In This Chapter
• Choosing the site
• Planning your cover story
• Handling the nosy neighbor
• Staying cool if you’re busted by the cops
• Keeping your secrets to yourself
If there’s one technique that most people associate with the professional PI work, it’s surveillance. Your entire practice may be criminal defense work, which almost never requires surveillance. But if you’re introduced as a private investigator at any cocktail party or business luncheon, one of the first questions you’ll hear is something like, “I suppose most of what you do is following husbands and wives, that sort of thing, huh?” Depending on your clientele, that may or may not be true. Many PIs do spend a good deal of their time doing surveillance. For example, workmen’s compensation fraud cases are 99 percent video surveillance, with maybe a little judicious neighborhood investigation thrown in.
In this and the following chapter, I prepare you to conduct a successful one-man surveillance without being noticed and help you most effectively utilize additional manpower, if it’s available. The focus of this chapter is stationary surveillance, in which you spend most of your time in a fixed location watching your subject. I tackle mobile surveillance in the next chapter.
PIs use two methods of stationary surveillance:
• Fixed surveillance
• Fixed-mobile surveillance
In a fixed surveillance, the location the surveillance team uses is usually an apartment or house that has a clear view of the subject or the subject’s property. In a domestic case, the PI is more interested in what the subject does after she leaves her house than her activities at the residence—unless the boyfriend is making house calls, which boyfriends sometimes do. In that case, you might set up a fixed-surveillance site some distance from the subject’s location, but along the path of the subject’s egress, to alert mobile units that the subject is on the move.
By far the most common type of surveillance in the PI business is a fixed-mobile surveillance. This is a surveillance set up in a temporary fixed site, such as a surveillance van or other vehicle. In this case, although the surveillance takes place from a mobile vehicle, the purpose is to gather evidence at one specific location.
The key to obtaining successful surveillance video is to get as far away from the subject as your video equipment will allow and still get good-quality video. The client, and possibly a jury, has to be able to recognize the claimant’s face in the video. If you get too close, you’ll get burned every time. Amateurs always begin a surveillance too near to their subject. You can always move closer, but once you’ve been burned, the jig is up. Explain to a client how he paid for round-trip plane fare to Grand Cayman, only to have you get burned on the first day.
An attorney for a department store chain contacted my agency and explained that a man who claimed to have slipped and fallen in one of its stores had filed a lawsuit. Because of the fall, the man allegedly hurt his neck and couldn’t work. The plaintiff was a commercial underwater diver by profession. He’d been working on drilling rigs off the Louisiana coast. It was a coincidence that the slip and fall had occurred about the same time the oil drilling business hit a new low and the diver was scheduled to be laid off.
The diver was supposed to be living temporarily with his folks. I spent a little time watching the parents’ house but never saw the guy there. I called the man’s father and, using a pretext, learned that the diver was flying out the following day to Grand Cayman to work on a dive job down there. I hurriedly consulted with the client, who approved the trip, and I was off to Grand Cayman the next day. Ah, the life of a PI.
I wasn’t sure what job he was working on, except that it was some sort of underwater pipe construction. The job could have been on land as well as in the ocean. The water table there is pretty high; you can dig a hole 6 feet deep and hit water, so a diver might be needed even if the pipeline was on land. After settling in, I stowed my camera equipment in the rental car and went looking. There was construction along Seven Mile Road, and it looked like they were laying some type of pipe in a ditch alongside the road before repaving. It didn’t take long to spot the subject, dressed in his dive gear, dropping into a hole filled with water. I guessed he was probably securing the pipe connections.
It was impossible to sit in the car anywhere close to the construction site and get good video. Construction vehicles blocked the view from the other side of the road, and any attempt at setting up surveillance from the rental car would certainly have resulted in my getting burned. In a situation like this, when surveillance seems impossible, you have to think outside the box. You have to step back, look around, and search for other alternatives.
