We Spy

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

Jun 30, 2004 at 4:00 am
St. Louis private eye Joe Adams has seen his share of battles. He's worked as a mercenary, infiltrated a cult and helped a Saudi Arabian prince snatch his child from the arms of her American mother. He's busted frauds and found bodies. He's trained Contras and helped the daughter of missing Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa search for witnesses to her father's disappearance. He's been imprisoned in faraway places where nobody knew his name.

"I've been taped to a chair," Adams says, raising his left eyebrow like a silent-film villain. "I know what bloody fear is."

Adams' mercenary work is a bit more mundane now. How could it not be? Inside a clean, yuppified Dogtown apartment, he and his apprentice, lanky twenty-year-old Jason Walz, are working a different kind of covert action: a case of girlfriend versus boyfriend.

The investigators are looking for a bug planted by a guy whom Adams has dubbed "Dummy." (The flamboyant Adams has a nickname for just about everyone.) It seems Dummy got drunk at a party and started blabbing to his girlfriend's sister about things he shouldn't have known -- unless he was somehow eavesdropping on his girlfriend's conversations. The sisters hired Adams to debug the place.

Photos in fancy frames adorn walls painted in Southwestern hues. The pictures show the girlfriend, who appears to be in her late twenties, striking various poses. In one photo she's hugging Dummy, and the two seem very much in love. But apparently their relationship hit the skids.

As always, Adams, who at 54 resembles a younger, fitter Joe Pesci, has done his homework. It turns out Dummy has an order of protection against him in North Carolina. Adams has also unearthed an ex-wife.

"She had nothing good to say about him," the investigator recalls. "She says he couldn't tie his own shoes." When Adams asked the ex-wife if Dummy had ever bugged her, she replied in the affirmative, saying that she busted him taping her phone conversations.

Jason Walz, who stands six-foot-four and wears his brown hair short, both on his head and as a goatee, enters the bedroom after casing the place for phone jacks. He's got a long, carved face. A steady resolve helped him shed 60 pounds in the two years since he started lifting weights and laying off the Whoppers.

The investigator-in-training hasn't seen much action yet, and it'll be a while before Walz comes close to being another Jim Rockford. When a case begins, Joe Adams simply hands Walz a folder, briefs him on the essentials and casts him out into the night. Being underage has its drawbacks, as the bread-and-butter of the private-eye business involves domestic disputes, which seem invariably to climax in bars.

Adams Investigations, LLC, is one of dozens of such firms in St. Louis. Like other top-tier investigators, Joe Adams, who started the company 26 years ago, works with law firms to probe insurance frauds and investigate the finances and spending habits of alimony-seeking wives. He'll work for paranoids convinced they're being watched. He contracts with families, most of them very wealthy, to arrange security.

Walz is Adams' go-to guy when he needs someone to case a house. The elder investigator is too busy to handle days and nights, so he pays the beginner to do the grunt work.

For Adams, a lot of this is nickel-and-dime stuff. Certainly the stakes aren't as high as they were in Honduras in 1985, when Adams was training Contras; or when he threw a man into a volcano; or when he cased a house while, unbeknownst to Adams, the occupant was chewing on his lover's heart and doing unseemly things to the corpse.

"I'm doing the same thing today that I was doing in the military: collecting and deciphering information," he says.

Following a phone line to the corner of the bedroom where it coils into an unassuming storage box, Adams muses, "That's interesting. Hmm." He removes a wicker basket and a teddy bear from atop the box and pulls off its lid to reveal a plush green towel. Adams lifts the towel and his eyes widen. "We-heh-heh-hell. Hello!" Oh yes, the simple joys of a private eye. Inside sits a rudimentary Radio Shack recorder set to run every time the phone is activated.

Walz investigates the tape in the machine. Adams directs him to go out to their minivan, and soon the apprentice returns with tools.

"The neighbor's eyeballing me coming in and out," reports Walz.

Pulling out a spray can, Adams sprays the tape recorder with a clear substance, which quickly dries. "When Dummy gets back tomorrow, [his girlfriend] is going to be at work. Then I'm going to approach him." He shines a black light on the illicit recorder, and it sparkles with invisible paint.

"See that stuff on there? If anybody hits those buttons, it's going to be on them. The more they try and wash it, the worse it's going to get." Sure enough, the next day, Dummy is busted with glowing green hands and a finger-painted steering wheel. Mission accomplished -- and an easy $750.

"Joe is a unique kind of guy," says James Adair, who met Adams in Honduras while working as a Central American correspondent for the now-defunct Eagle magazine, a mid-'80s competitor of mercenary mag Soldier of Fortune. "He's the sort of guy that just exudes a certain -- menace is not the right word, but he is an imposing figure.

