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.