The Falcon and the Fallout

Richard A. Serrano is a Times staff writer. He last wrote for the magazine about U.S. government mistreatment of mothers of black servicemen killed in World War I.

Finally released after spending half of his life in prison, and still he had to wait. So Christopher Boyce hung around the prison parking lot, rubbernecking, taking in the fresh air around Sheridan, Ore., unsure what to make of freedom. A half hour went by before the big Suburban at last came lumbering up the driveway, carrying his father, a former FBI agent, and his mother, once a Catholic nun.

They had wanted to throw a joyous family reunion right there in front of the gates of the federal penitentiary, to gather around with Chris and his eight younger siblings, perhaps their extended families too. But he said no; he just could not handle such raw emotion so soon. Instead, he quietly climbed into the back seat and they drove east out of the Coast Ranges, headed toward the airport in Portland. He was going to catch a plane to San Francisco, to a halfway house, where, after six months, he could make parole. On March 15, 2003, he finally would be free.

Boyce stared out the window of the Suburban. It was mid-September. The trees were still green, the birds aloft. His eyes bounced back and forth, amazed at all the splendor. “Somehow, I’m not quite sure how, but somehow the whole thing is over,” he told himself. “I am absolutely . . . I don’t know what to say . . . This huge weight on the top of my head . . . It is finally done.”


But all is not peaceful in the world to which Christopher John Boyce has returned.

Nearly three decades ago, his father had helped him land a job at TRW Inc. in Redondo Beach. There he was given access to the “Black Vault” and its trove of communications with CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. He and a childhood friend, Andrew Daulton Lee, the two of them once altar boys together, began selling classified documents that Boyce smuggled home. Their buyer was the Russian Embassy in Mexico City.

What brought such a dangerous gambit? A 22-year-old’s mix of liberal ideology and a desire for cash to buy drugs. Their scheme succeeded for little more than a year, until 1977. Boyce and Lee were arrested, tried and convicted of espionage in federal court in Los Angeles and sent away for long prison sentences.

The case fascinated the public, especially after it was laid out in a book and then a 1985 movie, “The Falcon and the Snowman,” a title derived from Boyce’s love of birds, especially falcons, and Lee’s prior drug problems. The traitors acquired a certain dark celebrity, particularly Boyce, whose good looks and large-screen legacy brought mailbags full of fan letters. Yes, he had sold secrets that compromised U.S. satellites and damaged negotiations over nuclear missile treaties that had been the focus of this country’s foreign policy. But as the years passed, the fallout from his crime seemed to fade. The Cold War ended. The nation endured worse sins at the hands of others--mass murders, the Oklahoma City bombers, traitors whose deeds led to bloodshed. No one died as a result of Boyce’s actions. The United States won the Cold War. Boyce seemed destined to return to a country ready to forgive.

But that was before Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists demonstrated to new generations of Americans the need for an uncompromised national defense. The nation he rejoins today has a renewed distaste for spies. The timing could have been better.

Five months after moving to the halfway house, Boyce is sitting in a San Francisco living room. In a few weeks, he’ll win his final release. He has consented to an interview, reluctantly, after repeatedly turning down my overtures for even an introduction. He feared his comments would jeopardize his parole. He worried that his family would see this article and that it would break his father’s aging heart all over again. He wanted to somehow slide back into the world and never be noticed again.

Yet here he sits, for his first in-depth interview since going to prison 25 years ago. We are in his wife’s home. They are newlyweds, having met when she helped him fight for parole several years ago. He has a coveted 48-hour weekend pass from the halfway house he abhors in the Tenderloin District.


He has agreed to talk because he wants to make a point about the folly of Congress abolishing parole for any federal prisoners convicted after 1987. He believes he is proof that inmates can be rehabilitated and returned to society. He also realizes that The Times is going to write about his release even without an interview, and he doesn’t want the article based exclusively on his grim past.