"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.

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.

"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.

The sun is shining on a big gold ring on Adams' left hand. He says the ring was given to him while he worked for the French Foreign Legion, which was hired by the South African apartheid government to train bodyguards.

"They had these made for us, because the currency out on the frontier was sort of bizarre," remembers Adams. "If you had to bribe somebody, or get out of jail, we had money on us all the time." From South Africa, Adams went to Croatia before returning home.

One of Adams' more memorable cases came in 1992, when he was hired to find a kidnapped Chesterfield girl. He traced her abductor, cult leader Paul Detko, to Costa Rica. Adams journeyed to Costa Rica, pretending to be a tourist, and soon managed to befriend Detko. After tricking the leader into thinking some bounty hunters were after him, Adams learned the girl's whereabouts.

"I had to come up with a game plan -- other than just torturing the guy," Adams says. Eventually, Detko revealed that he had hidden the girl in an Iowa Mennonite community.

Mission accomplished -- but Adams still had to dispose of Detko. "They weren't going to extradite him, plus, I got the girl. I'm done. Let Costa Rica deal with his ass. So we just took him up into the mountains to give us time to get out of the country and," giggles Adams, "pushed him into a little ravine. It turns out it was an inert volcano. What can I say?"

Joe Adams has more stories than he can contain, and they fire out of his brain like bullets from his machine gun. There are so many wild tales that it's hard not to dismiss -- or at least wonder about -- them. But the stories hold up to scrutiny; the big cases have been reported on extensively. His involvement with the Contras made national headlines, as did his adventures in Costa Rica.

Still, you have to wonder as each amazing, boastful story features remarkable accounts of his cunning successes. Seldom will you hear the word "failure" come out of Adams' mouth. "I always have to win," he concedes.

Joe Adams always gets his man, gets paid for it and comes out smiling.

"Since I've known this guy," says St. Louis attorney Lou Basso, a regular Adams client, "he's never exaggerated anything. He can't really afford to do that in this business, particularly when you're doing surveillance work."

"I'm ego-driven," Adams admits, but insists no stories he tells are embellished. "When I was doing this stuff, I wasn't doing it so everyone would know I was doing it. It just happens. It comes natural."

Adams moves onto the subject of Jimmy Hoffa. He's worked for the family of the missing Teamster honcho for nearly a decade. Hoffa's daughter, Barbara Ann Crancer, is an associate circuit court judge in St. Louis County.

Crancer declines to characterize Joe Adams' work for her family. "We have asked him to do a couple of things in connection with the investigation of his [Hoffa's] disappearance. I've found Joe to be somebody who, when he gets an assignment or a request from somebody, he takes care of it right away. And you get your answer right away. He does his job. He does his work. He doesn't dawdle."

Says Adams: "What I do, is when the FBI gets stalemated on something, I come in, finish it and then [Crancer] gives the information to the FBI."

Recent disclosure of DNA evidence indicates that Hoffa was in a car driven by Charles "Chuckie" O'Brien when he disappeared on July 30, 1975.

"The story," Adams reveals, "is that Chuckie got deep in gambling debt, and there's a theory that this was a way of relieving his gambling debt."

O'Brien has told the FBI that Hoffa had never been in his car, but current DNA evidence, muses Adams, "shows that Charles was confused."

O'Brien had gone underground, and the family wanted him found. Adams dug in and started tracing. He learned that O'Brien was still on good terms with his wife and knew that he had a son, Chuckie O'Brien Jr., in Kansas City. So he accessed Junior's phone records, accessed the wife's records and compared phone numbers.

"Bingo, I end up in Boca Raton," says Adams. "Sure enough, there he is."

The investigator supplied Crancer with O'Brien's address and telephone number.

Adams says he has a good idea what happened to Hoffa, as does the FBI. "But knowing what happened and being able to prove it are two different things. I know a lot of things, but if I was ever asked to put them on the table, I can't."

Margo Green, partner at the law firm of Green Cordonnier & House, LLP, first met Adams in 1991, during a prominent custody battle between a Saudi Arabian prince and his St. Louis-born wife. Green represented the mother of the then-six-year-old child. The mother was estranged from her husband, and the woman fled Saudi Arabia and came to St. Louis.

"In Saudi Arabian law, children are the property of the husband," explains Green. "The wife has no rights. She was terrified that he was going to come snatch the child."

She was close. The prince hired Joe Adams.

Later, Green received a call from a colleague, who told her that Adams had been retained by the prince. She recognized the name. The colleague warned Green that Adams would be merciless in his quest to find the child.

