Feature Interview: Christopher Boyce
From the Winter 2014 Issue
Cold War-era Soviet spy, bank robber and author, with Vince Font and Cait Boyce
His is a story ripped from the headlines of the Cold War and captured in the true-crime book and Hollywood movie, “The Falcon and the Snowman” – a tale that wound its way to northern Idaho more than 30 years ago and then to federal prison for two decades. It now has a new chapter with themes echoing current debates over government abuse, national security and treason.
Christopher Boyce was born Feb. 16, 1953, to a large, prosperous family in Southern California; he grew up in a tumultuous era for the country, marked by the Vietnam War, civil rights struggles, nation-shaking assassinations, and then, Watergate. But Boyce had a comfortable upbringing. He was a bright student who tested with a near-genius IQ, served as an altar boy in church and, as a teenager, developed a passion for falconry.
In 1974, at the age of 21, Boyce was hired by the aerospace firm TRW for a position that entailed handling top-secret documents about the nation’s spy satellite programs. As related in “The Falcon and the Snowman,” Boyce became disaffected when he began to see documents revealing National Security Agency and CIA efforts to undermine the government of Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam – a U.S. ally.
Boyce began passing on secret documents about the U.S. spy satellite program to the Soviet Union. He recruited a childhood friend and cocaine dealer, Andrew Daulton Lee, to carry microfilm of secret documents to the Soviet embassy in Mexico City. For nearly a year and a half, Boyce and Lee shipped documents to the Soviets for payments that eventually totaled about $76,000, most of which went to Lee.
It all came to a halt early in 1977 when Lee was arrested by Mexican police, then Boyce was arrested in California. On May 15, 1977, “the falcon” Boyce was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 40 years in prison; Lee, “the snowman,” landed a life sentence. The story captured national headlines for months and became the best-selling book by journalist Robert Lindsey and subsequently the movie with Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn in the title roles.
But the story was just warming up – and headed to northern Idaho. In January 1980 Boyce escaped from the federal maximum-security prison in Lompoc, Calif. After more than a month evading a massive manhunt in Southern California, Boyce made his way to a safe haven outside of Bonners Ferry, a secluded cabin owned by Gloria White. For the next year and a half, while the CIA and U.S. Marshals Service conducted a global manhunt following false leads from Costa Rica to South Africa, America’s most wanted man was hiding out in Bonners Ferry.
He worked at local tree farms but then turned to a more lucrative vocation: bank robbery. During the next year, Boyce ranged to towns around the Northwest to carry off at least 16 robberies, from Tacoma to Lewiston to Idaho Falls and Missoula, often returning to White’s Katka cabin to lay low. Boyce followed a disciplined modus operandi for his robberies; he would don a disguise, enter a bank or savings and loan, and brandish a .357 pistol to force tellers to empty their cash drawers. He wouldn’t wait for money to be taken from the vault, instead satisfied to net from several hundred to several thousand dollars while getting in and out within just a few minutes. He launched his robbery career solo but gained accomplices with Bonners Ferry brothers Brett, James and Joseph Pratt.
As reported by journalist Lindsey in his sequel, “The Flight of the Falcon,” in early 1981 Boyce bought a salmon fishing trawler in Port Angeles and began to spend time on the Olympic peninsula; Boyce also began to take flying lessons to become a pilot. But his plans came to a second abrupt halt after Joseph Pratt turned informant. On Aug. 21, 1981, a phalanx of U.S. Marshals surrounded Boyce as he ate a hamburger in a Port Angeles drive-in. Convicted this time for his escape and bank robberies, he received an additional 28-year sentence.
With sentences likely to keep him in prison for life, that could have been the end of the Christopher Boyce story. But a third chapter began when a young paralegal named Cait Mills took up Lee’s case and began a two-decade effort to win parole for Lee, and subsequently Boyce. She succeeded with Lee in 1998, then won parole for Boyce in September 2002 – and after a romance developed during the long legal effort, Boyce and Mills married shortly after his release.
The couple moved to Bend, Ore., shunning publicity. But this year, motivated as they say, to tell “what happened next,” they joined with writer Vince Font to write their own book. “The Falcon and the Snowman: American Sons” was released as an e-book Aug. 20. The new book tells of Boyce’s 24 years behind bars – surviving attempts on his life by prison gangs and more than six years in solitary confinement – and Mills’ long effort to negotiate the legal system and win his parole, even after she herself began a fight against cancer. The release of their book coincides with national headlines again focused on government abuse, secret surveillance programs and questions of what constitutes treason in the prominent cases of national security leakers Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden.
This interview came two weeks after the new book’s release, conducted by phone with all three co-authors. It has been edited for space.
