Updated: Jan 23, 2021
In the spring of 1973, you might have met a guy in the Slocan Valley named Bill Lane, who was living in his van.
He looked like many other young Americans who came north during that era, either escaping the Vietnam War or joining the back-to-the-land movement, or both. But he was actually FBI special agent Cril Payne on a dubious — and completely illegal — mission.
Six years later wrote a book that was part mea culpa, condemning his former agency and the tactics it used. Deep Cover: An FBI Agent Infiltrates the Radical Underground devotes several chapters to the few months he spent in the West Kootenay. It was serialized in the Castlegar News shortly after it came out, although I’m not sure many people remember it.
Payne joined the FBI in 1968 after graduating from law school in Texas. He became a deep cover operative in 1972, growing his hair long to blend in with demonstrators at the Republican national convention, where he was severely beaten by Miami police. To help make his cover story believable, the FBI circulated a backdated mugshot, indicating he was wanted for political crimes.
Payne’s primary mission was to find wanted members of the Weathermen, a militant organization that wanted to overthrow US imperialism and claimed responsibility for bombing the US Capitol, Pentagon, and other government buildings. His arrival in Canada came after hooking up with a woman in Seattle named Karen, whom the FBI thought had contacts with radicals. She didn’t.
Shortly after they got to the West Kootenay, they were pulled over by police, causing an international incident.
It’s the funniest part of a book that doesn’t have many funny parts. While the van was littered with drugs, they tried to be as polite as possible, and after Payne’s driver’s license was run through the FBI’s database and came back clean, they were free to go. Payne later learned:
When Karen and I had been stopped by the RCMP officer in Slocan Park, he had checked my identification through the NCIC computer. Though the officer received a routine reply that I was not ‘wanted,’ all hell broke loose at FBI headquarters. The Revolutionary Activities Section of the Domestic Intelligence Division was immediately notified that the RCMP had inquired about the fictitious identity of a deep cover operative in Canada. Red Alert! What’s gone wrong? Was he arrested? Is he in jail? Did he have an accident? Frantic calls from the Bureau to Seattle. Seattle ordered to contact Special L immediately and find out what was going on … It was a bureaucratic nightmare.
(Payne also learned the RCMP officer found him suspicious because he seemed too deferential to authority.)
Payne and Karen stayed at the Rosebery campground for a while, then got on each other’s nerves. She returned to Seattle, while he drove back alone to the Slocan Valley, which he described as “an isolated, undeveloped area of incomparable natural beauty.”
He found no sign of the Weathermen, or even anyone who knew them, although he thought he might have spotted Mark Rudd at the Winlaw store. (Probably not. When Rudd turned himself in to authorities in 1977, he’d been living under a false name in Brooklyn.)
Payne did meet a lot of interesting people, though, including Mr. Chicken, who lived in a converted chicken coop near Hills. The FBI thought he was a former resident of a commune known as Weathermen Haven North and wanted him as a material witness to a murder, but it turned out be mistaken identity: Mr. Chicken’s real name was the same as the wanted fellow’s but he was a different guy.
Others Payne met helped change his worldview. In particular, he visited the Wild Horse commune near Ymir.
I was fascinated by … their unique lifestyle. Considering what they had accomplished and the primitive way they had gone about it, the entire commune was an amazing display of human perseverance.
As I drove back to Slocan Valley, I reviewed the profound experience of my week at the commune. The people I met had been genuine, sincere individuals dedicated to establishing a new life in the wilderness. I think they realized that more is not always better and that the quality of life takes precedence over materialistic quality. Everything they had was shared freely. In essence, all they really wanted was to be left alone to live their lives in the way they saw fit … After their warm hospitality and interesting conversations, I was forced to ask myself what right an FBI agent had to violate the privacy of hardworking Canadian citizens in an attempt to learn their political views? The answer was alarmingly simple: none!
Payne soon realized his undercover work was far from the glamorous image portrayed in spy movies, and he began to have doubts about the entire operation.
For me it was a lonely, often guilt-ridden experience … Perhaps this was my reward for exploiting and manipulating people in the name of national security. Were the Weathermen actually capable of starting a revolution in the United States? Or was it essentially just a matter of wounded pride among the pompous bureaucrats and the egotistical politicians? How easy it must be to sit in a plush Washington office with a fat paycheck and nonchalantly talk about penetrating the innermost thoughts of deep cover targets. Hell, those targets weren’t paper cutouts. They were people with hopes, aspirations and human frailties exactly like mine.
