April 21, 1975 12:00 PM

Barnaby Jones is a little long in the tooth and Cannon has that belly to contend with. But when it comes to overcoming handicaps, they are pikers compared to a real-life private detective from El Paso who, despite the lack of both arms, commands million-dollar fees, owns and pilots two jet helicopters, is a black belt karate expert, tools around in a Rolls-Royce, and has built into his artificial right arm a revolver that fires a .22 magnum shell. His wildly improbable name: Jay J. Armes.

Not surprisingly, a pilot is being made for a possible CBS series based on the remarkable Mr. Armes (yes, his name is pronounced “arms”). The scriptwriter should have no trouble finding material. Maintaining offices around the world which employ 2,400 people, Armes has a list of clients that includes politicians, royalty and show business celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor, Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando and Yoko Ono. They come to Armes, 42, he unabashedly claims, because he is “the best.” And his handicap? “I never think about it,” he shrugs. “Limits are only put on people by themselves.”

Armes has been living by that philosophy since a friend brought him a package one summer when he was 12. Unknown to Armes, the box contained railroad dynamite charges that exploded when Armes broke the seal. The friend escaped injury. But when Jay picked himself up 20 feet away, there was only torn flesh and bits of bone hanging from the stumps of his arms.

Jay was told by doctors that he would have to remain in the hospital six months before he could begin to learn how to use his two hook-like artificial limbs. Instead of waiting, Armes insisted on the limbs immediately. He was released after 22 days.

Armes taught himself to write all over again—”I had no excuse to be sloppy”—and returned to public school in the fall. Although students and teachers went out of their way to help “with pity in their eyes,” Armes insisted on doing everything himself. At one point he dripped a pool of blood on the floor while trying to write on the blackboard with his new arms. In high school he competed in sports and won letters in track, football and baseball.

By going to summer sessions, he graduated from high school at 15. At about the same time, Jay was paid $80,000 in settlement for the loss of his arms, and he turned the money over to his parents and seven brothers and sisters. “I never saw or wanted a penny of it,” Jay says.

Giving up his early plans to become a doctor—”Who would want a surgeon operating on them with hooks?”—Armes went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in criminology and psychology at UCLA in 1960. He returned to El Paso to set up his own small agency. “Then the hard work started,” he recalls. “I pounded the street, I worked on cases for nothing and acquired the reputation of a tough s.o.b. Nothing could stop me, nothing.” And he adds proudly, “I’ve never had an unsolved case.”

In recent years Armes has had more than his share of spectacular cases. In 1972, after months of futile effort by law enforcement authorities, Armes was hired to locate Marlon Brando’s kidnapped son. He found the boy, unharmed, less than four days later. Several years ago one of his jet helicopters landed in the courtyard of a Mexican prison, scooped up two inmates who were being held incommunicado and flew them back across the border. His biggest case to date: successfully retrieving the $6 million ransom paid in 1968 to kidnappers of a Midwest bank executive.

Jay, a teetotaler and nonsmoker, attributes much of his success to prayer. A deeply religious man, he contributes 10 percent of his earnings to El Paso’s Immanuel Baptist Church and “the Lord’s work.” Such piety, however, does not preclude an outrageously lavish life-style. Recently divorced, he lives with his three small children on a million-dollar nine-acre estate that includes a 26-room mansion with indoor pool, fully equipped gym and a computerized underground target range. A private lake, complete with waterfall, is stocked for fishing, and there is even a private zoo that includes two Siberian tigers, a black leopard, ostriches and emus. Armes’ cheetahs, African lions, white rhino and elephant are kept on his New Mexico ranch.

To protect the El Paso property, 11 watchdogs guard the compound, which is ringed by an electrically charged fence, while closed-circuit TV cameras keep an eye on the house. There is ample reason for such precautions. So far, Armes says, 11 serious attempts have been made on his life, including having his front tires shot off while speeding down a highway last month at 100 mph. “Sure it’s a risky business,” concedes Armes. “But what else is there in life but thrills? Being able to accomplish what others can’t do fascinates me.”

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