Ivy Bells: A Spyhunter Series Story

After plans for the most expensive covert operation in U.S. history are stolen, the future of the free world rests in the hands of two teens and a professional spy hunter.

Greg Nichols
Published in
19 min readDec 9, 2020



The divers emerged from a secret compartment in the belly of the spy sub. Breathing an experimental gas mixture and operating at previously unthinkable depths, they descended in near-darkness toward a thick undersea communications cable.

The American sub and divers were operating deep in Soviet territorial waters. Codenamed Ivy Bells, it was a joint mission of the CIA, NSA, and Navy, and it was the most important intelligence-gathering operation of the Cold War.

Working in the twilight of 400 feet below the surface, the divers lassoed the cable with a custom-made undersea listening device that acted like a giant stethoscope for electronic pulses. It recorded communications on physical tapes, which had to be retrieved and replaced by divers every month. Every mission carried the greatest possible risk of discovery and death.

The job was nearly finished when an audible pop, loud as a starter pistol, stopped the divers cold. In an environment where the slightest sound could tip off the enemy — the area was littered with undersea microphones and the Soviets patrolled by ship and sub — the sharp noise was a sign something had gone very wrong. Sure enough, currents from a storm had rocked the vessel so violently that an anchor chain holding it to the seabed snapped. The divers were left stranded on the outside as the sub floated away.

Onboard, the captain ordered the crew to flood the ship’s buoyancy tanks. Sinking quickly, the massive ship hit the sea floor with a water-dulled clank and groans of stressed metal. When it came to rest, the divers outside frantically swam to the dive chamber door located midships. After a few anxious minutes, the crew delivered a damage assessment. The vital systems were intact. Every sailor onboard breathed a sigh of relief.

The sub limped home, but the close call drove home the razor thin margin for error in such a delicate operation. Discovery of an American sub in Soviet waters could easily turn the Cold War hot. The Pentagon needed a better spy submarine, the most advanced ever built, and an extraordinary plan took shape. Work on the special sub would take place at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in the city of Vallejo, 30 miles outside San Francisco. A Navy contractor with engineering offices in Vallejo would spearhead the highly sensitive project, the most expensive undertaking of its kind in the history of naval warfare. All of it would be off the books, top secret, of highest possible importance to national security.

Time pressures on the contractor were immense, but completing the job on time would mean a financial windfall. Employees started to cut small corners, save time where they could. Instead of using secure couriers to transport printed materials between the company’s engineering office in downtown Vallejo and the Mare Island shipyard a few miles away, engineers occasionally carried the plans themselves in personal vehicles, saving a string of phone calls and time-wasting ID checks.

It was barely a five minute trip. What could wrong?

In April 1986, a 65-year-old engineer walked out of the engineering office gripping two locked canvas bags full of blueprints. He crossed the street, popped his trunk, and placed the satchels inside. That’s when he felt a whoosh of movement behind him. The next thing he knew he was on the ground.

The robbery had happened with blinding speed. Dazed, the engineer looked up in time to see a well-built white man running the satchels to an idling blue pickup truck. The thief climbed into the passenger seat and slammed the door. The getaway vehicle, driven by a Black man visible through the truck’s rear window, squealed away. The engineer lying on the pavement would have known in an instant he had just played a role in the largest intelligence disaster in modern memory.

Certain that the inner workings of the super spy sub, as well as details of the top secret undersea wiretapping operation, had just fallen into the hands of Soviet spies or free agents who would ransom the plans to the highest bidder, the contractor’s security team urgently phoned Navy counter-intelligence and the FBI. Like so much of the Ivy Bells operation, the security breach was unparalleled in special warfare, and the full strength of American law enforcement would be deployed in a mad scramble to get the plans back. It would mean a manhunt of epic proportions, and in the eyes of military planners the stakes were the very fate of the free world.

Only it wasn’t the Soviets who stole the plans. It was two teens from working-class Vallejo who grabbed the satchels on a lark and unwittingly became the most wanted outlaws of the Cold War.

This is a true story.

Scott Carmichael’s radio crackled to life. He was driving a back street in industrial South Francisco on what had been a relatively quiet day. In his thirties, he was beginning to develop a belly and bore the early signs of approaching middle age. He was naturally shy around people, but he was good natured and personable. He was also a preternaturally talented investigator.

The voice on the radio belonged to his supervisor, and the message was urgent. Scott listened, then spun his car north toward Vallejo, about an hour away, jamming the pedal to the floor.

Jesus, he thought, taking in the full implications of the missing plans.

