Convicted spy Arthur J. Walker is escorted into Federal Court in Norfolk, Va. on Nov. 12, 1985. (STEVE HELBER/AP)

Arthur J. Walker, a retired U.S. Navy lieutenant commander who was convicted of spying for the Soviets during the Cold War and was a member of what was described as an entire family of spies, died earlier this month at a federal prison where he was serving a life sentence. He was 79.

Mr. Walker was being held at the Butner, N.C., prison complex, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons said he died in custody July 5. A friend gave the date as July 4 and told author Pete Earley that Mr. Walker apparently had acute kidney failure.

Mr. Walker, who found work with the military contractor VSE after his Navy retirement in the early 1970s, was convicted in 1985 of seven espionage-related charges. A younger brother, John Anthony Walker Jr., and a nephew, Michael Lance Walker, later pleaded guilty to spying charges. (A fourth member of the ring, Jerry A. Whitworth, a former Navy radioman, was also convicted and sentenced to 365 years in prison.)

Earley called his 1988 book about them “Family of Spies: Inside the John Walker Spy Ring.” The story was made into a 1990 TV movie, with Powers Boothe as John A. Walker Jr. and John M. Jackson as Arthur.

In addition to the inherent fascination of espionage, a variety of factors prompted interest in the Walkers. The Navy service of all three made them seem particularly worthy of condemnation. Their blood kinship also seemed to offer a mocking commentary on the meaning of the phrase “family values.”

Moreover, the Washington region formed the backdrop to much of their story. Significant events occurred in Virginia, Maryland and the District. What they did and how it was exposed involved techniques familiar from novels and films.

For example, as John A. Walker Jr. told his story, it all began in the late 1960s when he walked into the Soviet Embassy on 16th Street NW to show what he could provide. Matters came to an end after the FBI was put on his trail by his former wife, and he was spotted leaving a grocery bag near a tree in Poolesville, Md.

The paper bag contained secrets concealed under trash.

The Walker matter also included some memorable courtroom scenes. At one point, a prosecution witness was asked to point out Arthur Walker. But Walker’s toupee had been confiscated, and the witness apparently could not recognize him without it.

Obligingly, Mr. Walker relieved the discomfiture of the witness by giving him a friendly wave.

The ring masterminded by John A. Walker Jr. was described by officials as one of the most damaging in American history. But defense lawyers and acquaintances characterized Arthur Walker as the ring’s least culpable member.

He admitted to receiving $12,000 from his brother in exchange for materials that included a training manual on repairing damage to a Navy ship and a report on equipment failures aboard amphibious vessels.

He was called the dupe of a manipulative brother; the materials he trafficked in were said to be of minimal value, and his attorneys argued that no evidence existed that the items ever reached the Soviets.

As Mr. Walker himself told his story, he was despondent over debts when his brother told him that he knew “friends” who would pay money for secrets.

In Mr. Walkers’s telling, his brother pressed him for classified material, and the items he turned over were intended to relieve the pressure. They were classified “confidential,” the lowest level in the classification structure. His idea was to show that he had little to offer, Mr. Walker said.

News accounts of his 1985 trial — held at U.S. District Court in Norfolk — described the father of three, a Little League coach, as standing meekly before the judge.

However, a prosecutor, Robert Seidel, said of Mr. Walker: “For $12,000, he sells out the safety and security . . . not just of the Navy, but of every citizen of the United States of America.”

The damage-repair manual was termed a “bible for sabotage,” and the other document was also said to be of great value to an enemy.

It took only 15 minutes after closing arguments had ended for the judge to deliver a guilty verdict.

At sentencing, Mr. Walker said he wished to “apologize to all the citizens of our country for what I did. No one could be sorrier for anything they ever did.”

The judge, J. Calvitt Clarke Jr., imposed a penalty of three life sentences plus 40 years.

Earley, in a 2010 op-ed piece in USA Today, argued for Mr. Walker’s release on parole, asserting that he had served enough time for the offense he committed. On his blog, Earley called him a “naive spy” who lived in his brother’s shadow.

“There was never any evidence that his spying harmed anyone except himself,” Earley wrote on his blog.

The best available information indicates that Arthur James Walker grew up partly in Scranton, Pa., in a family riven by alcoholism. He joined the Navy in the early 1950s as an enlisted man after high school. Although he had never completed college, he rose from the ranks to retire as an officer.

He married Rita Fritsch and had three children. Information on survivors is incomplete.

John A. Walker Jr., who has had a series of medical ailments in recent years, is at a prison medical facility in Butner, the Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk reported. John’s son, Michael, was released from prison after 15 years.