The article, “Marked for Death,” appeared in Westword on May 25, 2000. It reported how USP Florence, a high-security penitentiary located 100 miles southwest of Denver, had become the most violent prison in the entire federal system — rocked by a series of inmate-on-inmate assaults and murders, ruled by gangs, and under investigation by the Justice Department for staff corruption. It was the worst place in the world to be if you were a snitch, or just suspected of being one; three of the most horrific killings had occurred in the Special Housing Unit, where inmates seeking protective custody were housed, supposedly for their own safety.
My correspondent had read the article shortly after it was published. He was sitting in a cell in USP Florence at the time, he explained, and working frantically to keep other prisoners from discovering his own secret life as a snitch — which included serving up some of the most notorious bank robbers in the Southwest to the FBI, informing on the leaders of a white-supremacist gang to prison authorities, and cozying up to a meth cook who was suspected of killing five people, including two who were expected to testify against him. In his spare time, he was trying to figure out how to get out of Florence alive.
Did I want to know, he asked, how he pulled it off?
The message surged on, veering in tone from confession to boast. “I walked a tightrope unlike anything you could imagine,” he wrote. “Though I was once an outlaw and deserved my prison time, I was never really THAT guy. Now I’ve come to a decision to try and tell my story…A story of one man’s journey to find himself.” The story was “too surreal to be left untold,” he insisted, complete with “near death experiences, lost loves, and second chances … and so much more. With a happy ending.”
That was my introduction to Wayne Byerly — the sultan of snitches, the crown prince of confidential informants, King Rat. A man who, after decades of being enmeshed in what sociologists like to call a criminal lifestyle, committed the ultimate transgression. And was actually proud of it.
That’s no small point. Despite whatever cop-show drivel you may have heard about the convict code, Stop Snitchin’, omerta and so on, criminals rat on other criminals all the time. They do it to shave time off their own sentences, to collect reward money, to betray those who’ve betrayed them, to get an extra cookie before lights out in the cell block. They do it for all kinds of reasons, but they’re rarely eager to admit they do it. Byerly had his share of self-serving motives, but in his case, what started out as a form of payback became a death-defying crusade, a quest for redemption.
federal witness security program, also known as Witsec, keeping his head down, never looking back for fear that something was gaining on him. Not Byerly. He wears his snitch jacket like a badge of honor. After he got out of the Florence, Colorado, prison, Witsec provided him with a new identity and a new start, but he left the program a few years ago and went to court to have his name changed back to Byerly. He’s had a series of names over the years, from the aliases he adopted in his bank-robbing days in Arizona to those he used in prison (where he was known as “Spud” among prisoners and by the code name “Uncle Sam” to the Bureau of Prisons intel officer) to the identities Witsec supplied. But Byerly, the name he was born with, suits him best. He’s not hiding anymore.
More emails followed. Then phone calls. One day, he made the 13-hour drive to Denver from southern Idaho, where he grew up and now lives. He brought a pile of legal papers and a guitar. I brought pizza.
I sifted through documents that had been filed in court under seal, attesting to his cooperation with the government in convicting his former bank-robbing partners, disrupting prison gang operations and putting the meth cook on death row. He talked for hours, showed me the misaligned, impacted knuckles he’d acquired from bare-fisted fights behind bars, and sang a few songs he’d written, ballads about loss and the outlaw life and the long road home.
I flew to Idaho. I talked to family members, ex-girlfriends, lawyers, prosecutors, and a man who used to rob banks with Byerly in Arizona. I studied crime-scene photos from his last disastrous bank job in Tucson, which ended in a shootout with police, and letters written to his attorney during his 13-month high-wire act in Florence. What had seemed far-fetched at first checked out, from major events to minor details, all the way to the surprise twist at the end, which I can’t get into right now (or it wouldn’t be a surprise).
“You can say he ratted his way out. I understand that. I lived the prison culture. But I did what I did for a reason.”
Deep in the paper trail were some letters and medical records that hinted at what his double life as a convict informant had cost him, physically and emotionally. I had never thought of snitching as having a heroic dimension, but clearly, in some cases, justice depends on it. In a world where loyalty to your tribe is prized over individual conscience, where the President of the United States rages against the “flippers” among his own merry men and declares that it ought to be illegal to cut deals with the government, Byerly’s journey to redeem himself has a certain resonance.
“You can say he ratted his way out,” Byerly says. “I understand that. I lived the prison culture. But I did what I did for a reason. I became a human being and left the garbage behind. And if that meant sweeping up some garbage on the way out, to show the world I really meant it and to put myself in a position where there was no way of going back, I was proud to do it.”
THICK AS THIEVES
Some people seem destined for a life of crime because of their origins. Shake the family tree, and you’ll find a history of substance abuse and privation, adult male relatives cycling through gangs and prison, a profusion of cousins and godfathers named Vito, and so on. Not Wayne Byerly. He comes from hardworking, law-abiding, middle-class stock, and his transformation into a career criminal, a pariah, a three-time loser — what he likes to call a “knucklehead” — was truly a matter of choice.
Byerly was born in Anchorage, Alaska, in 1961 and spent much of his childhood on Army bases in Kansas, Alabama, Georgia, and Idaho. His father, John Owen Byerly, served 30 months in Vietnam as a Special Forces officer and received the Bronze Star. To Wayne and his three siblings, he was a forbidding presence.
“He was a good man, but he was a hardass,” Wayne says. “I’m sure he did and saw things over there that changed him. He never spoke of Vietnam to our family, ever.”
In 1973, John Byerly, now a lieutenant colonel, retired from the service and moved his family to a 35-acre farm in Middleton, Idaho, a tiny community a short drive from Boise. He worked at the local bank, drank heavily, and was often at odds with Wayne, the younger of his two boys. Wayne was bright but hyper and impulsive; from an early age, he was frequently found in some place he’d been told not to go, doing something he wasn’t supposed to do.
