Jay Dobyns is a mile from the Las Vegas Hells Angels’ clubhouse and only a few steps from biker hangout Hogs & Heifers. He ain’t scared.
“If these guys are going to shoot me, there is no cooler place to die than the Mob Museum.” In retrospect, it’s not a bad motto to carve into the marble outside.
Dobyns, 52, is the former undercover agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who, following the April 27, 2002, Hells Angels/Mongols rumble at Harrah’s in Laughlin, infiltrated the Angels in Arizona as part of Operation Black Biscuit. This, as one might imagine, did not endear him to the most notorious outlaw motorcycle club in the world.
But when Dobyns strutted up to the middle of the museum’s courtroom for a speaking engagement on September 17, he was quick to note that the facility had been swept by bomb-sniffing dogs, there was additional security hired for the evening, and he had a couple of undercover buddies planted in the audience, just in case.
That news does not, for the record, make one feel more safe. Though I grudgingly had to concede his point about the cool factor of dying in an Angels vengeance strike at the same place that once housed the Kefauver hearings.
Dobyns was there to give an abbreviated account of his Black Biscuit memoir, the 2009 New York Timesbest-seller No Angel. It’s a breezy read about the painstaking efforts Dobyns and the ATF went through to bring an anti-racketeering case against the Angels, and how it mostly fell apart during prosecution.
The best things that ever happened to the Hells Angels were Hunter S. Thompson’s 1966 breakthrough gonzo classic on the gang and the 1969 Altamont stabbing that left the club inextricably tied to “Gimme Shelter.” They created, in two quick strokes, a mystique around the club that might have otherwise left them like the rival Pagans—a force, to be sure, but barely on the mainstream radar.
Instead, they’ve become a touchstone in their own right, part of the delightful contrarian streak that’s as American as mom, apple pie and chain-whipping anyone who gets in your way. Yet there’s something about bikers that’s apart from the other outlaws we secretly root for—your Mafiosi, your bootleggers, your Stringer Bells or what have you.
“I think what makes them so appealing, and what separates them from traditional organized crime, is that they are so out there, they are so brazen, they are so flamboyant about it, to the point where they wear uniforms that say who they are,” Dobyns says. “As a culture we’re intrigued by that, that people say ‘Hey, I’m a criminal. I don’t care what you think about that. I’m not doing it in a dark alley. Here’s who I am. I’m advertising it to you. Either live with it, or move on.’ I think that sense of confidence is a level of empowerment or self-esteem that a lot of people don’t have, and I think they’re fascinated by that.”
Thompson noticed it nearly 50 years ago, when the Angels were still in their adolescence: “Even people who think the Angels should all be put to sleep find it easy to identify with them. They command a fascination, however reluctant, that borders on psychic masturbation.”
That’s why the Sons of Anarchy Season 6 premiere can draw nearly 6 million viewers. It’s a series that’s had about a season and a half worth of really great television, but has spiraled into wildly over-the-top melodrama over the last couple of years. Thief, about a burglary crew and, like Sons, also on the FX network, didn’t last past six episodes. Clearly, there’s something compelling about highly organized, well-mobilized sociopaths.
There’s something just as compelling about the undercover cop story—just look at how many of those movies are big, brash, critically acclaimed pieces. Donnie Brasco, The Departed, Eastern Promises, uh …Point Break. Dobyns sees a lot of truth in the razor’s-edge dread that defines the subgenre.
“You look at The Departed, and as extraordinary as that story was, there are elements that are spot-on,” he says. “Some of the concerns, the anxieties, of DiCaprio’s character. Some of the things he says and experiences are spot-on accurate.”
But there are two crucial distinctions that the fiction misses. As an undercover, Dobyns said when things got hairy for him, it was because he started buying into his own hype, wrapping himself in a hero myth that caused him to put the mission above everything else, including his own safety. It’s something he regrets.
And on the other side, the romance of the outlaw biker isn’t so romantic when you realize that the Hells Angels have done things like sue Disney over Wild Hogs in order to protect its trademark. The law is an inconvenient speed bump until you need it to defend your revenue streams from kid-friendly corporations.
“I think it’s all money-driven. There’s no other motivation for it. They own something, they make a lot of money behind the trademarked death’s head [Hells Angels logo] and the registered names,” he says. “When someone violates that, they’re going to protect their interest. They can sell the public on this whole propaganda mantra of ‘club first,’ but it’s money first.”
As hilariously cynical as it is to have a bunch of bikers going toe-to-toe with Walt and the Nine Old Men, it points to a parallel between motorcycle clubbers and undercover agents. It’s a constructed identity—a misdirection with just enough truth in it to make it mostly believable to those unwilling or unable to see through the shine. All those cuts and rings and choppers and beards are so much armor. It’s great for the rank-and-file. It gives Hells Angels godfather Sonny Barger somewhere to market his personally branded beer, Sonny’s Lean & Mean Lager.
There’s a feedback loop in all of those meticulously crafted personalities. Dobyns talked about feeling like he had some internal brainwashing going on as he proceeded through the case. That the operation was taking over his personality. When the case broke big and Dobyns’ cover was blown for good, he says it was a brutal hit.
“At the time, putting a bullet in me would’ve hurt me less than taking undercover work away from me. Here’s where I became dangerous, in hindsight. Undercover work evolved from what I did to who I was.”
Maybe that’s why Sons and Donnie Brasco are so grabby. It’s not just the cops-and-robbers escapism that intrigues us, but it’s the tacit invitation to rewrite our sense of self to fit an orderly, purposeful set of rules.
Or maybe we just want an excuse to wear cool leather vests.