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"The CIA is supposed to go, 'Okay, we're not involved anymore,'" he says. "So what they did is they went to private contractors -- and gave me a license to kill."
Calero also gave his bodyguard Adams something else: the nickname Tirador, or "the Marksman."
After growing up on a horse farm in Ohio, Joe Adams served in Vietnam, where he was a Marine corporal working in military intelligence from 1970 to 1972. After Adams was discharged, he and a buddy tried their hand at being Hollywood stuntmen, but that didn't fly, and Adams moved to St. Louis in 1973. The country was in the middle of a body-building craze, and Adams dove right in.
Photos taken in 1974, when Adams was Mr. Missouri in his weight class, show him looking like a fireplug with a handlebar mustache. What Adams lacks in height -- he stands just five-foot-six -- he makes up for in brawn. While he worked to expand his physique and win muscle-man competitions, he used the gym's office to make extra money "skip-tracing," or tracking down deadbeats who have ditched on debts. He also honed his marksmanship. Dozens of shooting trophies now sit atop his rifle cabinet.
Adams grabs a videotape out of a closet and puts it in the VCR. "I sold a copy of this tape to CBS for $5,000," he says. On the recording, a fit, 35-year-old Adams, his face dirty and his hair tangled, stands in front of a bunch of Nicaraguan rebels who have been pushed into Honduran forests a couple miles from the border.
"Do I look like a psycho?" he asks, watching the videotape. The video cuts to a shot of Adams in close-up, holding a sniper rifle, practicing. A crystalline eye lines his sight. He fires, then stares straight at the camera and pops his pointer-finger to his forehead. "Perfecto," he says.
During the 1980s Nicaragua was in the middle of a bloody revolution that pitted the communist Sandinista factions against the American-backed Contra rebels. President Reagan strongly advocated the overthrow of the Sandinista regime; the Democratic Congress felt differently and blocked funding to the Contras. But with the help of Oliver North and others, money was funneled to the Contras. Adams was paid with this money, though he won't say how much he earned. All he'll say is that his Corvette was paid for by the Contras.
In 1985 Adams left Honduras and headed to the Nicaraguan border, where he took charge of training a ragtag collection of soldiers to regain land they had lost to the Sandinistas. A handful of other mercenaries joined him, and they're shown in the video training skinny Nicaraguan twentysomethings to march, shoot and attack. Adams seems to tower over them, a man with fire in his eyes, pointing a rifle, taunting the camera. Cut to a long shot of Adams charging through a field peppered with targets -- the Tirador holds his machine gun tight at his hips as he sprays bullets left and right. He stops, walks toward the camera, looks at his crotch and smiles broadly: "Did I just jizz myself?" he asks.
"They said I killed 50-something people," Adams says after watching the tape. "I didn't kill that many people. I heard it was more like 26. And why am I being credited with killing all those people? It was a large unit. That's like saying there were five home runs hit in a Cardinals game, but only one guy got credited for them all."
Says ex-Eagle correspondent James Adair: "He was quite obviously the most knowledgeable of that group, and the most focused of that group."
But when the Reagan team was exposed, Adams and his camp quickly shut down. Ultimately, Adams and six others were indicted.
"I wasn't even indicted until two years after I left the program," says Adams. "I was over in Thailand, doing the same thing in Burma. Some guy said, 'Hey, have you seen the papers, man? You're going to be indicted.' And I'm going down the list of what it could be. Then I find out it's this Contra thing. I'm going, 'How the fuck are they going to indict me for that?' So I came back."
The government charged Adams with two counts of weapons smuggling, one count of violating neutrality and one conspiracy count. He pled guilty on a plea-bargain agreement to one count of violating neutrality. "They spent $1 million getting me one day unsupervised probation and a $50 fine," laughs Adams. He did his unsupervised day in Miami. "I hooked up with a bunch of Dade County, Florida, police officers -- females -- and we went out and got hammered."
The mercenary-turned-private eye is sitting on his screened-in front porch, which, like the rest of Adams' house, has a military theme: A camouflaged model tank sits next to the door, its plastic parapet aimed at intruders. On the windowsill, a tiny video camera rests on a mini-tripod aimed at the street. It seems some dog has been shitting in his yard, and Adams has a pretty good hunch who the canine culprit is -- he just needs proof.