IT IS LATE AT NIGHT. REBECCA, SITTING home alone, has a bad feeling-suspicion. Her husband, John, has telephoned again to say that he is working late. Just yesterday, she found a phone number jotted on a piece of paper in a pocket of one of his suit jackets. He has taken to leaving the house at all hours, even on weekends.
Rebecca is scared. She thinks there’s a chance John may be cheating on her. She wants to confront him, but first, she wants to know for sure.
What to do?
In her circumstances, Rebecca has three choices: Stew. Follow him. Or hire one of the private investigators in the Dallas-Fort Worth area to do it for her. The ranks of private detectives are expanding. Television news reporters and law enforcement officers, as well as regular folks, are among those turning to a new career, that of “private eye.”
Rebecca doesn’t dare ask a friend for a reference (though this is a good way to find such an individual), so she heads for the Yellow Pages. She finds page after page of investigator listings.
She scans the names and advertisements and settles on one. She picks up the phone and dials.
JAMIE BLOOMER IS KEEPING CLOSE WATCH on her man. Wherever he goes, she follows him in her car, maintaining a discrete distance. Whenever he parks his car and enters a building. Bloomer pulls over and patiently waits for him to come out. She makes a careful note of the places he’s visiting throughout his day and-especially-any interesting people he meets.
It’s late afternoon, and Bloomer is tracking her prey throughout Las Colinas. To drivers and pedestrians, she and the other woman in the car-her partner in this observation-don’t look unusual. With their casual outfits, they could be suburban homemakers carpooling or-if they have to get out and follow their man on foot- shopping. They don’t want to be seen. Their goal is to melt into the background of the everyday, meshing with the elements that any individual encounters in the periphery of his or her life yet rarely notices.
Such is a typical, perfectly normal workday for Bloomer. As a licensed private detective in the Dallas area for eight years, she’s done plenty of surveillance work. One reason the suburban mom guise works so well for Bloomer is because she is one, in Piano, and the mother of two. She’s taken her kids along on some surveillance jobs and stakeouts; they did their homework sitting in the back of the car.
On this late afternoon, Bloomer, on her cellular phone, and partner continue to zip around Las Colinas, never losing sight of the man who is oblivious to the fact that his every move is being watched and recorded by two women.
The cell phone is the one technology that has most positively affected the field of private detective work. Bloomer says. “Before the cell phone, I’d have to find a pay phone to call in to report to a client while I was following someone.” Now, the cell phone allows her to take the client along, in a virtual way. on a surveillance.
Bloomer reveals only the general details of her assignment, talking in the kind of cheerful, outgoing manner that brings to mind a real estate agent describing a hot property or a whip-smart businesswoman making a deal.
She and her partner are working on what private detectives refer to as a “domestic case.” Typically, such cases involve a client who suspects spousal infidelity.
So this afternoon. Bloomer is checking up on someone’s husband to see if cheating on his wife happens to be on his itinerary today.
THERE’S NOTHING UNUSUAL ABOUT WHAT’S going on here-that’s the impression Bloomer and her colleagues reflect. Hiring a detective to spy on a spouse is so commonplace in Dallas, they’ll tell you, that a number of investigators specialize in this area alone. It’s the most requested job for which an individual in the general public hires a private detective (second is locating a missing person). In the decay cycle of a troubled marriage, a detective occupies a place somewhere between the justice of the peace and the divorce lawyer.
Dallas has a lot of detectives like Bloomer, who spy for a fee. There are hundreds of them, not including those who choose not to be listed in the phone book. Says Trace Carpenter, an eight-year member of Dallas’ detective club, “Every year when the new Yellow Pages comes out, I like to make note of the new people listed who’ve gotten their licenses and see if they’ll still be around next year.”
He laughs because more than half of those upstarts will close shop within the first year, according to estimates by Carpenter and his colleagues.
What draws most of those failed novices to this field is the romantic image of the private investigator’s life, the noir world of mystery writer Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe.
The reality, however, is more tedious than it appears. The bulk of the tasks performed by a regularly working private investigator involves basic research-digging through public records, for example, for information that almost anyone can find, if they have (he know-how and time.
