A Very Hellish Journey

The first thought that might cross your mind when you meet Jay Dobyns is, I wonder if this man is going to kill me. Something about the shaved head and tangled goatee, the death-skull tattoos and silver rings on every finger, gives him a somewhat menacing look. His heavily muscled arms are inked shoulder to wrist. His eyes, icy blue, can be hard and unforgiving. When he is angry—and Dobyns is very, very angry—he cusses volcanically.

His fearsome persona was convincing enough to fool the Hells Angels into believing Dobyns was one of them. In 2001 the decorated, 15-year agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms went undercover and infiltrated the outlaw gang. His job: get evidence to bring down its members for a long list of alleged crimes, including drug running, extortion and murder. For nearly two years, the churchgoing former University of Arizona wide receiver assumed the fictional identity of Jaybird Davis, a debt collector, gun runner and biker. He soon impressed the Hells Angels with tales of murder and mayhem, and won initiation into their inner circle by agreeing to bash in the skull of a rival gang member.

In fact, the ATF staged the attack: a Phoenix cop posed for "proof" photos as the dead man, his head covered in cow brains. It wasn't easy for Dobyns to keep his cover without breaking the law, or his wedding vows. He says he turned down bong hits and offers of sex with Hells Angels groupies. To avoid suspicion, he festooned his body with more and more gang tattoos, and talked meaner and tougher than anyone around him. Once, he says, a gang member scolded him for being too flamboyantly outlaw. "You look like a convict, you talk like a surfer and all the jewelry is like you're f–––ing Liberace on crack," he recalls the biker saying. "Tone your s––– down." When he could, he'd sneak home to Tucson and slip briefly back into his life as a husband and father of two.

Dobyns's risky work seemed to pay off. In summer 2003, "Operation Black Biscuit" and parallel raids ended with the arrest of 52 people, leading to the indictment of 16 Hells Angels and associates on racketeering and murder charges. Dobyns and his team of fellow undercover agents were heroes. The ATF awarded him the Distinguished Service Medal. His recently released book about the undercover operation, "No Angel," is climbing the bestseller list. Twentieth Century Fox just bought the movie rights to his story.

But Dobyns says he is anything but happy about the way things have worked out. In the years since the sting ended, he has had a hard time returning to life as an ordinary citizen. His face is now too well known for undercover work, and there are few adrenaline rushes to be had in his new assignment managing an ATF ballistics program that analyzes crime-scene evidence.

He also fears for his safety. Though he takes precautions to conceal where he lives, he says the Hells Angels are after him and his family. He has documented numerous death threats, and last summer his house was set on fire. Most of all, he is furious at the ATF, which he says now treats him like a pariah. He says the agency has done little to protect him or to go after the people who want him dead.

This month he sued the government for $4 million, charging that the bureau he risked his life for has left him to fend for himself. His claims are backed, in part, by the Department of Justice inspector general's office, which issued a report last September concluding the ATF hadn't done enough to conceal his identity and "needlessly and inappropriately" delayed responding to two of the threats against him. (The ATF would not comment on the details of Dobyns's complaints. "The safety and welfare of our employees is of utmost concern to the ATF," a spokesman says. Further, the ATF says it "does not, as a matter of policy, comment on personnel matters or pending litigation.") "I still love ATF," he says. "No group is more eager to go toe-to-toe with predators. But I have a serious problem with white-collar desk-drivers who are going out of their way to ruin me."

The trouble began when the Hells Angels cases went to court. If convicted, many of the defendants would have faced long prison terms. But the bikers' lawyers successfully argued that investigators and prosecutors had mishandled and withheld evidence, undermining the defense. The charges against several defendants were dropped; others wound up pleading to lesser offenses.

Dobyns says he started getting death threats. In 2004 he was working undercover on a new case when he unexpectedly bumped into the Hells Angels tattoo artist who had inked the skulls on his arms. "We know who you are," Dobyns recalls him saying. "We know where you live. You'll run the rest of your life." The tattoo artist pleaded guilty to threatening a federal officer and served 17 months.

After that the ATF moved Dobyns and his family several times. He lived for a while in California and Washington, D.C. He says he asked the bureau to move him covertly, giving him a new identity and keeping his address a secret. But he says the ATF told him "a covert move was not a cost-effective use of their resources."

Instead, Dobyns says, "I started doing my own backstopping." He moved from rental to rental, putting the one-month leases under his wife Gwen's name, "trying to break the paper trail to me." He paid cash for all his cars so there wouldn't be loan documents to trace.

Dobyns says the death threats followed him. Legal documents filed in his lawsuit allege threats "by or from members of the [Hells Angels] and their criminal associates." The bureau, he says, failed to take them seriously. When he filed a formal complaint, he says the higher-ups branded him a troublemaker and pulled him from undercover work. He eventually settled with the agency for an undisclosed amount.

After moving around for a few years, Dobyns wanted to settle in one place with his wife, son and daughter. He bought a house, and appealed to a judge to remove his name from tax records. Around 3:30 a.m. one night last August, someone set fire to his back patio. Dobyns was out of town, but his wife and family were inside. "I looked up and there was a wall of orange flames," says Gwen. They got out in time, but the house was nearly destroyed. The arson investigation, still ongoing, was turned over to the FBI.

Dobyns says he understands homeowners are always considered suspects, but he is furious that investigators still haven't cleared his name, despite his repeated offers to take a polygraph. (An FBI spokesman says he "can't confirm or deny there's an investigation involving Mr. Dobyns.") "They are basically accusing me of attempting to murder my own family," he says.

This is what seems to most animate Dobyns's anger—his sense of dismay that the ATF has turned against him. "I have done every dirty, rat-snake assignment for them for 20 years," he says. "I've done nothing but go to war for them." Dobyns lived for the danger and excitement of undercover work. As a rookie agent, he was shot in the back before he got his first paycheck. He volunteered for dangerous duty, posing as a gang member and drug dealer. Throughout the years, he's won 12 commendations for his work.

He takes guff from his family and friends for still dressing and acting like an outlaw. After two decades of working the streets, "I kind of fell in love with my props," he says. "It became who I was." He says he misses "the rush of riding in a pack of gangsters at 85 miles per hour, only 18 inches apart. That's a rush that even catching a pass in front of 70,000 people in a stadium can't match."

Dobyns and his family now live in a sparsely furnished rental while they wait to rebuild the house that burned down. His wife has mixed emotions about staying. "I understand where he's coming from, we're all sick of this and ready to get on with a normal life," she says. "On the other hand, sometimes I think if we move just one more time, don't tell anyone, go into sort of our own kind of witness-protection program, it would be a good idea." She pauses. "I am very protective of my husband, but God, he has gotten his ass kicked."

People may say Dobyns is using his complaint to drive publicity for his book, or that he's asking for trouble by calling attention to himself. And he admits the last few years have been miserable for his wife and kids. "The battle damage I have done to my family with this is terrible," he says. "But I'm not moving anymore. I am not running anymore." He sounds by turns bellicose and exhausted. "I am not afraid. I will not be intimidated and forced to wear a wig and a plastic nose and mustache. I am going to live my life."