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
"He told them I was a torpedo who had hit 13 people out in New York, and I was hiding out in California," says Valis. "He told them my name was 'Mad Dog' Valis -- from the Bogey movie, I guess [Roy "Mad Dog" Earle in High Sierra]. But from that minute on, they were all terrified of me. They'd say, 'He'll eat a chili dog and blow your brains out while he's doing it.'"
Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, Dan Hanks (formerly Portley), a gentle giant who just happens to be heavily armed, grew up one of 10 kids in an Irish-Catholic household north of San Diego. Following the suicide of his father when he was 2 months old, he spent his youthful nights out of the house to avoid an abusive stepfather and quickly developed an aptitude for breaking and entering. This talent served him well during his 18 months in Vietnam, where he secretly placed wiretaps for Naval Intelligence, before being wounded and receiving an honorable discharge. Armed with a new skill set, he embarked on a career of vaguely comical scams, for which he spent the next decade in and out of prison, and which he still recalls with an adolescent glee: He would open up a checking account, then print blank deposit slips with his account number on the bottom and leave a stack of them in the bank lobby, so that all deposits would automatically default to his account. Or he would tap into the phone box behind an office building and call-forward random lines to a private 976-number with a per-minute charge, which the businesses wouldn't realize until they received their monthly statement.
"I never did burglaries for the money," he claims. "I did burglaries because I was one of these thrill guys that liked to go in."
Through a Green Beret buddy's dad, an exFBI agent, Hanks was introduced to Murray Chotiner, Richard Nixon's former law partner and unofficial "bagman." Of all the Byzantine figures surrounding the Nixon White House, Chotiner remains one of the most elusive: Prior to his testimony at the Watergate hearings, he broke his leg in an automobile accident and was taken to Bethesda Hospital in Maryland (home of Kennedy's infamous autopsy), where he mysteriously died of an alleged embolism. Hanks claims he performed three break-ins for Chotiner: the Teamster headquarters in Las Vegas, where he photographed files and placed bugs which were used to blackmail union officials for future campaign donations, and two more involving national security: "Both of them were offices at aircraft factories, and they had to do with government contracts" is all he will say.
After he was transferred to Terminal Island Federal Prison, Hanks used his skills as a jailhouse lawyer to write a successful habeas corpus brief, based on a technicality, whereupon the district court reversed his burglary conviction. The inevitable government appeal took three years to wend its way through the system -- long after he had found legitimate employment as a private investigator -- and he was forced to return to prison for two and a half months (as the only male prisoner at a formerly all-women's prison, where he ran a booming business turning tape-deck motors into vibrators), before his case was successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. During the interim, he appeared on a game show, Celebrity Sweepstakes, becoming its second all-time highest money winner. He was spotted on TV by an old cellmate from San Quentin, who tried to blackmail him into helping set up a string of halfway houses for prison parolees, to be run by the Mexican mafia, which had been looking for Hanks ever since he used educational video equipment to tape a bloody prison riot at Lompoc, footage of which is still used as a Bureau of Prisons Training film to this day.
"It's probably some of my best camerawork," he says modestly.
But then, that's another story.
DUMBER THAN ROCKS
WORKING UNDERCOVER FOR THE DRUG ENFORCEMENT Agency as C.I.'s, or "confidential informants," Hanks and Valis targeted primarily small-time coke dealers, and were paid off the books in the amount of $2,000 per kilo seized and $2,000 per warm body -- arrested, not convicted.
"These guys would go, 'We're gonna bring some of our friends,'" says Valis. "We'd say, 'Good idea. Bring the whole baseball team.'"
"Yeah," says Hanks. "Bring your cousins. Bring everybody."
They draw a distinction between those who do this professionally -- "bounty hunters for drugs" -- and snitches, or those who get caught and roll over on their associates. "There's probably less than 50 people who do what we do," says Hanks. "There are all kinds of people working off beefs."
They perfected a technique whereby their designated target would "accidentally" run into the guy with the money. When the drug dealer invariably suggested cutting Hanks and Valis out of the deal -- and they always would -- the pair had the perfect alibi once their money man turned out to be a Fed. "Eventually, they get wise, because everyone you know goes to jail," says Valis. "But they're dumber than rocks."