WATERTOWN — It is a dreary afternoon in late winter, with gray skies and a granular mix of snow, ice and sand on the ground in front of the Salmon Run Mall. A man sits at the food court after ordering a combination platter from a Chinese restaurant; he finishes his meal and thirstily drinks a Pepsi before tucking a pinch of tobacco into the pouch formed by his lower lip. He is wearing a nondescript green jacket with a blue crew neck sweatshirt underneath, a pair of cargo pants and walking shoes. He’s a north country private detective and he’s on the job.
Shamus, gumshoe, private eye, P.I., detective, sleuth or undercover agent — whatever you call them, private investigators have captivated the imaginations of Americans for a century, on the big and little screens, in books and in real life.
A handful of detectives work in the north country. Some are small-business owners, some are hired through regional firms and some are private contractors. And whether it’s to investigate a cheating spouse or insurance fraud, they are united by a skill set that includes patience, persistence and a talent for reading people.
As we move deeper into the 21st century, technology and other tools will continue to change the way some investigations are done, but the industry isn’t going away.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, private investigator jobs — which pay a median salary of $45,740 a year, or $21.99 an hour, and require a high school diploma or equivalent degree — are expected to grow by 11 percent between now and 2022.
Private investigators in New York must be at least 25 years of age and employed by a licensed detective agency. Most investigators interviewed by the Times are former law enforcement officers, although one executive with a regional firm that contracts with investigators in the north country said there is no set model for the type of person who makes a good P.I.
“One of my best guys in Syracuse installed carpets. He was a drill sergeant in the Army,” said the executive, who works for New Hampshire-based Capital Investigating but didn’t want his name used for security reasons.
The executive said 80 percent of the cases his investigators handle involve workers’ compensation claims.
“None of the stuff we do really parallels any TV show or movie or anything,” he said. “We don’t carry guns. Basically, we have a license to loiter.”
But the job does have advantages.
“It’s the day to day. You’re not being micromanaged. If you’re a good investigator, as long as you’re getting results, no one is going to hound you,” the executive said.
One of the more experienced and eclectic private eyes in this area is Frank Sardino, a former chief of police in Syracuse. Mr. Sardino is a man who obviously appreciates the effect his fictional counterparts have had on his job.
While arranging to meet him, he told me he would be at the Dunkin’ Donuts in Cicero wearing “standard private detective gear,” which in this case involved a dark leather jacket.
Mr. Sardino said he has worked on at least 4,000 cases in his 20-year career. He said the cardinal rule in the business is: “You can’t believe anything anybody tells you — you have to prove it.”
A one-time prospect for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Mr. Sardino, now 70, investigates everything from drive-by shootings to workers’ compensation fraud. In 2004, he made the pages of the Watertown Daily Times after he was hired by the Motion Picture Association of America to track down a man accused of trafficking pirated music.
Mr. Sardino said he still works in the north country regularly, charging $65 an hour for surveillance work and a $50 flat rate for background checks.
As a former cop tasked with putting “bad guys” in jail, Mr. Sardino started working with criminal defense attorneys. He began with some trepidation, although he said he is more comfortable with the work now.
He looks for holes — inconsistencies and problematic testimony — in a prosecutor’s case.
“People think the truth is absolute,” Mr. Sardino said. “But there’s your side, their side and the truth. I don’t think there are any absolutes in anything. ... That’s what these lawyers hang their hats on, that there are no absolutes.”
Cheating spouses — once a staple of the business — have fallen off to a great extent due to the advent of the no-fault divorce, but Mr. Sardino said he still gets clients who hire him for that type of work.
“A lot of times people just want to know,” Mr. Sardino said. “Usually the spouse knows who it is or has a good idea.”
More: Tension between law enforcement and private eyes is fiction: http://wdt.me/ruychq.
SOCIAL MEDIA EFFECT
Robert M. Weldon Jr. is a partner at Weldon & Trimper law firm in Watertown. He said private investigators are valuable to local attorneys.
“Investigators are an integral part of our representation of our clients,” Mr. Weldon said. “They will provide factual information that will help us flush out the issues. ... They are the eyes and ears for lawyers out on the street and in the community.”
Mr. Weldon said just about every case he handles could benefit from the services of a private investigator; it all depends on the depth and complication of the situation.
“My philosophy in all cases is to have the largest arsenal of information to support and provide a favorable result to my clients,” he said.
Oddly, the proliferation of social networking sites has only increased the value of private investigators.
Social media has transformed some aspects of the business, though it really serves as more of a loose guide that can be used to help establish a person’s habits, according to investigators. Those private eyes often pay for access to special search engines that can be used to find out additional information about people, such as criminal history or arrest records.
