During a recent day of jury duty, I took my lunch break at Wax Paper in Chinatown (great sandwiches, btw) and struck up a conversation with the guy sitting next to me, who divulged that he’s a private investigator.
My spine shot up like an exclamation point, and every fantasy I’ve ever had about being as intuitive as Magnum, P.I., as fashionable as Charlie’s Angels, and as street smart as Veronica Mars flooded my brain. I peppered him with questions about stakeouts, doughnuts, yelling “Freeze!” and, most importantly, what percentage of his day is dedicated to following cheaters and uncovering the dubious plots of the unfaithful.
Turns out my new lunch bud mostly handles corporate-type investigations, but it got me thinking that private detectives must witness a lot of bizarre, tragic, and hilarious surreptitious behavior on behalf of suspicious clients. I tracked down some of L.A.’s top private investigators and asked them about their most memorable romance-related cases.
How did you become a private investigator?
Ken Childs of Paramount Investigative Services Inc.: It fell into my lap. I was bartending and working at a community college. The struggle was real. I met a couple of P.I.s at a bar I worked at, they offered me a job, and soon after I started training their people. That was 22 years ago.
S. Brian Mathews of L.A. Intelligence: I’ve been a P.I. for 28 years, first in Florida and then in California. But I’ve also been a pilot, substance abuse counselor, card counter (I made over a million dollars doing that), and wealthy business owner. I also wrote a book (to be published in 2020) and am in talks to be a technical advisor for a detective show on ABC. I also have a blog.
Mike of Empire Pacific Investigative Services: I was studying electrical engineering in college and worked at a restaurant as a valet. A P.I. would come to the restaurant often and he said I could be a good investigator. After six months, he offered to take me with him to do an activity check, which is checking on what’s going on without anyone knowing what we’re up to. I went with him and I was a natural. I continued going to college and when I graduated, the job market wasn’t great. I continued doing P.I. work. I’ve been doing it since 1986.
Barbara Wolford of Kinsey Investigations: I originally owned a head hunting business and I had the ability to do background checks. I was very young, 22 or 23, all of my colleagues were paralegals or going to law school. When they graduated and became lawyers, they would ask me to do background checks. Then it grew into more and more. I worked for multiple law firms and then branched out on my own in 2007. It’s taken off and been non-stop ever since.
What are the key tools for tracking down a cheater?
Ken Childs: Strictly surveillance. People are already in high emotional state when they hire us. They want the videotape of the lie. People are definitely pissed to find text messages that show cheating. But it’s really always about the video. They want definite proof.
S. Brian Mathews: Surveillance and covert video cameras. I do a lot of undercover work and personal contact under false pretenses. To prove cheating, I need video proof of two people in physical contact. Internet messages are not enough. First thing people want to know is if I can get into emails and texts. My answer is no comment… If I testify, I need to have photos and proof to be ready for cross examination. I have to have multiple incidences of documentation. That means I have to watch for awhile, look for PDAs like kissing or footsies to prove they’re not just friends.
“I have to have multiple incidences of documentation. That means I have to watch for awhile, look for PDAs like kissing or footsies to prove they’re not just friends.”
Mike: Surveillance is the best thing to do. Using a tracker—all it does is give a location. If someone parks at a high-rise or a meter, he or she could be so many different places. The majority of P.I.s carry video cameras because you can zoom in a lot more than with telephoto lenses. They only go up to a certain distance. We have hidden cameras that we use when we need to. We have hidden cameras in hats or glasses, in pens, keychains, water cups, and coffee mugs. It all depends who is comfortable with what.
Barbara Wolford: If both parties are on the registration of the car, we can put a GPS unit on the car. This would track down to the second when someone is somewhere. In one case, I had a runaway kid. I found his car and put the GPS tracker on so we knew where he is sleeping at night.
Do you ever do a background check on a romantic prospect for a client?
S. Brian Matthews: All the time and they should. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Most of the time they’ve called after they’ve been scammed. When someone calls ahead of time, it can be about any investment, more often than not, we find there are bankruptcies.