He seldom looks my way, or at his wife, Cait. Rather, he fixes on the sun-dappled window, his gray eyes seemingly locked far beyond the room. He speaks softly. His fingers often nervously cover his mouth, and his words are hard to pick up, often drowned out by the zebra finches in a cage near the dining room, or Elvis, the pet canary.

“On weekends I barbecue in the backyard,” he says. “I lie in the hammock watching the clouds go by. I like taking the dogs for walks in the park. It sounds kind of boring, but for me it’s like the ultimate freedom. You can just wander around a park with a couple of crazy dogs. Watch the surf. Watch the ravens out around the beach. You can walk right up to them.

“When I first got here, when I first got to the halfway house, I just wandered around San Francisco for about four or five days on the streetcars and on the trolley cars. Just looking.

“I went up the tops of the hills of San Francisco, and a flock of about a hundred parrots flew past. There’s this one area where the parrots are like pigeons in San Francisco; they’re conures. And I mean it was just amazing.

“I went down to the Embarcadero and over to Fisherman’s Wharf and wandered through the streets, looking at all these old buildings that were built in 1869 or whatever, and checking out the architecture and going to art museums and the Mint and up and down Market, just looking at the people, and going into the old churches and cathedrals, and just absorbing the city.”


He thought about what lies ahead for him, the euphoria of freedom, and then he says with this great big smile, “Parole is a great gas.”

Boyce turned 50 last month, and his hair is graying on the sides. He moves with some caution, no longer the free spirit racing atop the Palos Verdes peninsula hills of his youth. Today there is little he would rather do than walk the beach with his wife’s pair of bouvier des Flandres, pausing with the Belgian herding dogs to marvel at the freedom of birds in flight. She recently presented him with a new pair of binoculars, and often as not, he says, he spots a peregrine falcon.

As a boy, Boyce earned straight As in school, loved history and was elected student body president at the parish grade school, St. John Fisher. But at Palos Verdes High he began to doubt his Catholicism, and today he still wrestles with Christ’s divinity. He joined many of his generation in questioning the Vietnam War, and unlike the typical teenager, he become enamored with the rare and centuries-old sport of falconry.

He refused to let anything tie him down. He drifted around to several colleges. He was uncertain about his future. His father, Charles Boyce, by then having left the FBI to work in the industrial security business, stepped in and tapped a friend at TRW. Soon Chris was working with a high-level security clearance position there.

“I was just in a very rebellious state,” he recalls, reflecting on Vietnam and on CIA abuses that were very much in the news. “I was brought up by an FBI agent, and I was just very much in a state of rebellion. I looked at Western culture there in Los Angeles as just a big confusion of causes, a big smog-choking illness on the planet. The city was just choking with poison, and I just was in total disagreement with the whole direction of Western society.”

How do you get from disaffected youth to seller of national secrets? I ask.

“It was just a matter of synchronicity,” he says. “All these things fell into place at once. I mean, how many kids can get a summer job working in an encrypted communications vault?”


But, he stresses, “You can’t really say it was a lark. It was much more than a lark. A lark is something that’s not really dangerous to yourself, like we were daring each other. And once it began, you just realized that it was the biggest, dumbest decision in your life.”

Once in the spy game with Lee, he realized they were courting doom. Lee warned him that this was “only going to end in a personal disaster.”

Yet they ventured on, Boyce bringing more documents home and Lee making arrangements with their Soviet handlers. “Sometimes I think when you’re young, you crave danger or are willing to put yourself in dangerous positions,” Boyce says. “But I had never gotten into any trouble in my life that I couldn’t get out of. My father was in a position that could keep me out of a whole lot of trouble.”

They sold thousands of classified intelligence documents. One of them dealt with a super-sensitive satellite system called the Pyramider. They made about $77,000, a fortune for such young pirates. Their arrest, Boyce says, “was the storm cloud that broke on our heads.”

