America’s Most Flamboyant Private Eye and the 8,000-Mile Manhunt
Jay J. Armes is a legendary and controversial Texan investigator with hooks for hands and six decades chasing criminals. This was his most epic murder case ever.
This incredible story by Dylan Taylor-Lehman is one of my favorites that I’ve edited at Narratively. There’s no question Dylan found a real-life character who’s as colorful as they get. Then he had to zoom in on how to tell this complex story. We chose to focus on one of the most compelling cases from Jay J. Armes’s illustrious career, and used the mystery and intrigue of that one case to frame a larger profile of Armes. I think it ended up as a dynamite read!
If you’re interested in learning about how to write an epic story like this yourself, consider signing up for my upcoming Narratively Academy class: The Longform Feature: Reporting Big Stories That Demand Attention, where we’ll discuss all the ins and outs of researching, reporting and writing big feature articles.
—Brendan Spiegel, Narratively co-founder
Donald Weber was startled to be suddenly confronted by two men from El Paso at his girlfriend’s apartment in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Chiang Mai is a large city in the northwestern part of the country, an energetic mix of markets, shops and packed thoroughfares, a place where people can easily disappear into the anonymity of bustling urbanity.
It was early January 1991, and Weber, at the time 30, had been in the country for about four months. With a thin frame and a long face that made him look a bit like Kevin Bacon, he’d made every effort to stay unnoticed among the mass of people going about their lives. Weber had stayed at hostels, where he slipped the proprietors some cash to not record his real name, and he was now living with his girlfriend, a Thai college student named Tsom, and her little dog Lychee. His name wasn’t on the lease or even the mailbox, and it was alarming that these men had tracked him down all the way from Texas.
Earlier that day, he’d come home from giving an English lesson to find Tsom in an interesting mood. She seemed to be waiting for something, and she perked up when she heard a knock at the door.
Tsom was indeed waiting for something, as she’d already spoken to the men earlier in the day. They told her that they were old friends of Weber’s and had traveled more than 8,000 miles to surprise him for his birthday. It had taken a bit of convincing for her to warm up to them, especially since one of the men had two shiny silver hooks in place of his hands, but they were friendly and she told them her boyfriend was expected back in a little while. Tsom waited in the background for shouts of “Surprise!” after Weber opened the door, but there was only intense silence.
Weber assessed his visitors. One man, in his late 50s, was shorter than average, with sparkling eyes. He was wearing a somewhat out-of-fashion leisure suit, but Weber could tell his clothes were quite expensive. At the end of each sleeve was a curved, articulated hook, capable of opening and closing like a pincer. Weber’s eyes snapped back up and met the man’s gaze.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“We need to talk,” the man said. “We need to talk about Lynda.”
Weber glanced back at his perplexed girlfriend and stepped out into the hallway, lightly closing the door behind him. The men deliberately crowded his space. “Well, go ahead and talk,” he said.
Weber looked at the other man. He was taller, in his early 20s, and regarded Weber with a piercing look.
“I don’t know where she is,” Weber said.
The older man reached into his pocket and produced a card with his hook. It read:
Jay J. Armes
He was a private detective and chief of the firm, he said, then introduced the younger man as his son, Jay III. Weber didn’t stop to appreciate the irony that the last name of the man with hooks for hands was Armes.
Weber also didn’t appreciate that Armes had been in the business for more than 30 years at this point and was said to be one of the best private eyes in the world. He had pursued suspects all over the globe, and he looked at Weber with the kind of practiced calm that can only come with such experience.
Armes noticed that the door had been cracked open and Tsom was surreptitiously trying to listen. Conscious of the tension, he suggested that the trio go elsewhere to talk, somewhere where she wouldn’t hear what they had to say. Armes suggested the Orchid Hotel, where he and his son were staying.
Drums of self-preservation pounded in Weber’s brain. It would probably be best to flee, but at the same time he was desperate to know what their appearance truly meant. He said he’d go with them to the hotel if they promised to bring him right back. They agreed and walked out of the building and over to Armes’s waiting car. A tough-looking Thai man grunted at them from behind the wheel and drove them to the hotel.
Unbeknownst to Weber, as they drove away two more Thai men working for Armes made their way back up to Tsom’s door. There was another knock, and when she answered, the men apologized for the disturbance.
“I’m going to be honest with you,” one of them said. “Those Americans weren’t Donald’s friends. Your boyfriend was involved with another girl and she disappeared. Nobody knows where she is.” He showed her a picture of a young Thai woman named Lynda Singshinsuk. Like Tsom herself, she was pretty, with an open and trusting expression.
The men strongly suggested that Tsom not let Donald back into the apartment when he returned. In their experience, they said, there was no telling what a cornered man might do.
Tsom stood in the doorway holding The Investigators’ card. Lychee looked up at her quizzically, but Tsom didn’t know what to make of this either.