“Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.” Even as the credits rolled across the screen at the end of the harrowing story of 1930s private eye Jake Gittes in the 1974 film Chinatown, a thought drifted into my head, “Is it really that difficult to be a private investigator?”
For God’s sake, look at Tom Selleck on Magnum, P.I. That guy had it all: a mansion, a helicopter, a red Ferrari and a sweet-looking mustache. He was cracking skulls, drinking beers and lounging poolside surrounded by ’80s chicks. I love all of those things, so maybe it was just the jealousy talking. But I concluded that anyone could be a decent gumshoe—and, consequently, that I should give it a shot. So, a couple of months ago, I got off my ass, made a few phone calls, and the next thing I knew, I was riding shotgun in a Chevy Impala with Salt Lake City private investigator Chris Martindale, of AA & Associates. We were going on a stakeout.
OK, his car isn’t a panty-dropping red convertible—Martindale is the opposite of Tom Selleck and Jack Nicholson in every way. His face is clean-shaven, and his no-nonsense brown hair is trimmed to a sleek crew cut, accompanied by a pair of wraparound sunglasses he never takes off. You won’t catch Martindale wearing Hawaiian shirts or pressed suits—he looks like he was hit with a khaki bomb in his beige slacks and matching golf shirt. Martindale is the spitting image of average, and that’s the point.
“The idea is to not stand out,” explained Martindale as we drove to In-N-Out for some pre-stakeout grub. “I always wear normal clothes. I drive a normal car. In this profession, you don’t want to be noticed. … People sometimes have the notion that this guy is Magnum, P.I. He’s driving a Ferrari. He’s a total hotshot, and he’s going to get the goods on a person no matter what.”
“Do you enjoy that?” I asked.
“Well, I want people to realistically know what we can and can’t do. I think people have a misconception of what our overall objective is. I’m not here to look cool, and, yeah, there is a cool factor. But when I’m on the job, I’m Public Enemy No. 1. People do not like me sitting in their parking lots. They don’t like me sitting near their homes. They don’t like me doing anything.”
I told Martindale that being a journalist has some of the same pitfalls. So I asked him if a journalist, like myself, would make a good investigator. “Let me ask you this: Are you a people watcher? Do you like doing research?” I nodded my head repeatedly. “Then you would be a good P.I.”
We rolled up to the In-N-Out, and I ordered a Double Double with fries. Martindale got the same, but he topped his fries with a pile of grilled onions and Thousand Island dressing, a secret menu option known as “animal style.” As we plowed through lunch, Martindale confessed that he eats a lot of junk food. “I guess it just comes with the job,” he said.
Aside from the inherent risk of clogged arteries, the nature of the private-investigator profession often results in some high-risk situations. Martindale admits that he’s been chased, threatened and harassed on several occasions. Maybe because he carries a gun—although he’s never had to use it—he says he never fears for his safety. “I don’t have enemies. I’m a likable guy. I don’t feel like this is an enemy-making business, mainly because I’m the objective person.”
He took a break from his fries and looked down at his phone as it vibrated on the table. “He’s moving. We gotta run.” Hastily, we threw the fries in a paper tray and headed for the door.
We were on our way to follow a guy who presumably is cheating on his spouse. A few days before, Martindale’s client, the guy’s wife, hired Martindale to come over during the night and attach a 40-pound magnet with a GPS to the bottom of her husband’s car. Martindale’s phone notifies him whenever the subject leaves his place of work.
“OK, he’s hitting the freeway and he’s probably going to head southbound. Let’s see here … he’s on State Street and 1000 South. So he’s just right up the road here.”
“Do you think he’s going to his girlfriend’s house?” I ask.
“I think so. He came down this way and parked right there, see?” he said, pointing to the Google map on his phone. “I think he’s actually right in here.”
Looking around, I realized we weren’t going to catch the guy at his secret lover’s house. Instead, we pull into a Burger King parking lot.
Martindale spotted the guy’s car and parks in a nearby lot, positioning it behind a bush so we have a clear view of the main entrance.
It was 80 degrees outside and even hotter in the car. You can’t be sneaky on a stakeout with the windows down. So Martindale rolls up the black-tinted windows and turns off the ignition. The heat, combined with two sweaty dudes and a pile of animal fries, transformed the car into something similar to the Hamburglar’s armpit. “Don’t worry,” assured Martindale. “[You’ll] feel like they see you, but they don’t. We are just like anybody else, and even if he does see us, he’s not going to be suspicious. He has no idea what we’re doing.”
