April 11 marked the 18th anniversary of the death of U.S. District Court Judge Harold Lyman Ryan, a man whose words when sentencing Christopher Boyce for bank robbery would ultimately set the stage for his release from prison.
In 1982, Ryan was the presiding judge in the trial against Christopher Boyce in Boise, Idaho. Two years earlier, Chris had escaped from Lompoc Federal Penitentiary, where he’d been serving a 40-year sentence for espionage. The events surrounding his original crime were documented in the bestselling book The Falcon and the Snowman by Robert Lindsey and later turned into a movie of the same name starring Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn.
Following his escape, Chris lived for 30 days in the southern California wilderness, then made his way north to Bonners Ferry, Idaho, where he lived among the people there for a year and a half. Months after his arrival, he embarked on a series of bank robberies throughout the Pacific Northwest which eventually led to his recapture by U.S. Marshals.
His appearance in Judge Harold Ryan’s courtroom to face charges for bank robbery before being returned to federal prison signaled the start of a dark time in Christopher Boyce’s life – but despite the years of confinement that followed the sentence he received from Ryan, he still has fond memories of a man he calls “a good, decent human being.”
In preparation for our work together on the book American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman, I interviewed Chris in-depth about his experiences both inside and outside of prison and learned that there had existed a fondness and mutual respect between the two men. You wouldn’t expect someone who’d been handed an extra 25 years to have anything nice to say about the judge who sentenced them – but then there are a lot of elements of this true story that defy explanation.
“He was very nice to me,” Chris said. “He was always polite, always smiling. I tell you, that’s the only time I’ve ever been in a courtroom where I actually enjoyed myself. Harold Ryan was the epitome of what every judge should be.”
During sentencing, Judge Ryan told the Court: “It is my hope that Mr. Boyce can be given some hope and light at the end of the tunnel, so that eventually he can be returned to society. I have spoken to Mr. Boyce to tell him that, although his sentence may seem interminable, if his attitude was right there would be light at the end of that tunnel.”
Ryan also referred to Chris as “an obviously intelligent, educated man” and made it possible for him to eventually seek parole by stipulating that all charges would run concurrently – turning a potential 72-year sentence into a 25-year sentence. Not exactly small potatoes, but Chris Boyce doesn’t hold any ill feelings.
“I was grateful for his decency,” Chris said. “There was no animosity in him. He was sort of a grandfatherly figure. At sentencing, he looked at me and basically told me ‘This too shall pass.’ I liked the hell out of him.”
In the mid-1980s, Ryan made rulings that barred the shipment of nuclear waste into Idaho and improved living conditions for inmates of overcrowded state prisons.
The Honorable Harold L. Ryan died of cancer in Boise on April 11, 1995, at the age of 71. Unfortunately, he didn’t live long enough to see his wish for Christopher Boyce fulfilled – but like all respected men of character, Ryan’s words continued to have influence, even after his death.
Christopher Boyce spent 25 years in federal prison for espionage and bank robbery. His book American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman tells the story of his experiences in prison—including his 1980 escape, his recapture by U.S. Marshals, and his decades-long friendship with an ambitious paralegal, Cait Mills, who successfully lobbied for his parole and eventually became his wife. The book is available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and other online booksellers.
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