He was a son of privilege, and he had shamed his parents. Even today he is unsure how deeply he hurt his father, and it pains him to talk about it. Many years after his arrest, while in a Minnesota prison, he tried to assuage some of that guilt. In a newspaper op-ed piece, he described camping trips as a youngster with his cigar-smoking father. “Why did I do it to him?” he wrote. “What was there in me that made me want to pull down his government and its Cold War? Espionage was a cruel wound to inflict on a father who loved me.”

He said he came to realize that his father, not him, had been the true Cold Warrior, firmly convinced that American endurance would defeat the Soviets. His father was right.


But the son is still not so sure about his mother’s deeply religious views. He cannot accept Jesus as Christ, he says, and that loss of faith may be his parents’ greatest disappointment in him. “I believe in an unknowable causal agent that began everything,” he says, trying to explain the universe. “There is an original cause for everything, but we don’t know who or what that is. But that unknowable whatever is how I define God.”

If any spiritual force watched over him during his years behind bars, it was his desire to get out, he says. He was just 24 when he was given a 40-year sentence, and was housed initially in the federal lockup in Los Angeles. Even at that early date, he had made up his mind.

“On the way in they somehow lost track of me,” he says, laughing. “And so I wandered off into the general inmate population, down chow halls, down corridors, and I got in lines and just wandered around the jail looking for the door. It was a disgusting, pitiful existence these people were in. The sheriffs beating up people both left and right, smacking people around.”

He remembers an inmate passing on a gurney, and then watching as guards “ran his head into the wall. Things like that. Just taking people aside and beating them up. It was just like hell. So I was just walking through this place and I resolved not to stay in prison. From then on, all I did was plan to escape.”

His break came in January 1980 at the federal prison at Lompoc. There he had witnessed a fellow prisoner being stabbed to death by a gang armed with shanks. Boyce preferred being shot by a prison guard to taking a shiv in the back.

He was ready to go. His bag of tricks included a piece of wood, a pair of rose shears, a jar of Vaseline and a toothbrush affixed to a broom handle, for digging. He slipped down a drain grate in the prison yard, and he waited for his chance at night.


“I was in this hole in the ground, in a small sump with a grille over my head, and the guard walked right past. I was right under him and the flashlight passed over the grille. He was just whistling and he walked right over me.”

He lifted the grate and sprinted across the yard to a 10-foot-high chain-link enclosure. Up and over, and he vanished.

“It was like doubly liberating,” he says, not bragging, just telling it. “It almost made me feel like I was indestructible or something. That first or second night, it was kind of frosty and I woke up shivering, covered with frost, and I was sitting there thinking, ‘Here is a total sense of freedom.’ ”

For 19 months he was free. He used fictitious names, steered clear of friendships, found work trolling on a salmon fishing boat. His life was one “of fear, pursuit and close calls.”

He delighted in defying the government, daring the FBI and the U.S. Marshal’s Service to find the man who topped the nation’s Most Wanted Fugitive list. He needed money, and he found banks an easy mark. He hit a dozen of them throughout the Pacific Northwest, hoping to pay for passage to the Soviet Union. He would have friends there, he thought. He would be safe. But these would be mere flights of fancy.

In November 1981, federal agents found him in Port Angeles, Wash. He was parked in his black-and-gold Oldsmobile at a carhop diner, eating a hamburger with his nose lost in a book about flight. The agents forced him out of the car at gunpoint and spread him face down on the pavement. His arms were wrenched behind the small of his back, and he once again felt handcuffs.


“My life’s done,” Boyce told himself, lying there on the ground. “I’d rather be dead.”

Back he went to prison, “dragged back into the squalor of a federal penitentiary and all the degradation . . . just a form of slavery to me,” he says. “I’d rather have been shot in the head than taken back. I’d rather have my head cut off.”

He was convicted of bank robbery, and this time given an aggregate sentence of 63 years. To do that much time would mean he would turn 90 in prison. The government was plenty mad.

Then began what Boyce called “the long, cold winter of my life. in federal custody, nature seems reduced to cockroaches, ants and flies.”

