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An emotional niche
In 1997, when Butler left the Antioch police force after a decade of service and cashed in his retirement fund to start his PI agency, he never thought he'd spend so much time tracking philandering spouses. He'd advertised his general investigation services in the phone book, and was surprised by the avalanche of calls from people who suspected their spouses of adultery. He soon learned it was a realm where few investigators are comfortable. "A lot of PIs won't touch it," Butler says. "It's so emotionally charged."
"If the investigator is successful they have to deal with breaking the bad news," notes Ruth Houston, author of Is He Cheating on You? 829 Telltale Signs. "If not, you've got to deal with a client who feels they wasted their money."
Among the roughly two hundred East Bay agencies listed in the directory of the California Association of Licensed Investigators, only seven, including Butler's, indicate that they handle domestic situations such as infidelity. Even fewer push such services in the phone book. Deceived? Betrayed? queries the ad for Butler & Associates, Inc., which depicts a grief-stricken woman with one palm pressed to her forehead. Specializing in cheating spouses. ... "For your piece of mind, let us uncover the truth."
Under California's no-fault divorce statute, the "truth" about a partner's marital infidelity means nothing in court, but that doesn't stop people from seeking evidence.
Thus did Butler recognize an available niche, and find it suited him well. "I've always been told I'm a good listener," he says. "I think of this job as investigator-slash-therapist." Indeed, clients are invited to call at any time, no charge, to vent to Butler's team rather than to their spouses. He doesn't want any slain husbands on his conscience. Many clients take advantage of the offer Butler's phone rings constantly, and he rarely neglects to answer it.
A majority of the fifty or so potential clients who call each week are in crisis mode, such as the man (roughly 20 percent of his infidelity clients are male) who wants to know whom his wife has been dialing on a store-bought phone card. That, Butler calmly explains, would require subpoenaing the calling-card company, something he cannot do. Then there's the woman who calls from jail after being brought in on a restraining-order violation. He politely suggests she have her attorney contact him.
Just as clients shop around for a PI, Butler chooses his clients carefully. As a rule, he won't lift a finger until a potential client meets with him in person and signs a contract. Among other things, the contract stipulates that the client cannot be burdened by restraining orders (Butler isn't eager to assist stalkers). He also nixes people who want him to do surveillance on an ex. And he demands payment up front. A check is fine, but it has to clear before Butler and his crew of two full-time investigators and numerous part-timers spring into action.
Ping 'em & sting 'em
Two key words in Butler & Associates' lexicon: ping and sting. The first relates to Global Positioning System technology. It's legal in California for a spouse to track the partner's car. And apparently it's becoming more common. Brickhouse Security, an online retailer that offers "Catch a Cheating Spouse" gear, says sales of its $280 magnetic GPS units have tripled in the last year. "We've sold over 350 in the last thirty days," boasts company president Todd Morris. "It's only recently that these products have gotten to the point where people can do it themselves instead of hiring a PI."
Butler caters to clients who don't want to do it themselves. The client typically brings the spouse's car to his office, tucked away in a bland industrial strip in Concord. In the adjacent garage, Butler spends about ninety minutes installing a customized GPS unit. The client pays $170 for installation, and $250 a month to keep it active. By logging onto a special Web site, the suspicious spouse can then access real-time and historical data about the car's location. Every five minutes, the transmitter sends out a signal that is relayed via satellite back to a computer server, giving the vehicle's location and speed. Butler can override the five-minute interval by requesting an immediate update via computer. That's called a ping.
A sting, meanwhile, is the firm's specialty, for which Butler maintains a stable of about thirty decoys clients can choose from. The PI has whittled the operation into three distinct stages. The first tests whether the suspected philanderer will flirt with an attractive stranger (the decoy), and to what extent. If he sting targets are almost invariably male phones the decoy, the client can initiate a level-two sting. At that point, the decoy calls back and slyly works in questions the client wants her to ask ("Are you married?" is a popular one). The final stage, which about half of Butler's sting clients eventually opt for, is the confrontation. The decoy arranges to have dinner with the cheat. Shortly after they start their meal, the client shows up. The decoy rushes off in a huff, the client sits down, and the unfaithful partner, says Butler, who has seen many such scenarios unfold, turns white as a sheet. At that point, the firm's job is done.
Baiting the honeytrap
"Princess Superfly or Uma Thurman Kill Bill?" asks Andrea, a single mom from Berkeley who works for Butler thirty to forty hours a week and who, like Butler's other employees, is identified by a pseudonym for this story. She holds aloft a hanger draped with a long 1970s-style leather coat and a flowery silk dress in shades of muted brown and green. The alternative: a tight black halter top and lemon-yellow vinyl jacket with racing stripes, plus the trendy jeans she's wearing.
"Kill Bill," says Lisa, a decoy hired last November.
It's an unseasonably warm Saturday night in mid-February, and I've been invited along on a stage-one sting. Andrea, 43, is one of the women from Mary's recent interview. Butler brought her in as a decoy in 2005, and once he discovered her extraordinary background he began grooming her for a lead role in his infidelity practice, which makes up about half of his caseload.
Andrea is certainly qualified. After completing the Juilliard School's prestigious acting program in her early twenties, she returned to her native Los Angeles, where she wound up dating a "somewhat famous" actor for six years. That ended after she found a box of condoms in his car. Around the same time, she became disillusioned with acting. She left the guy, quit showbiz, shaved her head, and joined an environmental justice nonprofit specializing in direct action.
Over the next four years, Andrea mastered the MacGyver-esque skills that, coupled with her acting talents, made her so attractive to Butler. Andrea acknowledges that some of her former tactics assuming false identities to get information, climbing up and rappelling down the sides of boats carrying objectionable cargo might be questionable, but she felt justified. "I was working for the greater good of our environment," she says. "If I was not doing any kind of harm to anyone and it was done in a nonviolent way, I didn't take issue with it. I was cool with it."
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