You may know them as “Falcon” and “The Snowman,” the lead characters in both book and film in the ‘80s, but local writer Chris Ridges remembers them as Christopher Boyce and Daulton Lee, two kids from Palos Verdes who shared the same school hallway and football field with him. Chris looks back at the moment former classmates became infamous Russian spies and instant headline news.
- Written byChris Ridges
Thirty-six short years ago, I found myself driving home from a wedding in Santa Cruz. This was Sunday, January 16, 1977. Like any other Sunday … except for the fact that I could barely stay awake, as it’s an endurance test driving back home to Redondo.
I drove through the night, alone, having left immediately after the reception to get home on Sunday and find some sleep. It had been a long weekend. A few hours before arriving, as the sun was barely beginning to shed its light, a news flash came on the radio.
I’ll never forget the urgency and immediacy in the newscaster’s voice. The report centered on a man named Christopher Boyce who had grown up in the affluent Palos Verdes Peninsula. He had been arrested for stealing classified intelligence documents concerning U.S. communications systems and was selling them to the Russians with the help of his lifelong friend, Daulton Lee (who had also been taken into custody).
“Chris and Daulton.” I thought to myself, or maybe out loud, “What in the world? Chris Boyce and Daulton Lee? No way!” Disbelief. Uh-uh, can’t be true.
The announcer continued to say that Chris had been sneaking the documents home from his workplace at TRW in Redondo Beach to have Daulton deliver them to Soviet embassy officials in Mexico City. They were accepting money for delivering the papers and microfilm, which involved information about top-secret U.S. spy satellites, among other things. They had made a total of $77,000—a little more than a quarter-million today.
I had gone to high school with both Chris and Daulton. We were on the football team together (you’ll find my picture alongside theirs in Robert Lindsey’s bestselling book The Falcon and the Snowman, jersey #71). We shared classes together. Even though I wasn’t very close to either of them, our inner circles crossed paths very often—friends of friends.
The first thought I had upon hearing the news was to try to accept the fact that these two really nice guys I had known could have done such a really terrible thing. Chris, especially, was such a friendly and unassuming guy. He had a charming smile and a sparkling glint in his eyes that was comforting and accepting.
Daulton was also the easygoing type. He would come by the garage to listen to my band practice—always supportive and cool. So this just didn’t fit. These two? It just didn’t fit.
After high school, I would run into them at the occasional party or get-together. We’d share small talk, catching up on mostly insignificant things, never anything serious … let alone what they had going on. Many of the old faces were there, but no one had any idea about what those two had been up to behind the scenes … no one who I knew, anyway.
They must have been quite good at keeping it buttoned up. None of this seemed to make any sense.
The radio bulletins continued for the rest of my journey—not just during the hourly newsbreaks but the interrupt-for-breaking-newsflash types. This was worldwide, big news. Heavy, heavy stuff had just gone down, and none of it sounded good.
I felt, instantly, a dilemma of remembering the smiling, friendly guys from school and then being confronted with the reality of what they’d done. Treason is never a good thing, as they say.
When I got home, it was all over the television. “Treason and espionage in the Palos Verdes Peninsula,” and “Spies in the South Bay!” Every channel was giving it top priority coverage.
The “privileged-kids-gone-bad” approach wore out eventually but not soon enough. Footage of Chris handcuffed and being taken to the federal courthouse in LA was repeated over and again. Daulton had been arrested two weeks prior in Mexico. He was tortured there and confessed about his relationship and involvement with Chris.
The childhood friends who had served as altar boys and choirboys together began to see things differently about one another now. Every man for himself.
Monday’s Los Angeles Times hit my front door after I’d slept just enough to catch up. Christopher John Boyce on the front page, top center. There he was, that nice kid from my class at Palos Verdes High School, in handcuffs … looking not too worried, with a few days’ growth on his face, in a short-sleeve shirt, jeans and running shoes. Busted bad.
The Times coverage listed all the sordid details that would become more and more intriguing and complex as the days and weeks evolved. The papers and television coverage lasted with intensity for several weeks. It was “the big story” for some time.
Rather than go through all the many complications, innuendos and conjecture, let’s just say there was a lot of information coming to light about what they had been doing—or what they were accusing each other of doing. Denial, betrayal, drug dealing and trafficking, anti-Vietnam war sentiments, stashing contraband on U.S. air flights, Soviet handler meetings (those must have been fun), drug parties and a marijuana plant growing at TRW, CIA involvement in Chili and Australia, and finally: claims of ideological motivation.
We heard more about Chris’ passion for falconry and Daulton’s drug use than was really necessary. Spare us the sordid details. One thing is for certain: They had done a lot of damage.
Robert Lindsey’s book covered everything in fastidious, well-written detail, however tedious much of it had become. John Schlesinger’s 1985 film, based on the same book, starred Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton as Daulton Lee and Christopher Boyce, respectively. The movie was tiresome as well, suffering from vagueness and boredom (though the acting was very good).
I found myself feeling a bit too oddly close to the whole thing and began to give it little thought a few days after the story first broke. It was a very strange thing to have happen—bizarrely surreal, almost unfathomable. My impulse was to distance myself from the whole thing.