In the big house in Leavenworth, Kan., he was beaten by a prison Aryan Brotherhood gang angry that he had said espionage was “high adventure” and that he could live as a traitor. He was moved to what at that time was the Bureau of Prison’s most secure fortress, the penitentiary at Marion, Ill., much of it underground. He was placed in solitary confinement, both for his own protection and because he was considered a flight risk. His cell was beneath the prison hospital, and there he stayed for more than six years.

He painted, mostly portraits, including one of his father fishing. He also read voraciously and collected books, hundreds of them, stacking them from cell floor to ceiling, many of them histories of the Elizabethan Age. Others were on the Civil War. Others were field guides to birds.

In these dark hours, he says, he turned inward. Sometimes he fantasized he was Sir Francis Drake, setting sail against the Spanish Armada. Sometimes he donned Confederate gray or Yankee blue, and clashed at the First Battle of Bull Run. In all of his imaginings, he spoke out loud, playing multiple roles in his head, savoring the sound of his own voice. For most of his years down there, he rarely heard other voices.


“Everyone [in solitary] would be doing it. Everyone would have scenarios going on in their heads. But, you know, you have to have some life, even if it’s a complete fantasy.”

Sometimes prison officials wandered down to his cell, ordering him out in shackles. “ ‘Tell us how you did it, how you broke out of Lompoc,’ ” they’d press him.

“We used to sit there and bait each other,” Boyce remembers. Eventually he gave them their answer: “Your defenses were worthless.”

He was at Marion when the movie came out. He is somewhat dismissive of it today, although he did think the moniker the Soviets used for him was catchy. “It’s a snazzy title for a book and a movie. But I don’t have any recollection of someone calling me that before. People called me that in prison. People call me that in the halfway house. And I always ask them, ‘Please don’t call me that. My name’s Chris.’ ” The Falcon, he says, “that’s somebody’s invention.”

It did bring a deluge of mail. Guards clambered down with large bags of it, often twice a day, dumping the letters through his food slot. It was mostly fan mail, much of it from young girls smitten by the movie image of the graceful falcon, now caged, alone.

In 1988, he was transferred to a state prison in Oak Park Heights, Minn., under a contract agreement with the federal government. There he had freedom, if only of movement. It was soft time; he was allowed to take college courses and earn a degree in history. He played handball and he painted, and he wrote pieces for a local newspaper, calling for prison reform, describing his love of falconry, apologizing to his father.


Then he went too far. He wrote how a convicted spree killer nicknamed “Berserker Bjork” was allowed to roam the prison, endangering other inmates. The prison system reacted. He was put back in federal confinement, this time in Supermax in Colorado. “They were mad at me because I was writing articles. They were mad at me for having once escaped from prison and embarrassing them. They were mad at me for having a parole date. They just really thought I shouldn’t get any kind of breaks whatsoever. I mean, to them it was like I escaped yesterday. They just never got over it.”

Prison officials claimed he was moved to Colorado for his own safety. Once again, he was placed in a one-man cell. He was caged for 23 hours a day and allowed into a small yard, alone, for one hour. Now his neighbors were Oklahoma City bombers Timothy J. McVeigh and Terry L. Nichols, and the Unabomber, Theodore J. Kaczynski.

Three and a half more years passed. “You couldn’t come out of your cell unless there were two guards with clubs, one to hold the chains behind your back. You couldn’t come out of there unless you backed up to the door and they cuffed you up.”

He pauses. He turns his eyes away from the living room window. “That place was despicable,” he snarls.

Boyce found McVeigh, awaiting his June 2001 execution, amusing. “I said, ‘Why don’t you kill yourself?’ He said no. He wanted to let the whole thing go through. But what he really wanted was to be a martyr.”

Nichols, he says, would pace around the tiny recreation yard, which Boyce could see from his window. “He just walked and walked like a windup toy. Jerky.” The gnarly haired Kaczynski? “He was a lunatic. He wasn’t very clean. They scrubbed him up a little bit, but not enough.” Boyce laughs. “He needed a comb.”


