Jay J. Armes, who considers himself the world's greatest private investigator, is eating a fried egg on toast with a fork that's clamped in the vise grip of his right steel hook. The hook also contains a weapon, or a number of weapons, Armes says, as does his left hook. He doesn't want to get too specific, he says. Might destroy some of his strategic advantage.
Armes claims to have pulled off hundreds of capers, and says he drives a hot sports car that can emit a smoke screen, has a rifle range in his basement, gets all "the latest machine guns," pilots jet helicopters, has 2,600 agents on retainer around the globe and speaks 33 dialects of Chinese, not to mention German and Italian. According to Armes, Universal has him under contract so William Friedkin can make a film about him. The Ideal Toy Co. makes a Jay J. Armes doll, "like G.I. Joe," he says.
Over the years, Armes has repeated his boasts to Newsweek, People and to other journalists. There are, however, reasons to question some of what he claims. While Armes says he is 39 years old, a court paper shows he is really 49. The Federal Aviation Administration has no record of his airman's certificate. The movie contract has long since expired, and Ideal doesn't make his doll anymore.
Armes' latest caper is a new magazine he's funded, dedicated to investigative journalism, with Jack Anderson as its publisher.
Like its investigator and publisher, The Investigator is a curious blend of competent writing, self-aggrandizement and insignificant filler material. The first issue has Anderson writing on one of his perennial topics, Robert Vesco; a piece by William Proxmire on his Golden Fleece award; a hardly hard-hitting investigative cover story on the Red Cross that questions the organization's surplus of money; a report on cancer cures; and a "Jay J. Armes Case History" in which the chief investigator of the magazine solves a seemingly routine murder mystery involving a former millionaire couple, since divorced. The man is now a cook at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas; his ex-wife serves tacos and enchiladas at a lunch counter in Las Crucas.
"Most of your magazine articles are from-rags-to-riches," Armes says of his own contribution to the monthly. "I decided we'd be unique if we did the vice versa."
Vice versa also seems to be how investigative reporter Jack Anderson dealt with Jay J. Armes. Anderson went into business with Armes earlier this year, having met Armes only a few times. Asked about some of the inconsistencies in Armes' past, Anderson says, "Even if he is a hoaxter, I see no reason to pull out of the magazine at this time. Under the terms of my contract, I have to publish one of his articles each month. If I wanted to stop using his pieces, I'd have to go to the lawyers. If the lawyers said I had to publish it, I would publish it after checking every damn word of it." Anderson says that he has recently "launched an investigation of him Armes ."
Anderson's new partner lost both his hands some years ago -- at age 11, Armes says -- when he accidentally detonated a box of railroad torpedoes in El Paso.
"I said, 'Dear Lord, why me?' Just at the same time, I caught myself and asked the Lord for forgiveness. My parents were going to sue the railroad, but they dropped the suit. They realized it wasn't the railroad's fault." (In 1975, Armes told a People magazine reporter that he was paid an $80,000 settlement for the loss of his hands.)
Armes recovered quickly, and went on to become a private investigator. He says he has rescued the kidnapped son of Marlon Brando, snatched prisoners out of a Mexican jail by helicopter, located Yoko Ono's missing daughter in Houston, protected multimillion-dollar shipments of jewels, and in general has pulled off a succession of larger-than-life capers to warrant his claim that "people say I'm like 007, but 007 is really like me."
Well, 007 was fictional, but Jay J. Armes . . .
There are certainly lots of photographs of Marlon Brando together with Jay J. Armes after the return of Brando's child. Yoko Ono, however, denies that she ever hired Armes to locate her daughter, Kyoko. Mel Sattler, the director of business affairs at Universal Studios, says the company "had an option on an Armes story some time ago -- maybe three or four years -- but we're certainly not making a movie about him. I don't know if Friedkin brought that in, but he's not even here anymore."
One indisputable fact is that The Investigator exists, and its debut September issue is being sold on newsstands for $1.75. "The magazine was my idea," Armes says. "You see things around that are forced on the American public. You sit there and take it and pay taxes and see your money being squandered away. And the judicial system in this country is designed to protect the guilty and not the innocent. When I thought about it I thought of the best investigative reporter -- Jack Anderson . . . I contacted him . . . I'm funding the project. I designed the logo and the business cards and the stationery, and I thought of the name, The Investigator. The name of my company is The Investigators, and I have The Investigators Training Academy."
At this very moment, Armes' 13-year-old son, Jay III, is seated at his father's right, eating his own fried egg. Armes has just finished recounting a recent caper that involved the young boy. Armes says he had a native tailor copy the uniform of a heavily guarded boarding school in Greece so that Jay III could slip past the guards and rescue a kidnapped child inside.