Another reality: Most Pis don’t carry firearms. Al Teel, who has 17 years of experience in private practice, packed heat back in his days as a postal inspector but thai was because, as a federal agent, he was required to do so. Use of a handgun isn’t required in detective work and is actually frowned upon by veterans as ostentatious and more dangerous than valuable.
Another fact: Most repeat clients of a Dallas PI are corporate. Companies routinely hire a detective to investigate possible internal theft. Corporate lawyers also retain detectives because, as Jim Bearden has observed in his 25 years in this field, ilin Dallas, lawsuits tend to be meaner. The Dallas lawyer is known in the country as being a more aggressive lawyer.” Someone who can quickly dig up dirt on a company or individual can be essential in a Dallas business attorney’s arsenal.
Investigation of insurance fraud is another means of steady work for the PI, and this is where basic spying skills come in. The usual drill has the detective verifying that a claimant really was injured or disabled on the job. If necessary, the detective will set up a situation in which the suspected claimant performs a task he or she should not physically be able to do. like lifting heavy objects, and capture the results with a video camera for the insurance company.
Says Teel, “When a person is looking to hire a private investigator, they’re looking for a problem solver.”
That’s the day-to-day life of a real PI, at least for most in Dallas: working with lawyers, insurance agents and corporate suits. The really interesting cases-the exciting ones with the plot twists, the ones with danger and intrigue, the flat-out weird ones-rarely appear. And the storylines for these cases don’t always wrap up in a definite, satisfying conclusion.
STILL, ALMOST EVERY DALLAS PI WHO’S been at it long enough has had that one intriguing case, the one with the twists and turns. Interestingly, however, it’s the same story: a divorce and child-custody fight that results in the kidnapping of a child by the parent who lost the bitter battle. The plot twists might include child abuse, illegal drugs, sexual abuse, even a corrupt judge.
It’s a good bet, too, that traveling is involved. One parent takes a child on a cross-country tour, maybe to a foreign country, to escape the other parent. The detective works for the recovery of the child or the protection of the fugitive parent-globetrotting when needed. Eventually, the child is returned or the more worthy parent gains custody. There are so many variants of this tale that an individual might be alarmed at the apparent frequency of custody-order violations and flights across state lines and international borders.
Of course, there are those nitty-gritty criminal court cases where a detective is hired to investigate for the 1 defense. However, those assignments are typically given to detectives who were once police officers-like Bloomer, a former beat cop for the Bryan Police Department-or who worked in state or federal law enforcement.
And yet, despite the fact thai even cases as routine as child custody don’t happen regularly, perfectly normal people still want to try being detectives-and scores of wannabes in the Dallas area do so every year with little, if any, experience in formal investigative work. One reason that can create problems is the relative ease with which the inexperienced can get a state license, says Bill Parker, a licensed investigator since 1990.
That has resulted in testing standards for private investigator licenses in Texas becoming higher in recent years.
“Another part of the problem,” says Parker, “is that this is an industry that does lot police itself well.”
“Shady,” “sleazy”and”disreputable’”are terms used to describe private investigators in Dallas-and these come from other detectives.
“Dallas has a handful of very talented investigators,” Carpenter says. “But most of the rest are crooks.”
Comments like these are heard constantly. A few detectives even advise, when considering an investigator, inquiring into why a PI formerly in law enforcement no longer works for the public; the insinuation is that there are those in Dallas whose switch to private practice was questionable. However, the reason is often a normal change of professions: running one’s own business, better pay, relocating to another city, trying something different.
Teel prides himself on the fact that he and the Pis he works with, a small group that includes Bloomer, make it a point to dress professionally. The standard business uniform brings a certain respectability to their profession, he says.
Il also ties in with the city’s corporate image. With his native Oklahoma accent and folksy manner, Teel brings to mind the type of private detective character seen in the old “Dallas” TV series, updated for the city’s 1990s setting-the culture of the EDS- and Tl-type business world.