Addendum February 2014: The trio’s book has been re-released under the title “American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman.” Copies may be ordered through Amazon.com. Scroll or click to bottom of page for a video interview with Boyce and links to other information.
Chris, let’s get in the way-back machine, to January 1980. You’ve escaped from prison. How did you decide to head to North Idaho?
Boyce: Well, before I left the prison, my friend, Calvin Robinson, who got parole about a month prior to my escape, told me, “You stay (nearby) in the woods for a month until all the heat goes down, and then you make your way to my place up south of San Francisco.” Which I did, and he provided me with ID and a bus ticket and a place to go, way up there on Katka Mountain. It was about the farthest place from the FBI and all the authorities that I could think of. I had come out of a horrible prison where people were being murdered all around me. People in the cell next to me were killed. I was literally having to step through puddles of blood to get to and from my cell. It was just a horrible existence. And then to have achieved utter freedom, where I’m up in the high Rockies, listening to the elk bugle, watching the ruffed grouse, fly fishing in the Kootenai and hunting for deer. I just felt like I had been saved from something almost as bad as death.
You were taken in by Gloria White. She died a couple years ago but has been described in the media as a modern-day Ma Barker. How would you describe her?
Boyce: I’d describe her as a really good friend who I could be completely honest with and tell her my situation. The first thing that woman did was, she and I went and bought a pack mule and we loaded that mule up with about 200 pounds of supplies, and she handed me a .308 rifle and gave me a map and told me where to go up to a trapper’s cabin way, way up on the back side of Katka Mountain, and she just buried me up there. I would go up into those mountains a month at a time until I ran out of supplies. And I would come back down, and Gloria would load me back up with provisions. I felt like I was some fur trapper. But it was just a total change from where I had been, and I owe that woman a great debt.
Were you in Bonners Ferry often? Reports are that you were a regular in the Mint Club and Mr. C’s, right downtown.
Boyce: I used to sit down at the little cafe there, and sometimes I would sit down next to the county sheriff. I’d have the county sheriff on one side and the Bonners Ferry police chief on the other side, and we’d all be sitting there eating fried eggs for breakfast. But of course they had no idea who I was. Although honestly, there were probably 20 people in Bonners Ferry that knew exactly who I was, but they all kept their mouths shut for the most part.
Why were you revealing your identity to the local folks? You were the most wanted man in the country and that seems pretty risky.
Boyce: Doesn’t it? (laughs) You know, I really wasn’t a professional criminal. Everybody was just so friendly and I just became good pals with people. … They would get me, and we’d hunt with hounds, you know, bluetick and redbones, and we would go out to hunt bear. And it was just experiences that I had never gone through as a young fellow. Just a whole new world, and it was like stepping back to the 1830s almost.
Cait Boyce: Well, they didn’t care who you were.
Boyce: They really didn’t care. J. Edgar Hoover once said that if you were a fugitive and you really wanted to go hide, go to Lincoln County, Montana, which is right over the border from Bonners Ferry.
So, you were just taking the FBI’s advice?
Boyce: Yeah. (laughs)
You were this close to Canada. It must have occurred to you to go there.
Boyce: Well, I did go up in Canada several times. I would go fishing for cutthroat trout, and I would just follow the creek up into Canada … but why didn’t I go to Canada? Because I was an American and I fit in better in Idaho than in Canada. In Canada I was a foreigner. I talked different, slightly different. I just blended in more in Idaho. And the other thing was that I had friends in Idaho.
With the FBI and the marshals after you, when it seems you should have been lying low, you went in to the bank-robbing business. Why did you start robbing banks?
Boyce: Well, I guess Willie Sutton said, “That’s where the money is.” Despite the fact that I was spending a lot of time way off in the backwoods, I still moved around a lot. And you know, being a fugitive isn’t cheap. That sounds really cold-hearted, but it costs a lot of money to be a fugitive. And that part of my life, doing that, is what I am most ashamed of, of all the crimes I committed. Looking back on it, when I was sentenced in Idaho … I told the judge that I had never hurt anybody. And he said “Oh yes, you did. That scared people.” And he was right. That’s scary for people, and the fact that I did that is what I regret most about my life. From the bottom of my heart, I’d like to apologize to those people. I’m sorry for any harm that I caused them.
Considering that you are carrying a gun and there’s a high risk something could go wrong in one of these robberies: Were you willing to shoot things out if it came down to it?