By the time he reached high school, his siblings say, Wayne was running with the wrong crowd. Amid the boredom of life in Middleton, what really jazzed him was fast cars and impressing girls, both of which required cash. When he was 16, he and another juvenile burgled a neighbor’s house, making off with a stash of bills, cameras, and a coin collection. Jammed up by detectives afterward, he was required to make restitution and released, even though he refused to give up his accomplice.
More thefts followed. Still not quite 20, he was arrested for stealing 18 pigs from a Middleton farmer and selling them at auction. He got county jail time, probation, and a suspended prison sentence. The setback didn’t dissuade him; it encouraged him to think bigger. He began to plan a job at a local market where he’d worked for years — and had been unfairly discharged, he insists, for a shortage in the register that wasn’t his fault.
The score went down without a hitch. Byerly chatted up the owner at the front of the store while his accomplice came through the back door and raided the safe, which was generally left unlocked during business hours, slipping away with $1,500. Byerly figured he had plausible denial, since he stayed away from the vicinity of the safe the whole time he was in the place.
He was mistaken. The theft was quickly pegged as an inside job, and Byerly was the logical insider. Some witnesses even claimed he took the money himself. This time the judge sentenced the baby-faced heist-meister to five years in prison. The decision shocked Byerly, who had hoped for probation or at least a boot camp for young offenders rather than the state pen. The day he arrived, he hit the yard with trepidation, expecting bad things.
“I was a pretty boy,” he says. “I was 21 but looked 17. I could fight, but I was afraid of getting ganged-up on.”
As it turned out, he had more cred than he realized. One of the first people he encountered was the penitentiary’s most famous resident, Claude Dallas, a trapper who’d been the focus of a nationwide manhunt after he gunned down two state game wardens in his remote camp. Byerly had met Dallas briefly at the county jail in Caldwell; Dallas remembered him and greeted him warmly, which gave other inmates the impression that the new fish wasn’t quite as green as he seemed. Byerly also began to hang out with Steve Boyce, a large, soft-spoken athlete who’d played baseball and football at a rival high school near Middleton and was also doing time for burglary. He and Byerly had never crossed paths before, but they knew some of the same people and had blazed down some of the same streets drag-racing, Byerly in his ’67 Cougar and Boyce in a ’68 Camaro. In prison, they became thick as thieves.
“Most of the time I had good intentions. But part of my brain was always on the lookout for an opportunity.”
Byerly’s reputation as a fighter also helped. He quickly let it be known that he was the 1983 Golden Gloves state champion in the welterweight division (a slight exaggeration; he’d actually made it to the quarterfinals.) He moved well enough to dispel doubts, pummeling anyone who took him on in the pen’s boxing ring; most of his fellow cons knew almost nothing about the sweet science.
Paroled after two years, Byerly made a stab at the square-john life. He married the longtime sweetheart who’d waited for him and launched his own business pouring concrete in Boise. He was doing well for someone just out of the joint, but the money wasn’t coming in fast enough to suit him. He’d also discovered cocaine, and it wasn’t long before a nosy police officer caught him in a parking lot by the Boise River, snorting the devil’s dandruff in his car with a barmaid. The infraction didn’t land him back in prison, but it did lead to his parole being extended for another year.
“That was unacceptable,” Byerly says. “I wanted to be a free man.”
An obliging friend provided him a Social Security number and other vital statistics. Byerly left Idaho. Calling himself Tony Martin, he found a job in Phoenix with a public relations firm. He brought his wife down, introduced her around as his girlfriend.
Months later, a call came in to his office, someone wanting to speak to Wayne Byerly. The receptionist told the caller that no such person worked there. A few minutes later, the caller was back on the line, asking for Tony Martin.
It was Steve Boyce. Having found the terms of his own parole too onerous, Boyce had decided to move to Arizona. He dropped by his old buddy’s apartment, played Monopoly with his hosts until the wife went off to bed, then took Byerly aside and showed him a few items hidden in a toiletry kit. They included a starter pistol, a wig and a fake mustache. From his wallet he produced a brief article clipped from a newspaper. The headline: “Bewigged Man Robs Boise Bank.”
Byerly listened, his own mind racing with ideas. If he ever did anything that crazy, he told himself, he wouldn’t carry around a clipping announcing it to the world. And he would have a better disguise. And something better than a starter pistol. And —
“Most of the time I had good intentions,” Byerly says. “But part of my brain was always on the lookout for an opportunity. He broke it down for me right there, and I couldn’t help myself. It had already started in my head. I started thinking about cash stashed, and how nice it would be to have some of that.”
STACKS OF CASH
They used the starter pistol on a couple of trial runs, stickups at hotels that generated just enough cash to finance a visit to a pawn shop that offered a selection of reasonably priced used firearms. The first bank was a place on Camelback Road where Tony Martin cashed his paychecks. They wore fake beards but carried real guns.
Boyce took one teller, Byerly another. They showed the guns. The tellers pulled stacks of cash out of their drawers and handed it to them. Byerly was astonished at how easy it was. They’d wrapped their fingers in transparent tape, in an effort to avoid leaving prints, but Byerly was sweating so freely that the tape hung in loops as he scooped up the dough. Rattled, he started to head back out the front door, even though the getaway car was parked out of sight in back.
“Homie! This way!” Boyce shouted.
Byerly spun around. Bills spilled out of his hoodie as he ran.
“It was a learning experience,” Byerly says. “We got something like $17,000. I’d never had that much money in my life. I knew I was going to do it again.”
Three weeks later, they hit the Western Savings & Loan on Bell Road, the kind of target they preferred because it had a walled-in parking lot in back. You could hop the wall, jump into a getaway car none of the employees could see and get away clean — in theory, anyway. This time they made off with close to $30,000 and a dye pack, which exploded in the plastic bag Byerly was carrying as he was going over the wall. He got a face full of red dye and tear gas — “just like those idiots in Raising Arizona,” he says.
“He was strictly professional,” Boyce recalls. “We crossed all our Ts and overanalyzed everything, every possible aspect of the operation and what could go wrong.”
Not long after embarking on his new career, Byerly put his arm in a sling, walked into the PR firm and told his boss that Tony Martin was injured and was going to take some time off. He and Boyce ran up staggering tabs in dance clubs in Scottsdale, played a lot of golf, partied lavishly. When their funds got low, they hit another bank, this time for $50,000.
