“On November 15, 2006,” according to a government document, “Special Agent Daniel Hebert of ATF’s New Orleans Field Office” officially reported that he had spoken to an unnamed Hells Angel. The unnamed Angel told Hebert he had talked to a club brother named Doug Wistrom and he had learned from Wistrom that the Hells Angels were “going to start our campaign against (ATF Special Agent Jay) Dobyns. We know where he is….”
Where Dobyns was that November was hiding out in Los Angeles. The bright, big nowhere was his fourth city in two years. Tucson had yielded to the wine country around Santa Maria, California. From there Dobyns was transferred to El Lay which was a doorway to what the ATF has described as a “covert apartment” in Washington, DC. Then in June 2006 he was ordered back to the TMZ which had always been his first choice.
In Los Angeles the ATF started threatening to transfer Dobyns yet again. According to Dobyns, his supervisor told him that he “had worn out his welcome with ATF. If I have my way,” the supervisor continued, “you’ll spend the rest of your career in Headquarters or Guam. I am familiar with Anderson Air Force Base there. It is a postage stamp in the middle of nowhere. A perfect place for you to finish your career.” As Dobyns describes it, he was not surprised. He already thought the ATF was out to get him.
Significant Activity Report
Hebert’s “Significant Activity Report” described the fourth rumored threat Dobyns had heard during his exodus. The last one turned out to be almost magically ironic. When the ATF asked the New Orleans Agent to elaborate, Hebert replied that his source was “often full of crap.” And, then he explained that the campaign to which his snitch had referred, “was more of a legal nature, such as lawsuits and all.”
Dobyns insists that there was more to the threat than that. He claims that the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club “intended to sue” him “in civil court with the intention of getting him fired.” Once he was “outside of ATF protection” the motorcycle club was going to murder him. And, according to Dobyns version, before the unnamed Angels murdered him they were going to “arrange and videotape the gang rape” of his wife.
So now, in February 2010, I conclude it must have been just about November of 2006 that Jay Dobyns became lost. Life does not need turning points but stories do.
Describing him as “lost” may be a way of making excuses for Dobyns. I want to make excuses for him. I do not want to think that he is as crazy and greedy and hungry for fame as he seems. Jay Dobyns is an immensely likable guy: Man’s man, been shot, good athlete, humble, plain spoken and the ATF hates him. The first thing I ever said to Dobyns was something like, “I can see how you got over on the Angels.”
But, my attitude toward the guy swings like a pendulum. I sympathize with him until I glance up at my favorite Jay Dobyns quote. It is something he told a writer named Julian Sher in 2004 or 2005 and when I sat down to write this I scribbled the quote on a post-it note and stuck that note on the upper left corner of my computer screen. On the note Jay says, “I know I can get over on people.”
Dobyns adventures have been recounted so many times; he has given so many interviews and so much testimony; he has said so many contradictory things and so many contradictory things have been said about him that he has become thoroughly camouflaged in a cloud of confusion. At the same time, people who know nothing about bikers or motorcycle clubs know the name Jay Dobyns.
Threats two, three and four against Dobyns were all reported by snitches hoping to score a couple of gold stars from some government agent. Threat one came in anger, over drinks in a Tucson bar, when a Hells Angel named Robert McKay allegedly told Dobyns that he was “a marked man” who was “going to spend the rest of his life on the run.” McKay was arrested the next day for threatening a federal agent and in his memoir Dobyns portrays McKay’s arrest as an investigative victory.
An author named Kerrie Droban published a book about Dobyns three years ago. It is called Running With The Devil and that title alludes to McKay and Dobyn’s conversation. According to Droban, McKay’s exact words were, “We’ll find you. We’ll get you. For the rest of your life you’ll be running from the devil.”