Swerving through traffic en route to Vallejo, Scott knew only too well that the Russian consulate in San Francisco was a mere 30 miles from the contractor’s office. He was the sole Navy investigator on the west coast — the only law enforcement official outside Washington DC, in fact — who’d been briefed on the full scope of Ivy Bells. The FBI, to say nothing of local law enforcement, was completely in the dark. Even his direct supervisors at NIS didn’t know much about the special assignment, which had been handed to him directly from top officials in Washington. He was young for that kind of responsibility, but he’d impressed his superiors by finishing first in the federal law enforcement academy and solving some big cases in his first months on the job. He had been placed in charge of internal security for Ivy Bells, which primarily meant making sure the sailors, contractors, and Navy personnel at Mare Island didn’t leak a solitary word about the military’s closest-guarded secret.

Now, two satchels of top-secret blueprints and schematics had been stolen. Like everyone else, Scott had to consider the possibility it was a Soviet strike. The Russian consulate in San Francisco was a known gateway for Soviet spies, and Mare Island would have been heavily watched in this phase of the Cold War. It suggested an unmitigated disaster for the nation — to say nothing of his promising young career.

With no one else to consult, no one on the ground who knew the full details of the ultra-secret program, it was up to Scott, and Scott alone, to get the materials back.

White-knuckling it up the freeway, he careened down the ramp into Vallejo.

Prior to becoming a Navy counterintelligence investigator, Scott had walked the beat as a cop in a redneck town in Wisconsin. It was his first real job after military service and college, and he loved it. There were days, responding to a call about a barroom brawl or domestic disturbance out in the sticks, when his nearest backup had been twenty minutes away and the guy a few feet in front of him was 220 pounds of drunken fury. Scott was an introvert by nature, but one of his sergeants, a guy named Ron, taught him that his most effective weapon in situations like those was his ability to talk his way out of trouble. Nine times out of ten, a volatile situation could be defused with some quick thinking, Ron imparted.

Another sergeant nicknamed “Fergie” added an addendum: When things do feel like they’re going south, throw the first punch with as much force as you can muster and end it before it begins. Scott bundled the two lessons into a maxim, which had served him well since joining the elite Navy Investigative Services (NIS) team: Whatever the problem is, first try a Ron, but always keep a Fergie in reserve.

Scott pulled into the parking lot at the contractor’s office. Flashing his badge, he spoke to a secretary, who informed him that the company’s security team had already called the local FBI office for assistance. That’s bad, Scott realized. The secretary leaned closer and whispered that a young FBI Special Agent was just finishing up an interview with the contractor’s security personnel.

Scott thanked her and hurried over to the security office, where he bumped into the FBI agent strolling out of the security meeting. He was in his early twenties, a greenhorn. Scott introduced himself as an NIS investigator and began asking questions. The contractor’s security team had obviously fed the agent a cover story, which was protocol — even the FBI couldn’t be trusted with details about Ivy Bells. Consequently, the agent had no idea how grave the situation was.

“Listen,” Scott said, leveling a deadly serious gaze. He figured if the FBI was already involved in tracking this theft, he could at least get some real help out of them. “We’ve got to get this stuff back before it’s dark, tonight.”

The agent looked puzzled, so Scott outlined the national security clusterfuck they now found themselves in the middle of. The agent squinted back, processing this new information.

“Well,” he answered at last, “I should really go back and talk to my boss.”

Scott clenched his teeth. The Vallejo FBI office was a two-agent outpost, and he’d clearly drawn the low card.

“Okay,” Scott answered, hustling past him on his way to interview the contractor’s security team, “please get back to me.”

The FBI agent did get back to him promptly, but the news was confounding. On the radio, the supervising agent informed Scott he was already coordinating a city-wide manhunt using local Vallejo police. They wouldn’t be needing his assistance.

Scott stared at his walkie talkie in disbelief. Not only was the FBI cutting him out, but now every badge carrying beat cop in Vallejo would be on the trail of the stolen documents. If the FBI couldn’t be trusted with details about Ivy Bells, imagine the local foot patrol happening across a satchel full of highly classified submarine blueprints. For a man whose primary job was to plug security leaks, this was like being handed a sieve and asked to bail.

Scott ran out of the office, but he realized he had no leads and no prospects. Somehow, some way, he had to get to those documents before they got to the Russian consulate or were intercepted by local cops. He was about an hour behind the thieves. His only hope was an extraordinary stroke of luck.

Scott was still a newbie with NIS, which made him an unusual choice to lead internal security on a sensitive operation like Ivy Bells. He’d first joined the Navy after high school, mustering out after his term was up and heading to college before becoming a small-town cop. He only applied for the NIS job after turning 30 and sensing he wasn’t living up to his full potential. He’d been with the agency a few years and was considered a “blue flamer” by his superiors, a young man who seemed destined to rocket to the top. In his first months as a trainee, a time when most new investigators were learning to file paperwork, he’d identified the culprits behind a scheme to pilfer hundreds of thousands of dollars from a major Navy base. His supervisors had already tried and failed to solve the case, and the resulting arrests were a big win for the Bay Area NIS office. It became the match that ignited Scott’s career.

