By Cameron Rasmusson
In the early 1980s, North Idaho was the scene of international intrigue, which unfolded amid the mountains and forests outside Bonners Ferry. It’s a story that brought together unlikely characters, including a convicted Soviet spy and two local ne’er-do-well brothers now notorious for the slaying of a U.S. Forest Service agent.
Those brothers, James Kevin Pratt and Joseph Earl Pratt, are back in the news after the Idaho Commission of Parole and Pardons granted their release last month. The Pratt brothers were expected to serve life sentences for the 1989 killing of U.S. Forest Service officer Brent Jacobson. By that time, they’d built up a substantial criminal history, including a spree of bank robberies that landed their associate, escaped Soviet spy Christopher Boyce, back behind bars.
The Falcon and the Snowman
By the time Boyce arrived in North Idaho in 1980, he was already a legendary character.
His exploits as a defense industry employee-turned-Soviet spy were the talk of the nation following the 1979 publication of the bestselling book, The Falcon and the Snowman, by journalist Robert Lindsey. Later adapted into a hit 1985 movie starring Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn, the book recounts the extraordinary events that led to Boyce’s first stint in prison.
A brilliant 21-year-old with a love for falconry, Boyce worked in aerospace firm TRW’s highly secure “black vault” in 1974. The position exposed him to top-secret documents and sensitive U.S. military secrets, including its spy satellite systems.
According to Boyce, he became disillusioned with the U.S. government after seeing misrouted cables detailing the CIA’s plots against Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. Believing that sharing the information with the press wouldn’t change anything, he instead decided to share U.S. secrets with the Soviet Union. Boyce recruited his high-school friend Andrew Daulton Lee, known as the Snowman for his history of cocaine and heroin dealing, to deliver sensitive documents to the Soviet embassy in Mexico City in exchange for money.
“I decided that my enemy and the enemy of everybody was the American intelligence community,” Boyce told Sandpoint Magazine in 2014. “I was just full of myself and I thought that I ought to do the worst possible thing to the intelligence community that I could.”
The secret-sharing enterprise quickly unraveled after Lee’s 1977 arrest by Mexican police. Both Lee and Boyce were convicted of espionage and sent to federal prison.
According to Boyce, prison life was a rough, dangerous existence; so, in January 1980, he escaped. Boyce outmaneuvered pursuing officers all the way to North Idaho, where he found shelter in a cabin outside Bonners Ferry.
“People were being murdered all around me … so I escaped to save my life,” he told CNN in 2013.
Partnership and betrayal
According to press reports recounting their history, James and Joseph Pratt were no strangers to rough living. Lee Turner, who occasionally employed Joe Pratt as a bouncer at the Cowgirl Corral in Sandpoint, recalled that he’d been mixed up with drugs in the past and was trying to go straight. But there were other opinions, too.
“To me, those kids were arrogant little jerks,” Marvin Lutes, chief deputy U.S. marshal for Eastern Washington assigned to the Boyce investigation, told the Spokesman-Review.
In the mid-’80s, the Pratt brothers had a rare opportunity for a second chance after dodging lengthy prison sentences. And it was all because of Christopher Boyce.
The Pratts and Boyce had a shared associate in Gloria White, a local character in her own right. Described in press accounts as a “shotgun-toting widow” with a gold tooth, she was suspected of operating a safe house for Pacific Northwest bank robbers. Her isolated cabin outside Bonners Ferry is where Boyce took shelter after a month of evading recapture in California.
Boyce had already begun his bank-robbing career by the time the Pratts, along with their brother, Brett, joined as accomplices. The group hit banks throughout Montana, Idaho and Washington, garnering hundreds or thousands of dollars in quick in-and-out holdups.
“That part of my life, doing that, is what I am most ashamed of, of all the crimes I committed,” Boyce told Sandpoint Magazine. “[Robbery is] scary for people, and the fact that I did that is what I regret most about my life.”
Meanwhile, Boyce began taking pilot lessons. In his sequel book, The Flight of the Falcon, journalist Robert Lindsey reported that Boyce planned to fly to Russia for asylum. Boyce refutes that claim, telling Sandpoint Magazine his goal was to break his friend, Andrew Daulton Lee, out of prison using a helicopter.
Regardless, it all came to a stop when the authorities swooped in on Boyce at a Port Angeles, Wash., fast-food joint. The Pratts had turned informant in exchange for immunity from prosecution. According to the Bonner County Daily Bee, during his 1989 trial, James Pratt “told the court he turned in Boyce out of love for his country and his family — and because Boyce owed him $100.”
“It was for the money, I guess,” Pratt told the court of his bank robbery involvement, according to the Daily Bee. “I did it for the money.”
It wasn’t long before James and Joseph Pratt were back in trouble. In 1989, they invaded the home of Sagle resident Pete DeTorres in an armed robbery. The subsequent manhunt ended in a shootout that claimed the life of U.S. Forest Service Officer Brent Jacobson.
“If the charges are true, it is quite unfortunate the immunity given the Pratt brothers in exchange for exaggerated and unreliable testimony against me now appears to have facilitated the unnecessary death of a law-enforcement officer,” Boyce told the Spokesman-Review from Oak Park Penitentiary.
The Long Road to Freedom
There’s a strange parallel in the lives of Boyce and the Pratt brothers.
With convictions for a prison escape and bank robberies added atop the espionage conviction, one might think Boyce was bound for a life behind bars. But thanks to the work of paralegal Cait Mills, Lee secured parole in 1998, with Boyce following in 2002. Boyce and Mills married after his release.
Now, following a commission decision just under a month ago, the Pratt brothers join Boyce as unlikely parolees.
What the Pratts do with their freedom remains to be seen. But for Boyce, at least based on his few media interviews following his release, he’s found some measure of peace after a turbulent life.
“I never thought, when I was in those solitary confinement cells, that I would ever get my life back,” he told Sandpoint Magazine. “To me, freedom is getting my life back.”
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