Nathan Nicholson strolled out of a Hilton hotel on Cyprus, map in hand, looking like any other American tourist eager to be charmed by the Mediterranean isle. But this was no sightseeing excursion. The young man from Eugene, Oregon, was so keyed up for his meeting with the Russian spy he knew as George that he’d arrived an hour early for their street-side rendezvous.
Just as George had instructed, Nathan clutched a backpack in his right hand and wore the khaki baseball cap the Russian had given him at their last meeting in Lima, Peru.
At precisely 7 p.m., Nathan caught a glimpse of the gray-haired spy walking up the sidewalk. He waited for George to speak.
“Can you show me the way to the federal post office?”
George’s English was excellent as always.
Nathan raised his map. He felt ridiculous reciting his end of their rehearsed dialogue. They had met face-to-face three times, and both knew why they were there. But he didn’t want to disappoint George.
“It should be around here somewhere,” he said. “Let me show you the way.”
Soon, Nathan found himself lying across the backseat of a foreign sedan with two Russians yakking in their native tongue as they bumped along the old streets into an underground garage.
There George led him up a narrow stairwell into a room with thick walls. Nathan handed over a six-page handwritten document and collected $12,000 in U.S. hundred-dollar bills. The two men agreed to meet a year later in Bratislava, Slovakia.
He reached his apartment at 3:30 a.m. and stashed the money in his nightstand. Then he collapsed in the loopy delirium known only to those who’ve flown halfway around the world in coach.
At 1:20 p.m., a loud pounding startled him awake. He stumbled out of bed to find two FBI agents at his door.
Nathan, then 12, felt like he was losing the father he had just come to know. The CIA job had kept his dad away from home for weeks at a time. But things changed after his parents split ~.P and Jim got primary custody of the three kids-Nathan, older brother Jeremi, and older sister Star. Jim finally began [Q balance his career and his role as father, Boy Scout adviser, soccer coach, and chauffeur.
Jim confided to an inmate in his prayer circle that he felt like a failure because of his children’s financial miseries. By the middle of 2006, Jeremi was sweating college loans on the pay of an Air Force senior airman. Star faced car problems and a student loan debt of $5O,OOO. Nathan was struggling to make payments on his rent, car, and credit card.
On October 13, 2006, at about 10 a.m., Nathan entered the Russian consulate in San Francisco and slid his dad’s introductory note to a receptionist. She read it slowly, asked him to take a seat, and walked away.
An hour later, he met with a man with a mustache and a thick Russian accent, who clearly doubted he was the son of Russia’s former CIA mole. Nevertheless, he said to come back in precisely two weeks.
On October 27, Nathan headed south again. When he walked into the Russian consulate, his contact with the mustache was a changed man. He hugged Nathan, asked about his family, and said to call him Mike.
The FBI would later identify Mike as Mikhail I. Gorbunov, a Russian diplomat assigned to San Francisco.
Gorbunov handed Nathan a brown paper bag stuffed with $5,000 and gave him the address of the Russian embassy in Mexico City, where he would meet a new handler in six weeks.
“I made a sale for $5K,” he said.
Also, he said, he might be heading to Mexico. Surreptitiously using napkins he picked up for snacks he bought for his dad, Nathan had found a way around prison rules that forbade the exchange of notes in the visiting room. On his trip to Mexico City in late 2006, he carried with him two paper-napkin notes from his-dad
Nathan scribbled in a pocket notebook as George shook out $ 10,000 in U.S. hundred dollar bills, careful not to touch them.
George ended their meeting by setting up another one, same place, the following July.
“Ifelt like an undercover Santa Claus,” he recalls.
In July 2007, Nathan flew back to Mexico City and handed George Jim’s latest notes, which gave up the name of a government polygraph examiner. and described the FBI agents who interrogated him. Nathan pocketed another $10,000.
Agents had been reading Jim’s correspondence for years.
Now they detected a suspicious spike in his letters to Nathan and got permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in Washington, D.C. to eavesdrop on the young spy.
Now, on December 15,2008, Nathan lurched out of bed heavy legged with jet lag-He opened his door to Jared Garth and his partner, Special Agent John Cooney, who introduced themselves as FBI agents and said they were looking for help with an investigation.
The agents got Nathan talking about himself, then got around to asking him about his trips abroad.
Nathan, who had served three years in the Army, obliged them with a spectacular run of lies: He had saved his Veterans Affairs checks to travel on three continents. Met up with Army pals. Checked out local architecture. Even scouted places to propose marriage to his girlfriend.
Nathan signed a confession as an FBI team searched his apartment. He asked if the agents were going to arrest him.
Not tonight, Garth said.
That same day, FBI agents Scott Jensen and Tony Buckmeier sat down with Jim Nicholson at the federal prison in Sheridan. Jensen, known for a wit drier than cheatgrass, began by laying a postcard on the table with big yellow letters: “Greetings from Cyprus.” He told his suspect that the FBI knew all about Nathan’s travels.
The former CIA man told the agents that if they were trying to implicate him and his son in a crime, he wanted a lawyer. So the agents ended the interview.
Jim was sent to a 23-hour-a-day solitary unit known as the hole. He was forbidden to communicate in any way with Nathan. It would be 764 days until he again laid eyes on his son.
