Most of the world never realizes that there is an invisible war being waged just outside their front door, every day. These brave undercover agents of the ATF lived on the front lines of that war, infiltrating biker gangs, hate groups and international criminal syndicates, living double lives.
Jay “JayBird” Dobyns
On July 17, the men and women of the Georgia Gang Investigators Association will convene in Savannah to hear from a living legend in the undercover field: Jay Dobyns, the first ATF undercover agent to successfully infiltrate the Hells Angels. His long and storied career has made Dobyns a household name, his legend built on his bestselling memoirs “No Angel, My Harrowing Undercover Journey to the Inner Circle of the Hells Angels” and “Catching Hell, A True Story of Abandonment and Betrayal.”
His harrowing bravery during “Operation Black Biscuit” alone would be enough to catapult him to fame in certain circles. But with every public speaking engagement, every film appearance and every spot on the New York Times bestsellers list, his fame has grown.
And if you ask him, it’s all fake.
“If you see the movies or you read the books, there’s almost this mythical urban legend vibe about it. And that is counterfeit. That is a hoax. That is a fraud that is created through our sources of entertainment,” he said. “The truth is, I’m not a hero. I look at myself as a common man who was placed in uncommon situations.”
Those uncommon situations placed him in the trenches with some of the most violent criminals the world has ever known, forcing him to walk among them as one of their own. He and his partners posed as debt collectors, heavily tattooed hustlers who might be willing to perform some murder for hire on the side, using that backstop to ingratiate themselves into the inner circle. When he infiltrated the Aryan Brotherhood, he was able to purchase 100 improvised bombs that would have otherwise flooded the streets.
Later, he worked his way into the paramilitary groups of Nevada following the Oklahoma City bombing, following several high-value targets including Bo Gritz, a highly decorated Special Forces vet from Vietnam and vice-presidential candidate running mate of Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke. But when they happened on a lone wolf named Jeffrey Tenpenny, they discovered a scheme that would have led to the bombing of three Las Vegas casinos: The Mirage, Treasure Island and The Gold Nugget.
“He had plans to do it with C4 bombs disguised as common items left in hotels — briefcases, picnic baskets… I remember telling (Tenpenny), ‘Do you understand what you’re going to do? Do you understand the size and scope of what you’re planning? Babies, grandmas and kids are going to die in this.’ He just pulled up his shirt and showed us a tattoo of a heart colored in black. He said, ‘See this? I have a black heart. I don’t care.’”
For obvious tourism-related reasons, the Las Vegas media never revealed how close the city had come to disaster. The story of how Jay Dobyns saved the city went untold. But that’s just part of the job. “Most of us don't receive any accolades, any acclaim,” said Dobyns. “What we’ve done is never publicized.”
That all changed with Operation Black Biscuit. Fifteen years into his career, a massive brawl between members of the Hells Angels and the Mongols broke out at a Laughlin, Nevada casino among a throng of innocent bystanders. ATF management decided the time had come to put a man inside, and they tapped Dobyns.
“When the case agent asked me to lead the operation, I told him, ‘I can name 10-15 agents who will probably serve you better in the role you want,” said Dobyns. “I’m not a biker, I’m a white trash pecker head quasi-hitman. That’s lot different than being a biker.”
This actually worked to his advantage, with Dobyns staying close to the truth of his cover character as he infiltrated the club. When he was offered a spot, he pushed back, telling them it didn’t help his business to advertise that he was a member of a crime syndicate. That only made them want him more. “I ended up playing the prom queen with these guys. I wasn’t trying to win them over,” he said. “In their world, when an opportunity is made, people jump... When someone says, ‘I need to think about this. I have it pretty good.’ It flat out threw them off.”
Eventually, following an ingenious ruse in which he faked the murder of a rival Mongol by photographing a fellow ATF agent covered in blood and draped in a Mongol jacket, he was patched. He would walk among them for years, ultimately resulting in 16 indictments.