"I knew he was someone who used to work for the CIA," recalls Green. "There are a lot of people I'll mess around with, but he's not one of them."

Green recommended that the mother, pending resolution, turn her daughter over to the court. "I was 100 percent sure that Joe would find her," recalls Green, "and probably wouldn't be real nice about it, and it would avoid a lot of pain and terror for me and my client."

Ultimately, Green lost the Saudi case. The daughter was returned to her father, and the mother never saw her child again. But Green doesn't hold any grudges. "If I would want protection for myself, out of everyone in St. Louis, Joe is the person I would hire to protect myself."

A few years later, recalls Adams, "An attorney said to me, 'Margo Green thinks you're going to jump out of the bushes someplace and kill her.' I thought he was joking. Fuck, she was serious. I've never threatened anybody in my life."

When asked whether she ever feared for her life, Green pauses. "That's probably true. And I probably had no basis for that fear, because now that I know Joe and have met him and worked with him, I don't think Joe would have ever harmed me. But at the time, I did fear him, yes."

In fact, Green is currently paying Adams to shield her and a client from a wealthy construction-company executive who has gone haywire during his messy divorce proceeding. The dispute is set in Clayton, and Adams is using Jason Walz to follow the executive to and from depositions. Adams has nicknamed the executive Fat Boy.

"The guy's a scumbag, and he's insane," says Walz, who's watching the executive because his wife fears for her and her children's safety. Fat Boy has harassed the family, Walz maintains, and has dropped spent .44 casings in her driveway and driven by her house at all hours, laying on the horn.

Walz spends most of his time in his car. When he's alone on assignment watching a house, he occupies his time by drawing tattoo patterns in a spiral notebook, or tending to his cuticles, or flossing, or picking dirt off of his glistening white shoes. When he's out for the day, he'll bring his version of a lunch: a packet of crackers, a bag of beef jerky and a Gatorade. Where Adams' eyes and mannerisms display a steely resolve, Walz is still young and paying his dues. And Adams has big plans for him.

In six years, says Adams, Walz has the potential of hauling in a cool $150,000 per annum. Walz, who speaks with a soft, even tone, met Adams through Walz's best friend, Bobby Tsiklides, who was employed by Adams until being sent to Iraq, where he is currently serving as a Marine sniper (Adams trained him). Walz asked Adams for a job.

"At first he was like, 'No way,'" remembers Walz. "He doesn't want just anybody out there running around doing his company business." Walz pestered Adams for a few months. "I was telling him, 'Hey, I can do this. I want to do this.'"

Finally Adams cracked. "I got out of work one day at Circuit City and there's a message that said, 'Jason, this is Joe Adams. This is your big chance. Call me.'" The men met at Adams' headquarters, where the elder investigator briefed Walz. "He says, 'It's all you. Don't screw up. See you tomorrow.'"

Adams says Walz has proven his worth. "Jason got in because of the electronics -- that was his niche. Plus, he came with good references. The hardest thing is to get in. And he just happened to be at the right place at the right time."

Adams uses Walz full-time, and although the younger private eye has only been at this gig for a year, he's already racked up his share of domestic-dispute stories.

"I caught a lady cheating," he says while waiting for Fat Boy to emerge from the deposition. "It was kind of weird telling the guy that. He knew it, but he didn't want to know. The phone records had her calling the gardener at midnight. Who calls their gardener at midnight?"

"He's a sponge for information," says Adams of his young associate. "What I don't think of, he does. He can take a project and clean it up. He's got good ideas, great instincts. He's very smart and he's very loyal. And he refreshes my memory on certain things, little, simple things. He's good for me."

Adams also uses Walz to follow insurance frauds. "It's big business," he relates. "Ninety-nine percent of the private eyes out there do nothing but insurance investigation. The attorneys have created this industry for the investigators. Very few attorneys that I know will get up out of the office and go out in the field and conduct an investigation. This ain't Matlock."

"He's been doing this for a long time, and he knows what he's doing," Walz says of his mentor. "There are times when I'll call him and he'll say, 'Well, just do this.' I'm like, 'Why didn't I think of that?' But he's never unwilling to listen. There are still things that he hasn't thought of."

On the walkie-talkie, Adams tells Walz that the deposition is over. Fat Boy's headed out with his lawyer. It's lunch time. Moments later two men walk across Central Avenue near the Clayton Starbucks and climb into an SUV. Walz waits a moment, then follows, and the two cars proceed slowly -- an anticlimactic chase that ends in front of Fat Boy's condo.

After lunch Fat Boy walks to his car, and Walz trails him to the site of the afternoon deposition. Nothing happens. They can't all be Joe Adams barnburners.