Jay Dobyns looks at the rubble at his feet, and brother, it's a mess. Everything is black and busted up. The blaze was six months ago, and the place still stinks of smoke. This used to be his Tucson home. He steps through the broken glass and the ashes, not talking much, because what in the hell is there to say?
And for Dobyns, not having much to say is a trick.
He's a special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, author, public speaker, former UA football player and Internet celebrity known for his undercover work in the deepest penetration ever made of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang.
If you Google his name, you won't find much middle ground. Opinions on him range from true American hero to out-of-control cowboy cop who not only loves being at the center of the action, standing up to his knees in Adrenalin River; he needs it.
You see, all through his life, Dobyns has known only one way to take on anything--with grinning, arms-wide leaps off the highest ledge.
Now, at 47, his house gone from an arsonist's match, his family badly shaken by their 3 a.m. escape, Dobyns is watching his back against outlaws sworn to kill him.
I ask what goes through his mind when he looks at this wreckage, and he says, "I think to myself, not with regret, but as an honest question, 'Jay, how could you have let your life get to this point?' There has to be an easier way."
This is big. Dobyns in an act of self-reflection? It's not his strong suit.
Twenty years of undercover work dulls your capacity for self-reflection, makes it a dangerous luxury. Doubt yourself for an instant, let your mind wander to a decision made a year ago, 10 minutes ago, and you're likely to be down-by-the-river, broke-dick dead.
Does this mean Dobyns is a changed man? Does this mean he's found redemption?
The operation is codenamed Black Biscuit. Dobyns is lead undercover, working mainly with a Phoenix cop named Timmy, and a street informant known only as Pops. Their job is to get as close as possible to the Hells Angels, pretend to be their friends, see and hear everything they say and do, then betray them.
"Most people are intimidated by the Angels' reputation for violence," says Dobyns. "But we put ourselves out there as alpha dogs, and they were impressed by that. It worked because we came in balls out."
Dobyns' cover is as Jay "Bird" Davis, a knee-capper for a made-up biker gang called the Solo Angels. The world in which he lives, for 21 months, is dangerous and hyper-violent, and he describes it in a book, co-written with Nils Johnson-Shelton, called No Angel: My Harrowing Undercover Journey to the Inner Circle of the Hells Angels.
It will be published by Crown and available in bookstores on Tuesday, Feb. 10. Twentieth Century Fox already has bought movie rights.
Unless you catch your Zs on a prison cot, the book isn't bedtime reading. It has chapter titles like "Jesus Hates a Pussy." And "My Sucking Chest Wound."
Dobyns tells of characters who beat a woman unconscious after she insults them; when she awakens and insults them again, they allegedly beat her more, drag her into the desert, stab her repeatedly and try to cut off her head and stick it on a pole. But the knife can't cut through her spine. So they give up and leave her dead on the ground.
The book describes beat-downs and gang rapes, with almost all the action taking place in Arizona. He tells of an Angel approaching him at a biker rally near Flagstaff and offering Dobyns entertainment for the night--the biker's own teenage daughter and her best friend. The girls might be all of 16. At first, Dobyns is puzzled, then he figures it out. Bird's a debt collector, gun runner and supposed hit man--but not a drug addict. In other words, he has his act together.
"In the biker world, I was a catch," he writes.
Black Biscuit ends in 2003. Two other books have been written about it, but Dobyns wants to go deeper into the personal side of a long undercover job, the impact it has on an agent's psyche, on his family. After banging with the boys for weeks at a time, he tells of returning to Tucson and shedding his biker vest to coach his son's T-ball team and reconnect with wife, Gwen, who, increasingly and justifiably, wants her husband home, her family restored, the great stress lifted.
At one point, at an Angels' meeting in Mesa, Dobyns' cell rings. It's his son Jack, who chirps, "Hi, Daddy!" Keeping in character, Bird says, "Whassup? Big Lou there?" That's code for "put your mother on the line."
