The year was 1984. Cold War tensions were still high. Hawthorne, California had a large defense presence. On December 10, 1984, an aerospace engineer from Northrop Aviation decided to risk it all. Here’s what a spy tried to do at the Cockatoo.


Thomas P. Cavanagh (b.1945) was a mid-level engineer at the Advanced Systems Division of Northrop Aviation in Pico Rivera, California. At the time, he was married to a woman named Rita, with whom he had two sons. The couple filed for divorce in 1983. According to reports, Cavanagh moved to Downey with another woman, Maria Quintero, and her daughter. By late 1984, he faced a lingering divorce process, job troubles, and crippling debt. He was desperate for money.

According to an NBC News report at the time, Cavanagh made a phone call to the Soviet embassy in Washington DC. He wished to speak with Soviet officials about a deal. He offered them manuals and blueprints of the $2.1 billion Northrop B-2 Spirit. The aircraft was better known as The Stealth Bomber.


Meet me at the Cockatoo

Cavanagh prepared to meet the Russians for the first time on Monday, December 10, 1984. They agreed to meet at the Cockatoo Inn.

Meanwhile, FBI agents also prepared. Cavanagh did not know his earlier calls to the embassy were wired. Later, he arrived at the Cockatoo Inn, expecting Russians. Instead, he met two undercover FBI agents posing as KGB. He introduced himself as “Mr. Peters”.

Incredibly, “Mr. Peters” revealed he wanted to sell billion dollar secrets to them for a paltry $25,000. According to the FBI, Cavanagh stated he needed to “get the creditors off my back.” Later, it was reported that bad credit prevented him from receiving a promotion. That promotion would have given him access to even more classified information. Cavanagh is quoted in the secret meeting:

I need that top-secret level, or I ain’t gonna get nothing, you know. I’m after big money. Twenty-five thousand dollars is a drop in the bucket, believe me.”

Catching the Spy

Cavanagh’s intentions were clear. However, the FBI didn’t arrest him just yet. After their rendezvous at the Cockatoo Inn, agents met with a free Cavanagh twice more. On December 12, they met at The Lucky Lodge Motel in Bellflower. According to the FBI:

He told our undercover agents the info was worth ‘billions of dollars.’ He added: ‘I feel like I can bring more documents out [but] I gotta have money, okay?’

Finally, agents met Cavanagh on December 18 at the Hyatt Hotel in the City of Commerce. FBI reports stated:

Cavanagh turned over more materials. Our agents paid him $25,000. Cavanagh agreed to sell more secrets for another $30,000. We arrested Cavanagh on the spot. He pled guilty. In May 1985, he was sentenced to life in prison.

Terminal Island Prison housed Thomas Cavanagh for a time. Despite his life sentence, he was released on March 1, 2001. The FBI called the Cavanagh case, “the tip of the iceberg.” More Americans committed espionage during that year, and the press dubbed 1985 as “The Year of the Spy”.

Sources for this story include FBI, CIA, NBC News, CBS News, News World, and National Counterintelligence Center.

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