We Spy

Old-school private eye Joe Adams and his talented sidekick Jason Walz are on the case -- and they always get their man

"When you meet him, you know that you're dealing with an extremely serious person," Adair continues. "Not that he doesn't have a sense of humor. He does. But he comes off as being an extremely serious -- and possibly formidable -- person. And that first impression is almost always accurate."

Joe Adams lives in a single-story home in an inner suburb of St. Louis. The place is nice and, unlike its owner, modest. Adams lives with his son, John, a.k.a. Buster, who's seventeen. Buster's mother lives across town. She and Adams never married, but the two remain close.

Adams' 1986 Corvette, which he says 
was paid for with Contra money.
Ryan Hudson
Adams' 1986 Corvette, which he says was paid for with Contra money.
Joe Adams helped train Contras in Nicaragua, which 
got him in trouble with the federal government.
Ryan Hudson
Joe Adams helped train Contras in Nicaragua, which got him in trouble with the federal government.

The house is not the kind of place you'd imagine someone like Joe Adams sleeping. He's more of a mansion-on-a-lake sort of guy. Tour his place and soon he'll reveal the 1986 Corvette in the garage (its vanity plate: ATTACK). The sports car sits next to a custom motorcycle with a Corvette engine, and his Harley (vanity plate: MERC).

Adams rents a garage down the street, where he stores the armored tank he got through a Bosnian connection in 1991. His military Jeep is parked next to the tank. A chosen few get invited to Adams' lakeside cabin outside of Bonne Terre, Missouri. Friends jokingly refer to the Bonne Terre compound as "Ruby Ridge."

The first time Rhonda Cidlik, a St. Louis private investigator, visited Adams' office, she didn't know what to expect. "I had heard a lot of stories, but I had never experienced Joe full-throttle. I remember walking in and seeing a machine gun sitting there. And it was loaded. Then I went to the refrigerator for something to drink, and I opened it and there was no food, but there was a gun in there. Beverages and a gun. I was like, 'Holy cow.'"

The investigator's home office is also his arsenal and the unofficial Joe Adams Hall of Fame. The first thing a visitor notices in Adams' office/family room is a Vietnam-era submachine gun, sitting on a tripod behind the love seat.

Photos of past adventures checker the walls: Adams in an action shot on the cover of Eagle; a shot of a mustachioed Adams in the back of a limo after testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1986; a framed letter, circa 1985, issued to him by Contra leader Adolfo Calero, who was then-President Ronald Reagan's choice to be president of Nicaragua.

"This letter," explains Adams, raising his eyebrows like Jack Nicholson breaking through a bathroom door in The Shining, "authorizes everybody to do what the fuck I say and give me all the assistance wherever I'm at."

He spends more time than he'd like in front of the computer gathering information, but Adams has to get to know his subjects before he can predict their paths. If he's looking for a bail jumper or casing a neighborhood, he types in a name or a social security number. Moments later 27 pages of results appear: address, previous addresses, ex-girlfriend's address, make and model of car, neighbors' phone numbers, sister's address and phone number. The goal is to understand a person's motivation. Is she in debt and in need of quick cash? Why does the married executive keep a secret lake house in the Ozarks?

"I find people who don't want to be found," Adams explains. "If you can get into the psyche of the person and figure out where they're going to be and what they're all about, then you can probably get into their private life and figure out what's going to put them at a certain place at a certain time."

Files are kept on all his past cases. Adams keeps files on reporters who write about him. He even keeps files on his handymen: "If I've got a carpenter that comes in and does some work for me, all of a sudden they have a file, because they're in the loop."

Dozens of rifles are displayed inside a glass-encased gun cabinet. "A lot of Soviet-bloc stuff," Adams says, surveying his firepower. This "stuff" includes, among other things, an AK-47, a Thompson machine-gun replica, an Uzi, a bipod, a tripod and a bayonet. He points to one: "That rifle right there was the one I was indicted for in Iran Contra."

Joe Adams clearly enjoys his own mystique. Many of his high-octane stories allude to matters of great international import and intrigue, and as he shares information, he seems perpetually on the verge of confessing the Bigger Truth -- only to pull away.

In 1984 Adams was at a cocktail party, where he was approached by a CIA agent. He won't say where the party was, or with whom he talked.

Adams had already made a name for himself as a Marine, a bodybuilder, a champion marksman and a successful bounty hunter. He was known in certain circles. The agent asked him if he was interested in a security gig in Central America. Three weeks later Adams was with exiled Contra leader Adolfo Calero in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa.

"I went down there for 30 days, just before Christmas in '84," Adams recalls, "and did an analysis of how to protect the facilities." Adams directed the training of bodyguards and personnel for the president-in-waiting. He says that although he was being paid -- in cash, of course -- by the Contras, he had regular contact with the CIA, which by then was prohibited by law from providing direct aid to the Contras.

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