Boyce: I was willing to, if confronted, to pop off caps not directly at people but, you know … (pauses). People who work at banks are trained not to oppose a bank robber. But the police, of course, aren’t. I have to be honest with you, that I did not intend to ever go back to prison. … No, it’s hard to say, because it’s conjecture. I was never confronted at a bank, although I was chased away from a bank and I did take out that .357 and when I did that, everybody dived for cover and I was able to back away and leave. But … no, you’re right, you know. Bad things could have happened and I’m just very grateful nothing ever did.
You began splitting your time between Bonners Ferry and the Olympic Peninsula, where you bought a fishing boat. And then you took flying lessons. Were you planning to get out of the country or go to Russia?
Boyce: No, I wasn’t. … (Author Robert) Lindsey speculated that I was going to fly over the Bering Strait in a Cessna, which sounds like the craziest thing I ever heard of. That might have been conjecture of other people but, no, I had no intention. If I was going to go to Russia I could have very easily gone down to Mexico, booked a flight to Havana and went to Russia. Actually it would have been fairly simple to do that.
So why the flying lessons?
Boyce: I was taking flying lessons because I ultimately wanted to take helicopter lessons. The reason I wanted to get the ability to fly a helicopter was because I wanted to take Daulton Lee out of a federal penitentiary. But I was arrested before that particular plan had developed to the point where it could be pulled off or even attempted. And to be honest with you, I didn’t even know if Daulton wanted to be snatched out of the penitentiary he was in. But I was going to give him that option.
You got caught in Port Angeles, got another 28 years tacked on to your sentence, and were sent back to prison. By this time you are famous from media coverage. How much extra grief did being a high-profile prisoner bring you in prison?
Boyce: Well, I was interviewed by Australian 60 Minutes in Leavenworth (prison). I had only been there a couple of days. Prior to my seeing these people, the head of the guard called me into his office and tried to bully me out of doing the interview, and I basically told him to stuff it. And I pretty much enraged the fellow. And, you know, just a brief while, 20 or 30 minutes after this Australian 60 Minutes interview (aired), a bunch of the captain’s bullyboys jumped me and I still have TMJ from my jaw, where they were kicking me in the side of the head. And I really thought I was being murdered at that time and I kept waiting for the knife. But I wasn’t. I was being stomped at the behest of the captain. And so then they used that as an excuse. They said that, “Well, inmates were attacking you and to save you we have to put you in solitary confinement.” Which really is worse than being attacked. You know, once you’ve sat for, I don’t know, how long was I in there? Six years in solitary confinement straight. I mean, they just take your brain apart, you know, brain cell by brain cell. You go mad. It was a hard time. There’s nothing worse than solitary confinement, and that went on for years.
Cait, as you relate in your book, by 1981, you’d already been working on gaining parole for Daulton Lee. How did you come to work on Lee’s case?
Cait Boyce: I was asked by a friend. It was one of those deals where a bunch of people are sitting around, and the lawyers are kind of B.S.ing about the news, and somebody said wow, these people got really stuck – talking about Boyce and Lee. And the more I started reading about it, the more it really worked on my last nerve. I would wake up in the middle of the night, and it just bothered me so badly. And even though I didn’t have the knowledge to pull this off, I was willing to gain that knowledge and to see what I could do to help. Because I didn’t see that anybody else on the planet was going to help.
And in 1998 you finally got Lee out.
Cait Boyce: Right.
When did you decide to take up Chris’ case?
Cait Boyce: Chris and I had been friends, and we communicated both via mail and phone calls. He knew I was working on Daulton’s case. As time passed, I realized that if I could get Daulton Lee out of prison, that I would eventually be able to get Chris out.
It took nearly 20 years. And you are married now. At what point along the way did it turn into romance?
Cait Boyce: God, are we married? Yeah, I guess we are. … I didn’t intend to get married, I can tell you that. I was a happy single girl. I think that you need to ask Chris that question.
Boyce: We just became closer and closer as the process went forward. We wrote more and more. We spoke more and more on the phone, and …
Cait Boyce: He assumed that we were getting married at some point. He didn’t actually ask. I’m still waiting after all these years for him to ask me to marry him. He never did.
Boyce: I remember when Cait first came to visit me. I remember one of the guards coming in after the visit. He said, “You know, I don’t think you’re supposed to be kissing your lawyer.”
Chris, to go back to the original actions, I want to ask the main question about your decision to sell national secrets to the Soviets: Why did you?
Boyce: Well …
Cait Boyce: Because he was dumb.
