If television ever decided to produce a series about Ben and Jean Guiffre, it would have to be a combination of a fast-paced detective show, a romantic comedy and a heart-warming family drama.
The Guiffres live all three.
She's got freckles, pale blue eyes and looks as innocent as Doris Day. But Jean Guiffre is a private detective.
So is her husband. But unlike his wife, he acts lean and tough, and shaves his head every other day. He says he started doing it when Telly Salvalas (Kojak) was still a two-bit player.
In 20 years, Jean and Ben Guiffre (the last name is pronounced zheFRAY) have investigated some of the most controversial criminal cases in Prince George's County.
Hired by attorneys to find evidence and witnesses, the Guiffres investigated the case of Robert Ashleigh Smith, who was convicted in 1972 of setting a fire that killed two people in Bowie. They also ferreted out information in the case of Michael Washington, a black Palmer Park youth who was shot to death by policemen during a 1975 burglary.
The action-packed glamour of television detective shows does not resemble their real life, the Guiffres say. Instead, they spend many hours watching doorways, plodding through court records and convincing reluctant witnesses to cooperate.
The Guiffres don't carry guns. Instead, Ben Guiffre relies on his bluffing ability.
If that sounds less than formidable, Guiffre is quick to point out that he won the family's 12-acre farm in a poker game 14 years ago. He bet his two pair to the limit, and induced in opponent with a full house to fold.
"The gun becomes a crutch. You lose your edge," Guiffre explained, as he rested on the living room couch, his shoes off and his head cradled in his wife's lap.
"Besides, I'd like to think that I have a deep reverence for life."
When they married 20 years ago, Jean Guiffre was 16, and her husband, who is eight years older, dreamed of becoming an artist.
But they produced babies faster than he produced canvases, so Ben Guiffre had to turn to something more practical. He cashed in on his military experience in intelligence and become a private eye.
His wife tagged along to keep him company during lonely vigils and to call the police if necessary. Often they would pose as a couple necking in the car, to avoid suspicion. It was only a matter of time before Jean got a private eye's license herself.
"Next to Ben, I'm probably the best investigator I know," she said.
Jean Guiffre handles much of the surveilance and record-searching. Her husband, who often disguises himself with wigs and makup, handles the more flamboyant and dangerous assignments.
Guiffre says his specialty is finding missing persons. In one case, he says he located a missing man in an hour and a half.
The man had been "missing" before. His habit, Guiffre learned, was to drive out of New York City, heading south, until he ran out of gas and money simultaneously.
The man would stop at a small county seat and create enough of a disturbance to land himself in jail for the night. The next morning, the police, anxious to get rid of him, would fill his car's tank with gas and escort him out of town.
Guiffre took out a map, made a guess, and called a small town in Georgia. The man was in the local jail.
"God, that was fun," he said.
The Guiffres sometimes go to great lengths to obtain evidence.
In one case, Ben Guiffre dressed like a construction worker, climbed 17 stories at a construction site and walked on high girders to take pictures of a steelworker who was suspected of cheating an insurance company by claiming disability.
"Sometimes we work for the insurer, sometimes for the plaintiffs, but never at the same time. It keeps you honest," Guiffre said.
The Guiffres charge $25 an hour each, plus expenses. They say they charge their wealthy clients the full rate so they can subsidize clients who cannot afford to pay.
"We decided very early that it would be easy to make a lot of money, but we looked at what we would have to give up," Jean Guiffre said. "We opted for taking cases for gratis, being active in community affairs and spending more time with our kids."
The Guiffres grew up in Riverdale. She was the kid sister of his best friend, and a tomboy. When he returned home from military service, the tomboy had grown into a beauty, Guiffre says.
"Baby, choose a dream and we'll live it," Guiffre recalls telling his wife.
He still calls her "baby."
She wanted a farm and four children, but she got more than she bargained for. Over the years, the Guiffres have taken in 17 adolescents for as long as several years at a time.
One waif was a young girl Ben Guiffre found shivering in a phone booth on a winter night in Hyattsville's Prince George's Plaza. Her parents didn't want her. She lived with the Guiffres for two years.
Their home in rural Westwood, Md., is rustic, with wooden beams they installed themselves and furniture they built. A wood-burning stove heats the house and their huge dog -- a mixture of wolf and collie -- likes to lie near the fire and howl. Everyone in the household rotates chores, and when it's time to plant the four acres of tobacco and two acres of soy beans, everyone pitches in.
The television show that comes closest to a detective's real life is The Rockford Files, the Griffres said.
"Many times it is like Rockford, except there is no guarantees of success at the end of the show," said Ben Guiffre.
"You certainly do take some lumps," he said. "That part is true." The Guiffre car's windshield has been shattered twice by shotgun blasts, Guiffre said, and he has ben punched at and sliced at with a knife.
"You've got to use your brain to save your feet," he said.
A detective needs to be streetwise and able to judge people, Guiffre said. "The trick is not to know who to go to, but how to make them tell you what they know," he said.