Photo by Robert Burroughs
Joe Breedlove: “We did work for Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor."
“There have been a lot of assassination attempts on me, and I have no intention of making it easy for the next would-be killer. I own nine automobiles, including the Rolls and two special-bodied Cadillacs, and I employ a full-time chauffeur-bodyguard, Joe Dark Eagle Breedlove. Joe is a graduate of the Investigators Training Academy. He’s over six feet tall, built like a Mack truck, a former field agent, and a rough man to tangle with. . . . Joe is a superb driver, a damned good backup man, and the best kind of friend there is — the kind who’s right there when the lid blows off.”
Breedlove: "He would charge somebody $25,000 for something that we could do for $5000.”
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Joe Breedlove no longer hovers attentively at Jay J. Armes’ side. He no longer drives the James Bond-style limousine, nor guards the world’s most famous private detective, the “real-life six-million dollar man" whose hands were blown off as a child but who nonetheless battles crime with his steely hooks, the legendary figure who claims he’s never had an unsolved case and who took $25,000 from San Diegans who wanted him to hunt down the murderer and molester of Aleta Sue Grosenbach.
Jay J. Armes and Joe Breedlove
Joe Breedlove left all that behind almost two years ago; today he lives in a tiny, forty-dollar-a-month garage/studio near Mount Helix and works part-time as a bouncer for a San Diego nightclub. Yet last Friday Joe could almost feel the detective’s magnetic presence in his cramped quarters. He could almost feel the pull of the old chains of friendship and shared adventures. Yes, he thought to himself, he’d been by Jay Armes’ side many times when the lid had blown off. Now he was thinking of blowing it off himself.
These days Joe doesn’t quite match the lurid description which appeared in Armes’ 1976 autobiography. At thirty, Joe has lost a lot of the weight which he carried when he worked for Armes, and today he reminds one more of a cougar than a Mack truck. His tanned forearms are hardened and muscular, his body looks as lean as a ballet dancer’s. His broad handsome face carries an exotic hint of Indian blood, and his dark hair, longer now, barely brushes his shoulders. Joe says he talked to Armes last Thursday, the first time since he quit working for him in August, 1976. The detective called him the instant he heard that Joe was thinking of talking to the press; Armes’ inimitable voice was heavy with hurt and with the specter of reprisals. “But you know what? When he called me I was excited to hear his voice. I missed him!” Joe says, his eyes shining like those of a child who’s just talked to Santa. “And I felt like I didn’t want to talk about what was going on. I just wanted say, ‘Hey, how are you doing, what’s going on, and how’ve you been?’ you know. ‘And now let’s get mad at each other. But let's talk as friends first!’ Because 1 love that man.”
So it is hard, very hard, for Joe to say anything derogatory about Armes. “When you love someone, no matter what they do that’s bad, you just can't turn around and try to hurt ’em, because you still care for them even though you know they’re not right.” Joe kept quiet for a long time, but when he heard about Armes being called in on the Grosenbach murder, when he heard that little old ladies in La Jolla were scraping together their nickels and dimes in order to pay the detective’s retainer, his conscience began to gnaw at him. He says in January he called the office of city councilman Bill Mitchell (who spearheaded the drive to hire Armes) and left a message that he was a former Armes employee who had some vital information. He left a phony name but a real number, he says, but no one from Mitchell’s office ever called him back. (Mitchell claims Joe never left a number.) The former bodyguard stifled his misgivings and let the matter go, but when he recently heard about suspicions over Armes’ work on the Grosenbach case, Joe’s conscience bit into him more deeply than ever. Then one week ago today he came home to find tacked to his door a television reporter’s card bearing an urgent message. With a sinking feeling, he knew that he and Jay J. Armes would share the spotlight again.
Today Joe’s dress matches his tidy rented room. He wears neatly pressed blue jeans, a red sport shirt trimmed in snappy blue and white, brown leather boots which shine with polish. Crouching in the open doorway, his fingers never stray more than a few inches from a .380 Baretta, and when the sound of footsteps floats in through the open window, Joe springs toward the weapon, quick as a cat. Yet his voice is relaxed and affectionate when he talks about Armes.
