The Hollow Nickel Case: Peekskill and the Soviet Illegals Program

The “hollow nickel” and cipher.

During the Cold War, the tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was palpable. Espionage was at its peak, and both nations were deeply involved in covert operations to outwit each other. One such operation was the Hollow Nickel Case, which highlighted the role of Peekskill, New York, and introduced the world to the intricacies of the Soviet Illegals Program.

The Mysterious Nickel

In 1953, Jimmy Bozart, a Brooklyn newspaper boy, stumbled upon a nickel that felt peculiar. It was lighter and emitted a strange sound when dropped. On prying it open, he found a message, reduced to the size of a small cornflake, arranged in groups of single-digit numbers. The coded message, once deciphered, was revealed to be Hayhanen’s official welcome to New York, encrypted and transferred to microfilm.

After the FBI’s Agent Louis Hahn secured the mysterious nickel and its concealed microfilm, the agency embarked on a quest to decipher its origins and the significance of the numbers within. While the coin’s front showcased a 1948 design, its reverse was intriguingly from a period between October 1942 and the end of 1945, identifiable by the unique copper-silver alloy used during those years. The microfilm displayed a series of numbers: sets of five digits organized into seven columns of 21 sets each, and another three columns containing 20 sets, summing up to 207 sets of five digits. However, a decoding key was conspicuously absent. For almost four years, the FBI grappled with uncovering the nickel’s origins and the encoded message’s meaning. The puzzle began to unravel in May 1957 when KGB operative Reino Häyhänen, also known under the alias Eugene Nicolai Mäki, expressed his desire to defect.

Reino Hayhanen

Reino Häyhänen was born on May 14, 1920, in the small village of Leningrad Oblast, which was then part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. As he grew amidst the political upheavals of the early 20th century, Häyhänen was introduced to the covert world of espionage at a young age.

Recruited by the Soviet intelligence agency, Häyhänen underwent rigorous training and was eventually dispatched to the United States as part of the Soviet Illegals Program during the Cold War. Operating under various pseudonyms, with “Eugene Nikolai Mäki” being one of his primary covers, he worked diligently, gathering intelligence and passing it to his superiors.

A pivotal figure in Häyhänen’s espionage career was his handler, Rudolph Abel.

Rudolph Abel

Abel was a master spy for the Soviet Union. He was known for his ability to blend in and assume multiple identities, making him a valuable asset to the Soviet intelligence community. Abel was responsible for overseeing and guiding operatives like Häyhänen in their missions, ensuring the smooth flow of information back to the USSR. With his deep understanding of the nuances of intelligence work and an ability to manage operatives efficiently, Abel became one of the most prominent figures in the world of Cold War espionage.

The FBI traced the hollow nickel back to a Soviet spy named Reino Häyhänen, who was operating under the alias Eugene Nikolai Mäki. Häyhänen had been living in Peekskill, New York with his wife. It was a domestic disturbance there that drew attention to him and began to unravel his cover.

Shortly before his defection, Hayhanen and another spy had driven up to Bear Mountain State Park and buried five thousand dollars in cash beside a secluded stretch of hiking trail. He was instructed to return at a later date, dig the money up, and give it to Helen Sobell, the wife of Morton Sobell, another unmasked Soviet spy convicted alongside the Rosenbergs. Instead of handing over the money, Hayhanen dug it up and used it as a deposit for a property he leased in the fall of 1955 in Newark, New Jersey.

The Illegals Program

The Soviet Illegals Program was an intricate intelligence initiative orchestrated by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Under this program, trained spies were dispatched to foreign nations without any official cover or direct ties to the Soviet government. These “illegals” would embed themselves into their host societies, often assuming completely new identities, and live seemingly ordinary lives. Beneath this façade, they conducted covert operations, gathered intelligence, and relayed crucial information back to their Soviet handlers. The program exemplified the depth and sophistication of Cold War espionage, highlighting the lengths nations would go to gather intelligence on their adversaries.

Rudolph Abel was one such “illegal.” Under various aliases, he operated in the U.S., gathering intelligence and handling other spies like Hayhanen. His expertise in covert operations made him invaluable to the Soviet Union. However, his capture and subsequent trial unveiled the vastness and depth of the Illegals Program.

During his trial, Abel was defended by James B. Donovan. Donovan’s representation of Abel was not just a legal battle; it was a testament to the principles of justice, even during times of heightened political tension. Tom Hanks later portrayed Donovan in a movie, highlighting the lawyer’s commitment to ensuring Abel received a fair trial.

Sensing that the walls were closing in, Hayhanen decided to defect to the West and give up Abel and the program. He provided the authorities with crucial information about Soviet operations in the US, leading to the capture of other agents, including a top Soviet spy involved in the hollow nickel operation. At first, the FBI did not believe Hayhanen due to his history of being a drunk. Hayhanen accompanied agents to his home on the outskirts of Peekskill and showed them a secret compartment within the home. At this point, the FBI was convinced he was who he said he was and that they had uncovered a Soviet ring of illegal citizens in the United States.

The Peekskill Connection

The connection to Peekskill was made clear with it’s inclusion in The Mitrokhin Archives. The Mitrokhin Archives are a collection of notes taken by Vasili Nikitich Mitrokhin, a former KGB archivist who defected to the UK in 1992. These archives provide a detailed record of Soviet intelligence operations, offering a revealing glimpse into the inner workings of the KGB during the Cold War. One such account from the archives states:

Early in 1956 the police were called to the home of the
“Makis” home at Peekskill in Hudson Valley, where they
found both Hayhanen and his wife drunk; Hayhanen had a
deep knife wound in his leg, which he claimed was the
result of an accident.

One of the most significant episodes in Häyhänen’s espionage journey in the Peekskill area occurred at Bear Mountain State Park. Before a series of tumultuous events that would eventually lead to his exposure, Häyhänen, along with another operative, drove to this picturesque location. There, they buried a considerable sum of five thousand dollars in cash beside a secluded hiking trail. The money was intended to be retrieved later and delivered to Helen Sobell, the wife of Morton Sobell, a convicted Soviet spy. However, when the time came, Häyhänen dug up the money, but instead of handing it over as directed, he kept it for himself. This act of defiance and the buried secrets of Bear Mountain would later play a pivotal role in unraveling the vast web of Soviet espionage in the United States in the years after World War 2.

Here is the excerpt from “The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB”

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