Inside the Reston nursing home, the 80-year-old CIA pioneer was dying of cancer. Her best friend and former colleague sat in a nearby chair and tended to her needs.
Sandy Grimes, who’d once hunted a notorious Cold War mole with Jeanne Vertefeuille, adjusted her friend’s pillow. She helped her count past 20. She fed Vertefeuille meals, making sure to serve dessert first and that the pudding came with whipped cream. Grimes also read her a stream of get-well cards, many from colleagues at the CIA. There, the women made history. There, they helped bring down one of Langley’s most elusive traitors, Aldrich “Rick” Ames.
“I felt an obligation to be there with her,” recalled Grimes, 67, of Great Falls. “I can’t imagine not doing it. I was the one Jeanne would accept. I owed it to her as a friend.”
Even before they helped identify the CIA officer-turned-Soviet-spy in the early 1990s, Vertefeuille (pronounced VER-teh-fay) and Grimes forged a bond.
They met at the male-dominated agency, where Vertefeuille began her career as a typist in 1954 and rose to become a counterintelligence expert and, in the words of Acting Director Michael J. Morell, “a true CIA icon.” Grimes joined the agency right out of college 13 years later, and the two women became close as they investigated the disappearance of at least eight Soviet assets in the 1980s. It was a hunt that led to Ames, who was convicted of espionage in 1994.
So when Vertefeuille’s cancer was diagnosed last summer — just as she and Grimes were finishing a memoir about the Ames case called “Circle of Treason” — Grimes became her caregiver. By the fall, Grimes moved the intensely private Vertefeuille, who never married or had kids and was working as a CIA contractor before her illness, into a nursing home.
For the next three months, until Vertefeuille died Dec. 29, Grimes visited her daily at the Cameron Glen Health and Rehab Center in Reston. She brought the mail from Vertefeuille’s McLean apartment, down the street from the CIA, where Vertefeuille mentored female officers and passed along “her tremendous knowledge to current and future counterintelligence officers until the very last day she was in the office,” said Jennifer Youngblood, an agency spokeswoman.
Grimes delivered cards from CIA colleagues and read them aloud to Vertefeuille.
“Dearest Jeanne,” one woman wrote, “You have always been my most admired role model ever since I learned of your professional prowess. I know I join a very large group of your colleagues and friends who miss you greatly and are praying for your return to health AND MOST likely for your return to the office!!!”
The celebrated intelligence officer — known for wearing sneakers and turtlenecks to the office — simply listened and said little in response, Grimes said.
“There was one letter from someone whose name I can’t mention. He’s at the agency. He sent a note. It was beautifully written,” Grimes recalled. “I said to Jeanne: ‘That’s very special. He must have thought highly of you.’ And Jeanne said, ‘He had been good to me.’ ”
When they first met at the agency in the mid-1970s, the two women didn’t care for each other that much.
Both were recruited at college, Vertefeuille from the University of Connecticut in 1954, Grimes from the University of Washington in 1967.
Vertefeuille began as a secretary, typing the names of North Korean scientists on small notecards. After the CIA relaxed its restrictions on women’s career paths, she won promotions and became an expert on Soviet intelligence services. (Now, women make up 43 percent of the agency’s full-time workforce and more than 40 percent of the CIA’s senior leadership positions, including the associate deputy director, two out of four directorate heads and the chief information officer, according to the CIA.)
Grimes, the daughter of parents who’d worked on the Manhattan Project, joined the agency at the urging of an ex-boyfriend who thought she’d make a “perfect spy.” After believing she’d failed a polygraph, Grimes was accepted and assigned to study the Soviet spy system.
Soon, the women began working together. Vertefeuille was Grimes’s boss in an office overlooking the CIA’s main entrance, where they were privy to Soviet state secrets shared by Soviet assets (along with their real names). They bonded over their love for details about the KGB or GRU, the Soviet military intelligence arm. They spoke in sotto voce using cryptonyms that only a handful knew: “Beep” or “Debtor” for the legendary Soviet asset Dmitri Polyakov, who would later be compromised by Ames and executed.
But Grimes chafed at Vertefeuille’s strictly business demeanor.
“If I would be laughing about something outside Jeanne’s office, and she’d hear us and we were too loud, she’d get up and slam the door,” Grimes recalled, smiling. “I terrorized her! She was impossible.”