Joe got to know the flamboyant private eye as a teenager in El Paso, Armes' headquarters. A wild kid, he’d left home at sixteen and had gotten entangled in a succession of shady incidents. Drugs got him booted out of the Navy at the age of twenty. However, he says he had kicked his addiction to heroin (the only drug he ever was seriously involved with) shortly thereafter and returned to El Paso in 1968. He soon began handling minor detective chores for Armes, and the work, along with Breedlove's martial arts abilities (he held a black belt in karate) apparently impressed the celebrated sleuth. In 1975 Armes asked Breedlove to work for him as a bodyguard and chauffeur. Though the job only paid $800 a month, and Joe was then earning about $2000 a month working as a railroad switch foreman, the Armes charisma worked its charms. Joe shrugs his shoulders, remembering why he settled for the pay cut. “Jay always used to say that prestige was a form of compensation.’’
Of prestige, there was plenty. Armes had long captured the national imagination, as much for his flamboyance and success at overcoming his physical handicap as for his resolution of notorious cases like the kidnap of Marlon Brando's son, Christian, in 1972. When Breedlove went to work for Armes in January of 1976, the detective’s star seemed close to its zenith. Armes was preparing to run for sheriff of El Paso, there was talk of a television show and movie based on his adventures, and the Ideal toy company was already planning the Jay J. Armes doll. “There was a lot of glamor, especially the year I was there,’’ Breedlove recalls. “We met with famous people in Hollywood. We did work for Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor. He was personal friends with the people from Hawaii Five-O. He did a Hawaii Five-O show in which he starred.”
For Joe it was heady stuff, and he admits with a grin that the excitement swept him along. Armes talked of making his and Joe’s names as famous as Batman’s and Robin’s; he promised that Joe could play himself in the movie that Goldwyn was discussing. Reality began to blur as the Hollywood fantasies grew. “Of course I was keeping this image up and I led people there to believe I had all this money, too. I was getting into it; don’t let anybody kid you!” He laughs without malice. “Hey, I was getting sick myself. I let it go to my head and I lost my girl friend because of it.”
He fidgets, uncomfortable, then plops down on top of his straightened chenille bedspread. Casually, he tosses the handgun down on the purple fabric next to him, but he stares at it pensively from time to time. Breedlove hints at having assisted Armes during occasional shoot-outs, but he still doesn’t want to talk about them. The daily routine of working as Armes' bodyguard was less dramatic, yet variety also heavily spiced it. “Sometimes we’d get off at four o’clock in the afternoon. I’d drop him and the limousine off and I’d go on my way. Sometimes we came in at nine or ten o’clock at night. I was on call all the time. I was always, always to be in reach. I carried a phone on my person all the time, or Jay knew where I was going to be.”
Breedlove remembers that his days often began with Armes telephoning his apartment and ordering him to report, whereupon Joe would pile into his own dusty pick-up truck and drive over to the detective’s sprawling mansion where he’d pick up the limo or the Rolls Royce. Joe’s tolerant grin twists with irony when he recalls that Armes made him park his truck outside the gates. “I was the flamboyant bodyguard, but here I was driving this old beat-up pick-up. Jay told me, ‘When you get a new truck you can bring it in the compound.’ ” Breedlove states that most times Armes' work involved talking to various individuals — over lunch, in the back of the Cadillac limousine (“There was a glass wall that you could bring down between us, but that was a joke, because you could hear right through that’’) —but he also recalls occasional “nickel-and-dime” cases where he and Armes would park for hours, waiting to nail some errant spouse. If there were spells of boring inactivity, however, Joe describes a bond that developed between him and his employer, a bond which brightened much of the time they spent together. “We were always laughing or joking about something, trying to keep on the light side of things.”