Well, maybe McKay said that. I don’t know for sure. I haven’t checked with McKay and neither Droban nor Dobyns has told me what the exact words really were. An ATF Agent named Darrin Kozlowski is supposed to have been with Dobyns that evening so I guess he could confirm the quote. But, I have been looking for Kozlowski and it is starting to looking like Kozlowski doesn’t want me to find him. So, I have to go by my instincts and my instincts say Droban probably made up the quote.
I wish she hadn’t. It is such a good quote I wish I could have led this story with that. It is like the moment Macbeth meets the witches on the dark and foggy moor. Because from the lofty perch of here and now McKay’s pronouncement does not look like a threat at all. It looks like a prophesy. Or a curse.
Jay Dobyns is a former University of Arizona football star and a long time ATF Agent who was posing as a freelance gun dealer in Bullhead City, Arizona in the Spring of 2002. He says he was drinking with some Hells Angels in a bar in the Flamingo in Laughlin, Nevada when a memorable biker brawl erupted up Casino Road in Harrah’s. Other accounts say Dobyns was playing cards and frolicking with his peers in a safe house the night of the brawl.
Wherever he was he was close enough to the action to become one of the lead Agents on the scene. When the ATF decided to launch an undercover investigation of the Hells Angels in Arizona it became Jay Dobyns’ case.
The investigation soon incorporated the brutal murder of a woman named Cynthia Garcia who had allegedly visited the Hells Angels Mesa Clubhouse, offended her hosts, been beaten then thrown into a car trunk and murdered in the desert outside town. In an attempt to conceal her identity her murderers are said to have tried to behead her and gruesomely failed.
The upshot was a largely unsuccessful, law enforcement drama called Operation Black Biscuit. Dobyns and other amateur thespians posed as a chapter of the Solo Angeles CM, a motorcycle club with chapters in southern California and northern Baja Mexico. He ingratiated himself to various Hells Angels in Arizona, California and Nevada; hung around the club; bought and sold suspicious amounts of guns and drugs; prospected with the Skull Valley charter; pretended to murder a Mongol in Mexico; and, in 2003, he had fifty of his new best friends arrested.
The case was trumpeted as a long sought victory of good over evil and Dobyns was routinely described as a “hero” and a “super agent.” Dobyns himself has said that after Black Biscuit he became ATF’s “golden boy.” By 2006, three years after the investigation ended – after about three years of revisionist fermentation – ATF friendly accounts of Dobyns’ adventures had begun to percolate into American mass media.
The Legend Of Agent Jay
Nobody wants to tell me who invented the legend of Agent Jay Dobyns. Either Dobyns pushed himself into the national spotlight or the ATF pulled him. Work on the first two books about his adventures actually started in 2004.
The first, substantial, written account of Black Biscuit took up about 220 pages of a book titled Angels of Death by Sher and William Marsden. The book was published in 2006. Sher has cordial relations with the ATF and he appears to have had access to official ATF documents that have never been made public. Numerous ATF Agents including Dobyns, Kozlowski and Los Angeles Special Agent John Ciccone are quoted extensively in Angels of Death. The book is unsourced and not footnoted but it does acknowledge: “Tom Mangan of the ATF.” In the same way that I know that Droban’s quote was too good to be true I also know that Sher and Marsden’s book could not have been written and published without the enthusiastic cooperation of the ATF.
The second written account was Droban’s. She is a former Maricopa County Deputy Attorney who has parlayed her book into a part time career as a biker authority. She describes herself as “the female Woodward and Bernstein.” Her publicity photo shows her wearing jeans and a black, leather jacket. And, her expose of the Pagans Motorcycle Club, titled Age of Fire, will be published this year by St. Martin’s Press.
The Legend Continues
Droban has publically stated that she was asked by “a mutual friend” in 2004 if she “would be interested in writing about the ATF sting against the Hells Angels, code named, Operation Black Biscuit. I was familiar with the case,” she says, “since it had received some national coverage on America’s Most Wanted, and I knew several of the participants involved in the investigation.”
But she refuses to tell me who the mutual friend was, and who his friends were, and who she knew inside the investigation. I am just some guy. I go by a funny nickname. Worst of all I am rude. I demand to know how much of her account “was fed to you by the ATF?”
