The Flight of the Falcon

The Flight of the Falcon

The Flight of the Falcon, published in 1983 by Robert Lindsey, is the true story of the continuing adventures of Christopher Boyce, a proto-Shadow Scout and one my personal inspirations. Boyce was previously the subject of a 1979 best-seller by Lindsey, The Falcon and the Snowman, which recounted Boyce’s exploits with his friend Daulton Lee selling top secret information to the Soviets in the mid-1970s.

Boyce, a former Catholic altar-boy whose patriotic father was McDonnell-Douglas Corporation’s Director of Security, had gotten a job in a classified communications center called the “Black Vault” in 1974. This gave him access to all sorts of sensitive information, including CIA cables that spoke about various nefarious Agency activities such as the overthrow of an Australian Prime Minister. Incensed by what he learned, the idealistic Boyce, encouraged by the degenerate, drug-dealing rich kid Lee (played by Sean Penn in the 1985 film adaptation), decided to strike back by selling classified documents to  the Soviets for hard cash. This doesn’t end well for them, though; in 1977, Lee was arrested in front of the Soviet embassy in Mexico City with incriminating microfilm. He soon confesses and implicates Boyce, who was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

The narrative of Flight begins on January 21, 1980, as Boyce has just broken out of Lompoc prison in California, a tough federal facility he’d been transferred to the previous July. This opening section of the book was riveting. We learn about Boyce’s desperate desire to escape Lompoc, where the upper-middle class white kid felt less than safe, having already witnessed a gang killing in a nearby cell. We also learn about Boyce’s preparations, running miles every day around the prison yard to prepare himself for his escape, and arranging to have wire cutters, a mattress and a makeshift ladder hidden in a hole that would get him over and through the yard’s razor-wire fences. His first days on the run in the desolate central California wilderness read like a thriller, as he has to evade teams of pursuers, dogs, helicopters, and survive on whatever food he can scavenge from the countryside or steal from houses. We learn that Boyce, nicknamed “The Falcon” for his love of falconry, was an accomplished outdoorsman from an early age, and he calls upon some of those skills to survive on the run.

After nearly dying from poisoned food left out for him by an angry resident whose outdoor refrigerator the fugitive had previously burglarized, Boyce manages to connect to an old friend, who helps him get a new identity and transportation to a remote area of northern Idaho. There he takes refuge with a sort of outlaw commune led by an eccentric, gold-toothed mountain woman named Gloria White. Boyce, America’s most-wanted fugitive, has slipped out of law enforcement’s net and dropped off their radar completely.

At this point the book takes a deep dive into the efforts by law enforcement to track Boyce down; we meet some of the people leading the search and learn far too much detail about the various leads, suspects and dead-ends they pursue. This part of the book, which makes up a good third of its length, was much less interesting than the rest, and should have been edited down. People read a book about a fugitive for the fugitive’s adventures on the run, not for the dull procedural work of law enforcement officers pursuing him!

Things get much more exciting as we learn about Boyce’s new method of funding himself on the lam: robbing banks. He gets the idea from some of the outlaw Idaho kids he finds himself hanging out with, and soon he is carrying out a string of armed bank robberies across Idaho and Washington. His method is simple: go into a bank with a handgun, demand the loose cash from the teller, and get to his getaway car fast. He would get maybe $5000 per job this way, and robbed some 17 banks during his crime spree. Later Boyce would admit that this was the one aspect of his exploits that he regrets; he considered himself a political dissident, not a violent criminal, so threatening people with guns and stealing cash didn’t really fit with this self-image.

In any case, after more than a year as a most-wanted fugitive, Boyce decides that his best course of action is to get out of the USA and into Russia, and he comes up with a scheme to do that. He makes his way to the Olympic Peninsula (my neck of the woods), where he purchases a boat with the intention of sailing to Alaska, across the Bering Strait and defecting to the Soviet Union. Changing his plans, Boyce begins taking flying lessons, intending to fly out of the country to safety (Boyce later claimed in his autobiography that he actually intended to fly back to Lompoc and break Daulton Lee out of prison). Boyce was two weeks away from obtaining his pilot’s license when U.S. marshals apprehended him on August, 1981 at a burger drive-in in Port Angeles, bringing his incredible adventures to an abrupt end. Convicted and sentenced to 68 years, Boyce got some rough treatment in prison, including solitary confinement and a beating by fellow inmates he suspects was orchestrated by higher-ups. He was released in 2002 after serving 25 years, and is now married, living a quiet life and pursuing his favorite hobby, falconry.

All in all, The Flight of the Falcon is an incredible true story, which despite the slow sections I mentioned, I consider required reading. Long before Snowden or Assange, Boyce dared to defy the U.S. intelligence community, operate according to his own code, have adventures worthy of a Jack Higgins novel and live to tell the tale. Get a copy here.

