Born 1942, attended Indiana University. Joined the U.S. Air Force and was assigned to the Signal Intelligence division in Pakistan. After leaving the Air Force, joined the NSA in 1965. Worked in a minor capacity for the NSA until he resigned his position as an intelligence analyst in 1979.
Contacted the Soviet Embassy in Washington, DC on January 14, 1980. Explained to the diplomat that he was a member of the U.S. Government and arranged for a meeting at the embassy. The FBI had surveillance on the embassy and had tapped the phone. Although they anticipated the arrival of the caller, the FBI was unable to observe him in time to determine his identity. The investigation seemingly died out there.
Pelton met with KGB officer Vitaly Yurchenko and provided him with detailed reports of U.S. activity from his photographic memory. Among the things he provided was a disclosure that the U.S. was monitor underwater Soviet communications using submarines in the Sea of Okhotsk. Yurchenko accepted Pelton as a legitimate walk-in.
In 1985, Yurchenko defected to the United States. Among other things, he recalled that he had met with a former NSA analyst in 1980 and described him as red-haired (Yurchenko subsequently defected back to the Soviet Union). The FBI scoured through NSA personnel files until it had a pool of red-haired male analysts.They were thus able to identify Pelton’s voice and began surveillance on him in October 1985. Despite bugging his car and his home, they were unable to turn up any incriminating evidence against Pelton.
Seemingly at a dead-end, the FBI decided to gamble and confront Pelton directly, playing the tape of his conversation with the Soviet embassy. Eventually Pelton revealed that he had provided answers to questions from the Soviets in return for $35,000.00. Pelton was tried and convicted of espionage in 1986 and sentenced to three concurrent life sentences.