Foxes have a reputation for stealth and cunning, but for many years, a far more dangerous predator was at work in Foxstone Park in Vienna. His actions are so notorious, the park is now in the crosshairs at a new spy museum in New York City.
If you tour the SPYSCAPE museum in Midtown Manhattan, look for the exhibit showcasing one of the Fairfax County Park’s Authority’s iconic brown and yellow wooden signs. It is there to help tell the story of former FBI agent Robert Hanssen, who was convicted of spying for Russia after using the entrance sign at Foxstone Park as a signaling device for dead drops.
Foxstone is a 14.4-acre park in the Hunter Mill District. It includes trails, playgrounds and a foot bridge that Hanssen used to conceal packages of government documents and disks. He would let his handlers know it was time for a pickup at the bridge by attaching a piece of adhesive tape to the park sign.
SPYSCAPE’s Deception Gallery is devoted to Hanssen’s story. The museum originally asked to purchase the actual park sign for display. However, the county has a responsibility to appropriately curate its collection pieces to preserve Fairfax County’s history. In the end, park staff and the museum agreed that a replica of the sign would be made to help tell the espionage tale the museum weaves.
Alan Crofford, Facilities Support Manager for the Park Authority’s Park Operations Division, says the request was a first for the agency. “It’s ironic that the request came to me, because I was the area manager for Foxstone Park when the arrest happened.” Crofford says he “never thought” back then that one day he would be handling such request.
SPYSCAPE emailed its original request to the Park Authority in June 2017, and by October, the replica sign was on its way to New York. It was crafted by Lee Sites, the carpenter behind all of the agency’s familiar wooden park signs. SPYSCAPE paid $982 for labor and materials, plus shipping, and had the sign in place for the museum’s February 2018 opening.
Foxstone Park has been included in local spy tours and class outings over the years as fascination with Hanssen’s story continues. In his counterintelligence role at the FBI, Hanssen had access to information about KGB agents who had defected or were secretly working for the Americans. He passed information to the Soviets and Russians that led to the compromise of three of those agents, revealed that the FBI had built a tunnel under the Soviet embassy in Washington, DC, and provided details about America’s nuclear operations.
In the book “Undercover Washington: Where Famous Spies Lived, Worked, and Loved,” author Pamela Kessler described Hanssen this way: “His colleagues at the FBI called him Doctor Death and The Mortician. He had a sallow complexion, a humorless stare, and stood as somber as a funeral director in his dark suit and white shirt. Robert Hanssen stuck with the old G-man dress code long after casual Fridays had begun.” While over time he had come under suspicion to some at the FBI, he was known to most as a caring father of six and a devout Catholic. Many colleagues were shocked at his arrest, but at the time, the Justice Department considered him “the most damaging spy in FBI history.”
Hanssen’s downfall came at Foxstone Park. He was arrested there on February 18, 2001, when he was caught hiding a bag of documents under the bridge. To potentially avoid the death penalty, he pleaded guilty to espionage and conspiracy charges for selling U.S. secrets to the Soviet Union and Russia for more than $1.4 million in cash and diamonds over a 22-year period.
Hanssen is currently serving 15 consecutive life terms at the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility near Florence, Colorado. Known as the ADX, it is the highest-security prison in the country. The man who once walked the trails of Foxstone Park, within a mile of his Vienna home, is now in solitary confinement 23 hours a day.
Author Carol Ochs works in the Park Authority’s Public Information Office.