Preparation and Patience: The Reality of Family Investigations

Up until about eight years ago, I shied away from handling divorce, matrimonial, custody and infidelity cases (which I will collectively refer to as “family” investigations), since I had presumed they were messy. The corporate world was so much “cleaner”.

Then one of our corporate clients asked me to become involved in a very difficult family situation. I knew that many in our industry were not comfortable handling family matters since: a) there is too much emotion involved, and; b) the results can be bad news – and no one wants to muddy a strong corporate relationship with a messy, emotional family matter.

And boy, they were absolutely right!

But what I learned in the process is just how valuable the information, if gathered responsibly, can be. Fast forward eight years, and providing high-end family investigative services has become a staple part of our business. But it takes great care, preparation, experience and patience to do well, so I’d like to take some time to share my thoughts on some aspects of our family work which I hope will provide value:

Custody

It may surprise you, but custody issues account for over half of all family investigations we handle. Many clients have safety concerns regarding mom’s new boyfriend or dad’s new girlfriend, and rightfully so. In shared parenting relationships, parents want to know who their children are spending time with and we routinely provide detailed background checks on new spousal partners. As you can imagine, a history of drugs, violence, prostitution, gambling, alcohol or financial issues is a very real concern for parents of children who will be around new partners. A solid background check can put their fears to rest, or as in many cases we’ve had, allow them to petition the court with the information they need to help ensure a safe environment for their children.

Some parents have real and genuine concerns about their children’s activities while they are with the other parent and we often conduct discreet surveillance to observe those activities. We’ve seen very young children left unattended for long periods each night, including one woman who left her three children, all under the age of ten, alone while she spent several hours every night satisfying a $5,000-a-week scratch off lottery ticket addiction. That one surprised even me.

Cohabitation

Under the terms of dissolution, there is often a cohabitation agreement in which alimony or other payments are dependent on the recipient living alone, that is, without a live-in partner. We have conducted dozens of cohabitation investigations and proving cohabitation all boils down to the threshold the attorney feels is sufficient to go to bat. That is, it’s not up to you or me.

For example, one attorney may feel that three consecutive nights of cohabitation is sufficient to prove cohabitation, while another may feel that nothing less than five nights of any consecutive seven is sufficient. We had one case where a male friend stayed over every Monday and Thursday, and on Saturdays when the ex-wife did not have the children. Is that cohabitation? Point is, it all depends on the attorney’s threshold, not my opinion or yours.

We generally use vehicles to prove cohabitation, with additional surveillance to provide evidentiary support. That is, if a subject’s vehicle is present at an address at 10:00 pm and then is still there at 6:00 am, then he or she is generally deemed to have stayed overnight. Subsequent surveillance video on one or more of those mornings showing the subject entering his vehicle and departing the residence provides the evidentiary support. One major obstacle of course is when the layout or a long driveway, tall trees, or other obstructions prevent being able to view vehicles from the public domain. In those cases, proving cohabitation does not become impossible, it just becomes more time consuming, as longer term surveillance is required on each evening and morning, rather than just activity checks.

Infidelity

We’ve followed subjects through towns, cities and states, on trains, highways and planes. Successful infidelity surveillance involves extensive preparation, intensive coverage, hard work and usually a deep budget. Anything less and it’s amateur hour, so beware.

Pornography and Casual Encounters

One of the more distressing components of modern life is the ubiquitous availability of free pornography and casual sexual encounters through free and subscription websites and databases. The ability to view pornography and to arrange a sex meeting on a phone within minutes is a curse of society which is tearing relationships apart. Each situation is different and our investigation may involve computer or phone forensics, surveillance, undercover stings and/or other research. We are familiar with them all and we understand the distress and uncertainty this problem can bring to a relationship.

The above topics are by no means the extent of family matters we investigate. We identify hidden assets; conduct fraud investigations involving family and other caregivers for the elderly; conduct computer, DNA and handwriting analysis; investigate theft of intellectual property; research property disputes – you name it, it all happens between spouses and family. But if you have a sensitive family issue I do have some advice:

  1. Get several opinions regarding investigative strategy – a financial investigator wants to follow the money; a computer investigator wants to analyze the computers; and a surveillance expert wants to follow. Sometimes you need all three, but get different investigative perspectives before initiating any investigation.
  1. Never work outside of your attorney’s direction and always let him or her lead the charge. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to gather information yourself, or to obtain it from an unknown source. Information and the way it is gathered can hurt you and your case.

