Written by Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg and Originally Published in The Wall Street Journal on March 4th, 2009.
Agent Jay Dobyns, a former star football player at the University of Arizona, had the size, attitude and tattoos to look the part of a Hells Angels member. In the summer of 2001, Mr. Dobyns, then a 14-year veteran at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, was asked to join a task force focused on infiltrating the motorcycle gang and stopping the sale of illegal weapons in Bullhead City, Ariz.
The mission was code-named "Black Biscuit," and Mr. Dobyns left his wife and two children for weeks at a time to create a believable persona that enabled him to successfully penetrate a local Arizona Hells Angels chapter.
But Mr. Dobyns came close to crossing the line. In a bid to amp up his energy level, he developed a dangerous dependence on the weight-loss pill Hydroxycut during the 21 months he spent undercover. It was not the only decision he later regretted, as he describes in his new book, "No Angel: My Harrowing Undercover Journey to the Inner Circle of the Hells Angels," written with Nils Johnson-Shelton. The work is now a best seller.
Mr. Dobyns, 47 years old, eventually had a public falling out with the ATF -- he is currently a plaintiff in a $4 million lawsuit against the agency in the U.S. District Court of Arizona, alleging defamation of character and the failure to protect him and his family, according to his attorney, James Reed, a partner in Baird, Williams & Greer, in Phoenix. Yet Mr. Dobyns remains an agency employee, now working in ballistics evidence. "I won't quit," he says.
The ATF declined to comment on the book and lawsuit. The agency said in a statement that it "does not, as a matter of policy, comment on personnel matters or pending litigation."
The Wall Street Journal: The Hells Angels you met seemed to take you at face value. Were you surprised that they weren't more skeptical?
Jay Dobyns: By the time the case started, I had mastered every skill and trick of the trade, the tradecraft of undercover work. In hindsight, they should have been more skeptical, but I'm good at what I do.
WSJ: Outlaw motorcycle gangs are often portrayed as drug couriers. Did you see any evidence of that?
Mr. Dobyns: Narcotics was a big part of our case. I won't say that I was hitting stash house after stash house. A lot of it was street level narcotics. I never got to the giant massive quantity of drugs that I believed were out there and that I expected to get to.
WSJ: You write that eventually warrants were served on 50 defendants, but in the epilogue you note that many received short sentences while others got off entirely. What happened?
Mr. Dobyns: The investigation was a success based on the evidence and testimony. But we lost the prosecution. The good guys couldn't get along. The agency and prosecutors disagreed over how to present evidence, and what evidence to present. The internal bickering got out of hand, and very sweet plea deals were offered and charges were dismissed. The good guys started attacking themselves. Unfortunately the risks I took and the sacrifices I made don't carry weight in the eyes of prosecutors and the court. It's a cold, calculated business.
WSJ: You had a major falling out with the ATF, where you still work, and have filed a lawsuit. Why?
Mr. Dobyns: After the case ended I began to receive death and violence threats against me and my kids. Contracts were being offered to kill me. And the ATF did nothing. The same agency that encouraged and sent me to go toe-to-toe on behalf of their mission of fighting violent crime, ran and hid. In essence, I've been left on my own to figure out how to defend myself. When I blew the whistle on how they handled it, that's when the falling out came. My story isn't unique. I was just the first one to stand up and call them out on it.
WSJ: Your house in Tucson burned down. What happened?
Mr. Dobyns: It was a total loss, and everything in it was a total loss. I'm still rebuilding. It was definitely arson, which has become another point of contention. The ATF didn't react to the fire initially. They later sent a single arson investigator, who determined the cause was arson. Agency managers tried to get him to change his conclusion, but he refused. He wouldn't compromise his integrity. He was then removed from the case. Then the ATF named me as a suspect and handed the case to the FBI. The ATF alleged I set my own house on fire. And my family was in the house at the time. They were saying I tried to kill my family.
WSJ: How many times did you and your family have to move, and what is your living situation today?
Mr. Dobyns: Over the course of five years we have lived in 16 different houses. It's a transient lifestyle. [Mr. Dobyns declined to say where he and his family now reside for security reasons.]
WSJ: Why are the Hells Angels such an iconic organization?
Mr. Dobyns: They are America's bad boys. And America loves bad boys. Not every Hells Angels member I met was a rapist or murderer. Some called me on Thanksgiving or Christmas because they knew I was alone and said, come on over and hang out. Most of them, most of the time, have a smile on their faces. But heaven forbid that you insult them, or get involved crossways with their business.
WSJ: Why did you want to write this book?
Mr. Dobyns: The public was left with the impression that the case failed -- that there had to be something wrong with the undercover guys. I wanted to set the record straight. The undercover case was magnificent. The agency and prosecutors left the undercover operators to be the scapegoats for the prosecution, and that wasn't the case.
WSJ: Any regrets? You seemed to like some of the gang members you met. And you put your family through hell.
Mr. Dobyns: My biggest regret is that I abandoned my family in pursuit of this mission. I take no pride in having turned my back on my wife and kids for the relentless purpose of infiltrating that gang. Do I apologize to the Hells Angels for getting inside their club? Absolutely not. My job is to handle America's business.