In An Audacious Prison Break, Unlikely Spy Christopher Boyce Goes Back into the Cold

updated 02/25/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/25/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

Even for a young man who had infiltrated a top secret CIA code room and leaked plans for this country's most sensitive satellite systems to Soviet agents, the mission seemed impossible. Working with only the simplest tools, he had to outwit his jailers by leaving a lifelike papier-mâché model of himself behind in his cell and hiding in a drainage tunnel at a blind spot beneath a tower manned by guards with orders to shoot on sight. Then, with a makeshift ladder, he scaled a chain link fence, deactivated alarm wires, snipped through lethal, razor-sharp wire coils and escaped into the desolate countryside. He was clad only in a pair of running shoes and a uniform of the Lompoc (Calif.) federal penitentiary. But for convicted spy Christopher John Boyce, 27, this exploit was far more important than his earlier ventures in espionage. His spying only netted him a small part of a $76,000 payment from the Soviets. His escape may have gained him 37 years of his life—the amount of time he still had to serve on a 40-year sentence for eight counts of espionage.

"I always had the feeling he would try to escape," says journalist Robert Lindsey, who turned the case into a book, The Falcon and the Snowman. "He hated prison. The horror and the violence appalled him." Boyce's dramatic flight came just as the Lindsey book became a best-seller and made the author a minor celebrity. As Lindsey tells it, nothing in Chris Boyce's all-American background prepared him for life in the pen. The son of a onetime FBI agent, Boyce grew up in affluent Palos Verdes Estates, 30 miles south of Los Angeles. Though he had a genius IQ (142), he made three unsuccessful stabs at college and finally got a job at TRW, a major defense contractor, with the help of his father (then security chief at a nearby McDonnell Douglas aircraft plant). At TRW Boyce ran the "Black Vault," a top secret code room through which passed streams of highly classified information—including the daily ciphers for CIA communications and plans for CIA satellites.

During his two years in the Black Vault, Boyce grew disillusioned with the CIA activities described in the messages he handled. At some point, with the help of Daulton Lee, a childhood friend—and convicted drug dealer—Boyce began selling documents to Soviet agents. "There is no question that he was a spy," Lindsey reflects. "But I feel if he hadn't taken that one turn, he was the kind of person I would admire as a friend. I saw Chris as a very nice, sensitive kid who made a mistake when he was 21."

For Robert Lindsey, 45, Boyce's escape is a bittersweet experience. As L.A. bureau chief of the New York Times, Lindsey first met Boyce at his 1977 trial and their relationship deepened. "I was getting very close to him, and that really is very bad for a reporter to do," concedes Lindsey, a father of two. "Chris became like a member of my family." In fact, when Boyce stopped talking to his own family Lindsey moved to bridge the gap, ferrying messages back and forth. "I just wanted to extend my hand to help him," he explains. After Chris entered Lompoc, Lindsey sent him candy at Christmas and money for the running shoes he fled in; he was the last person to visit Boyce before the January 21 escape. While the book was in progress, the prisoner was writing the author as many as three letters a day—and Lindsey began to worry about the effects of imprisonment on his young friend. One day, while jogging in the prison yard, Boyce spotted a seagull trapped in the barbed wire fence; the guards refused to let him rescue it. "He saw his own fate as being like that of the bird," says Lindsey, "trapped by wire and doomed to death in prison." (Boyce had been a falconer, his accomplice a cocaine dealer—hence the book's title.)

The remarkable empathy between writer and spy was not immediate. When Lindsey first proposed a book on the case, Boyce resisted. "His answer was a flat no," Lindsey recalls. "He didn't trust me." But Boyce did give the writer a glimpse of the confused emotions that had led him to spying. "He wrote back an elaborate historical treatise stating that throughout time there has been a survival of the fittest, that it all added up to two superpowers, and eventually there would be a cataclysm that would extinguish practically everybody. It was a very gloomy doomsday theory, but actually I'm not so sure it's wrong."

Once he got his philosophy off his chest, Boyce warmed to Lindsey and began his voluminous correspondence. Soon the author realized that Boyce's trial defense—he claimed that he began stealing documents in an effort to expose government duplicity and continued because accomplice Lee blackmailed him—was a lie. Confronted, Boyce admitted it was his idea. "He said, 'I wondered when you were going to snap,' " Lindsey remembers. "He was in effect scolding me for not having figured it out sooner. When he started confessing, it was like Howard Carter discovering King Tut's tomb. Here was what I'd been looking for."

After he learned to trust Lindsey, Boyce became interested in the author's craft. "I was encouraging," says Lindsey. "He is a beautiful writer, a more natural writer actually than I am." When Boyce petitioned his trial judge to cut the sentence, he pleaded to be freed to take up a writing career. "The fact that Chris was turned down in his sentence-reduction appeal in December and the feeling that he just couldn't put up with the violence of prison life anymore made me feel somehow he might try to escape," allows Lindsey.

Although he has not talked to Boyce since the dramatic flight, Lindsey learned the details of his escape from other inmates. Lindsey's convict sources revealed that Boyce had help—but not, they say, from the CIA or the Russian KGB, as some newspapers have speculated. Other inmates forged a document that allowed Boyce to work on the periphery of the prison, smuggled him the ladder, helped make the dummy to outwit the guards' bed check and later destroyed his belongings to keep his scent from bloodhounds. One inmate also said that Boyce was heading for Arizona, where he intended to recover additional documents he had hidden. Once he sold them to the Russians, he would fly to Ireland, perhaps via Nicaragua, and hide out there. Lindsey printed the story—with doubts. "He's too smart," the reporter explains. "That may have been put out as a cover story."

Obviously torn by his conflict between acknowledging Boyce's crimes and liking him personally, reporter Lindsey observes, "Despite what he did—and I don't minimize it for a minute—he has many fine qualities. I couldn't ever find anyone who said a negative thing about him. He's a guy of high principles." When Lindsey was negotiating the movie rights to his book, he offered Boyce $25,000, which Boyce refused. "His attitude was, 'You wrote the book. Why should I get any money out of it?' " As a reporter, Lindsey revealed Boyce's alleged destination in the Times; as a friend, he half prays his information was wrong. "I hope that Chris will understand that I had to do what I had to do, just as he had to do what he had to do," says Lindsey. Asked what he wishes for Boyce, he pauses briefly, then answers confidently: "That he's happy."

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