The news media continued with heavy saturation given to the final verdicts: Daulton was convicted and given a life sentence to be held at the Lompoc federal penitentiary. He had a prior criminal record, and that drug trafficking didn’t help.
Chris was handed a 40-year sentence to begin at Terminal Island. The court hadn’t found anything of substance in either defense, it seems. He spent time at two, then three, different prisons after being convicted on May 14, 1977. Trials and sentencing went a lot faster then. In many other countries, they would have then—and even now—received death sentences.
Things seemed to become quiet for a while, but the big, bold headlines hadn’t stopped yet. On January 21, 1980, the news flashed once again: Christopher Boyce had escaped from Lompoc after having been transferred there six months earlier.
Daulton Lee was immediately moved to another facility in Illinois when they found out. The newspapers gave it their highest profile that Chris was loose, and the TV crews were all over it. He’d actually gotten out.
He worked his way around two states—Washington and Idaho—robbing banks (17 to be exact) and establishing an alias while working on his plans to leave the United States. He remained a fugitive for more than a year and a half and knew it couldn’t last forever.
During that time, he immersed himself in aviation studies; some thought he had an ultimate plan to make it to the Soviet Union via Alaska, where he would possibly find asylum and employment with the Soviet Army. He also worked on a salmon fishing boat for a while. Not much additional attention was given to his whereabouts during this period—except by the U.S. marshals who were determined to find him.
He was finally caught and arrested in August 1981 in Port Angeles, Washington. Big news again! He received an additional 25 years for the escape and the bank robberies. The media interest was beginning to wane by now, with coverage of Chris’ re-arrest lasting only a day or two.
I wasn’t that interested myself, still having decided to keep my distance. Things like this remind you that it’s time to do a bit of finely-tuned prioritizing with things. It later became known as “getting a life.”
The 10-year reunion of the PV High School Class of ‘71 was scheduled only a few months after Chris’ arrest in Washington. I went to the reunion, and there was very little, if any, talk about “the spy thing”.
Don’t get me wrong—it wasn’t treated lightly. The vast majority of the country, especially in those times, knew the severity of what had gone down. I’m sure most everyone had it in the backs of their minds but opted to not give it much attention. “A thing like this is a very odd bird,” someone not very well-known once said.
In 1983, Robert Lindsey wrote another book about Chris’ escape, robbery spree and eventual re-arrest: The Flight Of The Falcon-The True Story of The Escape and Manhunt For America’s Most Wanted Spy.
I was changing channels sometime in the mid-‘80s, just flipping around and bored to the nines at whatever it was that was coming out of the tube. It was a Sunday night, if I recall correctly. Something came on the TV that startled me once again.
The familiarity, coupled with ambivalence, which I had felt some seven or eight years ago, returned. Christopher John Boyce was speaking in front of a Washington Senate Select Committee on intelligence to explain “what it’s really like to be a spy nowadays.”
I later found out that he’d been on a press junket at the time (60 Minutes included), but the Senate appearance was the only one I happened to catch. He was going on before the disbelieving Senate in a most serious tone about how it was never his intention to help the KGB. He was young, impressionable and naïve. He called himself an American Forever and insisted that he was wrong to have doubted the integrity and credibility of the CIA.
I think a lot of people wanted to believe him; he was a very convincing and persuasive man. I wasn’t very politically motivated in those days, but no matter. Not one person watching his testimony could help but notice the obvious cry for help he was performing, disguising it in his own national rhetoric.
So the years began to pass, with both Daulton Lee and Chris Boyce out of the limelight, out of the headlines and out of being able to know what it’s like to be free. Essentially, they were both looking at life, with Chris possibly living long enough to be released when and if he reached his 90s. It seemed that they were cooked. Life is a long time.
Fast-forward another 15 years to 1998. Daulton was released from prison and put on parole. An inmate lobbyist and activist named Kathleen Mills worked long and hard to see that it was done.
After meeting that goal, her attention turned toward Chris. By September 2002, she had seen to his release and parole too. The following month, Chris and Kathleen were married.
He served in a halfway house in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District for five years until he was given his freedom in 2008. The fact that Russia was no longer a Cold War threat helped.
The media attention given to both of their individual releases was spotty and mostly apathetic. Chris Boyce did give an extensive interview with the Los Angeles Times in March 2003 and talked about how his time behind bars was sometimes liberating (he read voraciously, painted and earned a college degree in history) but mostly horrifying.
The stories he tells of his 24 years in prison are not pretty. He is a man who appreciates his freedom possibly more than any of us ever will. He is filled with hope and wants to be left alone.
Daulton resides in California too, the southern part. He was hired by Sean Penn to be his personal assistant. The employment was a thank-you for giving him permission to portray him in the film. Penn also wanted to show that rehabilitation should be offered to anyone and everyone.
The two ex-choirboys both served long sentences and paroles. Most people today would agree that they paid their dues. Despite all they’ve done, and for whatever reasons, I want to wish my old classmates well.