She replies that her “material came from the horses’ mouths and not the horses’ asses if you get my drift? I researched the old fashioned way, getting in the trenches, interviewing the players, reviewing highly sensitive and confidential material. I can’t reveal how I got my hands on that.”
Which leaves me no choice but to infer that she also had the enthusiastic cooperation of the ATF. She quotes numerous ATF sources, describes various locations and brags that she had private access to “highly sensitive and confidential,” official ATF documents. So I guess her answer to my question is yes: Her account was fed to her by the ATF. Which means that the ATF was pushing Dobyns into the spotlight. Which like everything about Jay Dobyns might be true or it might be false.
Plot Point One
The business end of the horse, you pick the end, claims the Bureau did not help Droban at all. “Running with the Devil,” Jay Dobyns tells me, “was written by someone with no access to the biker world and relied exclusively on her interpretation of public documents. I think she did okay. Her book was viewed as a success but she got a lot of the story wrong.”
So I go back to trying to decide if Dobyns was pushed or pulled into celebrity.
I decide to call both heads and tails. By November 2006, around the time his supervisor was threatening to transfer him to “a postage stamp in the middle of nowhere,” both Dobyns and the ATF had invested so much effort into making him look like a war hero that there was no turning back. “Jay Dobyns is a good guy” was practically a hit song.
“We reminded ourselves every day when we went out that we’re the good guys, they’re the bad guys,” Dobyns told Sher. “We’re pretending, they’re believing.” That pronouncement stumps me for about a full day. Dobyns seems to like to say things like that. I think Dobyns wants us all to believe that he has mastered the miracle of the immaculate perception. And, when we get confused if we just listen to him we will all come out of it okay.
Suits And Settlements
After the threat reported by Agent Hebert, after the threatened transfer to Guam, Dobyns sued the ATF. He complained that the Bureau had botched his first transfer to Santa Maria; that the ATF had not taken the threats against him as seriously as it should have; that he and his family had been endangered by a giant, stupid bureaucracy; and that somebody with deep pockets owed him big time for what he had had to endure.
Eventually the ATF gave in and, if I have read the settlement correctly, the Bureau agreed to give Dobyns and his lawyer $373,000 if he would just shut up. I might have missed something but I think the deal was: “Here is a third of a million dollars now shut up.” First the ATF wanted Dobyns to be famous. Then they paid him $373.000 of public money to stop being famous. That stumps me, too.
The settlement was agreed upon in September 2007 but it did not settle anything. The ATF was late on its payments and subjected Dobyns to “internal affairs investigations … on over eleven different occasions.” Dobyns did not get along with his supervisors in Los Angeles, and eventually he moved back to Tucson where, he said, his enemies were.
In August 2008 somebody set fire to Dobyns’ house. The fire apparently caused about $30,000 damage although in some accounts it caused ten times that amount. Dobyns asserts that his insurance company, State Farm, determined the destruction to his home and contents “to be a near total loss.”
Someone had tossed a small amount of flammable liquid on Dobyns back porch and set a match. Dobyns was “verifiably out of town” at the time. His cell phone was turned on so its location was traceable and the phone proved that at the time of the fire Dobyns was actually travelling away from Tucson. At least his phone was taking a trip. But, his wife and children were home and they were forced out into the night dressed only for bed.
A “senior ATF Phoenix supervisor” named Dobyns as a suspect in the arson. Dobyns has called that accusation a “malicious reprisal.”
The more of these documented accusations and counteraccusations I read through the more lost I become.
Not The Angels
Many of Dobyns defenders have assumed that the fire was set by members or friends of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club. For example, last July a flamboyantly gay dust bunny named Shepard Smith greeted Dobyns to his Fox News show with:
“Jay Dobyns joins us now live and we’re not going to tell you where he is. Jay, thanks for being with us. The Hells Angels burned down your house with your family inside. Fortunately they, uh, escaped. They put a contract on your head.”
