unclear, but in September 1981, Harper attempted to broker a deal for immunity anonymously with the CIA, through an attorney. That offer was rejected and Harper continued to sell secrets. He was later identified by a Polish double agent.
The story broke nationally and was printed in the Oct. 18, 1983, Daily Republic, with the headline, “Bay Area man held in sale of U.S. secrets.” It quickly became clear within a few days that the spy identified initially just as a “Bay Area man” was from Fairfield.
Growing up, Harper’s parents had separated and while that is rather common in 2014, in the early 1950s in then small town Fairfield, it was not. A friend who knew Harper back then was quoted anonymously in the Daily Republic in 1984: “He had the typical problems a boy without a father has. When he went astray there was no one to kick him in the fanny. His value system was screwed up.”
While at Armijo, Harper played football, basketball and ran track. He had excelled as a fullback for the Indians, but broke his leg in the first game of his senior year and sat out the season. He was named honorary captain and had to watch as his teammates won the Superior California Athletic League championship that year.
In the “Class Wills” section of the 1952 Armijo yearbook, where graduating seniors jokingly “willed” things to underclassmen, Harper wrote: “I, James Harper, do will my ability to spot black (police) cars at great distances while driving around town to Ed Serpas.”
Descriptions of Harper by classmates included “brilliant,” “a loner,” “self-centered” and “cocky.”
By the 1970s, Harper was an ex-Marine and started a company called Harper Time and Electronics that developed the first digital stopwatch. The company Harper founded eventually ousted him in 1974 and went bankrupt because of his erratic behavior and loose business practices. The patent rights to the digital stopwatch were included as part of Harper Time’s company assets and were sold to a couple of entrepreneurs after the bankruptcy.
James Harper was sentenced to life in prison on May 14, 1984. Presiding Federal Judge Samuel Conti told Harper: “You are a traitor to your country who committed the crime not for any political reasons, but for greed.”
A couple of interesting side notes:
Harper later successfully petitioned a federal court to have the government return property seized during their investigation – including a teddy bear.
John Walker, another American spy, actually had coincidentally used the alias “James Harper” when selling secrets.
Harper, now 80 and also known as 75856-011, resides at the United States Penitentiary, Lompoc.
Reach Fairfield writer Tony Wade at email@example.com.