Prison Break

Prison Break

One of my long-standing interests as a student of the Shadow arts is “prison breakology”: the art and science of busting out of jail. This is a field as old as imprisonment itself, which demands the full extent of human ingenuity, daring, determination and endurance. As I see it, the Shadow-minded are all prisoners of civilization to some extent, so we should take inspiration and learn from these escape artists where we can. And for those who do live dangerously in the shadows, whether as a criminal, spy, special operator or what have you, these skills could be the key that frees you from years of non-life in a human cage, or even death.

Prison Break: True Stories of the World’s Greatest Escapes by Paul Buck is a compendium of prison breaks pulled off over the past two or three centuries. Focusing mostly on British convicts, Buck profiles dozens of amazing and ingenious breaks and the clever individuals who executed them. Buck’s research is impressive; not only do we learn about high-profile escapes from maximum security prisons such as Alcatraz and the Maze, but we get many lesser-known breaks that are almost all interesting in some way. Whether the escape involves climbing over walls, tunneling under them, busting out during transit, fleeing from courtrooms, impersonating others or being flown out by helicopter, we get many examples to study. We also learn about some of  the most amazing and celebrated escape artists of all timemen like “Honest Jack” Sheppard and Walter “Angel Face” Probyn, who seemed to make a career out of breaking out of prisons and making fools of  their captors. Such men are the champion athletes and maestros of escapeology, and in my book are at least as worthy of glorification!

One of the most striking things about these accounts is how quickly most of the escapees are caughtusually within a few weeks or months of their escapes. Most go back to their old haunts, old tricks and old associates, and soon find themselves back in the big house. It’s clear that many of these criminals, while geniuses at outsmarting the authorities while in prison, are not brilliant at figuring out how to do the same on the outside. Their biggest challenge, it would seem, is learning to live in the rather dull and domesticated manner of the typical law-abiding citizenand who can blame them?

One solution to this dilemma was found by “Gentle Johnny” Ramensky during World War II. A safecracker who had escaped from prison five times, he was contacted by members of British Intelligence who were looking for skilled and daring men to parachute behind enemy lines and steal top secret documents from Axis safes. Ramensky excelled in his new Shadow profession, breaking numerous safes, including some in the HQ’s of Goering and Rommel. Despite being set free and winning high praise for his war-time work, after the war Ramensky went back to his old ways, soon landing in prison and making several more escape attempts. Which goes to show that for some men, the Shadow life is the thing, regardless of whether society gives it their stamp of approval or not.

Prison Break is not as detailed as the Shadow War student would like; it’s broken into short accounts of each escape, most just a few paragraphs long. For more detailed study, the bibliography has an excellent list of references. This probably isn’t the kind of book you want to sit down and read in long stretches; the accounts tend to blur together and the stories become somewhat repetitive, but it makes excellent casual or bathroom reading. Definitely recommended for all students and fans of prison breakology.

You can purchase a copy of Prison Break here.

Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief

Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief

I always enjoy novels and movies that feature cat burglars who stealthily climb walls, use ropes and grappling hooks, creep along catwalks, bypass alarm systems, pick locks, crack safes, etc. to steal jewels or cash and get away cleanly. But I’ve often wondered: do such people exist, or are they just an entertaining fiction? The answer is the former, if you believe William Mason’s autobiographical account of his exploits as just such a burglar.

Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief recounts some of Mason’s most memorable heists and narrow escapes, his infiltration of glamorous society, and his double life as a responsible family man by day and a high stakes, high-rise sneak thief by night. I particularly enjoyed the technical details of his exploits, such as how he fashioned home-made grappling hooks by welding together large fish hooks, posed as prospective tenant to get a tour and floor plans of target buildings, carefully studied security cameras to find their blind spots, scaled walls, and the like. Mason’s standard M.O. was to get onto roofs from the inside then climb down onto balconies, taking advantage of the fact that people often didn’t bother to set their alarms or lock their doors because they never imagined that someone could get to them. He also used clever social engineering to plan his heists, reading high society newspapers and going to events they attended so he could scope out the jewels and learn more about his targets. Mason hit a number of well-known celebrities and tycoons, making off with millions of dollars worth of jewelry without the authorities having any clues.

What I find fascinating about Mason is the fact that even while he was making a comfortable upper middle class living as a real estate broker, with a wife and children in a good neighborhood, he led this dangerous second life and risked everything for the thrill of committing these crimes. Apparently the buzz and challenge of sneaking into luxury homes, outsmarting security measures and being instantly rewarded with small fortunes in jewelry was too potent a drug for Mason to give up. Once he got the taste for burglary as a young man struggling to make ends meet, it seems that he couldn’t stop until the law finally did it for him. This is a common trait we find in shadow operators, whether they are burglars, spies, hitmen or what have you: the real juice is not the money, but the excitement of living a life in the shadows, breaking the laws of daytime society and getting away with it, becoming a kind of shadowy superman who doesn’t play by the ordinary rules.