I studied the surrounding area and noticed a two-story hotel directly across the street from the construction site. It looked promising, so I explored the inside of the hotel and figured out which room numbers would give me the view I needed. I rented the room, explaining that I wanted the roadside view instead of the ocean side because it was less expensive. In a few minutes, I had the camera set up on the tripod and was rolling video. Two days later, the pipeline had moved farther down the road, and so did I, into another hotel. After four days of watching our diver working 10-hour days, I consulted with the client, and we decided we had enough. I took the next day off to do some diving (after all, it was Grand Cayman) and headed home with the goodies.
The diver’s attorney dropped the lawsuit as soon as he saw some of the video.
If you can get a fixed-surveillance site, do it. Sitting in an air-conditioned room is so much better than sitting in a car, suffering from heat exhaustion in the summer and hypothermia in the winter. And room service is a lot better than trying to use your cell phone to persuade a pizza place to deliver to some guy under a bush behind a lamppost.
A fixed-surveillance site doesn’t have to be a hotel room or rented apartment. In my firm, we’ve climbed trees and sat in them all day long to obtain video of subjects. I’ve hidden under bushes in the rain at 4 A.M. to document a newspaper delivery person unloading, folding, and bagging stacks of newspapers. My guys have hidden behind sea oats at the beach to catch surfers who could surf standing on their heads but couldn’t work because of neck injuries. All of these—trees, bushes, and sea oats—constitute fixed-surveillance sites because, if the subject moves, you can’t take the site with you.
Private investigators universally use fixed-mobile surveillances for workmen’s compensation, slips and falls, automobile accident claims, and other types of surveillances when obtaining video of the subject’s physical abilities and range of motion is important. Not surprisingly, the most commonly used method is to use a surveillance van. However, pickup trucks with a cab over the bed work just as well if you’re able to squeeze through the small window that separates the inside of the truck and the truck bed.
Surveillance vans come in all configurations. We always constructed our own from a bare, two-seated delivery van. Customizing your own surveillance van is fairly straightforward. Except for the windshield, the windows should be tinted. We always have this done professionally because, too often, the do-it-yourself tinting leaves bubbles in the window that tend to distort the video, which is hard to explain to the client.
I recommend that you carpet the van floor and also all the inside panels for sound control. Place blackout cloth over all the windows except the driver and passenger windows. Use Velcro so that you can pull one of the blackout cloths partway up for the video. Place a blackout cloth between the front seats and the cargo area of the van. This will keep the cargo area and you, the investigator, in near darkness and invisible if someone starts trying to peek through a window.
Paint the exterior of the van white or blue. There are more white and blue work vans on the streets than any other color. If you end up following the subject, your white van will look just like all the others in the subject’s rearview mirror.
If the van is a little beat up, all the better. It shouldn’t be a total junker, though, or you may find yourself being towed away after a call from an irate neighbor.
One more consideration with surveillance vans is the communication factor. You need to evaluate your needs based on the location of the operation. If all the surveillance is done in downtown or major metropolitan areas, perhaps a cell phone is the best bet. But at my agency we always carry a set of two-way radios so that if the surveillance turns into a two-man moving surveillance, we have instant communication with our partner.
Relying strictly on cell phones for communication between surveillance team members has its drawbacks. You can talk to only one person at a time. Frequently, fixed surveillances turn mobile and end up with two, three, or up to five persons on the street at the same time. The best solution is to have handheld walkie-talkies that share a common channel as backups to whatever primary communication device you use. Why? Things do go wrong. Your subject may lead you out of a coverage area for cell phones. I’ve worked a lot of surveillances in rural areas where there was no cell coverage. A backup is always a good idea.
When setting up the surveillance van, try to think like your subject for a minute. If he sees a van pull up nearby and park, yet no one gets out, he’s likely to be suspicious. In fact, many subjects have been warned by their attorneys that insurance companies often use surveillance people.
So why set up surveillance at the subject’s residence? For one thing, his residence might be the only place you can find him. Second, most good workers comp surveillance results are from around the subject’s house, primarily from doing outside chores. How often are you going to find your subject cutting someone else’s grass? This isn’t always the case, of course. Your subject may be working construction or some other vigorous work, and then you can follow him to the work site when he leaves his residence.