Some Pis hold strong disdain for their counterparts in the investigation business who revel in the spotlight and actively seek exposure. A degree of media exposure is OK, they say, but too much is unprofessional; the job title has the word private in it, after all. Besides, the recognition that comes from all that exposure can be a disadvantage.
AFTER ALL HIS YEARS OF WORK HERE, TEEL observes that Dallas is “one huge small town,” a large community made up of smaller ones, each with a unique culture and people.
Teel works from an office bungalow by the backyard pool of his property near Love Field. He jokes that all he needs are bikini-clad women lounging by the pool during summer afternoons in order to complete his Hollywood image of a private detective.
In the 1950s L.A. setting of Chandler’s detectives, it was usually a beautiful, mysterious woman who brought an interesting case to Marlowe. Typically, she enlisted Marlowe’s services to help her husband, whom she feared was in danger. Today, in Dallas, that woman would go to a detective because she suspects her husband is cheating. She wants proof, maybe even husband and mistress captured on videotape.
Chances are the woman isn’t wrong in her suspicion, say private detectives who handle a lot of assignments dealing with cheating spouses. In effect, their job is to validate what the client already suspects. Women are more likely to go to a PI if they suspect their husband of infidelity than men who question their wives’ extramarital activities.
Catching a husband in the act is a cinch. “Men leave trails,” says Charles Duncan with a giggle. Duncan spent 13 years as an investigative reporter for WFAA-Channel 8 News. One notable claim to local airwave fame was his “Eat, Drink and Be Wary” dirty-restaurant series. After being let go by the station in 1989, Duncan went private and now aims his undercover camera at adulterers. He impishly tells of setting up a camera in the stairwell of a parking garage and catching an unfaithful husband in the act. Considering that Dallas is regarded as the nation’s divorce capital, business has been good for Duncan.
The surprising part, he says, is that even when such hard evidence is presented to the client, “it’s tough to convince a woman who suspects her husband of cheating that what she sees really happened.”
The proof that a spouse is cheating never brings peace of mind, concurs Carpenter, who will go so far as to set up a sting to test the loyalty of a client’s spouse or significant other. This tactic might seem like entrapment, but Carpenter doesn’t see it that way. If the suspected husband or boyfriend goes for the bait-a comely woman seated nearby or casually chatting with him-that’s his fault, Carpenter says.
What’s the point? For divorce court, especially when child custody or a lot of money is at stake, solid proof of infidelity can be a weighty factor in determining who is the better parent or demonstrating emotional damage inflicted by one spouse upon the other. However, private investigators differ on how well such material stands up in court, especially if acquired illegally.
For some clients suspicious of adultery, spying on their spouses can become an addiction, says Carpenter. That appears to be the situation for one male client of private investigator Jerry Gregory.
Gregory, whose grizzly, sly face evokes the more traditional TV image of the private investigator (except for his manicured nails), has been hired numerous times for several years now to follow and videotape one client’s wife engaging in sex with other men. Whether the client-husband simply is turned on knowing that his wife is cheating on him or it’s a kinky set-up between husband and wife who hire a PI to record it all, says Gregory, he still gets paid.
?N AN OFFICE OVERLOOKING NORTH CENtral Expressway, Carpenter and Gregory show off some of their equipment: electronic bugs and hidden cameras and other tools that are standard issue for the modern-day private detective.
The most impressive (but hardly mentioned) is a nondescript personal computer sitting in the corner of the room, on its screen a blinking dot traveling across a map of the Dallas area. It represents an individual’s car and an unknowing driver into whose vehicle a tracking device has been planted. A global positioning satellite tracks its every move in real time, and the computer silently produces a log of where the car goes and when.
Carpenter-a one-time East Texas bounty hunter who bears a resemblance to comedian Jeff “Redneck” Foxworthy-candidly describes a few individuals who regularly employ detectives as “crazy people with money.” One assignment turned out to be a ghost hunt; Carpenter discovered that the man a client claimed was stalking him was dead.