Dobyns did not bother to correct Smith. Maybe he was just paralyzed with fear that at any moment Shepard Smith might also actually burst into flames, but when I watch the interview I get the impression that Dobyns really wants the world to think the Angels did it. Maybe that is just me.
When I asked him about the putative connection between the fire and the motorcycle club Dobyns answered as if that connection was all my idea. “I have never said to anyone publicly or privately that the Hells Angels burned my house down,” Dobyns told me. “Find where I have. I have said that ATF let someone get away with it and in the process also get away with attempting to murder my family. Believe it or not but my beef is not with the Hells Angels. They are in my rear view mirror. My beef is with ATF.”
I stand corrected.
In September 2009, less than a month after the fire, Dobyns sued the ATF again for slightly more than $4 million. He wanted $1.6 million to compensate him for his “suffering;” $600 thousand to compensate his wife and children for their “suffering;” $200 thousand for his lawyer; and he also asked for ten years pay at the rate of $185,000 per year.
The ATF seemed to think that Dobyns had gone crazy. Really, really crazy. “Crazy for feeling so lonely…crazy for feeling so blue…crazy for trying and crazy for crying.”
Crazy Or Sane
Public documents assert that an ATF supervisor “stated in front of multiple witnesses on multiple occasions” that “Dobyns is mentally unfit for duty,” and “Dobyns is broken.” The supervisor has been quoted as saying, “it is my duty to see that Dobyns is removed from…this agency.” Allegedly, an ATF Internal Affairs Investigator classified Dobyns as “certifiable,” by which he meant crazy.
The ATF retained a psychiatrist named Daniel Blumberg who allegedly betrayed his conclusions about Dobyns’ mental health to ATF officials after “privileged and confidential sessions with Dobyns.” According to Dobyns, the psychiatrist later apologized and explained that he had been “coerced and extorted” into disclosing the “privileged information” out of “fear that he would lose his ATF-funded retainer contract.”
Dobyns accused the ATF of attempting to publish, release and expose his “medical records to defame, intimidate and coerce” him. And, according to Dobyns, these attempts to discredit him as crazy began in the autumn of 2006, the season when all the world was being told he was a hero.
Dobyns has formally accused the “senior Los Angeles ATF supervisor,” whose name is John Torres, of trying to “defame Dobyns to his peers and other law enforcement agencies outside of ATF. The Los Angeles supervisor enlisted the support of ATF supervisors in Chicago and Seattle to obstruct justice by defaming Dobyns as a government witness. The Los Angeles supervisor also attempted to recruit ATF attorneys into his defamation scheme.”
Apparently, I am the only person left on the planet who has not seen Dobyns’ psychological evaluation so I ask Dobyns for his side of it.
“No shrink ever judged me crazy,” he says. “ATF’s psyche Doctor did a post case analysis of me. His conclusions were that I was fine. Those conclusions remained private and protected. Some ATF bosses who wanted to burn me down thought there might be a smoking gun there. They extorted my medical records from the Doctor hoping to establish their argument. But, I got the last laugh because when they got them, the Doctor’s opinion was that I was healthy.”
Really, Really, Really Completely Sane
All of this argument over Dobyns’ sanity was going on as he was being portrayed as the “good guy” who had infiltrated and justifiably betrayed the “bad guys,” the Hells Angels. I impulsively jump to the conclusion that Dobyns is being scapegoated by the ATF for the failed prosecution of the case he investigated.
That is what I do. I ask rude questions and I jump to unfounded conclusions. I ask Dobyns, “Are you mentally and emotionally fit?”
Dobyns replies, “Maybe. Going through what I have and am going through changes a person. In my case probably for the worse. You lose faith in people in general. You question whether or not people you trusted really understand loyalty. I am mentally strong. I think that fits better. My will is undefeatable and resilient. Mentally…emotionally fit? Yes, but with lots of battle damage.”
