The Disappearance of Juliet Poyntz, a Former Soviet Spy

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Juliet Stuart Poyntz was an ex-Soviet spy who disappeared in New York City in 1937.

Juliet Stuart Poyntz was an American activist who had been involved in left-wing circles since her early 20s. Initially, Poyntz was a moderate socialist who fought for labor rights and women’s’ suffrage, but she eventually moved further left and joined the Communist Party USA. Through the rest of the 1920s and 1930s, Poyntz moved up the party’s hierarchy and became involved with other internationalist communist groups. In 1934, Poyntz dropped out of politics and started working as an agent for the Soviet secret police.

Poyntz’s job was to collect information about scientific research in the U.S., but former Soviet spy and dissident Elizabeth Bentley claimed in her autobiography that Poyntz also tried recruiting other American communists for spy work. When Bentley first met Poyntz in 1935, Poyntz was allegedly helping in the organization of communist revolutionary groups in Italy. Poyntz, whom Bentley described as immoral and short-tempered, was looking for somebody to teach her Italian. Her real desire, however, was to recruit Bentley as a spy. Bentley wouldn’t have it though, and after being introduced to a sleazy Russian agent named “Smith”, thought that Poyntz was an anti-communist infiltrator.

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Elizabeth Bentley was a spy for the Soviets from 1938 until 1945. She would later go public and expose two networks of American communists who were spying for the USSR.

Along with a male friend, Bentley went to Poyntz’s apartment and accused her of being a double agent right to her face. Two days later, Poyntz and a woman from the Communist Party USA showed up at Bentley’s apartment and threatened her if she ever decided to go public about what she knew. “Just remember one thing,” Poyntz said to her, “if ever you meddle in my affairs again, I’ll see that you’re taken care of. You’ll be put six feet under and you won’t come back to do any more talking!”
The next year, Poyntz went to Moscow and observed the first stages of the Great Purge. She ended up returning to America bitterly disappointed about the USSR. To the astonishment of her Stalinist compatriots, Poyntz became a vocal critic of the dictator and cut off her ties to the Soviets. Over the last few months of her life, Poyntz appeared increasingly anxious and frightened. On June 5, 1937, Poyntz received a phone call and then left her apartment in New York City. Although some weeks went by without anybody hearing from her, none of her friends were alarmed at her sudden disappearance. They assumed that she had left for Europe or was on another mission for the Soviets. By October, however, her friend and attorney Elias Lieberman had become concerned.

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Carlo Tresca, a friend of Juliet Poyntz’s, believed that she was killed by the Soviet secret police.

Along with Poyntz’s apartment manager, Lieberman checked his friend’s apartment room and found that all her personal belongings were there. Her clothes were hanging untouched in her closet, and her passport and other important documents had been left behind. Lieberman tried conducting an investigation by himself, but decided to go to the police after a newspaper got wind of the story.

Naturally, there was a lot of fervor in the press about Poyntz’s former role as a secret spy. Her friends and other anti-Soviet communists believed that there was a connection. Before she disappeared, Poyntz had told them that she was planning to write a book that would expose other Soviet agents and Communist Party USA officials. According to Carlo Tresca, an American labor activist who would later die under mysterious circumstances himself, Poyntz met a former lover at the park the day she disappeared. The man, a newspaper editor and Soviet agent named Shachno Epstein, lured Poyntz away so that she could be abducted and taken to the USSR.  Years later, in his famous book Witness, dissident Whittaker Chambers repeated a similar story, but said that Poyntz was forced into a car and then murdered to keep her quiet. Although she was ruled legally dead in 1944 by the New York Surrogate’s Court, what exactly happened to Juliet Stuart Poyntz has remained a mystery.

The Disappearance of Yukari Yokoyama, a Little Girl Abducted from a Pachinko Parlor

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In July 1996, 4-year-old Yukari Yokoyama disappeared from a pachinko parlor in Japan’s Ota City.

Pachinko is a pinball-like arcade game that’s been popular in Japan since the early 1950s. Like pinball, you try to shoot little balls into one of the holes in the machine. You win every ball that lands in a hole, and you can exchange these balls for prizes. Because of Japan’s gambling laws, you can’t directly exchange the balls for money, but there are plenty of places where you can trade or sell your prizes for cash. Since casinos are prohibited in Japan, pachinko parlors have essentially taken their place, where millions of Japanese play the game every year.

