Inside the Case Files Of 'Cheating Season'

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Ah, Valentine's Day, memorable

for heart-shaped chocolates and rose bouquets arriving at the door -- memories that can take a painful twist when they're recorded by a private eye's spy camera, bugging device or telephoto lens.

It's the day most cheaters dread and the day many cheaters get caught. The spouse and the side dish both want attention, and, during the juggling act, the two-timer slips, right in front of a private eye's camera lens.

Most private investigators are booked solid today. They probably worked all day yesterday and will be catching up on work tomorrow. It's the time of year most of their cases begin or end.

Take the Georgetown wife. She was as cool as the February day that brought her to the Progressive Security Consultants detective agency. Attractive, confident and calculating, the lady had the goods on her cheating husband.

"I know he's meeting her here. On Valentine's Day," she told the private investigators, handing them a slip of paper with the address of a swanky District restaurant. "He has reservations for two that night. And they're not with me."

It was exactly the kind of case that investigators Joe McCann and Dwayne Stanton like: tidy, neat like Scotch. The romance was gone; the drama, minimal. The lady was sharp and detached, and she knew her husband had been seeing this other woman for a while. All she needed now was proof for the divorce. She wanted to keep the Georgetown townhouse, after all.

The junior investigators who work for Stanton and McCann all wanted the day off to keep their relationships from going the way of the affairs they document. So the former D.C. homicide detectives who usually take bigger cases -- slain intern Chandra Levy's disappearance, white-collar bank crimes, security for the stars walking the red carpet -- took the Valentine's Day case themselves.

This was their story.

McCann went first. He has most buildings on that block wired, so someone on the inside let him onto the roof across the street from the restaurant. "It gives me the best view, and nobody sees me. I've got the telephoto," he said. He shrugged into his cashmere overcoat, pulled up the collar and took his position.

The cheating husband was there, right on time. The woman was there, too, just as classy as the Washington mistress of a high-powered lawyer should look. They kissed. Click. Click. Click. It was on film, and McCann's work was done.

After dinner, Mr. Unfaithful dropped off the mistress, but he didn't go home. He took some wild turns left and right, with Stanton behind him trying to keep up, then pulled up in front of an apartment building in Mount Pleasant. A much younger woman dressed in a funky, sexy bar-hopping tank and low-rider jeans came outside and slipped into the car. They went to a crowded bar nearby. With the live music blaring and the shots lined up on the bar, the lawyer had his second assignation of the night. Neither the wife nor the classy mistress knew about that one.

Sometimes, it's inaction on Valentine's Day that's the tip-off. Take the case of the 80-year-old cheater. He spent a lot of time at his country club, playing golf. He was there more than his girlfriend would have liked. She was also in her golden years and admired the athleticism of her octogenarian, so she didn't ride him about it.

One Valentine's Day, she found a receipt for a necklace. All day, she waited and waited for the present, preparing to act surprised. But the necklace never showed. The long days on the links were beginning to look a little more suspicious. She took the case to Fred Owen, a private eye for the Maryland branch of Capitol Inquiries Inc., a D.C. investigations company.

A day or so later, Owen tailed the man after he left his country club. "He took us on a crazy, 70-miles-per-hour trip around the Beltway," Owen remembered. After an exit and some turns, he slowed and pulled in front of a small single-family home. He opened the garage door and pulled in.

A much younger woman greeted him inside. They kissed.

Owen raced back to the office to run the property records on the house, wondering who this younger woman was, figuring he was close to nailing the case.

But the house was in the man's name. After more digging, he finally found out who the younger woman was: his wife.

"Turns out, the older woman who hired us was the mistress. Boy, she was mad when she found all that out," Owen said.

Most investigators spend Valentine's Day hunkered in their cars, chasing their targets at lunch hours and after work, ducking, laying low. But Robert Hoffman and Kathleen Robinson, investigators at Checkmate Inc. in Maryland, have a different shtick.

Working as a pair, they don't stand out among the canoodling couples in fancy restaurants and hotel lobbies, the way their trench-coated counterparts do. They dress up, don the starry-eyed gazes of lovers and head out on the town to catch their prey, up close.

Last Valentine's Day, Hoffman and Robinson were ready to head somewhere chic. Their target was a lawyer with money. His mistress was a high-powered career woman who was also known as a big spender.

Robinson knows how to dress for these nights. For years, she worked as the decoy for private eyes who staged setups, the tantalizing, short-skirted bait laid in a cheating trap. So when the fancy restaurant is booked solid on these big nights, Robinson the private eye turns on that old charm to try to get a table.

That night, the dark Mercedes Benz SL pulled out of the lawyer's building and went to the woman's office. The mistress slipped into the car, and they pulled off. Robinson checked her makeup. The private eyes wondered whether they'd be eating steak or lobster that night.

They tailed them for just a few blocks until the Benz unexpectedly pulled into a dark parking lot behind a nondescript building. The engine was cut, and the luxury German car began to shake. Click. Click. Click. The photos were done, the case closed. No appetizers, no cocktails.

"We were thinking, maybe a romantic, nice dinner. Maybe a nice hotel," Robinson said. "It was cold that night. And it was just a parking lot. The cheapness of it all, that got me. The wife was lucky to get rid of this guy."

The lunch hour on Valentine's Day is when private investigator Viola Russell works her best cases. "It's always between 11 and 2 that they take care of business," said Russell, who moonlights as a security guard from October to February, the dry period outside the "cheating season."

"I can see it in my books. Business dies down around Thanksgiving, when they all have to spend time with their families. And Christmas and New Year's. That's when they can't cheat. They've got to put in time with the family," she said.

"But here it is, Valentine's Day. For me, it's the first day of the cheating season."

In 15 years of working cases, most of them unfold like the one a few years ago, when a woman discovered her man's cell phone records burning up with his old flame's number and found Russell's name in the yellow pages.

"The wife wanted to stop by her husband's office for lunch on Valentine's Day. But he told her he'd be busy, he couldn't do lunch. He had a meeting," Russell said. "She knew what was up. She hired me to follow him."

Sure enough, the meeting happened right at the lunch hour, not in a boardroom but at the Courtyard Marriott on Connecticut Avenue NW. The man left his office, picked up the woman at the Dupont Circle Metro station and headed to the hotel, where they walked past the green awning and into a marble lobby. They checked in under her name. Whirrrrrr. It was all on video. The "lunch" in the hotel lasted three hours, Russell said.

Russell delivered the video to the wife and waited for the call from a divorce lawyer that usually follows these cases. "Turns out, it never came. The woman didn't want a divorce," Russell said.

"See, she had a boyfriend of her own. She just wanted something in her back pocket, in case she ever got caught."

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