That response is my second favorite Jay Dobyns’ quote of all time. I put that one on a post-it note on the upper right hand corner of my computer screen. I ask Jay Dobyns if he is sane and he tells me, “Maybe.”
I think that is the most honest thing Dobyns has said in years. I also think it is interesting that Dobyns greatest fear seems to be that he will be betrayed.
For the last twelve or thirteen months I have been trying to get a handle on the psychology of undercover cops in general and the ATF agents who infiltrate motorcycle clubs in particular. And, the conclusion I have jumped to about that is that most of these guys are like whores who start cumming with their customers. When that happens they have to get out. Motorcycle clubs are very overpowering social constructions and it is hard to be an undercover in a club.
The model has always been Donnie Brasco – this sort of tortured guy who has to live in two worlds and then betray one of them. And then he is betrayed in turn by the world he chooses. “Donnie Brasco” is itself a fiction -a story, something very different from everyday life- but sometimes the only way people can make sense of their lives is by telling a story; by making up a lie that is truer than true.
In the aftermath of motorcycle club investigations this Donnie Brasco story gets retold over and over: In the Warlocks case, in Operation Ivan, in Black Biscuit and I can see it already in Operation Black Rain. Stephen Martin and Billy Queen both seem to have seen themselves as Donnie Brasco. I think Jay Dobyns became the flavor of Donnie Brasco that emphasizes the hero’s own betrayal.
I think with under cover cops the line between fiction and reality becomes very confused. I also think that most of the story telling that goes on after these investigations, especially the story telling that went on after Black Biscuit, is a way of redrawing lines that the investigation itself erased: The lines between good and bad and right and wrong and true and false and legal and illegal and especially the lines between loyalty and betrayal.
Dobyns told Sher that he had to remind himself everyday who was good and who was bad, who was pretending and who was not. He had to tell himself to know.
At the conclusion of Black Biscuit Dobyns killed a Mongol for his new club brothers. It was a make believe killing and the victim was a make believe Mongol but also Dobyns was a make believe Hells Angel. The staged murder was entirely Dobyns own invention. Nobody in the ATF told him to do it. And I think that was almost certainly the moment Dobyns started cumming with his customers. You do not exactly have to be Sigmund Freud to understand the real power of symbolic acts.
The Story With A Thousand Titles
A very important authority named Joseph Campbell is most importantly remembered for his description of a story he called the monomyth: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder,” Campbell wrote. “Fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won.”
“From 2001 to 2003 Dobyns led an undercover ATF investigation that targeted the Hells Angels,” an authorized version of the Jay Dobyns’ story asserts. “The investigation was entitled Operation Black Biscuit. Dobyns’ work led to an unprecedented, first-ever police infiltration of the Hells Angels in the Hells Angels’ (then) fifty-five year history. Numerous search and arrest warrants supplemented the federal indictment of sixteen or more Hells Angels members for, inter alia, violation of the RICO laws. In order to best accomplish this mission, Dobyns’ undercover role forced him to become immersed in the outlaw biker culture and lifestyle.”
The problem with Dobyns’ story is that it is really two stories trying to be one. The trouble with Joseph Campbell’s monomyth is that it tries to weld two myths into one.
The story that Jay Dobyns really has to tell is the one about how his “undercover role forced him to become immersed in the outlaw biker culture and lifestyle.” It could be a good story. Nine years after the invention of the motorcycle, Stephen Crane wrote a few lines that I think describes how under cover cops get seduced by the outlaw world.
I stood upon a high place,
And saw, below, many devils
and carousing in sin.
One looked up, grinning,
And said, “Comrade! Brother!”
But Dobyns has never told that story and he probably never will because the story the ATF wants told is the one about how fabulous forces were encountered and a decisive victory was won.
Whether Kerrie Droban knows anything or not, at least she gets it. She knows why publishers buy books. Droban frankly acknowledges that what she is selling is “a voyeuristic view of life inside the Hells Angels.”
