In the early 1980s, Karl F. Koecher and his wife Hanna lived a gold-plated life in New York City’s swish Upper East Side. They drove a new, blue BMW and lived in a luxury co-op alongside the tennis star Ivan Lendl and the comedian Mel Brooks. Hanna was a diamond dealer, blue-eyed and beautiful with a penchant for mink fur coats. Karl told neighbors that he was a security consultant who moonlighted in Columbia University’s Philosophy department. They were popular at work, in their building—and at swinging sex parties, according to accounts.  

But in November 1984, the glamorous couple were unmasked for what they really were—Soviet moles infiltrating American security agencies. Koecher admitted to doing incalculable damage to the CIA and its assets; his wife was found to be an accomplice. He was sentenced to life in jail but served just two years. When he returned to Czechoslovakia in 1986 in a foreign prisoner exchange, he received a hero’s welcome.

Koecher was born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, but grew up in Prague, where he attended an English language grammar school. In his late 20s, after years of being courted and sometimes followed by the Czech security agency, StB, he began to work in counterintelligence in Prague, targeting West Germans. Then, in 1965, he was told to go to the United States for an assignment of a lifetime. “I asked, ‘What should I do there?’” he told the Guardian. “He said, ‘You are going to penetrate the CIA’. I asked, ‘How?’ He said “That’s up to you.’” Koecher agreed immediately.

He and his wife moved to the United States via Austria by posing as defecting dissidents fleeing life under communism. He worked in radio, where his English language skills made him an easy hire, and eventually picked up a doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University. His wife was beginning to make a career for herself in the diamond industry. Six years after his arrival, in 1971, he was naturalized as an American citizen. Within a year, he had passed CIA pre-employment screens; a year after that, he was hired full-time as a translator and analyst, handling sensitive documents, lists and transcripts. Everything he saw he sent back home to the StB.

Over time, Koecher’s relationship with the StB soured, as they grew suspicious that he was operating under American instructions. The agency ordered Koecher to resign from the CIA on pain of death. He was interrogated for a week in Czechoslovakia—on his return to New York, he left the CIA and took a job in academia. But as tensions grew under Ronald Reagan, he was approached by the KGB in early 1982 and asked to return to work for the CIA. The agency took him back seemingly without question, but say now they were already beginning to monitor him for unusual activity. Two years later, his career as an American spy was over and he was expected to languish in jail for the rest of his life.

Koecher and his wife didn’t just live double lives, however. There was another, more sordid aspect to their New York existence that went beyond mere recreation. According to Ronald Kessler, in The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI, “Koecher had an unusual way of obtaining classified information—attending sex parties.” He and his wife developed a taste for swinging and spouse-swapping shindigs, where his wife’s good looks made her a popular attendee. Because it was against the rules of the spy agencies to attend such parties, agents at the parties were already compromised. Information from the FBI and the Defense Department flowed with the drinks.

Karl F Koecher Espionage Charges
The Courtroom Sketches of Ida Libby Dengrove/University of Virginia Law Library/CC BY 4.0
Karl F. Koecher appearing before Judge Morris E. Lasker on espionage charges.

The CIA has never revealed who alerted them to Koecher’s treachery, though he left a trail of destruction in his wake that included the suicide of Aleksandr Dmitrievich Ogorodnik, a Soviet diplomat working undercover for the CIA. Once incarcerated, Koecher faced a miserable future in jail. After a stabbing attempt by a new inmate, who Koecher now believes to have been a CIA mole, he appealed to the KGB in a letter, saying he feared for his life.

And so, in February 1986, Koecher and his wife became part of the final prisoner exchange, held on the frigid Glienicke Bridge, in Berlin. A gold Mercedes was waiting for them, driving them back into their old world and freedom, of sorts. Two months of interrogation followed before they were able to move back in with his mother, who had believed her son had been a dissenter.

Today, the couple live in a quiet village outside Prague: Hana organizes seminars between construction professionals and professors from technical schools, while her husband is retired, and spends his days reading or exercising in a nearby forest. It’s a far cry from their former glitzy existences as double agents in New York City—or the seemingly inevitable life behind bars that they managed to escape.