Eventually, inevitably, the divide between his two lives blurs, and Dobyns morphs into the worst version of himself, into Bird Davis--paranoid, fearful, always amped, swallowing a six pack of Red Bulls and three Starbucks lattes daily, along with fistfuls of speed-like diet pills that yank his eyes back into his skull in a cold, dead stare.
A year after Black Biscuit ends, Dobyns and other agents listen to surveillance tapes of four men talking. Dobyns recognizes three of them, not the fourth, and this guy's messed up. He's babbling, barely making sense. Dobyns hands the headphones to fellow agent Jenna Maguire, plays the fourth voice and says, "Who the f--- is that asshole?"
Maguire says, "You don't know?"
Dobyns says no. Maguire smiles and says, "That's you, Jay."
The hell of it is, for all that, the 16 indictments that come out of the investigation yield very little. Most are eventually dropped, or the defendants plead to much-lesser charges. The government fails to prove its basic contention that the Hells Angels are a criminal gang that commits crimes as part of an organized conspiracy.
Defense lawyers go public to charge that ATF agents used questionable tactics in gathering evidence, and they get backing from one of Black Biscuit's own operatives, the street informant Pops. In a National Geographic video on the case, he goes on camera and says agents broke rules in gathering evidence and did illegal taping.
The same video quotes Sonny Barger, godfather of the Hells Angels, debunking the central premise of Dobyns' book, that he was patched into the club as a member--given an official Hells Angels patch for his vest. Barger calls Dobyns a liar for making that claim. The video also quotes Angels lawyer Patricia Gitre alleging "pretty egregious conduct" by the undercovers, and she, too, aims criticism at Dobyns, suggesting he enjoyed his role a little too much. "But Agent Dobyns, let's be truthful," says Gitre. "There's somewhere inside of you that said, I want to be a biker."
The collapse of the case makes news in Arizona, with much of the criticism revolving around ATF's use of informants. In January 2005, Arizona Republic writer Dennis Wagner reveals that one informant was a longtime drug addict and drug seller, and another might've taken part in a murder, something unknown at the time of his enlistment by ATF. And on July 8, 2003, when agents move in to make their wrap-up arrests, one of the takedowns turned chaotic with gunfire. A judge later describes this raid--on the Hells Angels Cave Creek charter--as an "unlawful" attack.
Dobyns says Black Biscuit's failure opened the door for defense lawyers and Barger--Dobyns says he was "patched" and that Barger can't bear to admit "a cop got under his wire"--to make whatever claims they wanted, knowing they wouldn't have to back them up in court.
Dobyns becomes Black Biscuit's father, its public face, a scapegoat for the defense and for ATF. "When defense lawyers lambasted me as a dirty cop, no one at ATF stepped up and represented for me or the other undercovers," says Dobyns. "They were happy to let the public believe there was corruption in the operation when they knew there wasn't. It meant they didn't have to talk about why the case really fell apart: the bickering between ATF and the prosecutors on how to proceed. It wasn't anything the undercovers did.
He sends me a photo of a kid in a football uniform, and I'm thinking: Who's this fresh-faced boy, all wild-haired and teenage-tough? Look closer. It's Dobyns from his days at Sahuaro High School. Man, it must be a million years ago.
He grows up mainly on Tucson's eastside, loving football, loving the UA. On game days, he rides the bus from Speedway Boulevard and Camino Seco to campus to get his ticket. He dreams of one day playing on the same field, and the dream comes true. He starts for UA at wideout for three seasons in the early '80s. Former teammate Glenn Howell says, "Nobody was going to outwork Jay. Man, he was a workout freak."
When the gates to the field are locked, because it's against the rules to practice, Dobyns and Howell hop the fence and go to work running routes. Dobyns isn't fast, but he catches everything. If the quarterback throws the ball off the moon, he goes up and gets it. He wins all Pac-10 honorable mention his junior and senior years. "I didn't have much raw talent, but I played like a maniac," says Dobyns. "I had to if I wanted playing time. I threw fear out the window, played the hardest I could, and it carried over to ATF."