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A pachinko machine.

With pachinko so popular among Japanese adults, it was once a common sight for a long time to see parents bring their kids with them to the parlors. Things are different nowadays, but I’ve heard that people only stopped doing this back in the 90s, after dozens of incidents where neglected children died while their parents were away in pachinko parlors. (This LA Times article notes that some 30 kids died during a single year between April 1995 and June 1996. According to the article, “They included several who were hit by vehicles in parlor parking lots and an unwatched boy who fell into a water-filled ditch.”)

One of the more infamous cases from the time was the Yukari Yokoyama Missing Persons Incident of 1996 (横山ゆかりちゃん行方不明事件 in Japanese). Yukari was a 4-year-old girl whose parents Yasuo and Mitsuko took her and her baby sister to a pachinko parlor on July 7, 1996 in Gunma Prefecture’s Ota City. While the Yokoyamas split up, with Mitsuko taking their baby daughter and Yasuo going off to play at a machine in a different row, Yukari was left free to roam around and play in the parlor. 

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A pachinko parlor in Japan.

Around noon-time, Mitsuko bought some lunch and took the kids outside to the car to eat. Yukari wasn’t very hungry during the time, but decided that she wanted to eat some more after her mother started to play pachinko again. Mitsuko then sent her daughter off with a snack to eat on a near-by couch where she could keep an eye on her. Sometime after 1:40 PM, Yukari came back to her mother and said something about an “uncle”.  Mitsuko couldn’t hear very well over the sounds of the pachinko machines though, and Yukari went back over to the couch unheard.

10 minutes later, Mitsuko looked up from her game and noticed that Yukari wasn’t sitting on the couch anymore. When she got up to check where Yukari was sitting, she found the girl’s juice and a half-eaten onigiri (rice ball). Mitsuko then told her husband that Yukari was gone. After searching the parlor’s parking lot, the Yokoyamas reported Yukari missing to a near-by police station around 2:10 PM.

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Yukari’s parents, Mitsuko and Yasuo Yokoyama.

While the police searched the area over the next two days, interviewing customers and other people who were in the parlor that day, one witness reported seeing a little girl around Yukari’s age getting into a white car around the time of her disappearance. There were other people who remembered seeing Yukari in the parlor, but nobody paid any attention to her, and nobody could say whether they saw anybody particularly suspicious either.

A big breakthrough in the case came when the authorities reviewed footage from the parlor’s security cameras. At 1:27 PM, a man about 5 feet, 2 inches (158 cm) came into the parlor and went into a bathroom located in the back of the building. The man, whose most distinguishing features were some sunglasses, sandals, and a hat, came out three minutes later and then began to wander the parlor. At 1:33, while Yukari was sitting on the couch, the man came over and sat next to her. He smoked and talked to Yukari, pointing his finger to the entrance a few times until he got up and left the building at 1:42. Yukari then went over to her mother and mentioned something about “uncle”. After her mother paid her no attention, Yukari walked over to the entrance and left the building, after which the security cameras lost sight of her.

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The man believed to have been Yukari’s kidnapper.

Although the surveillance footage from the parlor was widely shown in the media, and the shady man’s image was included on flyers, Yukari’s abductor has never been identified. Some believe the man might have been a prior customer, or was at least familiar with the parlor’s lay-out. I’ve also read that the man’s sunglasses and hat were meant to work as a disguise, but that might have just been how the guy liked to dress. My two cents is that the guy walked into the parlor, noticed Yukari sitting alone and neglected, and then made a decision right there to lure her outside. A lot of people have condemned Yukari’s parents for how utterly careless they were, and I’ve heard a few offer a completely groundless theory that the kidnapping was a premeditated plan masterminded by the Yokoyamas themselves.

As of February 2016, this case has remained completely cold. If Yukari Yokoyama is still alive today, she would be around 22 or 23. Perhaps, even two decades later, somebody might someday identify the man in the parlor’s surveillance footage. If you’d like to take a look at some of the footage, check out the video below from 1:44 until 3:06.

 

 

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