To overcome your subject’s paranoia, keep your video investigator safely out of sight in the back of the surveillance van while another investigator drives the van into the subject’s neighborhood. The driver should park the van on the subject’s street so that it gives a clear view of the subject’s residence; then he should exit the van and walk away (to where he parked her car, a block away, out of the subject’s line of site). If the subject is observing any of this from his house, you want him to assume that the van is now unoccupied. Another option is for the driver to raise the hood and fool around in the engine compartment, giving the impression that the vehicle has broken down.
After the driver walks away, don’t be surprised if the subject comes out of his house and inspects the van to make sure that it’s unoccupied. Of course it isn’t, but if you’ve prepared the vehicle properly, he can’t tell. Be sure to have the camera running, because your client will have a good chuckle when he sees the video of the subject walking, unaided, to check out the van—yet when you video him going to the doctor, he is limping heavily and using a cane, crutches, or even a wheelchair.
Setting Up the Cover
In a typical insurance claim, you want to park the surveillance van in a strategic location close to the subject’s house, but not too close. Stay as far away as your video equipment will allow. If the subject starts mowing his yard, roofing his house, cutting down trees, or working on his car, you want to be able to capture his activities on video.
In some situations, you may want to use a surveillance van in conjunction with another chase vehicle. That way, if the subject leaves the house, the investigator in the van can radio to the chase vehicle that the subject is leaving and give a good description of what the subject is wearing, which vehicle he is leaving in, and in which direction he is headed. The chase car, which should have been parked with a clear view of where the subject would most likely leave the area, can pick up the surveillance. Leave the van in location until the subject is well out of sight. The investigator in the van can then follow as the second vehicle in a two-man surveillance team.
Sometimes it may be necessary to park the van directly in front of the subject’s residence, but try to avoid doing this. Look for alternatives. If there’s a vacant lot across the street and the undergrowth is thick, perhaps you can hide in the bushes instead.
As a last resort, if the subject is outside the house and you must get the video, put survey signs on the sides of the van and park directly across the street. Instead of leaving the area, have the driver get out of the van, set up a surveyor’s tripod, and go about the business of appearing to survey the street, or a ditch, or the vacant lot. Wear the typical orange safety vest, take strings and stakes, and spend a few hours tromping around.
Another good cover is to do the other type of survey: take a clipboard and walk around the neighborhood, knocking on doors, filling out a questionnaire while the man in the back of the van is getting the video. Don’t knock on the door of your subject, though: doing so can render your investigation inadmissible in a court of law (see the Legal Trap sidebar in this section for details).
Listening to What Empty Houses Have to Tell You
So you’ve set up your surveillance. You’ve sat for three hours, but nobody is home and no cars are in the driveway or on the street near the house. You make a pretext call to the residence, spoofing your phone number (see Chapter 7 for details), and no one answers.
You might consider walking around the property. (Don’t walk on the property if it is posted with “No Trespassing” signs.) You might see some construction work or home improvement project underway, or a car being rebuilt in the backyard or in the carport, which you couldn’t see from the street. Take a couple pictures of the projects—they just might come in handy for later use in court. If you see lumber or a pallet of bricks in the back and they have a company name on the delivery label, jot it down.
I recommend using your cell phone camera for this little adventure, in case someone is watching. Also be prepared with a large manila envelope with your subject’s name on it. In case a neighbor approaches you, you can use the pretext that you have some papers for your subject. If he offers to deliver them for you, tell him. “No, thank you very much, but I have to hand-deliver them directly. Oh, by the way, do you know when Mr. Brown usually comes home?” The neighbor might tell you where your subject is working, what time he leaves the house, and when he returns.