“I knew this couldn’t last,” Byerly says. “But it’s crazily addictive — the adrenaline, and then the money. The only people between you and the money are Mary, Jim, and Steve, who are trained to give it to you if you ask.”
It lasted only a few weeks, thanks to his weakness for cocaine, women and coke-addled sex. Vacationing in Marina del Rey, he managed to convince a local cokehead that he was a big-time dealer and could deliver a kilo if the man fronted him $10,000 and let him borrow his Camaro IROC Z/28 for a couple of days. He was in no hurry to deliver, and the car was soon reported stolen. Police dining at a Denny’s in Phoenix spotted it in the parking lot of a La Quinta next door.
Which led them to a 26-year-old white male, in the middle of an epic binge at the motel with a girl he’d picked up in a bar who was younger than her ID said she was. Which led them to the guns, marijuana, and cocaine on the premises and confirmation that the male, who called himself Tony Martin, was Wayne Byerly, a parole absconder from Idaho. A little more investigation indicated that their man was a suspect in at least three bank robberies. A car used in one of the getaways had been traced back to a prior owner, who claimed he’d sold it to this Martin-Byerly person.
As the evidence mounted, Byerly could feel the tissue-thin efforts he’d made to cover his tracks beginning to shred and blow away. Cursing his stupidity and facing the prospect of spending most of his life behind bars, he took a plea deal for a 15-year sentence. He could have cut his time significantly by giving up his partner, but Byerly refused to name Boyce, insisting that his accomplice was a mysterious biker known only as “Spider.” (Arrested months later on the basis of other tips, Boyce elected to take a four-year deal on a conspiracy charge rather than roll the dice in court.)
Byerly’s wife divorced him. He disappeared into the federal system, where he was known as a stand-up guy for not ratting on his partner. At a prison in Memphis, his cellmate showed him how to play a few chords on the guitar. Byerly taught himself to read music and started writing his own songs. It was like something inside him was shifting, trying to get his attention, show him that maybe he could do better than terrorize bank employees for a living. But it was easy to ignore that small voice. He was a convict, true-blue and old-school, and well on his way to an advanced degree in knuckleheadology.
He was paroled in 1993, but a series of failed drug tests, halfway-house escapes, and other parole violations kept sending him back. He was either behind bars or a fugitive for months at a time over the next four years. He was still on parole when he started robbing banks again in Phoenix, leading a crew drawn largely from associates he’d met in prison — including Robert Brad Leonard and brothers Dennis and James Tigue, known as “Red” and “Irish,” respectively.
On July 1, 1996, the Wells Fargo on West Indian School Road was hit for $156,114. According to court documents, the Tigue brothers drove a diversion vehicle and another man waited outside with the getaway car while Byerly and Boyce went into the bank, wearing wigs, fake beards, and facial putty.
On November 15, 1996, the Wells Fargo on West Thunderbird Road was robbed of $144,720 by two men wearing Reagan and Nixon masks. The getaway driver would later admit to receiving $14,000 from the take, while Byerly and Boyce split the rest.
Byerly burned through his share in next to no time. A hardworking fellow could always use a new Corvette or a fancy vacation, and because of his fugitive status, he spread cash around to crew members who fronted for him whenever it was time to rent a new place or get fresh wheels. It made him uneasy, all these sponges hanging around with their hands out; he called them Klingons. Too many people knew his real name and where he lived, and what if one of them decided to drop a dime on him because he wasn’t generous enough with the gratuities and bonuses?
The man showed them a wanted poster. “I gotta say, you guys don’t look like bank robbers,” he said.
The poster had their names and photos. It advised citizens of Crested Butte to be on the lookout for two convicted bank robbers, both federal fugitives from Albuquerque, who were said to be on their way to town to rob a bank or two. The tip had come to county law enforcement from the FBI. There were posters all over town, Byerly soon discovered, including on the front doors of the town’s banks.
It was a loony idea: What kind of moron would rob a bank in a place with only one viable road out of town? But from some of the incorrect details in the poster, Byerly knew instantly where the tip had come from. He’d told the girlfriend of one member of his crew that he was going to Crested Butte, and he’d lied to her about moving his residence to Albuquerque because he didn’t trust her.
Byerly and Boyce were arrested at the Gunnison airport as they tried to slip back to Arizona. The police had nothing on them except their respective parole violations, but the FBI continued to question Byerly about his rumored involvement in the Wells Fargo robberies during the next nine months he spent in custody.
Sharene Farr, who was Byerly’s fiancée at the time, remembers the FBI showing up at his house with a search warrant the day after his arrest, looking for loot. “They didn’t find anything,” she recalls. “They kept asking me if he had lots of money, did I see stacks of money. I didn’t have anything to tell them because I didn’t know anything.”
Byerly was released to a halfway house in September. He walked away from the place 10 days later, relying on his crew to arrange for new digs. He had one more score in his sights — a busy bank in Tucson that promised to be the biggest haul yet. Enough to pay off all his Klingons, set up a new identity and disappear.
In fall 1997, while preparing for the bank robbery in Tucson, Byerly also worked on a side project of his own making. The project can’t be verified in the same way his other activities can because it involves a crime that, if it happened, was never reported. Byerly’s account of this interlude raises more questions than answers, perhaps. But he’s talking about it now, he says, because it helps to explain the dramatic change of direction he took soon afterward.
In the course of his journeys through the halfway houses of greater Phoenix, Byerly had become acquainted with a man named Max. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, Max preferred meth to his prescribed medication, even though that preference frequently got him into legal trouble. But Max also had connections in the rarefied world of international diamond and gold traders. As they discussed possible future ventures, he told Byerly about one jeweler he knew who dealt in merchandise of dubious provenance — a five-star fence. Max had been in this man’s house and seen a safe stuffed with cash and jewels.
That safe could be a big score for somebody, Max suggested. Nothing sweeter than stealing what was already stolen. “He’s not going to report it,” he said.
