Mike Ramsdell, the spy from Utah, laughs when he is asked about the Bourne trilogy and Hollywood's other tales on espionage.
"It's just not the way it is," he says.
He should know. Ramsdell was a U.S. counterintelligence agent for some 30 years, working for various government intelligence agencies and the State Department before retiring in 2002. Although he had several Hollywood-style brawls and gunfights, he says the movies have it wrong.
"Over a long career, things happen," he says, "but not every 10 minutes. There's lots of preparation and lots of waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting."
The irony is that now Ramsdell's story is going to be told in a movie, and it could wind up receiving the same action treatment. A few years ago, he set out to write a book about his bitter experiences as an accused American traitor (more on this later) but wrote another book for practice instead. He self-published 100 copies of "A Train to Potevka" and gave them to friends and family.
He thought that was the end of it, but then came requests for more copies. Eventually, a copy fell into the hands of a Costco manager and, after one thing led to another, Costco put the book in its stores. "Potevka" has sold 100,000 copies and is in its seventh printing, with 100,000 more books in Costco warehouses for the holidays. Meanwhile, Ramsdell has signed a movie deal.
"Who would have thunk it," says Ramsdell, who will fly to California in November to be honored by the National Steinbeck Center.
Ramsdell will serve as a consultant on the movie's screenplay pre-production began this month but he was warned by the movie execs that they can do as they wish with the script.
"There are so many of these shoot 'em up movies," says the 65-year-old Ramsdell. "I never watch them because they're so absurd, not even close to reality, as anyone who worked in that business will tell you. I am hoping the movie people will not make it into an action movie and stay true to the book."
That seems likely to happen since Ramsdell signed with Audience Alliance, a movie production company whose stated goal is family-values entertainment. It is headed by Mormon filmmaker Kieth Merrill.
"Potevka" begins like something out of the Bourne trilogy. His cover blown, Ramsdell survives a nasty brawl in the doorway of his apartment, races out of the building in a hail of gunfire and manages to escape Siberia by taking a train to a safehouse in Potevka while nursing a head wound and trying to stave off hunger.
That's the end of the chase scenes and cloak-and-dagger business. The rest is a tale of survival and the author's flashbacks about his experiences as an LDS missionary, a military officer and his personal life, as he makes his way to safety.
"Potevka" will leave the Bourne crowd wanting; this book is mostly for the fireside crowd, interweaving stories of people he met during his long escape the lone farmer who gave him three slices of bread from his own meager pantry, the package of food that mysteriously found him at the safehouse, the little boy who sneaked him a single potato on the train.
(That notwithstanding, during many of the speeches and church firesides he gives as a result of the book's growth more than 300 last year Ramsdell is frequently asked the same question: Has he ever killed anyone? The answer is yes, but what he tells the crowd is this: "Next question.")
"Potevka" is a great accident, especially for an author who claims he was thrown out of English class at Bear River High School. He says he knows nothing about writing, and he notes that his wife, Bonnie, had to add the commas and periods and make other corrections.
"Potevka" began as a thank you to his sister, who sent the mysterious package that miraculously found him in Siberia. He wrote a 10-page story about that experience. After passing the story around to friends as Christmas presents, he was urged to write a book about his spy experiences.
He decided to write about the last years of his career, when he was mistakenly accused of being a traitorous double agent in crimes that were later credited to the infamous Robert Hanssen (now the subject of the movie "The Breach"). Dean Hughes, an author and friend, advised against it and told Ramsdell to first write another book as practice. Ramsdell wrote "Potevka." He finished the book in 2006, 18 months after he began writing.
"I never would have done it if I had known how difficult it was," he says.
He planned to write a nonfiction account of his adventures in the spy world, but when that became too problematic he decided to call it fiction, with a wink.
"When a former agent wants to write anything, an intell group looks it over," he says. "I started to write it as nonfiction, but every chapter went to them. I decided I'm not going to fight with them. I tell the reader it's fiction but read between the lines. There's no way I could stand up and say everything is factual for instance, we wouldn't reveal the location of a safehouse. And some of the incidents happened at different times."