He starts with the ATF in 1987. While helping take down a suspect in a gone-to-hell neighborhood south of Tucson's airport called Dogpatch, Dobyns is taken hostage and shot between the shoulder blades, the bullet exiting his chest, blood arcing out the hole like someone pressing a thumb over a garden hose. He'd just taken off his ballistics vest because he felt stuffy.
Dobyns says, "I remember thinking, 'I've been on this job a week, and I'm going to die in the dirt in this f------ trailer park.'" Actually, he's been on the job nine days, which means he's been shot and taken hostage before he gets paid for the first time.
Now Dobyns is in Joliet, Ill., 1989, back at work after the shooting, and he's standing with his feet wide, his gun in the firing position as a car speeds toward him. The driver and passenger are gangster gun dealers. The passenger is leaning out the window firing a machine gun at Dobyns, who, instead of getting the bleep out of the way, is firing back with his nine--bam, bam, bam.
But Dobyns stays put because, as he says, "I always wanted to confront the most violent people, go face to face with them," and that's what he does, planting himself until the car rams him, and up he goes, hurtling over the hood and the roof. He's shot again, this time in the gut. But he keeps his vest on, so the bullet bounces off.
Howell and Dobyns stay close after their playing days. Howell even does undercover jobs with Dobyns when Howell works security for Tucson Unified School District. They were on a task force targeting gangs and guns at schools. Today, Howell is the strength and conditioning coach for Pima Community College football and the UA's rugby team.
I say to Howell, "Why does Dobyns do what he does, the undercover stuff?"
Howell says, "It goes back to athletics and being challenged. In football, they're always bringing somebody in to take your job, and Jay would see the new guy, and he loved the challenge. We had to go against some tough-ass dudes, playing LSU, USC in front of 60,000 people. The adrenalin was unbelievable, and when I went undercover with Jay, I got the same rush. That shit's fun. People'd say, 'Aren't you scared?' And I'd say, 'No. because I have my boy here.' Jay was my cover guy. That comes from playing ball with somebody, knowing how he works and that he'll give himself up for the team.
"That's why the Hells Angels loved him. He got in because he was, like, one of their dudes. He's a great teammate ... even if it's a criminal teammate."
We're driving in Dobyns' rig, the model of which will remain nameless, and Dobyns is telling me he's done running. He's lived in 16 places in 48 months, and enough's enough: no more bouncing from city to city, no more aliases. "After the fire, I said, 'That's it,'" Dobyns says. "I'm not going to be intimidated by these threats anymore. I'm gonna make my stand and be happy doing it."
He tells me where, but I won't name the state, the city or anything that might lead to him. "But they're still hunting you," I say. I know this without asking, because here we are going down the road, and he's checking the mirrors, looking for someone tagging too close, staying with him through too many turns, and he's got his piece with him--because he never goes anywhere without it.
"I might regret this," says Dobyns. "But I've lost a big chunk of my life using the escape-and-evade mentality, and it hasn't worked. They keep finding me."
We drive along in sun-drenched silence, the windshield flickering with shadow and light, shadow and light, from the branches of the ghostly winter trees overhanging the road, and suddenly, without prompting, he comes out with a startling remark, a declaration of pride, motivation and self-identity deeper than anything he says in all our e-mails, meetings and phone calls.
This apologia runs a total of four words. Dobyns says: "I'm the good guy."
How strange it sounds, because good guys usually don't have to cover their tracks this way, and they don't look how Dobyns looks, which is a bit like a dime-rock dealer on his birthday. His head is shaved, and he's wearing fatigue shorts, flip-flops and an Arizona Cardinals football cap pulled low against thick, black sunglasses, and he's got enough skin ink to piece together a good-size novel. And now, away from the ashes of his home, he's plenty talkative, puffing a Marlboro Light, blowing smoke out the window, the sun glinting off the look-at-me rings on his fingers, as he gestures, puffs, gestures, puffs.
I say to him, "Good guy? The Hells Angels don't think you're a good guy. By now, I'm sure ATF doesn't, either."
