Wispelaere: the spy who stayed out in the cold

Jean-Philippe Wispelaere used many different identities and reportedly had an infatuation with spying.JEAN-PHILIPPE Wispelaere was falling apart. The East Brunswick boy who had tried to commit suicide as a seven-year-old had grown into an unstable young man and, faced with life in a US prison on espionage charges, began to implode.
Nanjing Night Net

It appeared his only salvation was a plea bargain that would let him return to Australia as soon as possible to serve part of his sentence in the country where he had lived since infancy.

He clung to that hope as he was besieged by the media, the Australian attorney-general, his father, and, worst of all, his capitulating mind. He swallowed razor blades, beat his head against a brick wall, gnawed on his hand and slashed his wrist so badly he needed 15 stitches during the two-year nightmare that started with his arrest on May 15, 1999.

Finally, in June 2001, Wispelaere was sentenced at a US court in Virginia to 15 years’ jail, the last five to be served in Australia. Two years spent behind bars would be taken into account and he could be released earlier depending on behaviour.

Outside court that day, his US lawyer, Nina Ginsberg, said he wanted to serve as much of his sentence as possible in Australia.

His parents were in Australia, as were the few friends he had left from his time at high school and university in Melbourne and from about six years studying and working in Canberra.

So why, when he was released last month, did Wispelaere not come home?

Ivan Himmelhoch, the former barrister who acted as his Australian lawyer, has no idea why Wispelaere instead nominated Canada, his country of birth, as his preferred place of deportation.

During the trial, Mr Himmelhoch had protested that Australia had thrown Wispelaere to the wolves when they let US authorities press charges.

”He felt Australia left him in the lurch because they didn’t charge him,” he said. ”They had the power to charge him but they didn’t. Australia should have been shown more respect by America, but should have stood up for itself too.

”Despite that, I don’t remember him ever discussing living in Canada. Perhaps spending all that time in prison turned him further against Australia, but I can only guess.”

Wispelaere admitted during his trial that he thought of himself as James Bond when he stole 1382 classified US documents, mostly satellite photos, while working at the Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO).

Ms Ginsberg said it was hard to imagine someone doing a worse job of spying.

Wispelaere’s plot involved travelling to Bangkok and selling the documents to a foreign embassy for hundreds of thousands of dollars. When he approached the embassy, it immediately contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Speaking from his home in Melbourne’s outer east, Mr Himmelhoch was surprised to learn Wispelaere, 41, did not return to an Australian jail five years ago, as he could have under his plea bargain.

The move was even given preliminary approval, but it appears an application for an international prisoner transfer lapsed.

As the end of his sentence approached, the French-speaking Wispelaere was expected to spend several weeks in an immigration centre in the state of Georgia, where he was incarcerated at the McRae Correctional Facility, before returning to Australia.

”That was what was arranged, that he’d do the time he had to and then come back. I’d thought he was already here,” Mr Himmelhoch said. ”I think it’s very odd that he hasn’t came back, but I can’t offer a reason.”

Mr Himmelhoch was even more shocked when told that Wispelaere’s father, Claude, had been found dead in the small East Brunswick house Jean-Philippe had grown up in with a self-inflicted nail gun wound to his heart in December 2010.

Danny Egan, who lived next door to the Wispelaeres with his parents and spent time with Jean-Philippe as a boy, thinks he may have never intended to come home and says that realisation may have led Claude, 69, to take his own life.

Mr Egan received letters from Wispelaere after his sentencing, but had not heard from him for some time. He was speaking only metres away from the front door of the Wispelaeres’ former house, which is being renovated by a young couple and has a tricycle and toys scattered in the yard.

”His dad was pushing for him to come back to Australia. He didn’t want to. He said [so] in his letters,” he said.

Claude had criticised his son repeatedly after his arrest. He called him his ”loony son”, a ”fool” and an ”idiot”, and said the ”pathetic” scheme had been motivated by greed.

But Mr Himmelhoch said none of that criticism may have reached Jean-Philippe, apart from during the first conversation the pair had after the arrest when Claude admitted calling his son names in French. Even if it had, it was unlikely to shadow his desire to come home.

”I think that was fatherly chastisement rather than deep-down hostility,” he said.

”I certainly didn’t tell Jean-Philippe about it, but his mother may have. He really wasn’t well at all so it wouldn’t have been good for him to hear.”

Jean-Philippe’s mother, Eleanor Lancaster, lives in North Fitzroy. She wasn’t interested in speaking to The Age. Wispelaere also declined an interview from McRae Correctional Facility.

Speaking from her law practice in Virginia, Wispelaere’s US lawyer Ms Ginsberg said she had not spoken to him in years.

Another court-appointed lawyer, Greg Beckwith, said he had always expected Wispelaere to go back to Australia. ”I remember talking to his mother and he had wanted to go back because his father had some health concerns at the time,” Mr Beckwith said from his office, also in Virginia.

”That was a reason why he wanted to come back.

”It does surprise me that he hasn’t. I don’t know if he had the desire to. People get used to their circumstances, you know?”

The two years between Wispelaere’s arrest and his sentencing were dominated by reports about Australia’s responsibility to a vulnerable man and the mental troubles that significantly delayed his trial.

Details about his infatuation with spying, his expulsion from Wesley College and his multiple teenage identities were reported alongside concerns about the US government standing over its Australian counterpart.

Wispelaere’s lawyers and parents blamed Australia’s lax security for allowing him to steal the secret documents and argued they were culpable for his crimes.

Ms Ginsberg said she thought Australia had been told to stay out of the case by the US because security had been ”embarrassingly” poor at DIO.

A few months after the sentence, the Howard government announced beefed-up security procedures in the public service, particularly in intelligence agencies, and revamped espionage law. The maximum penalty for espionage was increased from seven years to 25 to counter protests that Wispelaere would have faced a much more lenient sentence had he been charged under Australian law.

Despite the criticisms of how the Wispelaere case was handled, the government was unrepentant.

”It’s very difficult to feel sympathy for a person who seeks to get rich by betraying his country,” then attorney-general Daryl Williams said of Wispelaere, shortly before the sentencing. ”That’s what he has done.”

Wispelaere has rarely been spoken of publicly in Canberra since. Then foreign minister Kevin Rudd said in November last year that Wispelaere had been visited by department officials nine times since February 2007 in response to a question on notice, but a spokesman for the Attorney-General refused to comment on Wispelaere’s case.

Canadian authorities also declined to comment, but a US official confirmed he had been removed to Canada.

It is unclear where Wispelaere, who spent time in four prisons in three different US states, has settled. Mr Himmelhoch said Wispelaere, who was born in Montreal, once mentioned a fondness for Quebec.

Wispelaere has no siblings, and his visits from members of the Quakers stopped some time before his release.

Shortly before Wispelaere left McRae, a private prison near Atlanta, Warden Walter Wells notified The Age in no uncertain terms that his prisoner did not want to be interviewed or answer a prepared set of questions.

When his prison case officer was asked what Wispelaere’s plans were upon release, the response was only slightly less blunt. ”I can’t give you that information,” he says in a deep southern drawl. ”But I can say that he’s going OK.”

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