“THESE CASES NEVER END WELL”
As we sat in the car, I asked Martindale if people are often right when it came to their suspicions, or if cases like this are usually based on over-the-top jealousy. “They are usually right on the nose,” Martindale says. “Me and my wife, she could go through my cell phone whenever she wants, I couldn’t care less. She could put a tracker on my car. She could have me followed. I don’t care. She has all the passwords to my e-mails—she can look at them whenever she wants, and I don’t care because I’m not doing anything that warrants me to worry. If you’re in a true marriage, then you don’t have to hide stuff. This guy, he has a history of cheating and he puts a password on his cell phone so that his wife can’t get in there. Now what does that tell you? It tells you that’s he’s hiding something from her. We don’t know what is hidden, and, well, that’s what we try to find out.”
Martindale pulls out his binoculars from under the seat and turns on his video camera, which has night vision and the ability to put a time stamp on footage. As he’s showing me the camera, he has a realization and puts the camera down on his lap. “You know, I wonder if he’s in there with somebody?” I could see his inner Magnum coming out.
“You think he met somebody there?” I asked.
“That’s a possibility. We should go check.”
Nervously, I respond, “Maybe he just has a junk-food fetish?”
Martindale’s voice becomes fast and precise, “All right, let’s do this. We’re going to be real quick. We’re just going to go in and look at the menu and …” before he finishes his sentence, a car rolls up and parks next to the subject’s car.
“Someone just pulled up,” whispers Martindale, picking up his camcorder. “Now, I know what she looks like. So if that’s her, then we are going in, and we’re getting some covert footage.” A woman climbed out of the car. She had big, curly blond hair, like what you’d see on the head of Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider. “Yep, that’s her,” he said, while zooming in with his camera. “We have a situation here. That’s the chick he’s cheating with.” Martindale laid out a new game plan. “OK, we are going to go in and order something to eat. Sit down at a table near him and just chat normally.”
When we walked into the cool, air-conditioned Burger King, I thought to myself, “Damn, I’m so full.” But I had to order something, so I settled for a small coffee and looked over at Martindale as he scanned the menu. He had to be just as full as I was.
“Do you guys … umm, do you still have that pie?” The woman behind the counter nods and Martindale orders a slice of Hershey Sundae pie.
We got our order and sat down at an adjacent booth, me with my back to the couple and Martindale facing them. He pulled out a small cell phone and placed it on the table face up. This was what he meant by covert footage. The phone is actually a high-definition camera with a lens positioned at the top, facing outward toward the couple.
Martindale has quite a few high-tech gadgets, but, as he explained later, one of his best tools is actually the Internet, specifically social networks. “Twitter, all that stuff, people are putting way to much out there on the Internet. You can find out what people are doing; you can find out addresses. I’ve found out so much information from those sites.
“I had this insurance case once where this guy had an arm injury on his right arm and he was claiming total injury, meaning he can’t use it and can’t work. He was collecting money from the insurance companies and workers’ comp. I was assigned to surveillance. So I get on his MySpace and I see he has a band and that he’s a guitar player! So I sent him a message, ‘Dude I love your guys’ band! When are you playing next?!’ and he responds back, ‘Oh, we got a gig at such and such on this date.’ And I’m like, ‘Sweet, do you mind if I bring a camcorder and record it so I can show my wife? I want to show her how awesome you are!’ He’s like, ‘Yeah! Bring it!’ I actually got permission from the guy to film him. Of course, I turned it in to the insurance companies, and, boom, he was nailed.”
We sat in the B.K. for about 10 minutes while Martindale slyly captured footage of the two holding hands and chatting. When he finished his pie, he picked up his phone, and said, “You ready to go?” I nodded, and we left the air-conditioned Burger King and stepped back into the heat. Martindale suggested we not walk directly toward the car, but go around the next building and circle back. When we got around the corner, we hopped in the car and waited for the couple to come out.
“I usually try to discourage these types of cases,” Martindale said. “When someone calls me up and says they think their spouse is cheating, I drill them with questions. I’ll ask, ‘Why do you want this information? You already know that he’s cheating on you. How is this information going to benefit you?’ But typically, they just want closure. I think people like to hang onto the hopes that maybe their spouse actually isn’t [cheating]. These cases never end well.”
NAIL IN THE COFFIN
We waited for what seemed like ages. Martindale pulled his binoculars up to his eyes and peered into the Burger King. “Yeah, they’re still sitting there.” The animal fries were getting gamier by the minute, and all that fast food was starting to knock at the door. “What do you do if you have to go to the bathroom?” I asked. Martindale laughed, “Well, I’m good at holding it. I’ve gone a whole day without going.”
“A whole day? Did you at least use a bottle?”
Martindale thinks for a second. “You know, I used to use my family’s minivan for stakeouts, and when I had to go I would just use an empty Gatorade bottle. But one day, I forgot about the bottle and my kid almost drank out of it. So now I use this car and I have a little toilet bag with crystals in it. I try not to do the whole bottle thing anymore.”
