KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Nearly 80 years ago, a German spy living in Knoxville was arrested by the FBI, and possibly more perplexing, the case has ties to Watergate, according to the Knoxville History Project.
A New York Times article states that Waldemar Othmer was arrested on an espionage charge on July 19, 1944, but the story begins over a decade before that.
The Knoxville History Project reports that Othmer moved to America from Germany around 1929, where he lived in Trenton, New Jersey, and became a leader of a pro-Nazi group.
1937 Congressional records referring to discussions of the House about “propagandists and other activities by Nazis” in the United States mention Othmer as the director of the Trenton YMCA. The records also state that Othmer was the secretary and treasurer of “Trenton Local” in 1936.
KHP said Othmer returned to Germany on at least a couple of occasions, and in November 1938, he enrolled in an espionage training course where he became an expert in writing in invisible ink. Othmer used that skill in early 1940 to send messages to the Germans that were somehow conveyed to a drop in Milan about the departure of ships leaving the harbor near Norfolk headed for Great Britain.
Eventually, KHP said, Othmer was placed on a watch list and was banned by U.S. authorities from Norfolk, which drove him to move to Knoxville in 1943.
Lindey Freeman’s “Longing for The Bomb,” quotes an Oak Ridge Journal editorial article that described Othmer as a pleasant man who lived at the YMCA and became a member of a Knoxville church. The article followed up on a previous editorial outlining methods that might have been used while attempting to get information from Americans who worked on vital war projects.
The YMCA offered dormitory-like accommodations for men who were new to town, like Othmer, the Knoxville History Project explained. While he lived there, he worked as an electrician for Briscoe Electric.
The Knoxville History Project also reported that Othmer applied to work at Clinton Engineer Works, which is now known to be a part of the Manhattan Project, but was declined because of his German background.
Othmer was captured thanks to collaboration with Colombian authorities who worked with the FBI, according to a 1946 FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. It says that during an investigation into Simon and Marie Koedel, it was found that Othmer had reported shipping information from Norfolk, Virginia, while the Koedels living in the New York area “for the Germans”
The FBI wrote that after Knoxville agents arrested Othmer, he confessed to spying for Germany before the U.S. entered World War II. He was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison, but KHP reports that he was “apparently free and living with his wife” in Richmond, VA, 15 years later when he died at the age of 50.
The connection from Othmer’s case to Watergate, however, follows the FBI agent who studied Othmer’s file. KHP wrote that Agent Mark Felt didn’t believe that Othmer was as minor of an agent as he had claimed to be, and Felt was the one who sent word to the Knoxville FBI office to arrest and interrogate Othmer.
Decades later, Felt was identified as “Deep Throat,” the anonymous government source who had leaked information to the Washington Post during the Watergate scandal, history.com reports. In May 2005, Felt’s admission to his role as Deep Throat was published in Vanity Fair Magazine, just a few years before he died on December 18, 2008, at the age of 95.
To learn more about Waldemar Othmer, visit the Knoxville History Project’s website.