The stories about the good times — the affectionate anecdotes about Armes — well out of Breedlove like glistening soap bubbles. “I remember an old woman calling us one day. Her roommate was gone. The woman was about eighty years old and she was terrified that the woman who lived with her had been kidnapped or murdered or something. So Jay said we would be right over and we even skipped lunch, I think. We talked to some neighbors and did a normal investigation and found that the two women had been fighting and the one couldn’t stand any more of the other’s possessiveness. She had left to go stay with another relative. And Jay did all this for free. I wouldn’t have done it for free. I remember several people that he didn't want to charge. And he wasn't doing it just to be a big man."
Joe’s face clouds over. “But then, on the other hand, he would turn around and charge somebody $25,000 for something that we could do for $5000,” he says. “I couldn’t understand that. You know?”
There were other things that Joe couldn’t understand — other odd-sized puzzle pieces that didn’t fit into the colorful public image of the detective. There was the startlingly penurious salary paid by a man who was supposed to be a millionaire, for example, and there were other discordant notes in the public relations chorus. Armes’ widely publicized mansion, Breedlove points out, started out as the detective’s parents’ modest home and Armes merely added rooms as the years rolled by. “If you walked the compound you wouldn’t really be that impressed,” Breedlove claims. Armes’ private lake “is really just a pond,” according to the former employee. The waterfall is "three posts and a trough. A cement trough. It wasn’t even one with rock or anything to make it look like a real waterfall.”
Breedlove even deflates the tales about Armes’ storybook detective equipment. “All of our fancy equipment and everything, which was in just one room, was dust-covered. I mean if I was Jay Armes, my probes for finding bugging devices — all my equipment — would be in special glass cases; they'd be checked every week. But none of this stuff was ever done.” Breedlove began to harbor doubts about Armes’ claims to investigative infallibility. He says clients occasionally called to protest that nothing was being done on their cases, but "Jay would say that his agents were working on things. But I didn’t believe him.” The former bodyguard snorts derisively when he thinks about the detective’s claim that he never had an unsolved case. “Any detective can claim that, if he just says that his unsolved cases are still in the active file. Then by your own definition you only declare successful cases to be closed cases.”
Today Breedlove figures that he knew some things were amiss from the very beginning. “I knew that some of the things we were involved in were strictly for Jay’s flash. When I found out that I was already in the galleys of his book as being his armed bodyguard, when in reality I hadn’t yet gotten my license to carry a gun. I began to suspect that he probably lied more than I thought he did and 1 began wondering how much of what he told me were fabrications. I had always had suspicions but I let ’em go. I let ’em go because I thought, well, those are minor compared to how good the man is. But as time went on, the weight started shifting in the other direction.”
One incident which hit Joe particularly hard involved the famed Armes limousine, the chauffeur’s special province. The car in fact boasted some of the features which had been played up so heavily: the revolving license plates, the hidden television camera pointed rearward to monitor tails, but Joe says “it really didn’t have that many gadgets.” The real jolt, however, came when Breedlove took the car in to be reupholstered in Australian mouton. The auto workers dismantled the car, pulling the panels off and ripping out the headliner. “It was then that I noticed that the car wasn’t bullet proof,” Joe says. “I looked too. I went all the way to where I was looking at metal. And the hair stood up on the back of my neck. I just went. ‘What is this?’ It scared me because all this time I’d been driving down the street, sticking my tongue out at people saying, ‘Yeah, shoot me. I’m Jay Armes’ bodyguard and you can’t get me. You could drop a bomb on this car and it wouldn't hurt it.' But here I had only been driving this regular car.”
Tensions finally built to a head in the summer of 1976 when Armes flew to Los Angeles and had Joe drive the limousine out to meet him at the Hollywood negotiations. The chauffeur found himself behind the wheel day and night, plus he says Armes was annoyed at his bodyguard's superior knowledge of Los Angeles. “There was just irritation constantly. He’d say, ‘You stay by the phone; I’ll let you know when I need you.’ Then he’d call me at eleven o’clock and tell me to go to bed. I was an owned person. All this time I’m thinking, ‘Eight hundred dollars a month. What could I be doing for eight hundred a month that would be more fun than this?* And I always had that little devil saying, ‘But you’re going to be famous. Stick with it.’ And my friends and family were telling me. ‘Stick with it; it’s worth it.’ And my body was saying, ‘Leave. I can’t take too much more of this!’
