Jaybird stepped into a dingy hotel room in Tucson. He stood at 6-foot-1, head shaven and tattoo sleeves on both arms. In this moment, he was a ruthless explosives trafficker, buying pipe bombs from a husband and wife team. When he returned home later, he would become Jay Dobyns, father and husband.
As he completed the transaction, the couple’s daughter sat on the floor watching television.
“I was enraged by their lack of concern for their daughter,” Dobyns said.
Nevertheless, he walked outside and noticed an ice cream truck. Deciding to add a glimpse of enjoyment to the daughter’s life, Jaybird returned to the hotel room with an ice cream cone, and pistols in his face.
“I had my hands up,” Dobyns said. “All I said was, I brought your baby an ice cream cone.”
Welcome to the ATF
Dobyns was an all-conference wide receiver for UA. His father brought his family to Tucson looking for work as a carpenter.
“The Tucson community is my home,” Dobyns said. “I cherish the people who live there. They are the people who supported me when I was young and cheered for me as an athlete.”
Dobyns saw much success in an Arizona uniform. The three-year starter graduated as the second-leading pass catcher in UA history and would be enshrined in the Pima County Sports Hall of Fame.
“I had great teammates from every walk of life you could imagine,” Dobyns said. “This brotherhood is formed when you grind and work for each other.”
Two failed attempts at professional football left Dobyns and his football career in question.
“I wanted and believed that I was going to play professional football,” Dobyns said. “I just wasn’t good enough. I have no excuse.”
Despite the setback, Dobyns carried that drive and determination into law enforcement—the Miami Vice life, as he calls it.
“I was drawn to the sexiness of it, to the freedom and rush and assuming a persona and pretending to be someone you weren’t,” Dobyns said. “I was excited about the opportunity to go into that and survive. Make a difference in the communities I worked in for the people who couldn’t or wouldn’t stand up for themselves.”
Dobyns joined the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) in 1987. He would quickly learn about the not-so-glamorous life of an undercover federal agent—the life he calls dirty, nasty and grimy.
“Four days on the job, I got taken hostage and shot in the back,” Dobyns said. “After four days of thinking I was entering the land of Miami Vice, I was bleeding in a trailer park, laying in a rusted out swing set, with cars on blocks around me. There was blood squirting out of my chest like you were holding your thumb over a garden hose.”
Dobyns was in luck that day. Dr. Richard Carmona, future 17th Surgeon General of the United States, was the operating trauma surgeon at the time at University Medical Center.
“It wasn’t the best of circumstances meeting because he had been shot involving some bad guys on the south side,” Carmona said. “The relationship grew because we had a common bond far from me just being his trauma surgeon. He’s a real outspoken and fun guy to be with.”
Dobyns tells it like it is and doesn’t hold back. He has done enough lying in his life. He’s seen more than 500 investigations as an undercover agent and responded to the likes of the Rodney King riots and the Columbine massacre.
“You are living a lie,” Dobyns said. “If they find out who you really are, they will put a razor to your throat or a bullet to the back of your head. You’ll probably never see it coming.”
Vince Cefalu knows the deal. The retired ATF special agent worked with Dobyns in undercover work for more than 25 years. But Cefalu swears that Dobyns’ charm and funny personality was what set him apart in the field.
“I remember on a murder-for-hire operation, Jay pulled out a Spiderman Pez dispenser in the back of a Denny’s,” Cefalu said. “He seriously asked the guy if he wanted a Pez. No cop in the world would ever fucking say something like that and talk about blowing somebody up.”
Dobyns tended to flirt with the dangers of Jaybird. In what would become known as Operation Black Biscuit, Dobyns became the first person to infiltrate the Hells Angels organization and become a full-patched member, although the Hells Angels disagree.
“You are associating for hours and days and years on end with some of the most dangerous and violent men on the planet,” Dobyns said. “Every day the first mission is to stay alive.”
Stay alive he did.
