By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Partnered on the job, they quickly excelled at workers'-comp cases, the meat and potatoes of P.I. casework, but a job that basically entailed 15-hour shifts in a parked Suburban listening to Books on Tape and waiting for some guy to mow his lawn, proving his injury and the claim based on it were invalid. ("We'd see more miracles than Billy Graham," remembers Valis.) When Hanks was denied a P.I. license due to his baroque prison record (his rap sheet stretches to eight pages), this former jailhouse lawyer sued the California Licensing Board and won -- only to forgo the license itself. All told, they estimate they have worked on, conservatively, 5,000 cases in their career -- 3,000 of them insurance cases, which they often racked up at the rate of 20 a week.
Get them going, and the stories come fast and furious. There was the fireman out on disability whom they filmed on the golf course. When they showed the film to the district attorney, two of the others in his foursome also turned out to be firemen out on disability. Once the case went to trial, the fourth turned out to be the presiding judge.
There was the guy who was supposed to be totally incapacitated, up on his roof cleaning leaves out of his gutter, who on camera walked into a power line with a rake handle and electrocuted himself. "I get back to the client," says Hanks, "I say, 'Well, I've got some good news and some bad news.'"
"Good news is, the claim is bogus," adds Valis, serving up the well-oiled punch line. "Bad news is, you've got to pay the $10,000 accidental death clause."
And there was the Pacific Gas & Electric claim -- one of seven -- where they could never catch the insured at his stated address, and arranged a doctor's appointment for him, with the express purpose of seeing where he went afterward.
"We start following him north on the 101," begins Hanks, using the admixture of present tense, run-on sentences and slow-boil delivery with which they routinely tag-team their audience. "He drives north on the 101 for five hours -- almost to the Oregon border, a brand-new town that's being graded for roads. We realize that the other seven guys who are missing are all there, with all kinds of bulldozers and backhoe machines and cable on spools, doing the same thing they used to do for PG&E. They had stolen an entire electric company. Power plant, everything, and it was providing the electricity for this town."
"They were wiring the homes," Valis adds. "I mean, they stole the poles, the trucks, everything. It was like Sergeant Bilko."
Finally, bored with the long hours and craving bigger thrills, Valis and Hanks decided to up the stakes. Coming across an article in Playboy in the early '80s on a DEA plan to recruit private citizens for narcotics stings, paying them off the books and in cash, Valis and Hanks went down to the Federal Building in San Francisco and effectively enlisted. "We walked in and said, 'We want to sell you some dope dealers,'" remembers Valis. And so began a decade spent undercover for both the DEA and FBI, which only ä came to an end when they appeared on 60 Minutes, and their cover was blown for good.
Valis in person bears a marked similarity to magician Ricky Jay, including a fondness for the phrase "Pay me my money." He is also, to be charitable about it, abrasive bordering on corrosive. He prides himself on his repertoire of racial epithets, which he uses to push people's buttons, and on his ability to play the lovable rogue or the asshole. ("You've never met anybody as unracist as I am," he says. "But you'll hear a giant sucking sound come right out of the room when I say shit.") Valis grew up on 161st Street and 46th Avenue in Queens, in a Czech-speaking household, only to learn years later that he was actually Austrian, due to the family's origins in a small Carpathian border town that had changed hands and allegiances untold times throughout the century. A legacy that no doubt aided him in his future endeavors.
After a stint in the Navy aboard a nuclear submarine, he spent a year as co-chairman of the Weather Underground for the state of New York -- a period he is understandably vague about. (He now considers himself "ultra- ultraconservative," although he does retain a propensity for quoting Frank Zappa.) Married to the same woman, a registered nurse, for 32 years, he has two daughters who grew up in a home with a loaded gun in the refrigerator, just in case the outside world ever intruded. ("Here, let's talk about this," he says, re-creating an imaginary scenario. "Let me get you a beer.") Although he admits to having been arrested over 50 times, his official record is virtually spotless, save for the false items planted when he went undercover for the FBI, and which he now can't get rid of. "It was all this really nasty shit," he explains. "Explosives, machine guns -- Frank Nitti kind of shit." In fact, he claims the nickname "Mad Dog" came courtesy of a capo in the East Coast Gambino family, for whom he had once done a favor as a teenager, and whom he prevailed upon for a mobbed-up reference once he was on the inside.