Byerly knew nothing about jewels, but he was interested. He gave Max a ride once in his beater Corolla to the man’s house, just to check it out. The place was a palace. But then Max got revoked out of the halfway house, and Byerly was on to other things. It was only in the last weeks before the Tucson robbery that he started thinking about building an extra cushion for himself, just in case.
“Take what you want,” the man said. “Just don’t hurt me.”
Byerly gave the usual assurances about no one getting hurt, as long as they did what they were told. The safe was on a time lock and wouldn’t open until morning. He fixed his host a sandwich and sat up with him, listening to the police scanner he’d brought with him. Shortly after sunrise the time lock expired, and he watched carefully as the man opened the safe and stepped aside.
There were velvet-lined boxes inside filled with diamonds, but Byerly hardly looked at them. He was transfixed by a brick of cash wrapped in plastic, about the size of a briefcase. Hundred-dollar bills in banded stacks of a hundred each, fresh from the bank, compact and in series. Ten thousand to a stack, and by his count a hundred stacks, a fearful symmetry that worked out to a cool million. On another shelf, in a fat pile, was a random collection of used bills, 100s and 50s and 20s, that came to around $70,000 and change.
The money was heavy. He took it all. He left the man shackled to a table leg and told him not to free himself for 15 minutes.
At home he broke the package into smaller bundles and resealed them in plastic, duct-taping the hell out of every bundle. He stacked them into two aqua-blue plastic ice chests and packed the whole load in cat litter to help absorb moisture. He sealed the coolers, put them in the trunk and drove north out of Phoenix to the Rim Country between Payson and Camp Verde, a summer getaway area surrounded by national forest land. Near Strawberry, he took a gravel road that dipped deeper into the teeming ponderosa pines, until he came to a place where he’d stashed money before. This time he dug deeper than he ever had and buried the coolers, notching nearby trees with a hatchet and checking his odometer to gauge the exact distance from the nearest cattleguard.
He told no one where he’d been or what he’d done. Asked why, if he had so much money sitting in the ground, he went ahead with yet another bank robbery, he shrugs.
“I thought I could have them both,” he says. “I had been planning Tucson for a long time. I had it covered. It was going to be easy.”
“THESE PEOPLE ARE NOT YOUR FRIENDS”
They settled on the Friday before Christmas, when the super-sized Wells Fargo on East Grant Road in Tucson would be well-stocked for holiday shoppers and people cashing paychecks, and the merchant tellers would be raking in deposits from cash-heavy retailers. “Irish” Tigue drove and stayed with the car, a Buick Park Avenue. Wayne Byerly, Brad Leonard, and “Red” Tigue headed into the bank shortly after noon, ski masks down.
The plan was for Byerly to rob the regular tellers while Leonard went to the merchant stations and Red covered them both. They would meet at the back door, and Irish would pick them up on the blind side of the building, by the drive-thru. But Leonard, Byerly says, deviated from the plan. He tried to find someone to open the vault, and then he almost pulled a bookcase down on top of himself while trying to extract the videotape recording the robbery. After two minutes, Byerly heard the call on his police scanner of a 211 in progress; the call had come sooner than expected because a bystander outside had seen masked men going into the bank and called 911.
Byerly waited impatiently by the back door, wondering what was keeping Leonard. “Ándale ándale!” he screamed, their pre-arranged signal to flee. (The cry was supposed to mislead the police into thinking the robbers were Hispanic.) Finally, Leonard came running toward the exit, his still-empty bag flapping.
Red climbed into the front of the Buick. Byerly and Leonard piled into the back and started rummaging through Byerly’s bag of cash, looking for tracking devices. Byerly threw two out the window. They missed one in the scatter of bills on the floor. They had gone only a few blocks when Irish spotted a police car behind them, the cop on his radio.
“Sharkey! We’ve got a sharkey!”
They made a couple of quick turns. The police car followed, staying a respectful distance behind. The Buick pulled over. Byerly kneeled on the back floor, cocked his 9 mm, and fired, blowing out the Buick’s back window. The Buick roared off.
The chase through midtown and the north side of town reached speeds of 50 mph or more amid occasional bursts of gunfire. When Irish had managed to put a little distance between them and the police, he slowed for one turn and Red leapt out, tumbled along the asphalt, and started running. Leonard was the next to go, scootching out from his seat, knocking the scanner and wads of money out with him, rolling and skidding and finally on his feet and running, the wind snatching at the bills in his wake. A few moments later, Irish pulled over behind an abandoned building, trying to lose the tail, but the description of the car was out. They were soon spotted by another officer, who’d left his patrol car and was approaching on foot; as they sped off, the officer opened fire with a shotgun. Byerly felt something rip into his back and returned fire.
Byerly got out a few blocks later, along a desolate stretch of East Delano Street. He told Irish to dump the car and leave the money behind. The car was found a couple blocks away, riddled with 22 bullet holes. The back tires were flat, the interior a mess of blood, crumbs of glass, and loose bills. Witnesses saw a stocky red-haired man with a Hawaiian shirt and a torn pants leg walking nearby, pausing to stuff something in a clump of palm trees. The man was soon arrested, and $4,000 in cash and a semiautomatic pistol retrieved from the palms.
Red and Leonard eluded the dragnet. For a few days, Byerly sat tight, expecting his partners to come to his rescue with ace defense attorneys; in his more delusional moments, he even imagined they might break him out during one of his trips to court. But on Christmas Eve, a call to his girlfriend, Alexa, clued him in to the true state of things.
Byerly had asked her to retrieve some belongings from his house. She reported that she’d found the place cleaned out, presumably by Tigue and Leonard. Leonard soon showed up at her house, she added, with a six-pack of beer, and told her that Byerly was never going to get out of prison, that she should just forget him. He tried to kiss her. (“I remember being very emotional, very upset,” she recalls. “And he was trying to hit on me.”)
Byerly was furious. He would never betray a partner like that. And yet — what did he owe these backstabbers, anyway? Leonard, in his view, had screwed up the robbery by not sticking to the plan. Leonard’s girlfriend had been the cause of the Crested Butte fiasco. And he was supposed to go away forever, just to protect these bastards? Alexa urged him to think about the unthinkable: naming his partners in order to reduce his own sentence.