What’s the most memorable or “most L.A.” infidelity case you’ve ever worked on?
S. Brian Mathews: I busted the married CEO of a big company cheating with a married woman. I caught him on a Malibu beach. The CEO’s wife spent $30,000 trying to catch him and I did.
Mike: There was a producer [working with] a high profile person. She met another producer that worked with the same client and there was a conflict between two companies. They were both married with kids, fell in love, and they both divorced. The two producers were dating but because of the client, they couldn’t be together. I can’t say too much, but there was a lawsuit and we ended up investigating the guy. The client wanted to see if the male producer was flying in to see the female producer. We investigated for four months, every day, with four investigators. The guy lived in a high-rise with multiple exits. They’d follow him and he’d pick up his daughter, go to golf, run errands…Then he spent more time with the child and ex-wife; he started spending nights over there. We saw the ex-wife’s belly was bigger than normal. We wanted to find out if he got his ex-wife pregnant. The ex-wife had a dog and we put an undercover female with a dog to run into them. The female agent became friends with ex-wife and she confided in the agent. We got a lot of information. The guy got back together with his ex-wife.
Barbara Wolford: I had one where a guy was following his wife 24/7. The wife left him and he wanted to know why. He wanted to know her every move. The more we worked with him, the more he opened up. The more we got to know the guy, we learned the woman had left a year-and-a-half ago. She was sick of him and wanted a divorce. He made it sound sudden. After a month, we had to say, “No. Thank you for the money.” It felt like being a stalker. We severed because there was no objective. As a P.I., that’s something we have to assess.
If someone suspects their lover/spouse is cheating, what percentage of the time are they right?
Ken Childs: If someone suspects someone is cheating, then they are usually right. Twenty years ago, it was 70 percent or 80 percent men doing the cheating—now, it’s 50-50 men and women cheating.
Brian Mathews: Most of the time, they are right. When they call me, it’s not the first time there’s been cheating. It’s just getting the evidence. Sometimes, it’s a big surprise, and then there’s a lot of crying and denial from both men and women. Often they already know. They’ve been through that phase.
“When a woman calls, she’s 90 percent accurate. Women know. They have intuition. They are more observant.”
Mike: Eighty percent [of the time] they are right. The other 20 percent goes to they either don’t communicate or on bad terms, like spiting each other by not telling someone where they are going. I had a case where there was no cheating at all. The wife hired us because he was always out, he came home late and didn’t answer calls. It was a perfect scenario for cheating. But it turns out he was just a workaholic.
Barbara Wolford: There are always signs. When a man thinks his wife is cheating, it’s a 50-50 chance. A man might notice his wife going out in a nice outfit and he’ll get suspicious. But maybe she is really going out with the girls. When a woman calls, she’s 90 percent accurate. Women know. They have intuition. They are more observant. Like if he’s all of a sudden working out and she’s suspicious, then she’s usually right.
Has it changed your view of love?
Ken Childs: No. We cheated before Christ and after. It’s human nature. I feel that if my spouse cheated, I’m going to look at it like I hadn’t fulfilled something.
Brian Mathews: I’m armed with more knowledge about why people cheat. I can look back on it with a more educated perspective. Divorce is nasty. I try to give clients as much heads up to ward off what they’re about to go through. The news that a spouse is cheating is a big thing to swallow and the worst part is yet to come. They have to separate, then file and then fight for money and children. That’s when it gets really nasty–who’s going to get what. The more they were in love, the more they hate each other in the divorce. They want things just for the principal to spite each other. Community property states help solve it. Lawyers cause a lot of trouble. They walk away with most money.
Barbara Wolford: No, not really. I’ve always been distant about it. I’ve never been engaged or married. I’ve had longterm relationships, but I knew they weren’t right for me. I’ve said no to getting engaged. I see what the children go through, and I don’t want to [put children] through it. Children can be the pawns in the middle.
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