There have probably always been sneak-thiefs like Mason, targeting the fortunes of kings, nobles and merchants. It’s inspiring to know that such men can still operate in modern times, and can still profit wildly by their ingenuity, skill, daring, and exploitation of human error.  Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief is highly recommended for anyone interested in real heists and criminal shadow operators.

Get a copy of this book here.

Getting Away with Ops: Best Procedures

Getting Away with Ops: Best Procedures

The following are some best procedures for completing an op without incriminating yourself. This list is culled from a study of shadow ops down through history—heists, capers, spy ops, assassinations, etc. They are lessons learned in the schools of hard knocks, hard time, and short lives. Most ops fail because they violate one or more of these rules. They may seem like common sense, but it’s surprising how many professional operatives neglect them, to their lasting regret. Study these procedures until they are second nature so you don’t make a mistake when the pressure is on.

  • Dispose of all Evidence. Immediately dispose of all tools, technologies, clothing, packaging and other physical evidence connected to the op when you are done with it. Don’t keep it at your home or place of business. Burn it, put it in a trash compactor, dump it in landfill, throw it in a deep body of water, bury it in a remote area. Make sure that it won’t be found for a long time, if ever.
  • Use Trusted Associates. Only work with highly trusted associates who can be relied upon to keep their mouths shut and not betray you. Preferably all associates should be long-time colleagues, close friends or family members.
  • Use Competent Associates. Only work with smart, competent, experienced associates who won’t botch the op or panic when the pressure is on.
  • Keep Associates to a Minimum. The fewer people involved in an op, the less chance of mistakes and betrayals. Ideally you should work alone.
  • Don’t Incriminate Yourself During Communications. Don’t say anything incriminating via telephone, text message, email or other communications medium. Communicate with co-operatives using code words. Whenever possible, meet them in person, preferably at a location where eavesdropping is difficult, such as a remote rural area.
  • Destroy Your Communications Trail. Dispose of all communication devices and messages linking you to op associates when you are done with them: phones, SIM cards, paper notes, emails, instant messages, etc.
  • Be Anonymous. Don’t attract attention during any stage of an op. Be the “gray man” that no one notices or remembers.
  • Use False Identities. Establish false ID’s so that any paper trail you leave during an op leads to someone else.
  • Leave the Scene. Leave the scene of the op immediately and don’t return. Don’t be like Leonardo Notarbartolo, who, after completing one of the biggests heists in history, returned to to the scene of the crime a few days later and got arrested.
  • Leave No Forensic Evidence. Wear gloves, a balaclava and long-sleeved shirt and pants to prevent fingerprints, disguise your face and minimize DNA evidence.
  • Be Untraceable. Don’t drive your own car to or from the op; use a stolen car or one rented under a false identity. Purchase tools, clothing and  supplies with cash; don’t use anything that can be traced to you that you can’t dispose of.
  • Have an Alibi. Make sure someone reliable can testify that you were far from the scene of the op at the time it occurred.

If you follow all these procedures you can complete any op in darkness without leaving any trace for pursuers. Like a Shadow.

 

Flawless

Flawless

One of my favorite subjects of study is “heistology”—the history, art and science of pulling off heists. One of the best books I’ve read on the subject is Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History, by Scott Selby and Greg Campbell. It is a detailed account of the notorious Antwerp Diamond Heist conducted in 2003, one of the largest robberies in history, worth upwards of one hundred million dollars in diamonds, gold and jewelry.

This is an amazing, riveting story. The robbers, members of the so-called “Turin School” of Italian professional thieves, spent two years planning and carrying out the audacious operation, which was to loot the vault of the Antwerp Diamond Center—a super-secure vault within one of the most thief-proof square miles of real estate on the planet: the Antwerp Diamond District. The leader, a man named Leonardo Notarbartolo, rented an office within the Center, and with the assistance of his specialist team members in Italy, gradually developed workarounds for the vault’s security measures right under the guards’ noses. They were able to bypass three different alarm systems by ingenious techniques; for example, they defeated the light sensor with a telescoping painter’s pole with a styrofoam casing on one end, molded to fit perfectly over the sensor. They also benefited from sloppy security: guards who conveniently kept the vault key in a nearby storage room, and managers who failed to update some of the vault’s security systems. But the amount of skill and ingenuity displayed by this gang is rather awe-inspiring, despite one unfortunate failure to dispose of incriminating evidence.

While I’m a big fan of heist novels by the likes of Donald Westlake and Lionel White, nothing beats a true story that reads like a thriller. This was a real mission impossible, conducted with great skill, patience and daring by a modern-day “thieves guild” that shadow operators can’t help but admire. Highly recommended.

Buy a copy of Flawless here.