By William Plummer Chris Phillips Grant Pick
July 17, 1989 12:00 PM

The obituaries that appeared in the Soviet press were adulatory—and profoundly disturbing. Glenn Michael Souther, the U.S. Navy photo analyst who disappeared from the United States in 1986 and surfaced in Moscow last year, had died at the age of 32. It was not Souther’s death that occasioned alarm—official Washington had long ago written him off as a traitor—but the Kremlin’s extraordinary disclosures about his espionage career. Referring to Souther as Mikhail Orlov, the Soviets hailed him as a master spy who gave them “precious” secrets, including detailed U.S. plans in the event of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. His missions had earned Souther the rank of major in the KGB. However, the gratitude of his Soviet controllers was apparently not enough to sustain him: On June 22, he took his own life by inhaling the exhaust fumes of his car. “His nervous system,” said KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, “could not stand the pressure” of life in the U.S.S.R.

While the reports prompted U.S. intelligence officials to reassess the damage Souther may have done, his friends were mystified. They don’t recognize the young man depicted in the Soviet propaganda; then again, they don’t agree on what sort of fellow Souther really was. Those who knew him as a youth describe an ordinary boy they can barely remember, but friends from Souther’s years at Virginia’s Old Dominion University recall a wild man who was always the life of the party. No one, it seems, could explain Souther’s transformation—nor the disillusionment that prompted his betrayal.

There were no portents of that during his childhood. Public school records in his hometown of Munster, Ind. (pop. 22,000), say he was born Jan. 30, 1957. His father, Gene, worked as an office manager for the company that makes Wonder Bread, while his mother, Shirley, was a secretary. Christine Petsas, who lived across the street from the family’s home in a blue-collar neighborhood, says Souther “was a good kid, but nothing extraordinary.” At Munster High School he was an average student who ran track. “Glenn was a nice, straightforward guy, like the rest of us,” says Tom Rasch, a friend from the track team. According to Rasch, Souther had no strong interest in politics or foreign affairs. He did, however, develop an interest in photography.

After his parents divorced around 1970, Souther moved with his father to Cumberland Center, Me., where he finished high school before enlisting in the Navy. Souther served on the carrier USS Nimitz from 1976 to 1978, then transferred to the Sixth Fleet in Italy, where he married and fathered a child. In 1982 he was stationed in Maryland before being honorably discharged later that year.

Souther promptly enlisted in the Naval Reserve in Norfolk, where he analyzed satellite photos and had access to highly classified military material. He was also attending Old Dominion University and building a reputation as a local character. “He was the guy at parties who always put on a lamp shade,” says Barbara Fahey, whose husband, John, served as Souther’s adviser in Russian studies.

Not everyone was amused by Souther’s antics. Fellow student Lana Rodriguez, a Soviet Jew who immigrated to the U.S., remembers receiving a phone call from Souther asking her to tutor him in Russian. An hour later he was knocking on her door, introducing himself in fluent Russian as “a rapist,” and launching into a story of how he had been suspended from school for a year for assaulting a coed. “He said he dated this girl for a while, and they’d broken up,” recalls Rodriguez. “That semester, he said, he…knocked her down and bit her. He said she called it rape, but it wasn’t. He obviously was crazy, but he was not a rapist.”

Souther also evinced a split personality when it came to his studies. John Fahey remembers him early on as one of his “worst students,” who was close to failing. But Leonid Mihalap, another Russian professor at Old Dominion, found Souther’s mastery of the language so impressive he thought his student was a Soviet infiltrator. “He submitted a term paper on the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky that was so excellent and flawless it occurred to me that only a Russian could have written it.” Around the same time, Souther’s estranged wife told Navy officials she believed her husband was spying for the U.S.S.R., but investigations turned up no evidence.

Still, Mihalap was stunned when Souther turned up in Moscow two years after his graduation, announcing his defection and criticizing U.S. nuclear arms policies and intelligence missions like the bombing raid on Libya. The Faheys believe that Souther left because he felt “rebuffed in this country.” More than anything, says John, Souther wanted to enter the Naval Officer Candidate School. But he was turned down. “I think he decided to defect because he wasn’t making it here,” says Barbara Fahey. “So he said, ‘Well, I’ll show you!’ ” Whatever Souther’s motives, some believe the Kremlin’s claims. Says author Ron Kessler, who is writing a book on Souther: “He was a very successful spy who retrieved sensitive information for the KGB.”

In the U.S.S.R., Souther reportedly married a Russian woman and had another child, yet happiness eluded him. The Soviets “probably took away the only thing that made him really special—his crazy free spirit,” says Rodriguez. Mihalap speculates that Souther’s disillusionment may have led him to emulate his beloved poet Mayakovsky, who committed suicide at age 37. Like many who knew Souther, Mihalap views his former student’s double life and his death with conflicting emotions. “My feelings are split—for the man I have known and feel sympathy for, and for the man who turned out to be a traitor. It’s very sad.”

—William Plummer, Chris Phillips in Norfolk and Grant Pick in Munster