It's true. Dobyns is a man alone, hunted by what he calls a criminal syndicate, his house in ashes, and now he's locked in a brutal lawsuit against ATF, his own employer, charging that they've essentially abandoned him against those trying to cap him.
Shortly after Black Biscuit ends, and after Dobyns' identity is revealed, the threats begin. The first comes in August 2004 at Club Congress in downtown Tucson. Dobyns is working a case when a Hells Angel walks in, recognizes him as Bird, noses up and tells him the Angels have found where he lives, and he's "going to get hurt." He says to Dobyns, "You're going to spend the rest of your life on the run!"
The threats keep coming, according to court papers. A prisoner says his former cellmate talks of wanting to place a gun to the back of Dobyns' head and pull the trigger. Other informants tell law enforcement the Hells Angels have allegedly farmed a hit out to the Aryan Brotherhood and MS-13. The feds hear talk of wanting to rape his teenage daughter, kidnap and gang-rape his wife and videotape it.
Dobyns wants ATF to go after the people making the threats--confront them, breathe on them, make them understand the agency is prepared to use its full power to protect their man. But Dobyns says they don't step forward to sufficiently protect him and his family, and he sues. This case ends in a settlement in September 2007, with the agency agreeing to change the way it responds in the future.
Then the fire happens, Aug. 10, 2008. Someone torches a bookcase on the Dobyns' back porch, and the light from the flames is so intense that it awakens Jack, then 13. He races into his mom's room, shouting, "There's a fire! There's a fire!" Just as Gwen Dobyns sits up, an electrical outlet beside her bed explodes and tosses out a flash of fire that runs like lightning up to the ceiling.
The three of them, Gwen, Jack and older sister Dale, get out safely. The home is destroyed, $300,000 in damage. For reasons no one understands, Jack chose to sleep that night in his sister's room, right off the porch. It was the weekend, and Dale had fallen asleep watching TV on the living-room couch. If Jack had gone into his bedroom, there would've been no one in the porch bedroom, and the fire would've burned longer before anyone noticed. "It was a miracle," says Gwen. "God put Jack in her room that night."
The fire is plainly a hit attempt on Dobyns or his family, and he says it merits the dispatch of 100 ATF agents to comb the site, talk to neighbors, turn informants inside out. Instead, the agency responds by sending one investigator to the house 30 hours after the incident. No supervisor comes. Dobyns sees it as part of the same pattern that existed before the first lawsuit was settled. He says, "ATF's attitude is, 'You're gonna whistle us? OK, we're not doing a f------ thing for you.'"
An independent agency--the Office of Inspector General, part of the Department of Justice--largely backs Dobyns on his charge that ATF did not respond appropriately to the threats. The OIG investigates four of the threats against Dobyns and concludes that ATF "needlessly and inappropriately delayed its responses to two of the threats" and "should have done more to investigate two of the threats."
Two months after the fire, Dobyns files a second lawsuit, this time asking for $4,000,050 in damages for harassment and abuse, including the tarnishing of his name. His suit claims a supervisor, in front of others at ATF's Phoenix headquarters, declared Dobyns mentally unfit for duty. "Dobyns is broken," the supervisor allegedly says. "It is my duty to see Dobyns removed from this field division and this agency."
The suit also drops this bombshell: Sixteen days after the blaze, Dobyns is on the phone with an ATF supervisor who offers to transfer him and his family out of the area. Dobyns says he's not moving again until ATF makes some effort to find the arsonist, and so far, Dobyns tells the man, you've done a piss-poor job investigating the fire.
Later that day, in another call with ATF, Dobyns is told he's a suspect in the arson. The agency he still works for thinks he might've tried to murder his own family.
Now we're sitting on the sidewalk outside of a coffee bar talking about Dobyns' alibi. It's a strange thing to need when you've won ATF's Distinguished Service Medal for investigative excellence, 12 additional ATF awards for investigative achievement, and the Top Cops Award from the National Association of Police Organizations.