Grimes, who married and had two children, also didn’t like how Vertefeuille couldn’t tolerate small talk among colleagues about family, weather or traffic. Grimes said she will never forget when Vertefeuille, having returned from a vacation, pulled out all the internal intelligence reports their office had published while she was gone.
“She closed the door. She read through all of them. There were lots. She came out eventually and all she said to me was, ‘Sandy, I found two typos,’ ” Grimes recalled. “I was speechless. All I said was, ‘That’s all?’ She wanted them corrected. I just walked out of the office. How did we ever become friends?”
In 1986, Vertefeuille was assigned to figure out a problem: Why had so many Soviets working for the CIA vanished in the previous year? Around the same time, Grimes was charged with a complementary mission: keeping all the fresh Soviet assets alive.
“That’s when the bonds started,” Grimes recalled. “Anything that we received from our new sources that might help her, we shared with her. We were in close contact.”
At one point, Grimes urged her superiors to be skeptical about a KGB officer who suddenly volunteered to become a double agent. Her bosses ignored her, but Vertefeuille backed her.
“We were the only ones who, after awhile, said this case is KGB-controlled,” Grimes said. “We were out on a giant limb. We were right. We weren’t happy.”
Meanwhile, Ames, a counterintelligence officer in the Soviet division who’d once carpooled to Langley with Grimes, was not on the radar as a potential mole.
Not until 1989, at least. That’s when another CIA colleague told Grimes that she’d noticed lavish upgrades in Ames’s lifestyle: a new half-million dollar home in Arlington, a brand-new Jaguar, extensive landscaping.
But no smoking gun could be found. In 1991, Vertefeuille cooked up a controversial idea for about 10 investigators to draw up a list of the most suspicious employees who had access to information about the compromised Soviet assets. Grimes ranked Ames No. 1. Vertefeuille ranked him fourth.
“A little, a little,” Grimes said, laughing, when asked how often she reminded her friend about her seemingly superior intuition.
Finally, in August 1992, Grimes and another CIA officer reached their eureka moment. They discovered large deposits into Ames’s checking account — sums ranging from $5,000 to $9,000 — made shortly after he had sanctioned meetings with a Soviet arms control specialist.
Soon, the FBI launched its investigation. On Presidents’ Day in 1994, Ames was arrested. The two women, along with the rest of their team, broke out champagne.
In 2003, nearly 10 years after the Ames case finished, Grimes and Vertefeuille agreed to co-write a memoir. Over the next four years, they’d write chapters and edit each other. They battled with the CIA’s Publications Review Board and successfully lobbied to preserve the book’s wealth of details about dead assets. The women felt strongly that those people should have their stories told, as a matter of honor.
They had their traditions. Each night, until Vertefeuille got sick, they’d call each other to watch the “Final Jeopardy!” question and compete to see who could answer it correctly. And about once a month, they ate at a nearby Italian restaurant, where, finally, Vertefeuille seemed open to small talk.
“We talked about kids, vacations, but we never talked politics,” Grimes said. “Sometimes, my husband would call us at the restaurant and tell us the ‘Final Jeopardy!’ question. In the end, I’d say it was a close tie between us.”
The only off-limits subject: what Vertefeuille did at the agency as a contractor until she got sick. Grimes knew not to inquire. And Vertefeuille never even hinted.
Last summer, Vertefeuille began complaining about her left leg. She thought it was arthritis. The pain grew worse, and Grimes lent Vertefeuille her mother’s walker. Grimes took her to doctor’s appointments. In late September, doctors found tumors in Vertefeuille’s brain. The prognosis was gloomy.
Vertefeuille told her friend what she wanted: no burial, no funeral, just a cremation. Don’t spread the ashes anywhere. And no obituary.
“She would faint if she knew she had an obituary in the New York Times,” Grimes said. In October, Grimes tried to cheer her up at the nursing home by bringing her a copy of their memoir.
“She just said, ‘Get it out of here,’ ” Grimes recalled. “I sort of fault myself. I should have known better. She couldn’t participate in it, and if she couldn’t participate in it, it made her angry.”
Strangely, the one thing the women never discussed as Vertefeuille was dying was the mole hunt. Their silence on the matter was a kind of code in and of itself.
“We really didn’t talk about what we accomplished,” Grimes said. “We didn’t talk about Rick. He was no longer part of our jobs.”