"Something in me just snapped. I called my lawyer and said, 'Tell the FBI I want to set up a free talk.'"
“These people are not your friends,” she told him.
Over the next several weeks, Byerly had ample occasion to reflect on the absurdity of the convict code. He thought about all the heartache he’d caused his parents, his ex-wife and anyone else who had cared about him. He thought about the years he’d lost inside and the ones he was going to lose if he took the brunt of the 16 charges he was facing over the Tucson robbery. He thought about waking up Christmas morning to the sounds of the guards rushing into the cell next door, where an inmate had tried to kill himself with a razor blade. Merry fucking Christmas. And he thought about what was waiting for him, buried in the woods, the money he couldn’t touch now because he’d been so cocky, stupid and loyal to the wrong people. Every day, he dug it up in his mind, wondering if he’d ever see it again.
“Something in me just snapped,” he says now. “I called my lawyer and said, ‘Tell the FBI I want to set up a free talk.’”
A “free talk” is an exploratory bit of snitching, an opportunity for a suspect to coax a possible deal from prosecutors by revealing information about crimes, on the condition that the information won’t be used to prosecute the source. Byerly had a lot to tell, and told it all — everything except the robbery of the diamond broker.
The feds arranged to record a phone call he had with Leonard. Assuring his ex-partner that he was on a secure “lawyer phone,” he proceeded to lure Leonard into a conversation about his narrow escape from the getaway car.
Coming clean also meant giving up Steve Boyce, who hadn’t been part of the Tucson robbery. Their relationship had frayed over the years; still, Byerly says he’d made up his mind not to testify against Boyce. He recorded a call with him, too, but the two have different memories of that conversation. Byerly says he went out of his way to ask “obvious” incriminating questions, to alert his old buddy to what he was doing.
Boyce remembers being appalled that his friend would turn on him. “I told him, ‘You can tell the FBI agents standing next to you that I’m not going nowhere,’” he says. “‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. Shame on you. Shame on you’ — and I hung up.”
As the investigation turned into indictments, Byerly was shifted from jail to jail, from Tucson to Phoenix and places in between, in an effort to house him apart from his co-defendants. The effort failed miserably. He and Leonard were stuck in the same holding cell at one point. During that awkward encounter, Byerly assured his ex-partner that they were still on the same side — a fiction that would last only until Leonard’s attorneys got the discovery in the case. On another occasion, Byerly was taken to court on the same bus with Boyce and even sat shackled to him in a federal courtroom while the judge quizzed him on his intent to cooperate.
Hoping to improve his chances for Witsec, Byerly began snitching on Dixon, too. Dixon didn’t find out the snitch’s identity until Byerly had been moved elsewhere; he agreed to plead guilty to five counts of armed robbery rather than go to trial and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Byerly testified in court against Leonard, who got 20 years. Boyce’s case never went to trial; he ended up pleading to one count of armed robbery and served six years in prison. From surveillance video the FBI screened for him, Byerly identified Red Tigue as the culprit in another unsolved bank robbery, and Tigue ended up taking a plea, too.
On January 3, 2000, Byerly was sentenced to 84 months in prison for his role in the Wells Fargo robberies. His snitching had saved him from what easily could have been a 30-year stretch. The problem now was how to survive the next seven years. Witsec turned him down because his crimes weren’t gang-related; the government’s position was that the U.S. Bureau of Prisons could protect him from any reprisals.
Carmen Fischer, Byerly’s attorney, was shocked when she learned where he’d been sent. “I worked like the dickens to get him into witness protection,” she recalls. “Instead they sent him to this really dangerous prison, where so many people were doing multiple life sentences. The lesson here is that you work with the government at your own peril. They can be pretty inept. When they want you, they’re good to you, but when it’s over, it’s over.”
THE WORST PLACE
Opened in 1994, the Federal Correctional Complex in Florence, Colorado, consists of four facilities, housing four distinct inmate populations: a work camp, a medium-security prison, a high-security penitentiary, and the federal supermax. When Byerly heard that he was being sent to Florence, he assumed he would be celled at FCI Florence, the medium-security prison, where he’d done time before.
Nobody called his name when the bus stopped at the FCI. Or the supermax. The bus riders dwindled to a handful, the high-security pen loomed as the last stop, and Byerly knew he was screwed.
Although the supermax next door has more infamous residents — the Unabomber, mob bosses, and so on — those bad boys are locked in their solitary cells for up to 23 hours a day and live in relative safety. The inhabitants of USP Florence tend to be serving long sentences for violent crimes and escapes, but there are fewer restrictions on their movements and more opportunities for extortion, rape, gang wars, and other predations.
At the time Byerly got there, the penitentiary had nearly twice as many inmates as it was designed to hold. Thanks in part to the overwhelming gang presence — more than 40 distinct “security threat groups,” from the Aryan Brotherhood, the Bloods, and the Mexican Mafia to the Latin Kings, DC Blacks, and more obscure groups, some working in concert and others battling each other — the assault rate was through the roof. In one 17-month period, USP Florence logged 94 inmate stabbings or beatings, roughly one for every 10inmates. Since most inmate-on-inmate assaults are never reported, the actual figure was probably much higher.
the Cowboys. According to the 55-count federal indictment, the Cowboys administered their own brand of vigilante justice, typically by beating and torturing inmates and then fabricating evidence, making it look like the inmates attacked them. Their motto: “Lie until you die.”
But what truly set USP Florence apart from other high-security pens was the grisly fate of its snitches. In the months leading up to Byerly’s arrival, the killings had become more brazen, demonstrating that “high security” didn’t mean any kind of security for the people inside.
In one instance, inmate Maynard Campbell refused to leave his cell when two other prisoners arrived to accuse his cellmate of ratting on a wine-making operation in the prison bakery. Campbell was stabbed 27 times; his cellie was badly wounded but survived.