The last one is presented to him by then-U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, a Tucson guy now working at Canyon Ranch. He's the doc who greets Dobyns when he's wheeled into the ER after the 1987 shooting, the guy who re-inflates Dobyns' lung, plugs the holes in him and says of those aware of the extraordinary dangers Dobyns accepted in Black Biscuit: "Some of them (older Tucson cops) are in awe of him because of what he volunteered to do against guys who'd think nothing of eliminating him."
But now he needs an alibi, and this is it: He's in Phoenix at the time of the fire, taking flying lessons. He's staying at a hotel on a credit card. His cell is pinging all over the Valley, and it pings all the way down Interstate 10 as he drives home after the emergency call. Investigators interview him five times, and every time, he tells them, begs them, to pull up the damn rugs, look at everything, credit receipts, financial papers, phone records.
He's got a Marlboro Light going, and he's sipping a three-shot venti caramel macchiato from Starbucks--he still drinks three a day--and his cell phone is on the table between us, and it begins to sing. The ring tone is from the rapper Nelly.
Boom-bada-boom-bada-boom. "Yeah ... yeah ... OK." He clicks off. He puffs his Marlboro, heaves a plume of smoke across the sun. "I told them, I said, 'Give me a lie-detector test.' It's routine to give an arson suspect a polygraph. 'Go ahead, put me on the box.' But they won't do it. They don't check out my alibi. They do nothing to eliminate me as a suspect."
But the kicker comes the day after the fire--his family terrified, much of what he owns in ashes--when ATF tells Dobyns they're doubling his workload. He leans across the table, his Ray Charles shades framing his bald head: "Do you think if they believed I set this fire, really tried to kill my family, they'd offer to transfer me? They'd double my workload? Would they keep an attempted murderer on the payroll? It's pure harassment."
Asked to describe her reaction upon hearing Jay is a suspect in the blaze, Gwen Dobyns sputters to find the words. "It's an emotion that's hard to explain. I'm very protective of my husband." She pauses, searches again for the right words. "It makes me incredibly angry. I can feel my heart race just talking about it."
Dobyns says investigation of the fire started with Pima County, went to ATF and is now with the FBI. But when contacted by the Weekly, Special Agent Manuel Johnson, media coordinator for the FBI in Phoenix, neither confirms nor denies the agency's involvement in the investigation. Tom Mangan, ATF's spokesman in Phoenix, declines to comment on the arson or on Dobyns' lawsuit. He refers a call to ATF's D.C. headquarters, but a lawyer there refers the call to another spokesman, who does not call back.
In a CNN report on Dobyns that aired before the settlement of his first lawsuit, Mike Sullivan, ATF's acting director, issues this statement: "As ATF executes its mission to prevent terrorism, reduce violent crime and protect the public, we will continue to place the highest value on ensuring the safety of our employees and their families."
So this is what it's like now for the man alone, sitting at a sidewalk café in broad daylight, watching the next car as it rolls past, because it might contain the gunmen coming for him, waiting for the night, when he hears every sound, every unexplained knock, sometimes jumping from bed to clear the house with a shotgun.
It's a form of agony, sure, but not a crippling one. Dobyns still makes public appearances and gives speeches here and around the country--the topic, of course, is how to manage risk--still does his job for ATF, still, as he says, goes through every day with a smile, marveling at how blessed he is ... and now, how liberating it is, after years on the run, to say: Enough! It stops here. He calls his new strategy hiding in plain sight.
It's a huge risk, but it fits his character perfectly. It's another all-ahead-full, balls-out circus leap. You're bringing in new players to take my job as wide receiver? OK, boys, let's see what you've got.
Listen to him speak of how he's decided to live, the pride in the words, the willingness to poke the hornet's nest and bathe in the fallout.
"I'll be damned if I'm gonna wear a fake mustache and wig and hide from these guys," says Dobyns. "I don't want to fight. I don't want trouble. Look, it's been six years, and you won anyway. Let it go. But if they come for me, they better bring some dudes, because we're gonna get it on."
