That time a Bay-Area private investigator’s worst surveillance moment turned into his best, and why surveillance is like playing rugby.
I was working for my old boss, one of the first guys I’ve ever worked for in the business: John Nazarian, who is now a private investigator of some notoriety down in Hollywood.
I used to work John’s cases for him. I would go out and meet the client, collect the money, and do the work. One day, a woman came in. She suspected that her brother-in-law was sleazing around on her sister. She was traveling with her sister for the weekend and wanted me to follow her sister’s husband to see what he was doing while she was away.
At the time, I was driving a $500 Dodge Dart. The Dart had some problems. When I would go around the corners, sometimes the battery would just short out. It must have had some loose connections.
I don’t know anything about cars. I think someone told me, “Well, if that happens, what you’ve got to do is take out a long screwdriver and just connect the points. You literally touch that screwdriver to both terminals on the battery and the engine will start right up.”
The minute the client goes out of town, I start following the guy, and I see him with his mistress. So I follow him around for a bit in San Francisco, and at one point I think I might have lost him. I know where her car is parked, and I drive back to that spot. I know that if I stick near the mistress’s car, soon enough, the subject of my investigation would return there and drop her off.
I saw the husband dropping off the mistress. I knew it was going to be a big kiss. I got in a perfect position and snapped a whole bunch of photos. But that wasn’t enough.
This is also at the time when we didn’t have digital cameras. I had a Pentax camera with a mirror lens on it. The mirror lens is pretty much just like a snub-nose telephoto. It’s about 4 inches wide, 4 inches long, and it’s very compact.
I waited a few hours, and I got into position up above a bridge on Embarcadero. I saw the husband dropping off the mistress. I knew it was going to be a big kiss. I got in a perfect position and snapped a whole bunch of photos of their kissing and hugging goodbye. But that wasn’t enough. I had to follow her to figure out who she was.
She drove away in her convertible, and I ran down to my Dodge Dart, flung open the hood, and connected the points. It started. The problem was, she probably had about a 10- or 15-minute lead on me. I was parked next to the Bay Bridge, and I thought, “Well, she’s on the Bay Bridge heading east.”
I cranked up the Dodge Dart, and I probably had it up to about between 80, 90 miles per hour heading east on the Bay bridge. I found her, and I followed her, and I found out who she was. To this day, I think it’s one of the best surveillance jobs I’ve ever done because of how far back I started in the obstacles of starting that car. In some ways, it was just a miracle that I got everything right.
The only comparison is in athletics. I played rugby for a number of years. If you’ve ever done anything like that, where time sort of stands still, everything around you just blocks out. It’s like, the rugby ball would be up in the air, and I knew, “I’m going to get hit, and I’m going to get blasted.” But you just focus and focus and focus. That ball comes to you, and then you react.
So those surveillance moments of getting that great “show,” the big reveal — that’s what it reminds me of, when you’re so concentrated and focused. It’s a big rush of excitement because you’ve put so much time and effort into it. You know that’s exactly what your client is paying you for.
No one likes to go back to the client saying, “Well, I kind of sort of maybe might have got it.” No, you want to go back and say, “I got the job done. Here it is.” It’s moments like that, when surveillance works out — they’re just gold.
Hear our interview with Mike Spencer on the Sound of Pursuit podcast:
About the Author:
Mike Spencer is owner of Spencer Elrod Services and has investigated domestic, criminal defense, and family law cases in the Bay Area for 16 years. Before that, he worked as a crime reporter. Check out his blog, Private Eye Confidential, and follow him on Twitter @SpencerPI.