Cuban spy charges surprise neighbors

June 5, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Behind the massive English gates that herald the luxury co-op complex have lived senators, Cabinet members, judges. Now add a retired State Department worker and his wife accused of spying for Cuba for 30 years to the list of The Westchester's residents.

Walter Kendall Myers and his wife, Gwendolyn Steingraber Myers, have traded The Westchester's leafy, well-manicured grounds and burbling fountains for a federal prison cell -- at least until Wednesday, when a judge will decide whether to continue to hold them.

An indictment unsealed Friday said the couple were so valued by the Cuban government that they once had a private, four-hour meeting with President Fidel Castro.

Gail Prensky, a resident of the complex, was taken aback by news of the arrest. "It's intriguing on the one hand," she said. "It's a sense of you never know who your neighbors are in a place like this, where it's so safe and pristine. And there's espionage going on?"

Down the sixth floor hallway of worn carpet and paint a name plate identifies the Myers' apartment. No one answered repeated knocks.

Next door, W. Russell Pickering tried to digest the allegation that the neighbor he'd traded newspapers and legal cigars with, and shard an occasional drink, had led a shadow life for three decades.

"Holy smokes!" the 78-year-old retired financier kept saying.

Pickering knew Kendall Myers' mother -- "just a wonderful lady, lots of fun" -- and has lived next to the Myerses for nearly a decade. They moved into The Westchester, into the sixth-floor apartment next to Pickering, after Myers' mother died.

The indictment charging the Myerses described as acting out of love for Cuba, not for money.

Pickering, however, said he had never heard the Myerses talk about Cuban relations. "They're both very strong, loyal Americans as far as I know," he said.

"They're just wonderful people -- good neighbors, great friends -- The kind of people you want to know all your life," said Pickering. "And they're innocent until proven guilty."

Built in 1931, The Westchester reigned as one of two Washington apartment houses with the greatest concentration of distinguished residents, according to its Web site. At the beginning of World War II, for instance, its residents included two Cabinet members, 31 congressmen, 12 senators, and 14 judges. Among them was the late Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater.

William Simpson a security guard at the complex, said he has known the Myerses for several years and they regularly asked him to clean their windows. "They treated me nice, they treated me real nice," Simpson said, adding that they offered him something to eat or drink when he came to their home.

He said the Myerses seemed like ordinary, nice people. There was nothing suspicious about them. "It shocked me when I heard it," said Simpson. "I'm still shocked."


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