I ask Howell what the daily pressure does to Dobyns, and Howell says: "He's concerned. But if anybody's gonna f--- with Jay, he's got the wrong dude to f--- with. He's smart, thinks on his feet. He's calm, mentally strong, and that's what makes him dangerous. If you're trying to get at him, it's hard to do, because he's so mentally tough."
And Dobyns' redemption? It has nothing to do with the way he did his job. If he could consult a genie and erase events of his past, he wouldn't change a thing. He'd even take that bullet again. No, the redemption he needs is for what the job did to his family. Dobyns put undercover work ahead of his wife and kids, and that brought the nightmare of Black Biscuit to them as well.
"It's disheartening I did that, but I don't dodge accountability," he says. "I justified it, believing there was a greater good in taking bad men off the street, and I wanted my family to embrace that philosophy as much as I did. It was self-serving. They didn't sign up for this job; I did."
Now it looks like the job will never end. Black Biscuit will never end. The people who want Dobyns dead have elephant memories, and by talking about it, by writing the book, by signing the movie deal, by his star turns on CNN, National Geographic, the History Channel, Dobyns himself is keeping the story alive. He does so, he says, to make sure people know the truth, to reverse the humiliation he feels at ATF's disavowal of his work.
But it makes the biker role permanent. It keeps the curtain from falling on this danger-loving cat named Bird Davis. In No Angel, Dobyns writes: "I thought I'd been the one infiltrating the Hells Angels. I had it backwards. They were the ones who had infiltrated me."
Dobyns is at a party at the Spirits Lounge in Mesa. Three Angels push a drunken blonde at him, having decided Bird should take her home. She curtseys at him, and, very drunk, pumps her fists and shouts: "Gimme a B! ... Gimme an I ... Gimme an R! ... Gimme a D! What does it spell? Bird! That's my man! If he can't do me, no one can!"
Bird plays along, because he has to play along. Dobyns has been avoiding women and has heard whispers about that from these men who, he believes, make gang rape a pastime. So to cover himself, he lets the cheerleader sit on his lap, even gives her a piggyback ride around the pool table.
Then the party moves to an Angels clubhouse, and the cheerleader tags along--now Dobyns realizes he's made a big mistake. By allowing the cheerleader to come to the clubhouse, Bird has delivered her "into the mouth of the lion," into a possible gang rape. Dobyns writes, "I had to get us both out of there. Pronto."
Thinking fast, talking fast, he does so. They get onto Bird's bike, the cheerleader barely able to hang on as he drives her home. He gets her inside, dumps her onto her bed, unconscious, and his mind starts to work. Is this a setup, some kind of test? Maybe he's been made, the girl poisoned, and Dobyns will be discovered with the body. Maybe she's the old lady of an enemy, and Dobyns is a pawn in a game of payback.
The more he thinks, the more he's convinced the Angels have tailed him. He calls a member of the task force and asks for a sweep of the area. It's done. No sign of the Angels outside the house. But Dobyns isn't ready to leave. His paranoia won't let him.
He wanders the house while the cheerleader sleeps. In the refrigerator, he finds turkey, moldy cheese, some ketchup, and makes a sandwich. In the living room, he sits in a chair and eats, and when he's done, he puts his head back and shuts his eyes.
Burn that image into your mind. It captures the essence of undercover work.
See a man eating a crummy sandwich alone in the dark in a strange woman's house, having saved her from herself, because as a cop, an officer of the law, he's sworn to do that, no matter how foolish the choices she's made, and having saved himself from the mistake he made in cozying up to her, a split-second call, an instinct call, the consequences of the wrong one so easily lethal.
But it's not over, even in the quiet of that room, because he still has to go outside, and who knows what awaits? And as he thinks with his eyes closed, he sees a likely scene from his future. It features him in a courtroom witness box, answering questions about what he's done this night, about his mistake, and about every night over 21 months, under oath, justifying everything in an inch-by-inch public strip-down.
Remember the image of the tattooed man. He's the good guy. He did what he was asked to do.