O'FALLON, MO. • The spy came in from the cold nearly a decade ago. He seemed to be adjusting well to his new life, a regular life, one lived out in the open.
Jeffrey A. Sterling no longer needed to tell people, including his mother in Cape Girardeau, he worked for the U.S. State Department when, in fact, he had been employed by the Central Intelligence Agency.
Sterling, now 43, settled down in what once might have served as ideal cover: a small, neat home in a subdivision of small, neat homes, all beige siding and perfect lawns in this fast-growing St. Louis suburb. He got married. He got a job as a health care fraud investigator. He spoke at conferences. He won awards for his work. He started using social media services like Twitter and Facebook, opening up in ways likely unimaginable in his previous work.
He shared his love for the L.A. Lakers and frustration with the St. Louis Cardinals. He liked cigars. He liked riding his bicycle. He was working on a science fiction screenplay.
It is a journey made by others who have left the CIA's clandestine service. And Sterling seemed to have found his place in a world free of cloaks and daggers.
But his journey was different. Sterling left the CIA alone, with nothing, after becoming the first black case officer to sue the CIA for racial discrimination. He started over in St. Louis. Now he's been charged with leaking classified secrets to a reporter.
And this has people sorting through the details of Sterling's life to try divining just who he is, as though he were a spy all over again.
On Jan. 6, the workaday life Sterling built for himself after the CIA fell apart.
He was at work in downtown St. Louis, at the health insurer Wellpoint Inc., when federal agents arrested him. He was charged with 10 counts, including obstruction of justice and unauthorized disclosure of national security information.
Sterling's arrest shows how the government is moving with new urgency to block the flow of secrets to the public, said Steven Aftergood, an expert on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. This is an "unprecedented" fifth prosecution during President Barack Obama's administration for unauthorized leaks of classified information, more than all previous administrations put together.
"He's in an unenviable position," Aftergood said.
Sterling has pleaded not guilty to the charges. He was extradited to federal court in Virginia, home of the CIA. His lawyer is Edward MacMahon Jr., known for representing terrorism suspects such as Zacarias Moussaoui, convicted for his role in the Sept. 11 attacks.
MacMahon questioned why Sterling, who believed his CIA days were behind him, was being prosecuted now.
"If Sterling was such a dangerous person, how come they left him on the street for so long?" MacMahon said. "He's a good American. He's a loyal American. He never put a single person at risk."
The indictment leaves out some particulars, but it is clear prosecutors believe Sterling talked with New York Times reporter James Risen about a secret operation to thwart Iran's nuclear weapons program. Risen wrote about the plot in his 2006 book "State of War: The Secret History of the C.I.A. and the Bush Administration."
The secret operation went by the code name Merlin. It was a classic spy tale. And, as portrayed in Risen's book, a blunder.
A Russian nuclear scientist on the CIA payroll was supposed to pose as a greedy scientist offering the Iranians technical blueprints for a nuclear bomb. The CIA had poisoned the blueprints with a tiny flaw. The hope was the Iranians would spend years chasing a broken design, delaying their nuclear ambitions.
That's not how it went, according to Risen's book.
The Russian scientist spotted the flaw. The CIA agent handling him — and every indication from the indictment is that this was Sterling — had misgivings about pushing on. His superiors brushed off the concerns. And the scientist flew alone to Vienna, Austria, to deliver the plans to Iranian agents, slipping in a handwritten note alerting them to the ruse.
Risen wrote the CIA operation may have given the Iranians an unintended helping hand in going nuclear. But prosecutors say Sterling "falsely characterized" facts to make the mission appeared doomed.
Aftergood noted the Justice Department could have decided to not pursue the disclosure — it amounted to a single chapter in a 250-page book and not much else. "They could've said, 'Let's put it behind us,'" Aftergood said. "But instead they said, 'Let's go all in.'"
Few people are willing to talk about Sterling now. His family did not return calls for comment. Some people who know Sterling worried that anything they said could somehow be used against him. Wellpoint fired Sterling the day after he was arrested, his lawyer said.
The government has portrayed Sterling as a dangerous man. A threat to national security. He has been called in court filings "deliberate, methodical, and unrelenting." And his alleged disclosures "may be viewed as more pernicious than the typical espionage case where a spy sells classified information for money" because the information was published and shared worldwide.
Those willing to talk about Sterling knew him before he joined the CIA — and most didn't even know that the boy they grew up with in Cape Girardeau and went to college with at Millikin University in Decatur, Ill., had gone on to a deep-cover career with the intelligence agency.