Soon after that case, Scott was sent to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Glynco, Georgia, where most federal law enforcement agencies train their recruits. After a notoriously challenging three-month curriculum, Scott graduated first in his class, which included hundreds of investigators from Customs, Treasury, IRS, and other agencies. The top ranking surprised him — he’d been a so-so student in high school and college — and he attributed his success to a deep-seated fear of failing at something he realized he genuinely cared about.

Scott’s orders on Ivy Bells were simple: Make sure there are no leaks. It was a staggeringly important job: The lives of the submarine crew and, in large part, the outcome of the Cold War rested on the secrecy of the operation. Still, it hadn’t exactly been a challenging assignment prior to the theft of the documents. Submariners are a famously tight-lipped clique, and the crew assigned to conduct the undersea wiretapping was the best of the best. Scott had gone so far as to enlist attractive women to fawn all over crew members on shore leave in order to surreptitiously test their resilience. To a man, they remained admirably stalwart.

Even if someone involved in Ivy Bells decided to talk, there was a failsafe. Due to the extraordinary sensitivity of the operation, even most people directly involved didn’t know its true nature. All but a few officers, divers, and technicians aboard the submarine believed the real mission was one of a handful of cover stories. One was that the sub was meant to clandestinely recover debris from a Soviet supersonic missile that had blown up during testing. The Navy went to such pains to conceal the Ivy Bells operation that the cover story was actually carried out alongside the wiretapping. More than two million tiny fragments from a spent missile had been recovered by Navy divers, enough that the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory had been able to reverse engineer its own copy. The undersea wiretapping was happening right under the noses of the sub’s crew. Needless to say, the theft of top secret plans put all that careful work into jeopardy. In fact, the whole multi-billion-dollar intelligence gathering operation hinged on Scott finding the men who’d grabbed those satchels. And now he had the local cops to worry about.

Canvassing Vallejo in his car, as well as Navy communications, Scott’s walkie talkie squelched loudly. It was tuned to a local police channel, and there was suddenly a whole lot of activity.

Scott listened to the chatter over the radio. A local cop had stopped a blue pickup driven by a 17-year-old Black male with a white passenger of the same age. The truck matched the description of the getaway vehicle. Scott frantically pulled out a city map. Vallejo, a diverse, economically depressed town, was laid out in a loose grid, and he located the intersection with his finger. Then he sped off, map pressed against the steering wheel.

When he arrived, he found a chaotic scene. The blue pickup was stopped, doors open, in the middle of the street, which was now cordoned off. The driver was standing nearby with a lone detective. A hundred yards away, every cop and detective in Vallejo, uniformed and plainclothes, along with the two FBI agents, stood in a menacing huddle around the white kid whom, whom the engineer had identified as the person that stole the plans. It was clear that everyone carrying a badge believed this was the kind of case that could make a career. It looked like a scrum of vultures.

Scott walked up to the lone detective babysitting the driver and flashed his NIS credentials. The detective, clearly eager to get in on the action down the street, nudged his suspect toward Scott. “Here, watch this kid,” he said, then jogged off.

Scott looked at the young driver, then at the ongoing interrogation down the street. Having worked as a cop, he had a good read on what was happening. These were two kids who had done something very stupid, but they weren’t spies or hardened criminals. Scott figured they’d been at it with the white kid for fifteen minutes or so. He was also sure the kid hadn’t confessed yet. If he had, they’d have piled him into a cruiser by now and rushed him downtown for booking. The kid in the center of the interrogation was probably scared witless, Scott guessed. He should have been. He was the one who committed what any prosecutor would portray as a strong-arm robbery. He’d likely taken a look at several government documents stamped SECRET, to boot. He was facing serious jail time, and he wasn’t saying a word.

But the driver? Scott took one look at him and saw how shaken he was. He had a hunch the kid hadn’t really wanted to be involved from the get-go, was just along for the ride. He looked younger than his friend, exposed and frightened. The Vallejo detective had handed Scott the one person who might, with coaxing, lead him to the stolen documents. Bad police work, to be sure, but good luck for Scott.

Putting on his good cop face, Scott turned to the kid and invoked his old sergeant Ron.

“Look, both you and I know what you got,” Scott said. “And you do not want it. You do not want that stuff. It’s classified government information. You could be in big trouble for taking it. But I’m going to give you a way out of this so that everybody will be happy and you can just walk away, free as a bird. Here it is. You tell me where my bags are, give them back to me, all of it, and when you do that, we are going to pretend that this entire affair never happened. It simply never happened, and we’re going to forget about it. You will not be arrested. You will not go to jail. You won’t go to court. We’ll just walk away from this thing friends. You go one way, I’ll go the other, and you’ll never see or hear from me again. That’s the deal.”