Nathan called Star. “What’s up with the FBI?” she asked. It’s a long story, Nathan said. He explained that he’d been transporting information and getting paid for it.
Star wanted to know who got the information.
“Well,” Nathan said, dreading the words to follow, “it was for the Russians.”
“That was you?’ she asked. “‘Yeah.”
Dude, you’re not supposed to do that,” Star said. Not that didn’t appreciate the money, she told her younger brother. “But you know, seriously, it sounds kind of like what Daddy did.”
for six weeks after his confession to the FBI, Nathan Nicholson slept on the floor, punishing himself for the trouble he used.
“I envisioned my dad in a concrete cell and being treated very harshly,” Nathan recalls. “I felt equally responsible for what had happened, and I didn’t feel that it would be fair if I was’t disciplined On January 28, 2009, discipline came knocking Nathan was catnapping on the floor of his Eugene apartment on that gusty, gray Wednesday when two FBI agents rapped his door Nathan recognized Jared Garth, one of the agents who had initially interviewed him. He knew why they were there.
Garth handcuffed Nathan and loaded him into the back of his Ford Crown Victoria for the two-hour drive to the Justice Center jail in downtown Portland. He reminded Nathan that it was his dad who had sold out his country to the Russians and later orchestrated their plot to pass new messages to Moscow. It was Jim, said Garth, who had used manipulative power sharpened in the CIA-on his own son. It was time, he said, to be his own man.
The prosecutors weren’t interested. They indicted father and son on charges of money laundering, acting as agents of a foreign government, and conspiracy. The money-laundering charge alone carried up to 20 years in prison.
On one hand, federal agents were telling him that Jim had manipulated him; on the other hand, he adored his dad, whose plot seemed designed to help his family. Forbidden to communicate with Jim, Nathan prepared himself for the witness box.
“I had to essentially crucify him,” he recalls. last fall, as he met with a prosecutor, Nathan started to learn how deeply he had trespassed in the global spy game.
As Nathan prepped for trial, Jim and his lawyer, Samuel C. Kauffman, staked out a bold defense strategy. In pretrial court papers, he conceded his client sought financial help from Russia but argued it wasn’t illegal, even for someone convicted of spying for Russia, to ask Moscow for money.
Privately, though, Jim had serious misgivings about putting Nathan through a courtroom showdown, Kauffman says. “Ultimately, he couldn’t move forward.”
Last November, Jim decided to plead guilty in exchange for eight additional years in prison. With time off for good behavior, he would get out in his early 70s. Nathan was overjoyed that he might one day see his dad beyond prison walls.
On the morning of December 7, Nathan stood nervously fore U.S. District Judge Anna J. Brown for sentencing. The judge leafed through papers, noting that Nathan had met all his obligations to the government. She agreed with lawyers on both sides of the case that the 72 days he had spent in jail were enough.
“A prison sentence,” she said, “isn’t necessary.”
Brown sentenced him to five years’ supervised probation and 100 hours of community service.
At Jim’s sentencing a month later, Judge Brown offered him a chance to say a few words. “Your Honor, in my life I have been through several coups, a revolution, and a war,” he said. “I have been marked for assassination by a foreign terrorist organization, been hunted by armed gunmen in East Asia, and imprisoned in this country. I have gone through-a heart wrenching divorce and custody battle.
“But the worst day of my life was the day I learned that my young son had been arrested and charged with acts for which I am responsible.”
Jim said he watched, as if in amber, as his kids struggled to make ends meet. He had reached out to the one source he could think of for help: Russia.
“And insofar as their efforts were truly to help my children, I regret the embarrassment that this has caused them as well.”
Jim asked his children to forgive him and described Nathan’s efforts as selfless.
“I love him dearly,” he said. “I could not be more proud of him. He has never let me down, and he has never failed his family. Any failure has been mine alone.”
Nathan wept quietly as Brown glared at his dad.
“He’s made an eloquent statement here today to his family, to his children,” she said. “Notably absent from his remarks, however, was any suggestion of remorse for committing criminal conduct against the United States and its interests. Whathe calls previous assistance to the Russian Federation was criminal espionage.”
Jared Garth, in the courtroom for the sentencing was founded by Jim’s apology to the Russians rather than the United States. Later, it dawned on him: “Why would he apologize to the United States? He was loyal to the Russian Federation.”
jim is now being held at a medium-security prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. He and his son can no longer talk or write to each other without approval of Nathan’s probation officer.
On a. recent afternoon in Corvallis, where he studies computer science at Oregon State University, Nathan pondered a question would pose to his dad if they could sit down together:
Had Jim, in trying to help his kids, considered the risks? “I feel like we ended up hurting the family more,” Nathan admits.
And his country – had betrayed it?
“Absolutely,” he says.
His father’s projected release date is June 27, 2024, about a month shy of Nathan’s 40th birthday. By Jim’s boy hopes to have a wife and three kids of his own.
He will tell them his dad is a loving man who mistakes and suffered terribly for them.
“He was my hero, “Nathan says unwaveringly. “Still is.”
Jim Nicholson is now being held at a maximum – security prison in Florence, Colorado, His project release date is still June 27 2024 Nathan graduated from Oregon State University with a degree in computer science and now works as a web designer.
He is no longer on Probation.