Here too was Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, convicted in the first New York City World Trade Center explosion. He never talked, Boyce says.

To finish out the last of his prison time, Boyce was transferred to the penitentiary in Oregon. In all those years--from his trial in Los Angeles, his escape and his recapture--he was rarely heard from. But in 1985, the year “The Falcon and the Snowman” premiered, he was called to Washington, D.C., to testify before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that was investigating ways to discourage future Christopher Boyces from espionage.

“It’s pretty dirty business,” he told the committee. “People just don’t understand what it is; they just don’t know what a person goes through day to day in that sort of thing. It is not what you see on television.” He said he would warn others that “they are going to regret it,” that they would be “bringing down upon themselves heartache more heavy than a mountain.” He added, “There is no exit from it.”

At the time, long before terrorism had come to U.S. shores and as the Cold War neared its end, Boyce’s cooperation brought a measure of sympathy. The committee’s chairman, then-Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine), called Boyce’s testimony “one of the most powerful and . . . poignant statements to have ever been made in . . . any committee in the United States Senate or Congress.”

Then-Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), the ranking minority member of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, was so impressed that he began to lobby the Bureau of Prisons on Boyce’s behalf. “There is no question as to the very serious nature of Mr. Boyce’s original offense,” Nunn wrote to the prisons bureau. “His crime seriously damaged our national security.” But he also said he hoped Boyce’s testimony and cooperation with the subcommittee “will help to repair some of the damage of the past.”

Others were nonplused. Then-Sen. Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) criticized Boyce and Lee for compromising U.S. satellite systems. The spying made the systems “temporarily, at least, useless to us. Because the Soviets could block them. And the fear that that had happened permeated the Senate and, as much as any one thing, was responsible for the failure of the SALT treaty,” which was intended to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. “If you think as I do that the breakdown of our arms negotiations with the Soviets is an ominous event, then nothing quite so awful has happened to our country as the escapade of these two young men.”


Today, Boyce certainly feels remorse for his crimes, although the bank robberies trouble him the most. “It if were Judgment Day, I would confess the banks first,” he says.

Why? Because you could have hurt someone?

“Yes,” he says. “And because I didn’t have to do that.”

In 1997, with 50 years remaining on his sentence, Boyce appeared before the U.S. Parole Commission. He pleaded for an early release date and broke down crying under the weight of the time he’d lost. His case manager, George Hart, urged the commission to consider leniency. “I have not seen many inmates with less need for continued incarceration,” he told the panel. “He basically does not fit in a prison environment, and I don’t see much value in his continued incarceration I don’t think there is much more to drive out of Christopher Boyce.”

Kenneth Walker, a parole examiner watching the proceedings, said, “Mr. Boyce seems to be a mature individual and one who is truly sorry for his past crimes.”

But Ray Essex, another examiner, warned that the United States should not forget the gravity of Boyce’s sins. He told the commission in a written report: “Subject was the leader in the espionage crime as he used his top secret clearance to steal/photograph documents which were given to Russia . . . [Any earlier release] is in my opinion too lenient in consideration of the overall offense behavior of subject.”

He added, “The argument that Russia is no longer a threat with the Cold War having ended does not warrant an earlier release date now, as this would depreciate the seriousness of the offense when it did occur.”

Nevertheless, parole was granted: March 15, 2003.

Today, with that date approaching, Boyce already is losing his cellblock pallor. Color has returned to his cheeks. He has no prison tattoos. He also has learned that there can be a price for freedom.


“I’m gaining weight from all this,” he laments.

How much?

“Six or seven pounds.”

His wife cackles. “Oh, God, you are so full of doo-doo!” she says.

“Well, at least six or seven pounds,” he offers.

“No, just over 15 pounds,” she insists.

“I don’t think so.”

“Excuse me,” she laughs. “I’m looking at it, pal!”