Carpenter’s specialty is in high-tech surveillance and counter-surveillance, but he likes to tell of his fearless diving into Dumpsters to recover shredded documents and even reconstructing the paperwork, as long as it was shredded into long vertical strips. (Get a paper shredder that cross-cuts your documents into tiny paper flakes, he advises, if you don’t want a guy like him going through your garbage. Incinerate the flakes, too, if you want to be extra safe.)
After Carpenter and Gregory detail the various ways they can watch, follow or listen in on someone, they are tossed a speculative scenario: a local political candidate wants to dig up dirt on his opponent. Without hesitation, they prescribe background checks into the opponent’s financial history and business dealings, searches for newspaper articles that mention the individual, perhaps even a few Dumpster dives. Their quick response hints that they’ve done such assignments before- and it turns out they have.
WHEN BLOOMER AND I TALK DURING HER Las Colinas surveillance, I initially wonder if I’m intruding upon her work-detrimentally hindering her stakeout. It doesn’t seem to matter, I later realize; chatting brightly into her cell phone only adds credence to the guise.
Following all the private detective work that goes on daily in Dallas, I can’t help but feel a tad paranoid when doing something as innocuous as walking down a quiet hallway. Is there a camera? Where is it? In the garbage can? The overhead sprinkler system? And what about that strange new employee or the people you meet and chat with at the bar? Who is watching?
Most people will probably laugh off these thoughts. ’I’m not anybody that important,” they might conclude with relief. They know they’re innocent, that they’re not doing anything wrong. So who would care what they do?
My thoughts turn to Bloomer’s unnamed prey. If he doesn’t cheat today, it’s no proof that he hasn’t. Thus, his wife might not be satisfied to hear Bloomer report that she saw him do nothing out of the ordinary. And what if the man is completely innocent and his wife is just the extremely jealous and suspicious type?
My concern for his privacy wanes because I soon catch the same feeling I’ve noticed Bloomer and her colleagues exhibit, either overtly or subtly. It’s that slightly perverse rush of knowing something somebody else doesn’t: that you’re watching.
Tips on Hiring a Detective
WITH THE IMMENSE NUMBER OF PRI-vate detectives sleuthing across the Dallas-Fort Worth area, picking one can be confusing.
First, however, ask yourself: Do 1 really need a detective? In a few situations, maybe you don’t. If you’re trying to find someone you lost contact with over the years, you might have better luck doing a search on your own through courthouse records. Some detectives will simply hire another person or detective agency to do a search-and they’ll then pass on the additional costs to you. To help narrow the search, here are major points to keep in mind when hiring a PI:
● GET A RECOMMENDATION. Finding a good private investigator is like trying to find a good doctor, auto mechanic or lawyer. In fact, if you don’t know anyone who has solicited the services of a detective, a lawyer will likely be a good referral source.
● ASK THE DETECTIVE IF HE OR SHE HAS A LICENSE. Investigators in private practice are required to carry a license in Texas, which lists them under the State Board of Private Investigators. Generally, the license number begins with the letter A followed by four numbers (“A-1234”). Remember, there have been instances of people working as investigators without them.
● ASK ABOUT THE DETECTIVE’S EXPERIENCE. Special attention should be given to the investigators experience in-and familiarity with-Dallas and surrounding areas. Five years of practice in Dallas is a good starting range.
● THE DETECTIVE’S SPECIALTY. Most Pis are like general practitioners-they cover all aspects of their field: insurance fraud, criminal, missing persons, domestic. Depending on your needs, however, you may prefer an individual who specializes in a particular area. For example, some private detectives handle mostly domestic surveillance and. thus, are probably more knowledgeable about those cases.
● MAKE THE DETECTIVE ACCOUNT FOR HIS WORK. Expect written reports and a full accounting of any expenses that the detective will incur, such as travel. Be sure you clearly understand what services you’re paying for, how much it will cost and what kind of status information or materials you may be given (such as photographs) before you hand over any money.
● INDEPENDENT OR AGENCY? Ask yourself if you need a PI who works alone or the services of an agency that employs several (usually more than three). Each has its advantages and disadvantages: An independent should give you more individual attention and be easier to contact when necessary. On the other hand, an all-around agency may be better able to offer the wider range of services you might need.-H.W.