I recently prevented a change in a child custody case. The father lived in our area, and the mother and two young daughters lived out of state. In that case, the father lived in a small mobile home with his current wife and two teenage boys. In the back of the house was a travel trailer, illegally hooked up to the power pole, with the air-conditioning running. I think he intended to put the two young daughters out back in this travel trailer. The electrical hookup for the trailer wasn’t up to code, and the county code prohibited people from living on that lot in travel trailers, but the code enforcement bureau never would have known about the trailer because it wasn’t visible from the street. I found it because I walked around the residence and then reported it to the code enforcement bureau.
Dealing with Pesky Neighbors
If you specialize in insurance fraud, workmen’s compensation, and slip-and-fall defense cases, most of your surveillance will take place during daylight hours. Success here requires videotaping the claimants in some activity that they have previously sworn they can’t perform. This type of activity usually takes place outdoors, and most people don’t mow their lawn or do other outdoor chores at night. This is an advantage to the investigator because more than half of the neighbors will be at work and their houses will be unoccupied. That means fewer people to become suspicious.
If the man in the chase car has to park on a residential street, you can count on at least one neighbor to wonder what he’s doing there. Wouldn’t you, if you saw some stranger sitting in his parked car in front of your house for several hours?
You want to defuse the situation before it becomes a problem and without blowing the surveillance. If you notice a resident peeking out the window at you, leave the car and approach the neighbor in a nonthreatening manner. Walk up to the front door with your identification in your hand. Explain to the curious neighbor that you’re a private investigator conducting a surveillance. Tell her that surveillance isn’t on anybody in this block, but that you’re waiting for the subject to drive by.
Many times, I’ve had women who are out for a late afternoon walk stop at my vehicle and ask me why I’m parked on their street. If it’s a woman asking, I always tell them that I’m trying to catch a wayward husband. They almost always say, “I hope you nail the son of a bitch,” and then go on with their power walk.
The inquisitive neighbor might ask you who you’re watching. Obviously, you can’t tell him that. Be careful here. You never know who knows whom in the subdivision. It is possible that this person and the subject are friends or even relatives.
Sometimes, despite all your precautions, somebody walking by the van realizes you’re inside. They may have seen the van rock slightly as you changed positions. Or they may have heard you talking or your two-way radio screeching. Once they’re sure you’re inside, they will pound on the side of the van, knock on the door, or even call to you. This isn’t good. You’re busted big time. All you can hope is that your subject doesn’t become aware of this commotion. If you’re parked far enough away from the subject’s house, chances are, he’ll never know you were there.
The question then becomes, how do you get out of this situation? The easiest solution is to lay down the camera and cover it with a towel. Then open the side door, exit the van, and shut the door immediately so that nobody can peer in to see what’s inside. Confront the people knocking on the van and tell them you had problems with some equipment “back there,” and had to stop and make adjustments. It took a little longer than you thought it would, but it’s fixed now, and you’ll be on your way. Proceed to the driver’s side door, get in, and leave.
PIs sometimes find themselves in confrontational situations. This can happen if you’ve been made by the subject and he’s not happy about it, or if you’re conducting an investigation in a high-crime neighborhood and the residents make you for a cop. Whatever the reason for the confrontation, don’t let it escalate. Don’t let your ego, your right to be there, or anything else exacerbate an already potentially dangerous conflict. Just leave. Don’t get argumentative. Don’t answer any questions. Just turn around and leave. Leaving the area always defuses any situation you might get yourself into. This technique will save you grief and might save you from being physically harmed.
Getting Rousted by the Cops
A time comes in every PI’s life when he’s sitting on a surveillance and a neighbor calls the police about a suspicious man parked in front of her house. Most of the time, you can take preemptive actions by approaching the neighbor, as I mentioned in the preceding section.
Another method to keep the cops at bay is to advise the police that you will be doing a surveillance. As soon as you have your surveillance set up, call the police department and ask the dispatcher to alert the patrol units in the area that a licensed PI is working on a surveillance on the street. Give a description of your car. If you do this, you can count on at least one patrol car coming by just to see what is going on. Wave as they pass. Some of the less clever patrolmen will stop to chitchat, which does wonders for your cover.