I decided that I would rather run the risk of getting a kidney stone than use the crystal bag. I kept my mouth shut and decided to hold it.
Our cheating couple was still sitting in the B.K. Martindale noticed that I was getting anxious. “Yeah, we’re going to sit here in a hot car until he leaves. This is a lot of what it is, too. You sit here, and you’re like, ‘Come on! Move already!’”
We were both getting bored. I asked Martindale if he’s ever had to follow another P.I. around, you know, Spy vs. Spy.
“Counter surveillance! Oh, yeah. It’s tough. It depends on the P.I. and how good he is. There was a time when one of my clients thought he had a P.I. following him. So I had him drive around town, and, sure enough, there was someone following him. Basically, we narrowed down the cars, and I figured out which one it was. We pulled over, and I drove up to him. I rolled down my window, and he rolled down his. I said, ‘So, what agency you from?’ He’s like, ‘What? I’m not from an agency.’ And I said, ‘Well, you are following this guy here, and I assume he’s your subject.’ I just messed with him a little, and I was like, ‘You’re not a very good P.I.’ ”
Just then, the door opened, and the couple came walking out.
Martindale’s camera started rolling. The subject looked around for a second, seemingly straight at us. Then he got in his car and pulled out of the parking lot, his girl following closely behind him.
Martindale shut off the camera. “That was just beautiful footage. That was the nail in the coffin right there. This is what he’s been lying about forever,” he said as he started the car.
They headed west and made a few stops, leaving a pink “Family Circus”-like roundabout trail on Martindale’s GPS. We followed from a couple of car lengths back, and, after zig-zagging around town for a while, they eventually parted ways and our subject got on the highway.
“Well, I’m guessing he’s heading back home.”
“To his wife’s house?”
“I think so.”
Martindale switched off his GPS. “I’ll show this footage to my client later tonight. She can go over the video and decide what she wants to do with it.” Martindale reminded me that the footage he gathered isn’t evidence of anyone necessarily cheating. Everything is circumstantial. “For all we know, that was a business associate, on a business meeting that he forgot to tell his wife about.”
“Yeah, but they were holding hands.”
“Maybe she’s a long-lost sister. I mean, the fact that they were holding hands probably says that they are in an intimate relationship. But I don’t conclude that. I just gather the information. In my mind, I don’t know and I don’t care. That’s how I make my money.”
PASSING THE TEST
P.I.s get quite a few domestic cases, and their time isn’t cheap. Typically for a case like this one, Martindale charges between $55-$75 an hour and 55 cents per mile. “Of course, everything is negotiable,” Martindale says. “If someone says they have a budget of $500, I’ll work with them to create a plan that fits their budget.” Because Martindale owns his agency, he can pick and choose which cases to take, depending on his workload and interest. He is a one-man shop, though he occasionally farms out cases to apprentice P.I.s. Some other, larger agencies offer a larger array of security services in addition to private investigation, such as employee surveillance, bail bonds and VIP event security.
Martindale’s pedigree is not one of ex-military or law enforcement—he got his start in the humdrum real-estate industry.
“I hated that job. I couldn’t sell a pardon in a Turkish prison. But one day, a co-worker asked me if I knew any private investigators for an adultery case she wanted done. I recommended my brother-in-law, Steve Ketter, who’s been a P.I. for over 25 years. But he was busy at the time and couldn’t take the case. So he suggested that I do it and get my license. I really pondered it for a while, deciding whether or not this was something I could do. But I decided that I could do it, and it beat being a Realtor. So I got my license, and I’ve been an investigator ever since.”
Obtaining a license, though, requires far more than renting an office and buying a trench coat. To get a private-investigator apprentice license in Utah, an applicant must pay a $100 fee, demonstrate “good moral character,” take out a $10,000 surety bond, be employed by a licensed private detective agency and—of course—pass a background check. After 2,000 hours of investigation experience, you can apply in the same manner to be a registered private investigator. And, once you’ve had 10,000 hours of experience working for an established agency—that’s close to five years, if you’re working 40 hours a week—you can apply to start your own.
In 2007, when Martindale got his agency license, it was easier to start an agency. Senate Bill 177, which passed in the 2011 legislative session, increased the required number of hours of experience from 2,000 to 10,000 hours. Agencies are now also required to purchase a $500,000 surety bond.
These new regulations have received mixed reviews within the industry. Shawn Kane, a P.I. who founded Kane Consulting, believes they represent a vital step for Utah private investigators. “The most important thing is, it gives P.I.s more respect in the industry,” Kane says. “We are professionals, and we want to be treated as professionals. So raising the bar and raising the standard for P.I.s only makes it so we’re more respected.”
