Wednesday, March 10, 2010


I'm just finishing reading Jay Dobyns' (written with Nils Johnson-Shelton) book, No Angel, about an ATF agent who infiltrates the Hells Angels OMG in Arizona. More memoir than procedural, and with an unhappy ending -- all the RICO stuff he and his fellow sub rosa operatives built up came pretty much to naught, because, he says, it got killed by wrangling between the ATF and the prosecuting attorneys. Plus he wound up getting death threats from the Angels once he was outed, having to move his family frequently, and eventually having one of his houses torched.

Still with the ATF in 2009, though not undercover, Dobyns sued them for failing to properly protect him and his family, and effectively killed whatever career he had there. The book became a bestseller, and he does speaking engagements these days.

I've always been fascinated by people who can do this kind of work, because I know I don't have the disposition to do it. Once, when I was doing private eye stuff, we got hired to get into a house and find out if a runaway teenager was there, and if so, if the place was a den of iniquity.

I brought my sister-in-law and a long-haired buddy, we borrowed a beat up VW van, and we pretended to break down in front of the house in question. We were welcomed in, treated well, and sure enough, found the seventeen-year-old girl, living happily with half a dozen other young women and men. Not the house of evil her father had feared, but about what you'd expect from a bunch of teens and early twenties kids living communally in the early 1970's in New Orleans.

The girl was the daughter of a local bigwig, and he wanted her home -- and all the folks in the house thrown under the jail for whatever crimes we could detect.

Fortunately for my conscience, we couldn't detect any criminal activity. Maybe she was sleeping with one of the guys. Maybe they were dealing dope. Maybe they had all been in on a dozen bank robberies, but we couldn't say so, 'cause we didn't know.

That assignment was over in a few hours, but afterward, I felt dirty. I liked the girl and the folks she was staying with a lot more than I liked the man who hired us. And that was one of the reasons I quit doing that kind of work. I didn't like how it made me feel.

As a gumshoe, I was much happier being a Fair Witness.

I couldn't conceive of maintaining that short fiction, of lying to somebody's face like that for weeks, months, or years to build a case against them. I just don't have the mindset. I mean, I'm a professional liar, I can make up stories on the spot that will sound absolutely true, but I couldn't do a Serpico, a Donny Brasco. Pretend to be somebody's friend, win their trust, then betray them, even if they were crooks.

Being a spy in a foreign country is a hard gig. Even being a hippie and passing for straight was bad enough, and that was purely in self defense -- I wasn't out to nail anybody, only keep from being nailed myself.

Then there is the old admonition -- careful when you hunt monsters, lest you become one. If you walk like a duck and quack like a duck enough to fool the other ducks? Gets to hairsplitting pretty quick.

Going native is a risk, and I'm always amused at how much time undercover ops spend when writing these things, carefully telling us what great lengths they went to to avoid toking on that joint, or beating up on somebody the gang thumped, or screwing one of the women who came on to them. Oh, no, they always faked it. They pretended to inhale but didn't. Pulled the punches and kicks. Let the woman pass out from too much booze and then let everybody think they'd boffed her, when actually, they'd been perfect gentlemen. Because, you know, that would be wrong ... plus it would sound bad on the witness stand and all.

Well, no, your honor, I wasn't smoking reefer. See, I had a Marlboro going, so I took a drag off the cigarette, then put the doobie to my lips and pretended to toke it, then I blew out the cigarette smoke and fooled 'em that way. I mean, they were all stoned and all, so they didn't catch it ...

Yeah. Uh huh. I believe that. Bill Clinton didn't inhale, either ...

Still, it's an interesting read, and a reminder that because somebody looks like he belongs doesn't mean he does.


Dave Huss said...

Read "Memos from Purgatory" again recently. At least Harlan cops to what he did and didn't do while running with the street gangs in Red Hook. Some of those autobiographies always struck me as a little bit self serving. Guess you had to be there.

Steve Perry said...

Always the problem. You're telling the story like you remember it -- or how you wish it had gone. The general spirit might be close, but the specifics are apt to be fogged over time.

Even somebody doing a warts-and-all autobiography is going to spend some time trying to justify his actions; if not to a reader, then to himself.

Yeah, I did that, but ...

Nature of how we all roll ...

jks9199 said...

Billy Queens book Under and Alone is a better, though I haven't read Jay's book. And Billy's case was successful. I've met both men - and they deserve a lot of credit and respect for what they did and went through. And still go through.

And so do their families.

And some others who haven't written books or been featured in the press, too.

The thing about any of these deep/long term undercover cases is that they don't work if the UC doesn't have some sympathy or connection to the target group. I might successfully infiltrate a science fiction convention... but would have a hell of a time trying to infiltrate the Nation of Islam. (I'm a tad bit on the pale side, being of Irish & German ethnicity...) But the real challenge is remembering whose side you're really on...

No -- I don't do UC like that. And don't particularly want to, either.

James said...

I did UC work for a while. Got to grow my hair out. Wear an earring. That sort of thing. You develop two "tracks" in your mind - your real life and your fake (UC) life. Unfortunately, sometimes the fake life feels more real than the real one. And a lot of times, it's more fun. There's also something to be said for the stress level of eating a meal across from people who, if they knew who you really were, would shoot you in the forehead and bury you in a shallow grave. Most times, you don't think about it. Most times.
I remember doing a deal in the back of a van parked in a stripper bar parking lot. Apparently, we were called in as a suspicious vehicle. How you get to be suspicious in a parking lot where women are dancing naked 50 feet away is beyond me. A deputy opens up the back of the van, looks at me and says "Oh, hey Steve, I didn't know it was you. Sorry" Then closes the door. The dealer starts looking at me real hard and I said the first thing I could think of "Can you believe that asshole is marrying my sister?". Thankfully, he bought it. Having a shoot out in the back of a van doesn't sound like it would be good for anyone involved.
Side note: I was only able to watch the movie "Training Day" once. It would have been so easy to become Denzel Washington's character that I felt a little sick.