The kid was processing this, deciding whether to trust this unlikely ally. That’s when Scott invoked a Fergie and brought down the hammer.

“But, on the other hand, if you don’t give that bag back to me, I can tell you that I am going to find the damned thing anyway. And when I do, you’re going to go to the deepest and darkest jail cell the United States government can find. You will never again see the light of day, and I will never, ever let you out of there. You’ll just rot in that jail cell forever. It’s that simple.”

Right after the speech, the detective who’d handed the kid over returned. Everyone was heading downtown. Scott led the kid to the detective’s car.

“Just remember what I said.”

Rushing to his car, Scott got in line behind what looked like a funeral procession of police vehicles. At the station, it took the front desk a few minutes to verify his credentials. The place was a zoo, suddenly buzzing with every on-duty officer in the city. When he got through, he saw that the chaotic scene from the street had reassembled itself inside the police station. Every cop in the city had squeezed into an interrogation room. The room was so packed people were spilling out the doorway into the hall. Scott saw the kid seated in a room nearby, once again with a single detective babysitting him. The second Scott stuck his head in, the detective leapt up from his chair and asked Scott to watch the driver.

“Another detective will be by in a minute,” the guy called, already halfway down the hall.

The kid looked up at Scott.

“What should I do?” he asked.

Before Scott could answer, the other detective lumbered in holding a small spiral notepad and an attitude of general indifference.

Scott turned to the kid.

“Okay,” he said, “This is it. Where’s my bag?”

“Back home. Stuffed between the washer and the dryer.”

Scott practically leapt across the table and got the kid to his feet. He pulled him by the arm and led him out of the room. The stunned detective had no idea what was happening.

“Tell your friends I’m going to get my stuff,” Scott called.

Scott put the kid in his passenger seat and they drove to a suburban house not far from the contractor’s facility. It was like all the other small tract homes in the neighborhood, a little run, having seen better days. He might have noticed a car in the driveway, beat up from driving to and from double shifts at Mare Island.

Scott entered the house with the kid. When he walked out he had the blueprints. He tucked the materials under his arm. He got in his car and the kid watched him drive away without making trouble, as promised.

Scott drove directly to the contractor’s office. The security team inventoried the contents of the satchels. Everything was accounted for. The sun was just starting to go down. He had gotten the materials back before dark.

On the long drive home, unease began setting in. Scott was troubled by the lack of cooperation with the FBI, but that was easy enough to explain away with ego. More unsettling was how quickly he had chosen to violate investigative procedure, the very thing he’d aced down at FLETC. The kid who gave him back the satchels had not been read his rights, for one. Scott had barreled into his home and taken evidence. He had the kid’s permission, sure, but the kid was also a juvenile. Scott didn’t have authority to promise the kid he wouldn’t be arrested, although with the satchels back safely he could be reasonably sure there wouldn’t be an arrest. There was no physical evidence, for one, and no chance the contractor would be pushing for prosecution. At the very least, Scott knew he had opened himself to disciplinary action for tossing out the rulebook so brazenly. The kid might even want to sue, risking a public hearing that would poke another potential hole in the black program Scott had sworn to protect.

The thoughts festered overnight, and in the morning he decided to drive to work early and tell his NIS supervisor the whole story before someone else had a chance to, come what may. Scott waited in the parking lot next to the NIS office on Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay, where he intercepted his supervisor, Bill, coming into work. Scott barreled through the story without taking a breath. He told Bill how he’d divulged sensitive information about Ivy Bells to the FBI, how he’d knowingly interfered with a local police investigation, how he’d recovered the documents without a warrant and then made an executive decision to get rid of the evidence by giving everything back to the contractor.

Scott affirmed that he felt confident he had done the right thing at every step, but he also recognized that he had stepped far out of bounds. When he finished, his conscience clear, he awaited the summary ruling from his supervisor that could spell the end of his career.

But it turned out Bill already had a pretty good idea what Scott had been up to in Vallejo, even if he wasn’t privy to the full scope of Ivy Bells. The previous evening, he had received a call from the Director of Counterintelligence for NIS, the head honcho back in Washington DC. The Director had final word on all counterintelligence activities conducted by the agency, so Bill smiled as he repeated what the man had told him over the phone the night before.

“It’s about time one of our agents did something right.”

Scott was still a blue flamer, after all, and his counterintelligence career was only just beginning. Though he didn’t know it yet, the former Navy communications officer turned small-town cop turned government investigator was well on his way to becoming the most successful spy hunter in American history.

He had just stopped his first international incident — It wouldn’t be his last.

GREG NICHOLS lives on a big sailboat with his wife and kids and writes wild tales of true adventure like this one. He’s co-founder of Truly*Adventurous.

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Greg Nichols

Nonfiction storyteller. Lives on a sailboat, crashed a motorcycle, and edits with a cutlass. Co-founder @trlyadventurous.