Boyce: Because I decided that my enemy and the enemy of everybody was the American intelligence community. I was just full of myself and I thought that I ought to do the worst possible thing to the intelligence community that I could. Now, I couldn’t think of anything that would cause greater consternation than to get the NSA’s security codes to the Russians, despite the fact that I was only giving them half and they couldn’t use them. The other half was controlled by the other part of NSA. I had seen a number of things that I was appalled at in regards to the Australian government that the NSA and CIA was doing. … (pauses) But I suppose that wasn’t the real reason. The real reason was that I was tilting at windmills like Don Quixote, I guess. I just wanted to make a statement to do the most insulting thing that I could do to the CIA. And that’s what I did. In hindsight how could anybody do anything quite so stupid as that? It ended up costing me 25 years of my life. What do we have that is more precious than our lives? And I threw a large part of mine away. But I still believe the present drift of the federal government toward a surveillance state is a huge danger for civil liberties and the Bill of Rights. I personally don’t like having all my e-mail recorded and all the metadata on my telephones collected. I think that it is out of control.
There are current events, of course, that raise these questions. The cases of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden seem to have the country pretty well split as to whether they are traitors or whistleblowers.
Boyce: I think they have both acted in defense of civil liberties. I’m glad they did. The other day I sat down with an elderly Republican gal who’s voted Republican all her life, and I sat down to listen to her say how much she admires Snowden and she’s glad that he did what he did. And I agree with her. I think if Thomas Jefferson were still alive today, the present direction of the federal government, the growth of the surveillance state, would have old Thomas spinning in his grave. I just think it’s evil, and I think it should be curbed. I doubt it ever will. The American people themselves are not organized. The surveillance state is utterly organized. I’m glad Snowden did what he did. I’m just sorry that he went to Russia. Because I think that distracts from the message that it has for everyone, (by) going to our traditional bogeyman, the Russians.
Do you love your country?
Boyce: I do. I love my country’s history. I love the Constitution. I love the Bill of Rights. I love those struggles that the country went through during Civil War, the sacrifice. But I just cannot stomach where we’re headed now.
Chris, do you still fly falcons?
Boyce: I do. As soon as we hang up, I’m going out to fly a male gyrfalcon out here on the grassland. … The gyrfalcon is the fastest animal in the world in horizontal flight. It can fly 55 miles an hour for five miles.
Chris and Cait and Vince, given that your book is co-authored by the three of you, tell a little bit about the process: How did it come about?
Font: Well I’d been approached by Cait back in around February of last year, 2012. She asked if I thought there would be interest in a book about essentially everything that happened after the events of “The Falcon and the Snowman,” with her efforts to get Daulton Lee and Chris out of prison. And I said, “Well, yeah.” I’d be the first person to stand in line to buy it, having been a follower of the story for some 28 years. It took a year and a half really to finish the book. I think that I would explain my part in the whole book as sort of getting to know them and their voices well enough so that I could help convey them on paper.
Chris, given that you’ve been famous, and infamous, were you afraid of waking the beast again by getting back in the spotlight?
Boyce: Well, all this is … kind of painful for me, and I’ve repressed a lot of it and tried not to remember it for years. But the way I look at it is, that I’ve been a little weary of other people defining me and this was an opportunity for me to define myself. I see this book as the tale of two escapes. I escaped from prison myself, and, in my view at the time, was saving my life. And then I went back, was taken back there, and eventually my wife Cait organized another escape 20 years later. So to me it is the tale of two almost impossible escapes. And, you know, while she was doing it, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. While she was working on saving my life, she was also struggling to save her life and many times she would skip her chemo to go to the hearings to free me. And that just always pained me that she would do that.
That’s a very strong thread in your book. Cait, how are you doing now?
Cait Boyce: For the first time in 17 years, I can actually say that I have been in remission. In May it was a year that I’ve been in remission. It’s a one-day-at-a-time thing. So, today I’m in remission. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, but today is pretty damn wonderful.
One more question. Chris, after your experiences, how you define freedom?
Cait Boyce: Yeah. Define that.
Boyce: Well … for so long there was just none of it. There were times when I wouldn’t even be let out of the cell until I was cuffed up, you know, and had shackles on my feet. … It’s just the ability to go where you want during the day, to make your own decisions about your life and not be controlled. And I went from utter lack of freedom from where now, you know, I can look at the mountains. I can fly fish. Cait and I can go to Mexico. We can have what we want for dinner. … I never thought, when I was in those solitary confinement cells, that I would ever get my life back. To me, freedom is getting my life back.
More about Christopher Boyce
- Order print or Kindle editions of American Sons at Amazon.com»
- Follow the Boyces and Font at their website and blog, TheFalconAndTheSnowman.com»
Boyce tells of his experience, motivations, the role of the CIA in Australia – and falconry – in this 28-minute feature interview by the Australian Dateline television program SBSDateline: