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The Falcon and the Fallout

As Christopher Boyce returns to society, he talks about the damage he did selling secrets to the former Soviet Union and his wish to put 'The Falcon and the Snowman' behind him forever.

March 02, 2003|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.

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