Family investigations are, by definition, difficult, emotional and time consuming, and they need to be handled with care and sensitivity. But I’m glad I became involved with family work years ago and if you want to get my opinion on your situation, please give me a call – I get it now.

Case Study: Surveillance

Mobile field surveillance consistently identifies theft, fraud, insurance fraud and domestic infidelities. Here are two of my favorites:

Surveillance Case Study 1:

A 64-year old female claimed she was paralyzed on her left side during a medical procedure and sued for $2.5 million. Continued surveillance revealed she rarely left her home and when she did, she shuffled along very slowly, with assistance, using a walking frame as she did so. One Saturday morning she joined her family in a visit to the local supermarket. Her daughter and granddaughter assisted her as she slowly edged her way from the car to the store. An Artus Group investigator entered the store to observe her activities. Nothing new – she continued along slowly as her daughter provided support. The daughter left her alone and went to another aisle, leaving the subject alone in the freezer aisle.

The subject then made an amazing recovery and Artus Group investigators obtained video as she opened a freezer door with her left hand, held the door open with her left leg, and leaned into the freezer with her left hand. She lifted and examined several items inside the freezer with her left hand and finally selected an item for her shopping cart.

This amazing recovery was seemingly short-lived: as she exited the store her paralysis returned and she was videotaped as she slowly shuffled back to the car with the assistance of her walking frame and doting family. The subsequent settlement negotiation had a slightly different outcome than she might have expected.

Surveillance Case Study 2:

A very wealthy client with a pre-nuptial agreement suspected her younger husband was having an affair with a woman from Philadelphia. Her husband, a former athlete, told his wife he was leaving for an amateur men’s basketball tournament in Denver. Of interest, we learned that his connecting flight was through Philly, with only a 45 minute layover. We suspected that the subject would either meet his girlfriend at the gate for the second leg, or he would exit Philadelphia airport and claim that he had missed the connection and would have to stay overnight. Or, maybe he was telling the truth and there was no girlfriend at all? This, as do all airport surveillances due to logistics, size and sheer volume of people, provided a very difficult scenario.

Artus Group booked one investigator on the flight to Philly; one at the gate in Philly to meet the subject; one at the Philly baggage claim; and one outside circling the arrivals level in his car. Two additional investigators were scheduled to pick up the subject as he arrived in Denver – again, one at baggage reclaim and one circling in his car (as you know, it is impossible now to remain parked in place immediately outside arrivals at any major airport). In a bizarre twist, our subject almost missed his flight to Philly, but as he rushed to the gate, the Artus Group investigator boarded just behind him (our investigator booked a seat near the front so he could be sure of exiting the plane before our subject – this is a critical component of aircraft surveillance).

As they landed in Philadelphia, the Artus Group investigator fell immediately behind the subject and then gave our Philly investigator “the nod” at the gate to provide the subject’s identity. The exterior investigators were alerted, but ultimately were not required. Our Philly investigator followed the subject to the gate for his pre-booked flight to Denver. There, the subject looked around expectantly, but as if from a scene in “Wuthering Heights”, his girlfriend arrived in full flight and they embraced and kissed at the gate. All was caught on video.

Our Philly investigator followed the subject and his companion onto the flight to Denver and sat in his pre-booked seat, again towards the front. Upon arrival at the gate, he repeated the “nod” to our Denver associates, who took it from there. The subject and his girlfriend were observed and videotaped as they rented a car and drove to a hotel, where they checked in, all caught on video. An undercover agent in the hotel lobby even videotaped as the subject made a phone call to his wife in Connecticut. He could be heard telling her that he had checked in and was just about to leave with the guys for practice.

This surveillance included seven investigators, immense planning and, to be honest, some luck. But the results became a huge component in providing our client with peace of mind, and some significant leverage in their pre-nup settlement.