“I was fed up. I didn’t know when I was going to quit, but then I knew that I was going to do so sooner or later.”
It turned out to be sooner. When Joe finally drove back to El Paso from Hollywood, he says he was near total exhaustion. “My plants were wilted. My apartment stunk. My laundry needed to be done. I wanted to see my girl friend.” He crashed, expecting to recuperate for several days, but at eight o’clock the next morning Armes’ voice barked out at him over the phone. The bodyguard says Armes ordered him right back on the job (to guard Miss Israel, scheduled to arrive in El Paso for the Miss Texas beauty pageant), an order which Breedlove flatly refused. After some heated wrangling, the two men hung up in anger.
Joe says Jay Armes lashed out at him in one final petty gesture. He had contributed twenty-five dollars to Armes when he began his campaign for sheriff, a gift which Armes graciously accepted. Months later, when other contributions weren't materializing, Breedlove wrote out another twenty-five-dollar check. Touched, Armes refused to cash it, but Joe says he preserved it on his desk as a memento — until Joe prepared to leave town, whereupon the detective cashed it. Outraged. Joe retaliated by taking his chauffeur uniforms and identification card with him when he drove to San Diego.
He says he came here, with no money and no friends, hungry for peace. “My life hadn’t been normal the whole time I worked for him, and I wanted to get it back together,” he says. Using a false name, he got a job right away driving a delivery truck for the Nurseryland headquarters on Jefferson Street, and for two months he slept in his pick-up truck inside the company gates. He says he worked his way up to a salesman’s job at the Nurseryland retail store in El Cajon, then he successively worked as a store manager for The Pinery nursery in Escondido and for another nursery in Valley Center, also holding down part-time jobs as a bouncer at the In Spot East and the Stargate. Finally, he quit the nursery work last fall to concentrate on his true vocation, photography (he now works as a staff photographer for a new magazine called Vision), and in recent weeks his dreams of opening his own studio had shaped up. Then last Thursday he found himself staring at Gene Gleason’s card on his door.
Joe says the moment he saw the message from the Channel 10 television reporter he knew that questions about Jay Armes would be forthcoming. He figured this time he might be ready to answer them. But he still worried about hurting people connected with Armes and he decided he’d call Bill Mitchell’s office. “I wanted to know whether he felt like this would really, really embarrass his office politically, and if it would, I didn’t want to make any statements to anybody.” Mitchell nervously chatted with Breedlove for a while, then referred him to Jim Vaus (the president of a national chain of homes for wayward adolescents and the man who contributed $10,000 for Armes’ retainer and helped Mitchell to organize the fundraising drive). Joe says when he confided his suspicious about Armes to Vaus, the man seemed supportive and understanding of Joe’s position. “He even encouraged me. He said, ‘Go ahead with your story. It is going to embarrass us, but just make sure that you're going to be in the clear. ’ In fact, he told me he had friends that run Sixty Minutes and that he would try to see if he could get me on that.”
The conversation ended amicably; Joe hung up relaxed, thinking about what to do next. When the call from Jay Armes came, maybe twenty minutes later, it rocked the struggling photographer to his very foundations.
Joe can still hear Armes' voice, see him holding the phone in his metallic hook. The voice said, ‘Joe!’ and Breedlove didn’t recognize it at first.
“You know who this is,” the detective snapped.
“I said, ‘Jay!’ ” Joe recalls, childlike delight once again spreading across his features. The detective then asked about the ruckus that Joe was starting. Recalling the conversation, Joe’s expression becomes sheepish. “I was embarrassed. I was caught with my pants down. So I said, ‘Uh, well, some TV people came and wanted to talk to me. They wanted me to spill the beans on ya...!” According to Joe, Armes then declared that he had heard about Joe’s conversation with Vaus from Vaus himself, who, Armes claimed, had taped the entire earlier conversation, and immediately called the detective.