Working without an agent or publicist, Ramsdell and Bonnie began peddling the books. It was only after Costco began to stock the book that it took off and turned retirement into a second career. Along with speaking engagements, Ramsdell has been retained to tell his story on seven ocean cruises in various parts of the world and to help with production of the movie. In October, he will fly to Europe to check locations in the Baltics, Finland and Russia. The movie deal also requires him to write a "Potevka" sequel.
"We have to pinch ourselves," he says.
Ramsdell, born and raised in Bear River, served a church mission in Germany, graduated from the University of Utah Law School and joined the National Guard to become a pilot. After seeing the James Bond movie "From Russia With Love" his first exposure to the spy world he requested a release from pilot training, transferred to "spook school," learned Russian and was commissioned an officer in the Military Intelligence Corps.
Ramsdell says he worked for six years in Russia during the collapse of communism, usually posing as a German oil field manager who spoke German with a Russian accent. For years he kept apartments in Helsinki and Moscow.
His missions varied from the exotic to the mundane. When Russia shot a Korean airliner out of the sky, he was dispatched to the scene to gather information.
When a Russian mafioso pilfered millions of dollars from the construction of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Ramsdell was sent to Russia to kidnap the man and bring him to justice.
During the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Moscow, he was assigned to befriend a Russian diplomat who was known to have successfully recruited American spies to work for him. For several months, Ramsdell played along, allowing himself to be recruited while gathering information about his network of spies.
After Soviet communism fell, he was assigned to monitor the collapse of the KGB and military, and infiltrate the mafia, which took control of much of the country in the vacuum created by the collapsed government.
"There were so many shootings, so much violence at that time," says Ramsdell. "We called it the wild, wild West. One of my bosses was murdered he was shot in the face 11 times. It was ugly. There were times I thought I was going to be killed."
Over the years he was unable to tell his immediate and extended family what he did during his long absences, although he marvels that they didn't figure it out, given his training. Even Bonnie had only a vague idea of what he did for a living.
"I just knew he was in intelligence," she says. "The only thing I asked is that if he was going to do something that was life-threatening that he tell me before he goes."
After finishing his assignment in Russia, he returned home and was given the standard polygraph test that all agents undergo regularly to ensure they haven't been turned or knowingly breached security. Ramsdell took the test and, as he recalls, "Then World War III broke out. I was set up. They claimed I flunked the test."
Ramsdell had noticed for the previous two years that he was followed everywhere, but he had assumed they were Russians. Later, he learned they were American agents. For years they had been trying to catch a mole responsible for selling secrets to the Soviets, and Ramsdell was one of several suspects. In reality, it was Hanssen, an FBI agent, who was selling secrets in what came to be called the worst intelligence breach in U.S. history. Hanssen went by the code name of "Ramon" or "Ram," the same as Ramsdell's nickname, and his wife was named Bonnie, as was Ramsdell's.
"It was an absolute nightmare," Ramsdell says. "They were screaming, 'How could you do this to your country?!' They were knocking over bookcases. I sort of went into shock. I couldn't believe this was happening. They told me they had me cold. They told me I would spend the rest of my life in prison. They demanded a full confession. Finally, they told me to tell my family because I was going to be sent away."
Ramsdell returned to Utah and broke the news to family members. The investigation of Ramsdell continued for months after the first face-to-face accusations. Ramsdell took his case to Utah's U.S. senators, Bob Bennett ("He wasn't interested at all," says Ramsdell) and Orrin Hatch ("He was incredibly helpful"). Hatch called FBI and CIA representatives into his office, but, as Ramsdell tells it, "They said, 'We don't know what you're talking about.'"
Eventually, the FBI realized that the real culprit was Hanssen, but Ramsdell never received so much as an apology, and he remains bitter. He still plans to tell that part of his story in a book.
"They spent millions just on me," he says. "It was all lies they presented to us. They were so desperate to find somebody. I was so mad at what the agency had done. I had devoted my life to service to the government, and here I am a suspect. They put us through two years of hell. That's how my career ended."
Since his retirement, Ramsdell has lived quietly in Bear River, or he did until "A Train to Potevka" took off. He has stayed far from the spy world, except for occasional ventures to the theater.
Although Ramsdell says Hollywood hardly ever gets it right, he admitted "I was impressed" with the second Bourne movie. "I didn't sleep that night. The movie took place in Germany, Scandinavia and Russia, all the places I worked. I thought 'The Breach' was very, very well done."
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