Four months after his house was torched, three months after he sued the ATF again, Dobyns published his own account of his “harrowing undercover journey to the inner circle of the Hells Angels.”
No Angel, published by Crown in 2009, was actually sold the same year Droban’s book was published. Dobyns’ book, co-written by a Nils Johnson-Shelton, was originally titled Almost Angels: The True Story of the First Cop to Infiltrate the Hells Angels-the World’s Most Infamous and Impenetrable Motorcycle Gang. But the title was changed partly because Almost Angels was also the title of a 1962 Disney documentary about the Vienna Boy’s Choir and mostly because anybody who might buy the book would already know who the Hells Angels are.
What Dobyns had to sell was a guided tour of the outlaw world. The story the ATF wanted was about a “decisive victory.” Dobyns and Johnson-Shelton obviously did their best to write the ATF the valentine it demanded and the result is a really shallow and mendacious book. A year ago, after the book came out, I called Dobyns the “Shameless Jackass of the Year.”
That is how I roll. I ask a few rude questions, jump to a few facile conclusions, call Dobyns a shameless jackass and then I am perfectly satisfied to pat myself on the back. Only, Dobyns refuses to let me off that easy.
“I don’t disagree with your assessments of me, my work or my book,” he writes me. “There are elements of the story not told, lots of them. There are lawyers involved and I was not permitted to discuss anything that I knew to be true but could not prove in a courtroom.”
“When you gain someone’s trust and loyalty all with the pre-determined conclusion to betray it,” Dobyns tells me another time, “you are going to make enemies and create vendettas. In the case of the outlaw world those hatreds are heightened because it is a world that relies on trust and loyalty. I am stupid. I did make mistakes, lots of them. I don’t apologize for them to anyone but my family but of course there are lots of things I would do differently if I did it again. But, bottom line, is that I would do it again. You don’t have to understand.”
Dobyns stubbornly refuses to tell the story I think he should have told. He is determined to stick to the story he thinks the ATF wants him to tell. He was a “good guy.” He was not a “bad guy.” I think those are the only two lines he has left on his map. I don’t think he wrote his book because he wants to get rich or because he wants to become a successful author but because he wants everybody who reads it to agree with him about who he is. I don’t think he is suing the ATF for money. He is suing the ATF to make the Bureau agree with him.
I think eight years after the brawl at Harrah’s the lines all have to be where Jay Dobyns says they are because if they are not then he is lost.
Three weeks ago, on January 31st, the ATF sued Dobyns for an “accounting, restitution, and disgorgement of all money received, or to be received, by Mr. Dobyns” from his book No Angel and from “an agreement with 20th Century Fox regarding the sale of rights to the book for purposes of making a motion picture.”
“After the conclusion of Operation Black Biscuit,” the lawsuit self-righteously complains, “Mr. Dobyns sold the story of his official duties for his own private gain.”
I cannot read this 35 page document without both laughing out loud and grunting in amazement. Although, in the last year, I have gotten very sick of writing about Dobyns I feel obliged to report this strange twist. I ask him to comment on the countersuit and he refuses, petulantly. He tells me he can’t trust me and that is absolutely, purely Jay Dobyns.
We have a little exchange. I insult him and I insult his book. He writes back to tell me how much he is looking forward to reading a book I am writing about the Mongols case. And, that is also absolutely, purely Jay Dobyns.
I really don’t quite know what to make of this guy. Sometimes we are Wiley Coyote and Ralph the Watch Dog. Other times we are Wiley Coyote and Ralph the Watch Dog on our lunch break. We exchange a few words about the book business.
“I would not be discouraged to write your book by some 5th Avenue pogue whose biggest risk in life has been to decide how much of his 401k to take out to buy his yacht,” Dobyns encourages me. It is an entirely unsolicited kindness. It is the last word I have from him before I sit down to write this.
Every once in a while I have to look up at the top left corner of my computer lest I too become lost. “I know I can get over on people,” Dobyns brags.
Everybody, apparently, except the ATF.