"He's such a smart boy," Armes is saying. "He learned to run the computer in our office in one hour. He could be anything he'd like, and he wants to be an investigator. You know what he told me not too long ago? He said, 'Dad, do you know a good surgeon?' And I said, 'Why, son, is something wrong?' He said, 'No, I want to have my hands amputated so I can be just like you.' I told him, 'Son, you've only seen nice things, but you don't know the hell and the pain I've gone through.' "
Oh, the things he has done and provoked. Jay J. Armes says the 16th attempt on his life came seven months ago. "I was working on a kidnapping case. There were a lot of drugs being distributed in the area I was working in. They feared I would uncover something. They tried to get in my house and shoot me. I like my independence, but I do have a bodyguard and a chauffeur. My bodyguard isn't here right now. I had the hotel checked before I arrived."
He can spin out tales like this almost endlessly -- never getting too specific. "I have to protect my clients," he says. "Whatever you hear of specifics comes from them."
On the surface he's likable enough. He doesn't seem like a tough guy, a man who says he has had to kill people in the line of duty. Well, maybe the clothes give away a little: a white suit with blue pin stripes that recalls institutional mattress material; a black shirt; white tie, with a diamond pin in the shape of the True Cross; ankle-high white patent leather boots. But he's soft-spoken, and yes-ma'ams the waitress at the Sheraton Washington Hotel to death, and says grace before his meal and says he tithes more than 10 percent of his income to the Immanuel Baptist in his home town of El Paso.
He becomes less talkative at the mention of a January 1976 article about him in Texas Monthly, the publication of which he tried to block in court. Gary Cartwright's article "Is Jay J. Armes For Real?" went into great detail debunking some of Armes' boasts and methods. For instance:
"Clarence Moyers, an attorney, had a Jay J. Armes story. This was a couple of years ago, when Moyers was getting a divorce. Jay Armes telephoned, very familiar, very friendly, saying, 'Clarence, ol' buddy, I've been out of town and a terrible thing happened to you while I was gone.
" 'I had never spoken to Jay Armes,' Moyers said, 'But suddenly he's laying it on me how his agents didn't realize what great buddies we were so they accepted an assignment from my ex-wife to do an investigation on me. Armes said he had a stack of pictures a foot deep. He said he was sitting there right then looking at one of me in a daisy chain. I asked him what a daisy chain was, and he told me. Well, I hadn't been in a daisy chain recently, but I was still worried. Then he got to the point: He said my ex-wife had paid the agents $300 cash, so if I'd put up another $300 he'd give me the pictures and return my ex-wife's money.'
"Moyers instructed Jay Armes what to do with his pictures and hung up. When he confronted his ex-wife later, she denied ever hiring Armes or one of Armes' agents."
"That's cheap and sordid," Anderson says. "If that's true . . . I don't know what I'd do."
"There was nothing in the article about that," says Armes. "You read it again. That was a piece . . . I was running for sheriff. The magazine wanted me to get out of the race. That writer contacted people so he could do a hatchet job on me. You know, those are the tricks of the trade. I couldn't sue because I was a public figure. We got a reporter for the El Paso Post-Herald to contradict everything the other guy wrote."
The Post-Herald article, by Nancy Hamilton, ran on Jan. 2, 1976. Two minor characters quoted in Cartwright's piece said their quotes were used out of context. Armes himself was present while the interviews were conducted, and indeed, he produced the individuals for the reporter, according to records at the Post-Herald.
"Armes got an injunction to stop publication while we were on press," recalls Texas Monthly publisher Mike Levy. "I spent three days hiding from process servers while we got the thing mailed, and then we got the injunction lifted. He never even tried to sue. We stand by our story."
Some people around El Paso are reluctant to talk about Armes. Five people contacted recently refused to discuss him. "People don't really know what Jay J. does for a living," says one El Paso writer, who asked that his name not be used "because I like my dog, my house, my wife, my kid . . . He has a high profile but not much accessibility. When he has a guy sitting next to him with a .38 and a machine gun, nobody asks too many questions."
Jack Anderson says all this is "very distressing. I never saw the Texas Monthly piece. I had him checked out with people in the private investigating business before I got involved. They told me, yes, he has a reputation for using very unorthodox methods. I checked out three of his most unorthodox cases. I can't go into names . . .
"There's a limit to what you can do. I did encounter people who didn't like him . . . Look, my aim is to make this magazine an outlet for I.R.E. Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc., a loosely amalgamated group formed after the murder of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles . . . I've been concerned about the closing of outlets for investigative journalism, which I attribute to the Supreme Court. Certainly I don't need any new outlets, but if I can help, well it appears to me I should . . . If Jay Armes has an ulterior motive, he wants self-promotion. But he really believes that he's already a great success. If anything, he thinks that I'm using him. I don't know what I'd do if it the discrepancies were all true. Probably push Armes into the background . . . His ownership is something I can't control. He said I can buy him out for $5 million."