Surveillance is the “art” of covertly following someone and documenting his activities. For the audience of television and film, it appears brief, interesting, and productive. For the professional investigator, however, it is long hours of boredom, interspersed with short bursts of frantic activity.
Attorneys still request surveillance for their clients, even though “no fault” divorce laws have eliminated the need to establish adultery as a cause for divorce. Our attorney-clients request surveillance to establish spending habits of a philandering spouse, in custody cases, and for “peace of mind” for a client who simply needs to know that another person is involved in the relationship. Others have corporate interests in mind.
Several years ago, we were asked to conduct surveillance on a senior executive who was in Miami on a business trip with his personal assistant. The client suspected that the executive was having an affair with the assistant. There were marital and employment issues at stake.
The only information we had about the subject was a blurry photo and a physical description, along with the hotel they were staying at, a well-known facility in downtown Miami. We did not have their work schedule and had no idea what activities they had scheduled. The surveillance team called for a married couple (which consisted of yours truly and his partner, licensed investigator Wendy Murnan, CP, FRP) and a third investigator. Wendy and I would maintain watch inside the lobby, and the third investigator would watch for the subject outside from his vehicle.
The investigation began at 10 a.m. on a Friday morning Wendy and I took up a position in the lobby, trying to behave like a married couple on vacation, while we carefully eyed the dozens of people moving through the busy lobby. Our associate watched an endless stream of cars and vans pull up to the hotel, dropping off and picking up guests.
From 10 a.m. to noon, we waited. From noon until 4 p.m., we waited, but had to slip away quickly to use the restroom (the only advantage of surveillance in a public location). And from 4 p.m. until 7 p.m., we waited with increasing anxiety. Had we missed the subject and his assistant? Were they even at this hotel? Were the descriptions accurate? Had they left town? Had they been in a room together the whole time? Had they somehow slipped past us? There was no back-up plan; this hotel was our only point of contact.
Finally, shortly before 8 p.m., we saw him. Our subject was dressed in a suit. He appeared flustered and rushed into the lobby to the concierge desk, apparently asking for directions. After staring at his picture for hours, and seeing similar looking people all day, we knew we had our man. Then, as quickly as he appeared, he dashed out of the lobby.
I followed the subject out of the lobby with Wendy beside me. The female subject was in the passenger seat of the rented sedan. Our associate had the license plate; we managed to get our car from the valet in record time, while the couple appeared to be reviewing a map in the car. A few minutes later, we were all in movement, all three vehicles in a single file.
Moving surveillance is the most challenging physical skill for the professional investigator. Unlike film and television, there are a host of concerns and situations that crop up that screenwriters never consider. Things like traffic flow, stop lights and signs, turn lanes, detours, drawbridges, railroad crossings, and a host of other impediments regularly occur in a mobile surveillance. All these things are compounded in a busy downtown area and require instant communication and decision-making by and between experienced investigators.
Our little entourage at one time made three turns around the same rotary, as our subjects, unfamiliar with the area, and apparently a little intimidated by the seasonal weekend traffic in Miami, struggled to find their way to their destination. Then, as they crossed the bridge toward South Beach, we realized our task would be even more difficult.
South Beach in the Miami winter season is one of the most densely-populated areas of the country, not dissimilar to Manhattan. We followed our targets onto Ocean Drive, and watched in amazement as they pulled into the only open parking space in the city at that moment. Without thinking, I ordered Wendy to get out of the car, and barely slowed down as she exited a short distance behind our now walking subjects.
We were able to find spaces within a few minutes. Our targets found a quiet French restaurant, and Wendy had already secured a table in a section where we had a partial view of the subjects canoodling over a candlelit dinner. While we enjoyed our own hasty meal, our investigator moved into position to watch the subjects’ vehicle. He had to settle for a quick Cuban sandwich from a street vendor and a run to the nearest restroom.
Dinner was followed by a romantic stroll along South Beach, as the couple walked arm in arm, and occasionally kissed. It was a beautiful evening, and on another occasion, we would have capitalized on the mood ourselves, but we were being paid to watch someone else have a good time!
Around 11 p.m., our subjects returned to their vehicle. To our surprise, they immediately drove back to the hotel and had the bell captain remove their luggage from the car. They had not even checked into the hotel! As the valet removed our car and theirs, we followed them into the hotel and approached the lobby.
Wendy and I carried a small bag with us. The bell captain had a luggage rack with our subjects’ bags. I went through the process of obtaining a room for us, while Wendy managed to stay in close proximity to the subjects. They each secured a room for themselves. We wondered for a moment if they were going to “do the right thing.” The bell captain accompanied them to the elevators with us right alongside. We rode up together, Wendy and I making romantic small talk, while the bell captain and the other couple tried to ignore us and each other.
At the fifteenth floor, the gentleman exited the elevator without any luggage. He barely acknowledged his partner, who stayed on with the bell captain and the luggage. We already knew his room number from the desk clerk’s announcement. We rode up to the seventeenth floor with the woman and the bell captain, and when they turned right in the hallway, we turned left and we were able to observe the woman and the bell captain enter her room with all the luggage.
Either our subject was wearing his business suit all weekend, or he would be visiting his co-worker at some point.
My associate and I took up positions in the stairwells at either end of the hall on the seventeenth floor. Through the partially open doors, we were able to see the woman’s room. Fifteen minutes later, our subject arrived at the door and knocked quietly. The door opened and he disappeared inside. Not surprisingly, he did not immediately re-emerge with a change of clothes.
We took turns sitting in a chair in the elevator foyer until three a.m. By that time, they had spent three hours alone together in a hotel room in a strange city, each with a person not his or her spouse.
Mission accomplished. This type of “team” surveillance requires experienced investigators, excellent communication, good coordination, and boldness. It is expensive and time consuming, but sometimes there is no other way to obtain the needed information without surveillance, which is always a tool in the professional investigator’s skill set.