Payne eventually concluded the counterculture posed about the same threat to national security as Communism: none. But his superiors, reared under J. Edgar Hoover, couldn’t accept it.
Subversives and radicals were typically characterized with an inflammatory rhetoric that was designed to please Bureau headquarters and Director Hoover. As the years passed, many agents simply filed new reports that perpetrated the same over-zealous characterization …
[W]ould my continuing to live as an underground fugitive, disregarding laws, individual rights, and the very essence of freedom ultimately justify the end result? … Is there any logical justification for the premise that the government can secretly violate the law for the purpose of arresting citizens who violated the law, in order to demonstrate that violating the law is wrong?
Payne repeatedly asked his superiors what the acting or incoming FBI director thought of the covert operation in Canada. The answer was always that he hadn’t been briefed yet.
However, in 1978, three former FBI officials were indicted for conspiring to “oppress citizens of the United States who were relatives and acquaintances of Weatherman fugitives” by violating their constitutional rights. They included Mark Felt — later revealed to be Deep Throat of the Watergate affair. One of the cases was dropped, while Felt and another man were convicted and fined, but pardoned by President Ronald Reagan.
Payne was much more critical of his superiors than his fellow agents, who actually carried out the illegal acts: “They were honest, dedicated, well-meaning people conditioned to following orders without giving consideration to moral judgements.”
Payne wasn’t the only undercover FBI agent in the area at the time. Another, identified only as Willie, joined him for a while and they attended a music festival at “a provincial park north of Castlegar” — possibly Syringa, although it’s more to the west than to the north. More likely it was Pass Creek, even though it is a regional park, not a provincial park. Karl Koerber kindly provided photos he took at a music festival there, probably in 1973. Is Cril Payne somewhere in the crowd?
Below: BC band Brain Damage performs at Pass Creek park. Members included Gary Cramer on guitar and vocals, Helen Davis on vocals, Bing Jensen on guitar and vocals, and Dave Engleman on bass. In 2011, Davis and Jensen reunited as Brain Child for the Vallican Whole’s 40th anniversary. (Karl Koerber photos)
How factual is Payne’s tale? It’s hard to know. The West Kootenay geography is generally very accurate; he obviously had a map handy to refresh his memory. He mentions Nelson, Castlegar, Trail, South Slocan, Slocan Park, Winlaw, Slocan, Silverton, New Denver, Rosebery, and Balfour. No local individuals are named, although various pseudonyms and nicknames are used.
World events he mentions did happen in the spring of 1973, although this would have been easy enough to verify, even before Google. He mentions the resignations of Watergate figures H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman on April 30, 1973; the dismissal of charges against Daniel Ellsberg over the Pentagon Papers on May 11, 1973 and the discovery of an Ellsberg wiretap file in a White House safe three days later. Payne also says he spent his 30th birthday — May 28, 1973 — alone at the Rosebery campground.
The sections that cover his months in the West Kootenay are incredibly detailed, despite Payne’s admission that it was initially difficult to jot down even license plate numbers while he was with Karen, for fear of tipping his hand. He didn’t write his own reports, but after leaving the FBI he filed a freedom of information request for his deep cover file — only to be refused on the grounds that it was classified. It’s unclear if he made notes of his activities at the time or if everything in the book is from memory.
One curiosity: Payne says he was provided with a fake birth certificate by a fixer in Vancouver known as The Professor. Under his new identity, he was Bob Johnson, born May 28, 1943 at Hoffman, Saskatchewan.
The Professor mentioned that I shouldn’t be concerned about using the document because it was impossible to verify the birth. Since the building that housed public records at Hoffman had been destroyed by fire several years earlier, there was no existing record of births prior to the disaster.
However, there is no such place as Hoffman. I think it was a nod to Abby Hoffman, the American political activist who founded the Yippie party, and about whom the FBI kept a file of over 13,000 pages.
Payne latter butted heads with the FBI over their refusal to live up to an agreement to transfer him to the Dallas office and eventually quit the organization in 1976. He ignored a subpoena to testify before a federal grand jury, believing it to be a fishing expedition that might result in perjury charges.
Payne went on to work for land title companies in Crested Butte, Colorado, and later was assistant general counsel for the State of Texas and director of legal affairs for the University of Texas medical branch. He died in 2006, age 63.
Deep Cover is in the local history collection of the Nelson Public Library and in the Selkirk College library.
Updated on April 3, 2018 to add Karl Koerber’s photos.