Joe says the conversation was painful, the pain that springs from betrayal and shattered friendship, and it was filled with veiled warnings of retaliation by Armes. Joe claims the detective hinted that he might press charges for the “stolen” chauffeur’s uniforms (even though Joe had partially paid for the uniforms through payroll deductions). Breedlove (who insists that he’s stayed clear of drugs since he kicked heroin) says drugs had been “planted” in his apartment after he left El Paso. On the phone. Armes hinted that he might dredge up problems for Joe over them or other incidents from the former employee’s past. The conversation ended on an uncertain note. A few hours later, Breedlove taped part of an interview with Gleason for Channel 10.
Friday, unaware that his conversations with Vaus and Mitchell had already moved them to consider firing Armes, Breedlove sprawled on his bed, trying to decide whether he should give Gleason more information. From time to time. he stared up at the art work that covers almost every inch of his walls: a few animal skins, two half-finished Indian “fetishes,” dozens of black-and-white-and color enlargements. The photographs, almost all of them Breedlove's handiwork, depict joyful children and sinewy, impassive men; but mostly they focus on sensuous, beautiful women. “And I just wanted to start my own quiet little business,” Joe mumbles half-heartedly.
He doesn’t hesitate, however, when he explains why he finally aired his doubts about Armes. It’s possible that Armes could solve the Grosenbach murder, he says, “just like it might be possible for any good detective to solve it.” But he says he knows that San Diego has one of the best law enforcement agencies in the country, and if they weren’t capable of coming up with anything solid, he doesn’t see how anybody else could. He also scoffs at the claim that Armes’ normal fee is $100,000(during the fundraising, Mitchell’s office had said that the detective had cut his price out of a desire to avenge little Aleta’s death). “Twenty-five thousand dollars is an awful lot of money,” he says. “We did things for a lot less than that.
"I can’t say for sure that I know positively he's a crook. I can’t say positively that he’s an angel, either. I just want to be able to say that I think there are discrepancies. I think something’s not on the up and up, and if Jay can prove himself right, that much better. That much better for me. But why have there been so many people who say, ‘Look, I’ve been rooked’?”
More than anything, Joe says he’d like to see the country simply realize that Jay J. Armes isn’t Superman. “Heir a good detective, but he isn’t Superman. I don’t really think his deeds warrant making a doll in his image.. . .I’d just like the public to realize that it’s being awfully gullible. It’s easy to be gullible; we were gullible with a couple of Presidents. But this kind of a thing is harmful. I’d like to see the public tone down its attitude toward these Supermen. And I’d just like to see Jay become more realistic; then maybe he’d get a real kind of respect, rather than this mysterious awe which anyone can build around himself. It’s easy to build a mystery.”
Suddenly, footsteps once again chip into the murmurs of the afternoon breeze, but almost before Breedlove can reach for his gun. Gene Gleason’s tall frame looms in the doorway. With him is a television cameraman, toting his compact equipment, and the two bulldoze their way into the tiny room, emanating authority and implacable efficiency. Under the tide of Gleason’s brisk, clipped questions, Joe’s former doubts and hesitations crumple like a sand castle. Next to Gleason he seems younger and less articulate; he scrambles for names and numbers. Staring into the maws of the hungry electronic news machine, he seems vulnerable, almost naked.
Behind him, the cameraman has pounced upon color snapshots showing Breedlove and Armes together in El Paso. In the blink of an eye, he hauls out a white background against which to photograph Joe's mementos and, coldly professional, he pushes a thumb tack through it and into the wall, disregarding the hole which the tack pricks in one of Joe’s photographs. The glare of his camera lights strips the small quarters of their humanity, making the room look like a prison cell illuminated by a floodlight.
In the doorway, Joe is silent. He thinks about the inevitable problems which loom in the future. He thinks about the tranquility he had almost restored to his life. “Maybe if I move somewhere else,” he muses, “and change my name ...”