A few days later, drug smuggler Mirssa Araiza-Reyes got into an argument with his cellmate, Frank Melendez, whom he suspected of being a snitch. Araiza-Reyes had strong feelings about snitches, having attacked another suspected informant with a padlock and razor. He required all his roommates to sign affidavits swearing they that they weren’t snitches. Unable to come to terms with Melendez, Araiza-Reyes beat and strangled him.
He kept the body in his cell for four days, a period during which staff paperwork indicates Melendez went through several counts, received meals, and was taken to showers and the exercise yard. When he could no longer stand the smell, Araiza-Reyes notified a guard that Melendez was dead.
“I took care of that snitch for you,” he said.
The incident became known as the Weekend at Bernie’s killing. But that grotesquerie was soon overshadowed by a more extravagant foray into corpse abuse. In October 1999, bank robber Joey Estrella was killed and eviscerated in the Special Housing Unit (SHU) by his two cellmates, cousins William and Rudy Sablan, after a night of drinking and playing cards. It’s not clear if the Sablans regarded Estrella as a snitch or just a nuisance, but the cousins removed portions of his liver and spleen. By the time officers arrived to videotape the aftermath, the Sablans were covered in gore, mockingly gnawing at Estrella’s excised organs, and drinking his blood. While the camera rolled, they stuck a cigarette in the dead man’s mouth and used his hand to flash the finger at the guards.
Years later, when federal prosecutors sought the death penalty for the Sablans, two federal juries declined to vote for execution. Defense attorneys had argued that poor supervision in the SHU, the scene of many of the Cowboy beatings and snitch killings, had contributed to the crime.
“I’d been in prison, but this was a different world,” he says now. “I was walking around with these guys who were the biggest knucklehead killers and lived by this bullshit code.”
Because he was from Idaho, they called him Spud. Prisoners often know each other chiefly by nicknames, and Byerly encouraged this one, trying to keep his real name from circulating as much as possible. An Aryan Brotherhood member who was an alumnus of the Idaho state pen quizzed him about people he might have met there, and soon Byerly was allowed to sit with the Odinists at meals. Byerly had no gang affiliation, but the Odinists were something of a catch-all for various strains of white supremacy, cloaked in Nordic mythology and hoo-ha. He merely had to sit there and nod as skinheads and Dirty White Boys and nut jobs like David Lane, the getaway driver in the 1984 murder of Denver talk-show host Alan Berg, blathered about the “mud people” and Asatru and the race wars to come.
It was good camouflage. No one questioned his bona fides as a separatist, because after all, he was from Idaho. But he knew his snitch jacket could surface at any moment. All it would take is someone coming off the bus who’d been in jails in Arizona with Leonard, Dixon, or the Tigues.
The first test came after just a few weeks. He was fooling around in the music room when Super Dave, an AB shot-caller, told him he wanted a word. Super Dave and his shark-eyed sidekick, Tank, took him down the hall to an empty bathroom, where a third gang member, Youngster, stood guard. Byerly scanned the room anxiously as they walked in, wondering if someone was going to burst out of one of the stalls and shank him.
Super Dave got right to the point. “Somebody says you’re a rat,” he said.
Byerly had heard that when a bear approaches, you’re supposed to make yourself look bigger. He did that now, summoning all the aggrieved outrage he could muster. “Who says that?” he demanded. “Fuck him! Take me to him right now.”
Super Dave seemed taken aback. His source was an old dude, he explained, who’d just arrived. Byerly knew the name; the guy looked like a shorter version of Colonel Sanders and was known for robbing banks and using a taxi for his getaway. He’d apparently come across Leonard in the Central Arizona Detention Center and heard about how his partner had done him wrong.
“This is bullshit,” Byerly shot back. “Did he bring paperwork?”
In prison, paperwork is the ultimate arbiter of who’s okay and who’s “no good.” People can run their mouths all they want, but the contents of their PSI, the pre-sentence investigation report, reveals their actual crimes and whether they rolled on anyone to cut their time. Super Dave conceded that the old dude might have got it wrong, but it was up to Byerly to produce his paper pronto and clear things up.
Byerly promised to have his PSI overnighted to him and available for inspection. He went from the bathroom meeting to arrange a phone call to his lawyer.
Carmen Fischer remembers the call. Byerly told her he was in over his head, that he needed paperwork that showed he wasn’t a rat, and that it had to be impeccable. She ginned up a new version of his PSI, matching the font of the original and eradicating any hint of cooperation. “I spent the whole day,” she recalls. “I had to make the sentencing guideline numbers add up to the sentence he got.”
The bogus report bought Byerly some time, but it also set other events in motion. Just hours after he’d shown Super Dave his PSI, he was summoned to the office of Lieutenant John Carr, the penitentiary’s intelligence officer. Fischer had called a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Phoenix to express concerns about her client’s safety, and the prosecutor had called Carr.
Carr didn’t seem to know much about Byerly’s situation; he seemed puzzled that he’d been sent to the USP. He asked Byerly if he wanted to “check in” — to go into protective custody. In another prison, that might make sense, but no check-in at Florence was guaranteed a single cell because of the overcrowding problem. Knowing what happened to Estrella and Melendez in the SHU, which was where most check-ins ended up, Byerly quickly declined. Checking in would let everyone know he was a snitch and probably get him killed, he said.
Carr had another offer. He’d noticed that Byerly was getting friendly with the Odinists. He could get him moved out of Florence in a year, he said, if Byerly was willing to provide useful information about prison gang operations.
The proposition was just crazy enough to appeal to Byerly. He was already on the brink of exposure, but if he was careful, this could get him moved some place where he could do his time with his liver intact. Over the next few months, Byerly burrowed deeper into the Odinist camp. He celled in a nonsmoking unit made up mostly of separatists and taught Dirty White Boys how to box. He never met with Carr again, but every once in a while he would drop a note to the lieutenant in the secure box intended for outgoing legal mail, alerting the administration to a cache of weapons, a still or a new method of smuggling drugs into the prison. The notes were signed Uncle Sam, and the tips dealt with common topics of conversation in the community, nothing that would identify him or even his unit as the exclusive source.