“I remember the day he called me and said he gained acceptance into the Hells Angels and I knew he accomplished something extraordinary,” said Louie Quinonez, retired ATF special agent and Dobyns’ partner.
At times, Dobyns is the first to admit he became lost in the violent life. With a family at home, the separation between the two personas became difficult to differentiate.
“I did a lot of battle damage to my family,” Dobyns said. “Just like criminals on the street were afraid of Jaybird, my family was afraid of me at that point in time. That’s a very humiliating statement to make. I was nobody’s knight in shining armor. I had a job to do, a lot of days I failed.”
Quinonez believes that trait is what sets Dobyns apart.
“Jay Dobyns is the kind of person who is not afraid to tell you about his successes,” Quinonez said. “He will tell you with equal vigor about his failures.”
In the same breath, Quinonez paused to laugh. He was reminded of a story that Dobyns tells of when he played against USC in college.
“He got hit so hard making a catch that when he got up he went to the defensive huddle,” Quinonez said. “He takes pride in his own accomplishments. You get the whole version.”
One man versus the government
Very few have the audacity to sue the United States Government. Even fewer succeed. Dobyns did.
“If you back Jay Dobyns in a corner, he’s gonna fight,” Cefalu said. “He may lose, but he’s gonna fight if he’s right.”
In August of 2008, the Dobyns family home was burnt to the ground. The fire left the Dobyns family in turmoil and demonstrated how dangerous the life can be.
“Nobody seemed to help,” Dobyns said. “The people I worked for didn’t feel like they had any obligation to respond or pay attention to that.”
While outspoken, he was most concerned about the dozens of death and violent threats against him and his family.
“That guy has literally dedicated his life to ATF,” Cefalu said. “He’s not a quitter. He tried to solve it peacefully and internally.”
Dobyns found the one way he could change the game: sue the U.S. Department of Justice.
“I filed a lawsuit against the Federal Government and the people I served my entire adult life for,” Dobyns said. “To get justice for me and I wanted to make sure they never did anything like that to anybody again.”
Dobyns and his attorney Jim Reed would go up against unlimited resources, money and attorneys.
“I’m no hero, but they messed with the wrong guy because I was not going to quit until I saw that through,” Dobyns said. “I’m not going to quit.”
Dobyns won the six-year trial in 2014, yet the case sits currently at an appellate court.
“He’s been described as a polarizing individual in some of his civil case struggles with ATF, but the people who would say that just don’t know him,” Quinonez said. “He is such an inspiring individual and is so good with young people, a great parent and means what he says and says what he means.”
Bleeding UA blood
When Arizona head football coach Rich Rodriguez needed a spokesman for a new Arizona Athletics video titled “Definition of OKG (Our Kind of Guy),” the program tabbed Dobyns to narrate.
“That was one of the most honoring things that’s ever happened to me,” Dobyns said. “The video is designed to touch the toughness and the heart that it takes that they want from their athletes in the Arizona football program. That’s the kind of player I was.”
In the video, Dobyns recites the
famous Rodriguez line: Be comfortable being uncomfortable.
“That spoke to my profession,” Dobyns said. “That’s what I had done in the afterlife of football as an undercover officer. Working to be comfortable while I was uncomfortable. I had to be calm and confident in situations that were very dangerous. The translation between those two worlds was perfect.”
When asked to narrate, the answer was easy. He wanted to honor the program that gave him his start.
“My experience at Arizona on campus as a student were exceptional,” Dobyns said. “My experiences as part of the football program had impacts on me that affected me and changed my life in a positive way.”
Nowadays, one can find Dobyns serving as a movie consultant to bring authenticity to police characters and presenting his story all over the country to young law enforcement.
“I feel like I have an obligation to try and advance the profession and educate younger law enforcement officers,” Dobyns said. “You don’t need to repeat the mistakes I made because I can tell you how they turn out. They turn out bad.”
But his roots will always be in the Old Pueblo.
“Jay bleeds UA blood,” Cefalu said. “The guy spilled blood for Tucson and he would do it again today. He’s Tucson’s chosen son.”
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