Besides owning one of the largest agencies in the Salt Lake area, Kane is also the president of the Private Investigators Association of Utah, which drafted and pushed through the legislation. “It’s a balance,” he says. “We have a lot of people in the industry that are very supportive of it, and there’s a lot of people who feel the new legislation is too harsh. You’re never going to be able to please everyone.”
One critic is private investigator Shawn Merlen of Masters Investigations. Merlen argues that upping the training hours to 10,000 will “hurt the industry, force out smaller agencies,” essentially eliminating competition. “This is clearly a power move. Now, you can become a lawyer faster than a P.I.”
Martindale says that he sees both sides. “I admit, I think it’ll push a lot of these little guys out,” he says. “But the intention is to legitimize the field. These apprentices who are aspiring to be agents, it’s going to discourage them. But it does give us more credibility. It means we’re well-trained, and we have experience before we negotiate and deal with clients.”
EVERYONE HAS ISSUES
Ahead of us, the subject’s car disappeared in the rush-hour traffic. The stakeout was over.
Martindale’s phone rings. It’s his wife. “Hey, honey! Yeah … we’re heading back right now. I have to drop off the writer … it went well. Oh, and can you call and make sure they’re not closed? OK, I’ll see you in a bit. Love you too.”
He hangs up. “Sorry about that, my kids really want to go to a swimming pool after I drop you off.”
I thought about his wife and kids for a moment and asked, “So does being a P.I. result in you not trusting anyone?” Martindale paused, then said, “My job has definitely made me jaded. I’ve learned that everyone has issues. However, it makes me go back to my family ... my family keeps me grounded.”
We exit the highway, and Martindale looks over as I stare out the window. “You know, you’re always going to remember this story. But for me, this is just another day at work.”
A few weeks later, I realized he couldn’t have been more right. I couldn’t stop thinking about the adrenaline rush at the Burger King stakeout. Everything went so well, and busting that guy seemed as easy as Hershey Sundae pie. I was still convinced that anyone, including myself, could be a private investigator. So I figured, “Hell, why not?” I decided to do my own stakeout. I didn’t want to get shot or stabbed, but I also didn’t have time to train for 10,000 hours. So after some thought, I picked the easiest, most nonthreatening subject I could think of to stake out: my girlfriend.
Later that evening, I called her up as she was driving home. “Hey, I was wondering if you could pick up something for dinner at the Whole Foods near our house.”
“OK, what do you want?” she replied.
“Eh, whatever … are you almost there?” I asked.
“Yeeeeah …” she said, suspiciously.
“OK, great, I’ll see you there. I mean, at home.”
Now, it is super-illegal to do your own investigations without a P.I. license. I was absolutely not on a stakeout, even though I say the word stakeout over and over again—I was simply making sure my girlfriend picked up something good for dinner.
Knowing my girlfriend and her love for vegetables, I had a pretty good idea of where I’d find her. When I walked into the grocery store, I instantly spotted her near the veggies at a discount display case, agonizing over two types of feta cheese. She moved about the produce section and eventually headed toward the deli.
It was now two minutes into the stakeout. Standing near the organic lettuce, I heard a low hissing noise and suddenly felt a cool, misty spray on my ass. It was refreshing but uncomfortable. I figured Martindale wouldn’t flinch, so I took the misting. She picked up some meat from the deli and started walking in my direction. Quickly, I ducked behind a giant display of pre-cooked rotisserie chickens. My phone vibrated in my pocket—it was my girlfriend. As we talked about dinner, we played ring-around-the-rosie with the chicken display. When she hung up, I could see through the chicken that she was headed to the dairy section.
I wanted to maintain a visual, so I relocated in the essential oil and shampoo aisle for a better view. But she unexpectedly double-backed. We both rounded the corner at the same time, nearly bumping into each other.
“Oh, hey!” she said.
“Uhh … hi,” I said, trying not to look surprised. I checked the time, “Damn, that was only a six-minute stakeout.”
“What? You were following me? You creep,” she said with a smile. I apologized and explained that I had to test out my P.I. skills for the story. This resulted in me paying for the groceries.
On the way home from Whole Foods, I went over in my head all the things I did wrong. Should I have worn a disguise? Scoped out Whole Foods first? Maybe I should have gotten some In-N-Out and stayed in the car. But in the end, I concluded that following your girlfriend just isn’t a good idea. I should have just hired Martindale.
It takes a lot of hard work and training to become a great private investigator. And, apparently, a ride-along with one of Salt Lake’s pro P.I.s, coupled with an afternoon picking apart Chinatown and back-to-back reruns of Magnum, P.I., just isn’t enough.
I thought back to when Martindale mentioned to me that journalists often make great P.I.s. Perhaps after 10,000 hours of training, he might be right. But is the gig worth it? After my botched girlfriend stakeout, one thought continually ran through my head, “Forget it, Wolf … it’s Salt Lake City.”