He made several friends among the Odinist leadership. One high priest, in particular, seemed impressed by his paperwork, his boxing skills and his loyalty. He was pleased to learn that Spud once took a 15-year jolt rather than rat on his partner. The priest hated rats. He began to tell Spud a thing or two about rats, stories that made his flesh crawl.
The priest’s name was Dustin Honken. Listening to him rant, Byerly realized that he had found his ticket out of Florence.
“I KILLED MY RATS”
In the early 1990s, a plague of methamphetamine spread across northern Iowa like corn smut. The stuff was 97 percent pure and highly addictive, and the man behind it was a nerdy-looking farm boy in his early 20s.
Like many meth cooks, Dustin Honken started out with a modest lab in his garage. But he had an exceptional aptitude for chemistry, which he’d studied at community college, and developed a unique process that produced crystal meth as potent as anything the DEA had ever seen. He soon set up a more sophisticated lab in the Arizona desert and was shipping multi-pound quantities back to his Midwestern distribution network.
Honken took care to isolate himself from the street dealers who peddled his meth. But in 1993, state investigators managed to work their way up the food chain and turn two of Honken’s top distributors, Greg Nicholson and Terry DeGeus. Honken was arrested after Nicholson wore a wire and recorded the kingpin bragging about his meth operation. The case went federal and looked like a slam dunk.
But Honken was released pending trial, and then the key witnesses went missing. Nicholson vanished without a trace, along with his girlfriend, Lori Duncan, and her two daughters, 10-year-old Kandi and 6-year-old Amber. DeGeus dropped off the radar a few weeks later. Prosecutors strongly suspected foul play but could prove nothing. They were forced to dismiss the case.
By the time Byerly met him at Florence three years later, Honken had shed his Doogie Howser appearance. He had the close-cropped hair and bodybuilder look of a seasoned con. He made hooch for white gang members and was considered a valuable asset. Thrice burned, he was paranoid about rats, but he also couldn’t shut up about the subject, making ominous comments that were intended to impress other prisoners.
“I killed my rats,” he said.
Byerly knew better than to press for details. Yet over time he managed to insinuate himself into Honken’s inner circle, figuring that sooner or later the meth whiz would turn to his buddy Spud for advice. The opportunity came that fall, after Honken received bad news from Iowa. His girlfriend, Angela Johnson, had been arrested in connection with the disappearance of the witnesses. In jail, she’d been conned by a master snitch, who told her he’d help her pin the murders on someone else. All he needed to work his magic, he explained, was a map showing where the bodies were buried.
Johnson drew the map. The snitch turned it over to the cops. Five skeletons, including those of two children, were found on the outskirts of Mason City. The seven-year-old mystery was breaking wide open.
Honken was furious. More rats! The rats were everywhere! What would Byerly do, he asked, if he was in his shoes?
Byerly needed to understand the situation first. In bits and pieces, the story came out. Johnson had posed as a stranded motorist in order to gain entrance to Duncan’s house. Then Honken had slipped in and tied and gagged Duncan and Nicholson at gunpoint. The hostages were taken to a wooded area and executed, shot in the head — first Nicholson, then Duncan, then the children. Johnson had also lured DeGeus, her former boyfriend, to a field where he was beaten with a baseball bat and shot several times.
Byerly had difficulty hiding his revulsion. Five people dead, including two little girls, just so Honken could spare himself a short prison sentence? “You gotta do what you gotta do,” he said carefully, “but I would have found a way to do it without the kids there.”
Honken was indignant. “Thousands of kids die every year, and nobody gives a fuck,” he said.
Byerly wrote to his attorney and directed her to get in touch with the federal prosecutors in Iowa. He wanted to help put Honken on death row, and he wanted “an absolute ironclad written guarantee of witness protection” in return.
“Wayne, you’d better not suddenly have court, too,” he told Byerly.
But Honken still trusted Byerly enough to read letters to him that he received from Johnson and share his plans for exacting revenge for his troubles. He was going to subpoena Byerly and other trusted fellow cons as witnesses in his case, he explained, so they could all bust out together from county jail in Iowa and wreak havoc. They would go to the home of Assistant U.S. Attorney Pat Reinert, who’d pursued Honken for years, and kill his kids in front of him. Then they’d load a Snap-On Tools truck with 55-gallon drums of nitro and blow up the DEA building in Chicago.
“He said he was going to make the world forget Timothy McVeigh,” Byerly recalls. “This wasn’t just fanciful thinking. He had detailed plans.”
Byerly alerted Reinert’s office about Honken’s escape schemes. He stole a letter that Honken had received from Johnson, copped it right out of Honken’s cell. His risk of exposure was increasing daily. But when the real trouble arrived, it came from a direction he hadn’t expected at all.
In May 2001, the penitentiary was in lockdown for weeks after a stabbing incident involving rival gang members. Investigation into the dispute revealed that two high-ranking female staff members had been involved in sexual relationships with several prisoners, including a convicted cocaine dealer who apparently had enjoyed the favors of both women. The women resigned and eventually faced criminal charges.
One of the two, unit manager Kellee Kissinger, was one of the few staffers who knew about Byerly’s work as an informant. Kissinger was also believed to be friendly with Neel Huffman, a prisoner who’d been Honken’s cellmate and close friend. An astute case manager, whom Byerly credits with saving his life, realized that Byerly’s cover could be blown at any moment. Before the lockdown lifted, Byerly was roused at midnight and told to pack his property. Within hours he was on his way to a jail in Iowa, to await his own appointment with the Honken grand jury.
A few weeks later, he received a letter from a buddy at Florence, telling him that Huffman, who’d been moved to another prison, had written to Honken to alert him that Byerly was an informant. “So now Dustin is convinced that you are a rat and has let everyone here know about it,” the man wrote. “If it is true, then I think I understand your motivation. If it’s not true, well I guess it doesn’t matter because you’ve had the jacket hung on you anyway.”
As it turned out, Byerly was never summoned to testify at Honken’s 2004 murder trial. The maestro of meth had bragged about killing his rats to so many prisoners that the prosecution had its pick of them. None of them thought it was a violation of the convict code to rat on someone who’d killed children. Byerly had been one of the first to come forward, but there was no need to drag him out of Witsec and risk exposing his new identity, not with so many other volunteers eager to give Honken the needle.