It’s what came after that would haunt Dobyns. The Hells Angels put out murder contracts to other gang members — but beyond that were the threats that went beyond the pale. Confirmed letters outlining a plan to infect him with HIV, kidnap and torture his kids, gang rape his wife in front of cameras, and make Dobyns watch the video. When those threats were ignored by ATF, Dobyns pushed back at management.
In 2008, ATF management pulled all of his “backstopping,” placing Dobyns’ home address in the public domain. Dobyns claims it was done in retaliation, and has spent the intervening years successfully fighting to get the truth out.
“In the history of ATF, they had never unmasked an undercover agent’s identity. They did that willingly. It was pure retaliatory payback.”
When it became known among the criminal world who he was, who he really was, the knives came out. Just four months after his address became public knowledge, Dobyns had to flee with his family as their home burned down around them. His wife and children narrowly escaped the flames.
Sitting in his backyard, smoke still coming off the embers of his family’s home, Dobyns watched as his 10-year-old son paced the yard, a framing hammer in his hand. Young Jack told his father the hammer was in case they come back. “He said to me, ‘Who’s going to take care of mom? You’re never here.’ That hit home.”
That moment, and so many moments of time lost to his wife and his children, reframed Dobyns’ entire worldview. It made him look back at his long career and come to the conclusion it had all been a fraud.
“In self-evaluation, after having stepped away, the ‘Ah, s__’ moment for me is the tragedy that I caused my family, The battle damage that I put on my family,” he said. “I abandoned and betrayed my family in exchange for some legacy I believed I was chasing. When I look back on my career, and all these series of life-threatening events, when it came down to it the people who loved me the most are the people I treated the s___iest.”
He may view his career as a fraud, but try telling that to the people who can sleep easier knowing a violent criminal in their neighborhood is behind bars. Try telling that to the babies, grandmas and kids who didn’t die in a fiery blast on day in Las Vegas. Despite what he may believe, the world is a better place for Jay Dobyns’ long walk through hell.
Mike Connors (left) and fellow ATF undercover agent Lou Veloze (right) at Gator Smokes, an undercover storefront. Gator Smokes was one of many fake storefronts created by ATF across the country. Posing as criminals, ATF agents would set up shop and immerse themselves in the criminal underworld.
Mike “Chopper” Connors
It was the worst-case scenario for an ATF undercover agent; Mike Connors describes it as “something out of a movie.”
He had been working with an informant to infiltrate the criminal enterprises of white supremacists all over the southeast, from southern Florida into Georgia, and one lead had taken him straight up to the chief security officer for the White Georgia Knights, Daniel James Schertz. “He offered to make us some pipe bombs,” said Connors. “He thought we’d be using them to blow up migrant workers.”
The meeting was set up at Schertz’s home in Pittsburg, Tennessee, and that’s when the worst-case scenario began.
“The cover team couldn’t come up with us, it was raining out, it was night, he lived at the end of a long road that dead ended at his house, and as we’re parking, he walks out the door with a gun in his hand.”
Especially given that neither Connors nor his informant had ever met Schertz in person, it could have very easily ended in bloodshed. But being a seasoned ATF undercover, Connors was able to earn his target’s trust. At least, enough trust to show Connors the shed around back, stuffed with parts and tools for making deadly explosives.
“He had them in various states of completion, but he said he still needed a few parts,” said Connors. Fortunately, the necessary parts were just a short drive away. “We rolled down to Lowe’s. There are all these people walking around buying stuff for their homes and here we are shopping for pipe bomb components.”
Just $750 later, Connors walked away with his pipe bombs, some advice on where to put them to cause maximum destruction, and all the evidence he needed to put Schertz away for 170 months in federal prison. What disturbed Connors the most was the glee Schertz expressed in knowing his pipe bombs were going to kill innocent people just because of the color of their skin.
“He thought I was the type who’d want to do something to further the cause. That goes right along with the hatred that they spew… They’re very paranoid people, but I think they get very excited when someone out there is going to take some action that they would consider to be heroic,” he said. It was par for the course when it came to white supremacists, a group he’d immersed himself in as part of his cover. “I’d been to gatherings where they had music going and kids were boot-stomping black dummies. The whole mentality and culture are sick.”
Subscribe now to the print edition for the full article.