I typically make it a policy not to notify the police. It’s just too risky because, in many small towns, the police know the folks on the street where we’re working and advise people that a surveillance team is there. I’ve also had neighbors or the subject himself call the police to ask about the van parked down the street, and the dispatcher replies, “Not to worry. It’s just some PI doing a surveillance.” Oh, yeah, that’s a big help.
Only once in 20 years have I ever had a problem with a beat cop. In that case, the cop asked me to move on. I was sitting in the only place possible, several blocks from my subject’s residence, where the subdivision exited onto a main thoroughfare. I told him I was on a public street, I was licensed by the state to be there doing what I was doing, and I had just as much right to be on that public street as the neighbor who complained had a right to park her car on that same street. He relented but said if he received any more complaints, he’d make me move. I told him that was fine, I would move then, but before he asked me to move again, he should check with his sergeant. I didn’t see him the rest of the day.
If the police do show up, you have a problem on your hands. More than likely, the cop will turn on his flashing lights and bleat the siren once. All the residents in the vicinity will come out to watch. The cop will ask you to put your hands on the steering wheel or out the window, where she can see them. In the midst of all that, the PI must keep two important points in mind:
• Be polite, and don’t panic. Make this a conversation between two professionals. Remember, the state has given you, the PI, a license to do what you are doing and to be where you are. Explain that calmly to the police. Don’t fall into the TV cliché of the PI hustling the cop.
• Keep your business private. Despite the cop’s repeated questioning, you’re not required to reveal the identity of your subject or your client. In many states that license PIs, it’s a violation of state law for a PI to reveal anything about the case he’s working on, even to law enforcement, unless there are exigent circumstances. But check your own state’s law, to be sure. Also, if you’re working for an attorney, your video and your reports may be considered work product from the attorney’s office and so fall under certain protections (see Chapter 20 for a discussion of work product).
Working a stationary surveillance leaves little time for reading, daydreaming, or taking care of bodily functions. As soon as you pick up that book because nothing is happening, the subject will come out of the house carrying a load of bricks, and you’ll miss it. You can’t read and do an effective job at the same time. You may think you can, but you can’t. Nobody can. And that includes reading this book on surveillance. Put me down now and focus on the surveillance.
It’s not unusual to have only one chance of obtaining video on some crucial activity. The activity may last only 15 or 20 seconds. By the time you put down the book and get the camera rolling, the important stuff will be over. It might be the one time all day that the claimant comes out of his house, and you just missed it.
Plan the surveillance. Know in advance how long you’re going to be in the back of that van, or in front of the window at the hotel, or under the bushes, or in the tree. Take food and drink with you. Have a large-mouthed cup to pee into, and don’t forget the lid. And for heaven’s sake, don’t spill it in the van. This is the advice I give both my male and female investigators. If you’re going to be a successful surveillance PI, you have to do it. So think twice before slurping that 64-ounce iced tea.
Stationary surveillance may not be quite as much of an art as moving surveillance, which I address in the next chapter, but to be successful, you need patience, planning, fortitude, determination, and good luck.
The Least You Need to Know
• Two types of stationary surveillances exist: fixed and fixed-mobile. With fixed surveillance, you watch the subject from a hotel room, tree, or some other site that can’t be moved. With fixed-mobile surveillance, your vantage point is a van or car, but you usually don’t leave the site to watch the subject. Both types of surveillance are designed to obtain information from one specific point.
• One method for setting up a surveillance in a residential neighborhood is to have the driver pretend the van is broken down and walk away, leaving a second PI in the back to get the video.
• Pesky neighbors are best dealt with directly. Introducing yourself and showing them your PI license will avoid a run-in with the police.
• If you are busted, make an excuse and leave the area immediately. Being rousted by the cops requires that you maintain your demeanor and speak as a professional. You must maintain your statutory obligations and not reveal, even to the police, the identity of your subject or the nature of the surveillance.
• Success in a stationary surveillance requires a constant alert status. The surveillance investigator cannot read a book, watch television, or leave the site. Have appropriate food and drink available, and use a wide-mouth jar or cup with a lid to pee into.