Spy ar­ti­facts get new home

Man do­nates items from $20M col­lec­tion, in­clud­ing axe used to kill Trot­sky, to mu­seum

Packet & Times (Orillia) - - ENTERTAINMENT - DEB RIECHMANN H. Keith Mel­ton holds an Enigma Ma­chine with four ro­tors and Ja­panese char­ac­ters that was to be used in the Sec­ond World War to en­code mes­sages be­tween Nazi Ger­many and Ja­pan. The ma­chine is one of the many items that he is do­nat­ing to the I

WASH­ING­TON — H. Keith Mel­ton spent 40 years look­ing for the ice-climb­ing axe used in the bloody as­sas­si­na­tion of Rus­sian rev­o­lu­tion­ary Leon Trot­sky. It had been sit­ting un­der a bed in Mex­ico City for decades.

Much eas­ier was ac­quir­ing a man­gled, bas­ket­ball-size chunk of Gary Pow­ers’ U2 spy plane shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960. It was a gift from a Soviet of­fi­cial.

The items are part of the world’s largest pri­vate col­lec­tion of spy ar­ti­facts. Mel­ton, a wealthy busi­ness­man from Boca Ra­ton, Fla., is do­nat­ing all of it to the In­ter­na­tional Spy Mu­seum in Wash­ing­ton.

The mu­seum an­nounced Wed­nes­day that more than 5,000 items Mel­ton amassed dur­ing four decades of criss­cross­ing the globe will be the cor­ner­stone of a new, larger fa­cil­ity slated to open next year in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal.

It is a “mag­nif­i­cent ges­ture,” gushed Peter Earnest, the mu­seum’s found­ing di­rec­tor, cred­it­ing Mel­ton’s do­na­tion with tripling the mu­seum’s cur­rent hold­ings of roughly 2,000 items.

There’s a vic­tory flag that CIAbacked Cuban ex­iles never flew af­ter the botched Bay of Pigs in­va­sion in 1960.

There’s a 14-me­tre-long Sec­ond World War spy submarine known as the “Sleep­ing Beauty.”

And there are es­cape-and-eva­sion de­vices, codes and ci­pher machines along with the dis­guises, se­cret writ­ings, lis­ten­ing de­vices, clan­des­tine ra­dios, spy cam­eras and uni­forms and clothes of the most fa­mous spooks em­ployed by CIA, KGB, FBI and Bri­tain’s MI6.

“It took nine peo­ple 17 days to pack the col­lec­tion in an as­sem­bly line,” Mel­ton said in an in­ter­view this month. “I had to breathe deeply sev­eral times as I saw all of the gad­gets be­ing packed up and leav­ing.”

Mel­ton, a found­ing mem­ber of the mu­seum’s board, said pro­fes­sional ap­prais­ers es­ti­mated his col­lec­tion at more than $20 mil­lion. He said he has paid “fool­ish” prices for some items and, at times, ac­quired things that he later learned were fakes.

“To me, the goal is not to see how many wid­gets I can get. It’s what can I learn. I love re­search. Every ar­ti­fact I have is part of a de­tec­tive search,” he said. “You travel into strange places in the world and some­times pay too much money, but you end up fas­ci­nated with the va­ri­ety of things that you see.”

Mel­ton grad­u­ated from the U.S. Naval Acad­emy in 1966 and went to Viet­nam dur­ing the war. He trained as an en­gi­neer and con­sid­ered work­ing in in­tel­li­gence, be­fore opt­ing for a ca­reer in busi­ness. He made his money own­ing and op­er­at­ing Mc­Don­ald’s restau­rants. At one time he was the largest Mc­Don­ald’s fran­chise owner in the U.S.

Dab­bling in the spy world was a hobby — an ex­pen­sive one — that sort of got out of con­trol.

Mel­ton placed ads around the world seek­ing spy ar­ti­cles. He was in Ger­many in 1989 af­ter the Ber­lin Wall came down and trav­elled to Moscow in early 1992 af­ter the Soviet Union col­lapsed. In both in­stances, he made con­tacts that helped him find items from the de­funct East Ger­man min­istry for state se­cu­rity and the Soviet KGB.

Among them: A Sec­ond World War-era elec­tro-me­chan­i­cal ci­pher ma­chine with Ja­panese char­ac­ters that the Ger­mans pro­duced to share with their Asian ally. The war ended be­fore the Enigma ma­chine, which looks like a spe­cial type­writer in a wooden box, could be sent to Ja­pan.

A U.S. sol­dier found a stack of the machines on a boat in France and took one home with him to Long Is­land, N.Y.

“He kept it in his closet for 50 years,” Mel­ton said.

An­other item is a sil­ver dol­lar con­ceal­ing what ap­peared to be a tiny straight pin. It was one of five sui­cide nee­dles filled with shell­fish toxin that U.S. in­tel­li­gence ser­vices made around the 1960s so Amer­i­can spies could kill them­selves on an op­er­a­tion gone awry.

A print­ing plate was used by Nazi in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers to print bo­gus Bri­tish cur­rency dur­ing the war. They rounded up about 100 peo­ple, in­clud­ing mas­ter Jewish forg­ers, in con­cen­tra­tion camps and told them if they could pro­duce un­de­tectable Bri­tish notes, they wouldn’t be killed.

Af­ter be­ing re­leased, the forg­ers dumped the weighty crates of fake cur­rency, print­ing plates and presses into a lake in the Aus­trian Alps as they fled to al­lied lines.

A nearby innkeeper dis­cov­ered the bills float­ing on the sur­face of the lake in 1952. But it took a mini submarine in the early 1990s to re­cover the print­ing plates. Mel­ton got the items from some­one in­volved in the re­cov­ery op­er­a­tion.

Mel­ton’s big­gest coup — the item he looked for the long­est — is the ice axe that was used to kill Trot­sky at his com­pound out­side Mex­ico City in 1940. The as­sas­sin was Ra­mon Mer­cader, a com­mu­nist and sus­pected agent of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin who was jailed for years in Mex­ico.

A man who op­er­ated a teach­ing mu­seum within the Mex­i­can po­lice checked out the axe from a po­lice prop­erty room in the 1940s. He then got it in the 1960s as a re­tire­ment present.

“He gave it to his daugh­ter and it had been un­der her bed un­til 2008,” Mel­ton said. “She pulled it out. I made three trips to Mex­ico City and we were able to prove that it was the right axe.”

JACQUELYN MARTIN/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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