Cait had picked him up at the airport in San Francisco on that first day out of prison. She had sent him a new pair of jeans and a fresh shirt and brought along a picnic lunch. “He was quiet,” she says. “The lone figure walking up the ramp.” They spotted one another, and “then he had this huge smile.”

She is tall, red-haired and full of energy. A surfer, a French cook and a cancer survivor, she prides herself on her advocacy work helping federal inmates make parole. That is how she came across Chris some years back, after working on his partner Lee’s release in 1998. Boyce and Lee are lucky. They were convicted before Congress eliminated parole from the federal system. Today, only 2,100 federal inmates are eligible for parole in a system that houses 165,000. It is a cruel mistake, Boyce believes, to deny a chance for early release to prisoners who truly rehabilitate themselves.

Chris and Cait, 48, married in the fall, turning the ceremony in a stand of redwoods into the long-planned Boyce family reunion as well. Thanksgiving was his first holiday back at home. “He wanted everything,” Cait says. “Chocolate cheesecake. Mincemeat pie. Lemon meringue pie.”

Their marriage is one of weekends grabbed at the moment, when he gets a Friday-to-Sunday pass from the halfway house. Accustomed to life in a spare cell, he seems a bit phobic about a house that is fully furnished. Slowly he is navigating his way through a world he could never have envisioned in solitary, filled with mobile phones and ATMs and cars with window wipers that have multiple settings. He has begun to run his fingers over a computer keyboard, learning how to Google.

We take a break from the interview for lunch in the dining room: Waldorf sandwiches with lemon-and-brandy cake. The zebra finches and Elvis the canary carry on nearby. When we’re finished, Boyce sets his fork down and turns to his wife. “It would be 10 times more difficult if I didn’t have Cait.”

Lee also is in California these days, but the two boyhood chums have had a falling out and aren’t talking about it. Besides, federal law prohibits ex-cons from associating with one another.


Halfway house rules dictate that Boyce keep a job. So for a while he worked north of town for a contractor friend of Cait’s, helping to build sinks. Then he found work at a local pet shop, more to his liking perhaps. Twenty-five percent of his gross pay goes to the halfway house. Indeed, the halfway house is always over his shoulder; it even calls on weekends to make sure he is home.

There are other nags too, but they just go with being Christopher Boyce--especially in post-9/11 America. Already there have been calls and letters from fans and reporters seeking access, and from detractors too. “Flakes who think they can get pictures or a book or an autograph,” Cait complains. “Women who send letters and toothbrushes to the halfway house, and the guy who wanted one of Chris’ T-shirts, unwashed! Then there’s the guy in Los Angeles who contacted my brother-in-law to reach Chris to tell him about his anti-government positions. The list is endless, and neither of us wants to have to deal with these people. Honestly, it is somewhat scary.”

Boyce has always at- tracted fans in odd places. When he was writing the 15 op-ed pieces, his editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune became so fond of him that he brought his children along on prison visits. Eric Ringham wanted Boyce to know that he hoped his kids would learn that every man has a soul. “Prison inmates are people like everybody else,” he says he told Boyce. “Everybody makes mistakes, even though some mistakes are worse than others.”

Boyce laughed, Ringham recalls. “No,” he told his editor friend. “There are some really bad people in here.”

Boyce is no longer among them. The future is instead his to make, as the old saying goes, even if he is getting underway long after the rest of us. “I’m starting at 50,” he jokes. Yet he seems in no great hurry. Some weekend afternoons he lingers on the backyard hammock or walks the coastline, his eyes piercing the sea fog, his ears alert to the whoosh of wings.

He dreams of a trip to Mexico someday, maybe Christmas in Paris. He is not sure about pursuing a career, but he thinks he might like to write an autobiography, to put down what he calls his “privileged yet peculiar childhood” and the “many bloody horrors of prison.” He would argue for the reinstitution of federal parole, and he would end his journey with hope.


For a lifetime in prison has taught him that even when the world changes around you, there are some things in a man that no four walls can take away. “Do you like bird-watching?” he asks me. “It’s a gas.”