But it is the combination of high- and low-tech proficiency that earned private investigators a shout-out in technology reporter Julia Angwin’s recent book “Dragnet Nation,” which is about trying to reclaim privacy in the digital age.
As part of her quest for privacy, Ms. Angwin reads a book by J.J. Luna called “How to Be Invisible: Protect Your Home, Your Children, Your Assets, and Your Life.”
Ms. Angwin writes: “Luna’s privacy threat model? Private investigators. And even if you follow all of his advice, he says, a private investigator with unlimited funds still will be able to find you eventually.”
ROOTS BACK TO 1850
Most experts agree the P.I. profession has its roots in the Pinkerton Detective Agency, which was founded by Scottish immigrant and former Chicago police detective Allan Pinkerton in 1850.
“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allan Poe — a work of fiction widely regarded to be the first detective story — predates the agency by nine years. Fiction and fact have been intertwined ever since.
And when it comes to harmonizing the two, each private detective interviewed for this story takes a different approach — some embrace aspects of their fictional heritage, while others largely ignore it or dismiss it.
A perfect example of the former was Jefferson County’s iconoclastic private eye, the late Howard R. George.
A review of Mr. George’s resume, found in the Times archives, reads like a list of the toughest tough-guy jobs of the 20th century: investigator, Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office; first sergeant, U.S. Marine Corps; wrestler, 1960 U.S. Olympic team.
Mr. George returned home to Watertown after his military service and became an investigator for the district attorney’s office before starting a private investigation agency in 1977. A sign advertising his services, complete with a Sherlock Holmes figure wearing a deerstalker cap and bearing a magnifying glass, adorned his front yard. Mr. George also was a town of Watertown justice.
In 1997, Times columnist John Golden wrote of Mr. George’s investigatory and judicial professions: “Howard George sees both sides of romance, the splendid and the sordid. He marries lovers, often by day, and he tails lovers, often by night. He has a license from the state to do the former and another license from the state to do the latter.”
Mr. George died in 2010, but his business continues under the direction of his son, William R. George, and under the name of ICU Security and Private Investigations. The company maintains offices in the former chamber of commerce building on Public Square, above the Subway sandwich shop and behind a decidedly noir-esque frosted glass door.
The company, which also trains security guards, handles a variety of cases, and its private eyes travel and work throughout the north country.
It is one of the investigators whom I met in the food court in the Salmon Run Mall, dressed in the aforementioned nondescript green jacket and eminently practical sweatshirt and cargo pants.
The P.I., who asked that his name not be published, was there on a job. He had been hired by a store owner to find out if a clerk was stealing from the cash register.
After we met, the investigator went to his car to retrieve an envelope filled with $600. He used that money to purchase several items from the store.
Before that, he had set up a camera on the cash register and on the counter so that his client could view the operation from his cellphone or laptop computer.
The clerk allegedly was ringing up purchases as returns and then pocketing the cash customers gave him instead of putting it in the register.
“He would pocket the money and mark it down as a no-sale return,” the investigator said.
The private investigator paid with marked bills and then left the store with the items he purchased, ones that had been pre-selected.
He returned later with the store owner, who asked to see the cash receipts for the items. When the clerk failed to produce the records, the private eye said, the owner and the investigator confronted him. They had him on tape pocketing the money, they had the items the investigator had purchased — even though the transaction had been recorded as a return — and they caught the clerk with marked money in his pocket.
“We set up a ‘sting’ — that’s what it’s called,” the investigator said.
After several thousand dollars had gone missing from the business over a period of three months, the hole was plugged.
Hoping to avoid the publicity that can come from an arrest, the store owner and clerk reached a deal. The clerk, who was fired, agreed to pay back the money he had stolen, and the owner agreed not to call the police.
“We had him for falsifying business records and larceny,” the investigator said. “If he doesn’t meet the conditions, there are other steps to hold him responsible for his actions.”
According to the investigator, the private-eye business provides a much-needed service by allocating resources that local law enforcement cannot. A private investigator can devote himself or herself totally to a client and spend time that police don’t have on a case. And in a business largely fed by word-of-mouth referrals, the investigator stressed that the job is about customer satisfaction.
“It may not be what they want to hear, but at least they know,” he said.
This, then, is the domain of the private eye in our time: the parking lot, the food court at the mall, the shadows and fog supplanted by neon, and the sounds of contemporary commerce. Days of boredom punctuated by brief moments of heuristic voyeurism filtered through a digital lens. The times have changed, but the skills remain the same.