Honken got the death penalty. In a separate trial, Johnson was also sentenced to death for her role in the 1993 murders, one of only two women on death row in the entire federal system. In 2014, after years of appeals, her sentence was amended to life without parole.
Honken remains on federal death row at USP Terre Haute. No execution date has been set. Shortly after his sentencing, in an interview with the Cedar Rapids Gazette, he denounced the informant who’d obtained the map to the bodies as a “weasel” and expressed moral outrage at the snitch’s behavior.
“He doesn’t care about anyone but himself,” he said.
The Witsec people told him to lie low in New Orleans until his new identity documents were ready. Goodbye, Wayne Byerly. Hello, Wayne Baxter. He took classes in computer science and obtained his GED.
He had trouble sleeping. At Florence he’d tossed and turned, wondering when his luck would run out. He was no longer stuck in that abattoir, but the anxiety attacks continued. Night after night, when he did drift off, he had hyper-real nightmares about being stabbed. Sometimes it was Dustin Honken holding the knife. Sometimes it was Brad Leonard or someone else. He would wake up feeling clammy, a puddle of cold sweat collected at his sternum.
The only thing that seemed to help was marijuana. He tested positive for the drug nine times in less than two years, violating the terms of his release and exasperating his parole officer. He went to see therapists and psychologists, who told him he had post-traumatic stress disorder and was self-medicating. They suggested Prozac, Xanax and other modern marvels, but nothing worked like weed. His continuing infractions didn’t sit well with the judge who’d cut his sentence. He was removed from the Witsec program, flown back to Phoenix, and spent seven months cooling his heels in the Central Arizona Detention Center, expecting any day to cross paths with one of his old partners in crime.
His attorney convinced another judge to take him out of harm’s way. Witsec took him back. Goodbye, Wayne Baxter. Hello, Wayne Byrd.
The marshals told him to find temporary lodging at a hotel in Albany. The front-desk manager was a woman in her early 20s from a small town on the Canadian border. One morning she saw the new guest get into an unmarked police car and figured he must be an undercover cop. She thought he was around 28 years old, maybe 30.
He was 42. By the time she learned the truth about him, his real name and his crimes and Witsec status and all of that, it didn’t matter, because she was in love. The wedding was June 10, 2006.
“He made me feel confident and loved,” Betsy Hewey-Byerly says. “He was also the greatest gentleman I’d ever met.”
Three months after the wedding, he completed his parole. Now nobody could send him back to prison except him. The awful dreams and night sweats stopped. A few more months, and the couple decided they’d had enough of the upstate New York winters. They moved to Phoenix with their newborn son.
Climate wasn’t the only reason for the move, of course. It had been almost 10 years since Byerly had buried the cash-stuffed coolers in the woods. He hadn’t dared to retrieve them while he was still under federal supervision, his every move subject to scrutiny. But it was calling to him now, this jackpot at the end of the trail, this payoff for all he’d risked and done to earn his freedom.
“I had to go get near that money,” he says. “No two ways about it.”
He took the coolers back to the cabin. Betsy played with Owen in the grass behind the place while he brushed off the dirt and cat litter and inspected his treasure for signs of rot.
Then he heard howls of pain outside.
With typical bravado, Owen had started running downhill, his momentum carrying him forward. The slope ended abruptly with a sharp drop into a ditch. He had plunged into the abyss and hit his head on a rock. Betsy had lunged after him, trying to haul him in, and injured her leg. Trembling, Byerly picked up his shrieking son and put him in the car, returned for Betsy, and rushed them both to an ER in Payson, 18 miles away. There was no time to secure or even think about the heaps of money in the cabin.
“I left that million dollars on the floor,” Byerly says. “That’s what it meant to me.”
Later, he says, after Owen was laughing at the bump on his head and the exams indicated nothing was broken, he went back to the cabin and collected the money. By Byerly’s account, the cash dribbled out over the next few years, in untraceable amounts, helping him build his new life and aid friends in need of a boost. He doesn’t care if anyone believes him or not. If there’s ever an official inquiry, he’s prepared to say he made it all up.
But that’s the thing about money — it’s there, and then it’s not. For Byerly, it was no longer as important as it once was.
Not long after the Strawberry adventure, Byerly moved his family back to Idaho’s Treasure Valley, within a few miles of where he grew up. He changed his name back to Byerly. (Goodbye, Wayne Byrd.) Before they passed away, he sought his parents’ forgiveness for all the grief he’d caused them. His mother told him he’d come back “with a brand-new soul.” His father told him he loved him.
He reconnected with his siblings, too. They’d seen him promise to change before, only to disappoint everyone. But he now seems very different, they say, from the impulsive, self-absorbed felon he once was.
“For a long time, he was going the wrong way,” says Lois Morris, his younger sister. “I am super-proud of him and the way he’s devoted himself to his family.”
“He was trying to get his life together, and it was always met with a ton of skepticism,” says his brother, Bill Byerly. “It took a while for me to figure out that the things he did were no reflection on our family. We all feel pretty good about where he’s at today.”
“It still bothers me,” Boyce says. “Sure it does. I think he owes me. And if he hits it big, he knows I’m going to be there. And if I hit it, with all my acting stuff, I’m going to hook him up. But there are no shortcuts in life.”
Byerly’s dreams of hitting it big these days revolve around the music business. He put together a music studio behind his house, where he works on the songs he’s been writing for years. He’s performed at open-mic nights and songwriter showcases in the Boise area, sometimes prefacing a number by explaining that it was written while he was on the run, or while he was trying to do good in the worst place on earth. People tell him he has quite an imagination.
When he’s not playing music, he’s driving a truck, hauling beets to a processing plant in Caldwell, or spending time at home. He has his music and his family — two boys and a girl now. By his own reckoning, he is a rich man.
“What I did in Florence makes me proud,” he says. “It’s what brought me here, to a life I never dreamed I’d have."
This story first appeared in Westword.