"He was just a big friendly guy with a smile on his face," said John Bowen, who attended college with Sterling. They lost contact for about a decade, "and some of that might've been the nature of what he was doing."
Rick Wiedenhoeft, a college fraternity brother of Sterling's, recalled that Sterling's nickname was "Chocolate Thunder" because he was big, gregarious and, well, a black man in a mostly white frat house. It was an endearing term, he said.
"He was a stand-up guy," Wiedenhoeft recalled, adding that Sterling always seemed more mature than other students. "We always knew he had a little more drive than the rest of us."
Sterling was the youngest of six sons of Helen Sterling, a former municipal court clerk in Cape Girardeau who died last year. He was the first in his family to go to college, earning a political science degree in 1989. He graduated from Washington University School of Law in 1992 and was working in the St. Louis public defender's office when he applied to the CIA. He'd spotted a recruitment ad in the newspaper.
"I wanted to see the world and make a contribution," he told People magazine in a 2002 article about his discrimination case. "This seemed like a unique opportunity."
He joined the CIA in 1993. He was trained to speak Farsi. He was stationed in Langley, Va., home of the CIA, and in New York and Bonn, Germany. He held a top secret security clearance. And for almost two years, he was on the Iran Task Force, where he says he was the only black person in a group of 20. He was supposed to recruit Iranians to serve as spies, but his superiors failed to give him new prospects, according to his discrimination lawsuit and media accounts. He said he confronted his supervisors and was told he stood out too much as a black man. His reply: "When did you realize I was black?"
He filed an internal complaint with the CIA in 2000. That was rejected. Two years later, shortly after being fired from the CIA for several disagreements with his bosses, he filed a discrimination lawsuit in federal court, the first of its kind against the CIA.
That case languished. The CIA claimed allowing the lawsuit to go forward would reveal 'state secrets."
Prosecutors now allege Sterling's failed lawsuit and acrimonious departure from the agency led him to contact the New York Times reporter.
Sterling left the CIA in 2002 with no job prospects. He and his first wife had divorced several years earlier. He had huge debt from college loans and attorney fees. His 1998 Pontiac Grand Prix was repossessed. In 2004, he declared bankruptcy, listing no assets and $150,020 of debt. But by then he had moved back to St. Louis and started the job at Wellpoint.
He seemed to excel in his new role, giving lectures and earning recognition for targeting prescription drug and pharmacy fraud. Last year, he won a national award from the BlueCross BlueShield Association for helping break up a Medicare fraud ring that submitted about $100 million in bogus bills. Several members of the ring ended up in prison. Sterling regularly worked with federal prosecutors and FBI agents across the country, his lawyer said.
Sterling seemed to have put his CIA days behind him. He had remarried and moved into the house in O'Fallon. His neighbors, mostly retirees, thought he was friendly. They sometimes saw him and his wife at the community pool. He could indulge his taste for fine cigars, take a vacation to Jamaica to hear the reggae music he loved, or just sit home and watch "Doctor Who" reruns on the SyFy channel.
He was no longer alone.
Earlier this month, Sterling walked stiffly into the federal courtroom in St. Louis, hands and feet shackled, two U.S. marshals by his side. Sterling wore a bright orange hooded sweatshirt over orange prison garb, made all the more glaring by the sea of dark jackets surrounding him. He limped as he moved, evidence of recent knee surgery. He was guided to a leather chair, a seat that a marshal earlier had inspected for contraband by flipping it over, just as she had run her hands along the bottom lip of the conference table now in front of him.
Sterling sat next to his attorney. The two men talked a little as they waited for the judge. But Sterling was mostly silent. His handcuffs off, he laid his large hands flat on the dark wood table. He looked younger than his age, his athletic build filling the chair and his brown hair closely cropped. His face, bearing a handsome weariness, showed no emotion. Aside from his orange clothes, he looked like the lawyer he was.
He then let his head fall to his chest, as though lost in thought. He did not appear to glance over at the 40 people in the back of the courtroom — friends, family, media and curious court workers. His wife, Holly, sat in the front row, fighting back tears and holding to her lips a necklace with a ring on the end.
The hearing was brief and routine, a last stop before he was flown to Virginia. The case is expected to take many months, if not longer. Prosecutors have asked that Sterling not be released from prison. In court filings, they worry Sterling will turn to his old CIA tradecraft to disclose more classified government details.
It was like Sterling had never left that world of secrets and spies. His small, neat house in the suburbs had provided him with only the false cover of a new life.
"It can be a very lonely world in a covert environment," said a person familiar with the case who asked not to be named, "especially when you fall outside of it."