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Professionalization of private eyes

In the summer of 2003, Rocco Gatta found himself hiding in

the deep woods of Vermont, videotaping the comings and goings of a woman whose

multimillionaire husband suspected her of cheating on him.

She was.

Two years later, Gatta found himself in a courtroom in Hong Kong, narrating

the videotape that showed the woman and her television-repairman lover meeting

at her Vermont vacation home, at a trial that was about far more serious

actions than two-timing a husband.

She stood accused of poisioning and then bludgeoning her husband in

November 2003, in what became known as the Milkshake Murder.

According to prosecutors, Nancy Kissel, 41, had given her husband, Robert

Kissel, 40, one of the top investment bankers at Merrill Lynch who was then

working and living in Hong Kong, a milkshake laced with Rohypnol (a central

nervous system depressant infamous as the date-rape drug), three types of

sleeping tablets and an anti-depressant. He passed out, and she bludgeoned him

with a lead statuette. She is now serving a life sentence in a Hong Kong prison

but has appealed her conviction.

The Kissel case was a shock even for Gatta. The former Nassau narcotics

detective-turned-private investigator had been hardened by decades of

rough-and-tumble police work - a career in which a loaded revolver once was

pointed at his head by a drug suspect.

The suspect pulled the trigger. The gun jammed.

In 1987, Gatta left the Nassau police department for what he expected might

be a less-harrowing career as a private eye.

But "you don't think it's going to lead to this," he said of the Kissel

case. "Most cases, they hate each other and fight over money and children. But

she planned this thing. This wasn't impulsive."

Gatta, 59, a white-haired former U.S. Marine who lives on Nassau's South

Shore, said in a recent interview that he's learned that, in the world of the

private eye, little, if anything, can be taken for granted.

Nonetheless - or perhaps because nothing can be taken for granted - growing

numbers of former police officers, ex-federal agents and reporters are

becoming private eyes. Many have made the move since the terror attacks of

Sept. 11, 2001; since then, security of all types has become bigger business

than ever. American companies lost between $53 billion and $59 billion in

proprietary information and intellectual property thefts in 2001, according to

the most recent survey by the American Society for Industrial Security. In

1999, the association said, U.S. companies lost more than $45 billion from such

thefts.

Allstate is one of the Fortune 500 companies that are increasingly making

use of private investigators. It said that in late November, for instance, it

used private investigators to compile information for a $3.4-million insurance

fraud lawsuit against a psychological testing service that had a post office

box in Mineola.

Computer literacy a must

Today's private investigators are likely to be highly computer literate and

even speak several languages and understand foreign currency.

Gone, both private eyes and security industry experts say, are the days of

the trench-coated, fedora-wearing investigator, who always had a cigarette in

his mouth - yes, it was almost always a he - and a line on a sure-bet horse.

"These days, there's no smoking in our office," said Francis Shea,

president of Melville-based Alpha Group, an investigative agency that hired

Gatta to spy on Nancy Kissel. "We look for a more educated individual and

somebody who can sit in a boardroom instead of a bar," said Shea, who spent 15

years as a New York City police officer before starting the firm.

"I think [private investigators] have a long way to go because many of them

are still saddled with that old image," said Vincent Henry, also once a city

cop and now a professor of homeland security at the Southampton campus of Long

Island University. "But in the last decade, there have been a lot of changes"

in the industry. Technology and the Internet are now as much a part of the job

as the old Yellow Pages and notepad, he said.

"There's been a professionalization," Henry said.

And there's certainly more people on the job.

Kroll Inc. of Manhattan, now one of the country's largest investigative

firms, has about 3,600 employees worldwide, up from 300 as recently as 1997,

said Jeremy Kroll, the company's managing director and son of the founder,

Jules Kroll.

A 'mainstream' occupation

"It's a much more legitimate, mainstream corporate service" that agencies

are providing these days, Jeremy Kroll said. "That's very much reflective of

the people providing the service. There's a surge in patriotism, not just here

but in other countries. For a period of time, people believed security and

intelligence was a place they could make a difference."

According to PI Magazine, a leading industry publication in Freehold, N.J.,

there are now about 60,000 licensed private investigators in the United

States, about 29,930 of them in New York State, a 14.5 percent rise since 2000.

On Long Island, there are 811 licensed investigators, up from 695 in 2000.

The New York State Department of State licenses private eyes. To obtain a

license, one must first pass a written test, mostly related to law-enforcement

issues, and have worked for a private investigator for three years.

At Summit Security Services of Uniondale, recent hires include Patrick

Melia, a highly decorated former New York City police officer, and Tom Valery,

a former federal investigator who worked to help convict Michael Swango, a

physician serving three life sentences for killing three patients at the

Northport VA Medical Center in 1993.

Industry sources say the pay for private sleuths has improved

significantly. About 30 years ago, one could count on about $50 a day, with

expenses, if he was lucky. Now, industry sources say, entry-level investigators

earn about $40,000 annually; those with 10 or 15 years' experience can make

$80,000 to $120,000, and senior level investigators, $120,000 to $1 million or

more a year.

Jimmie Mesis, PI Magazine's editor in chief, said an estimated 500 to 1,000

new licenses are handed out each month in the United States. The number issued

in New York State so far this year has risen by about 200 since last year.

Mesis estimates the industry's annual sales at about $600 million. And,

because of technological innovations, the industry has become global.

"The local gumshoe is now no longer local," he said. "He's doing work in

Switzerland or China or anywhere else in the world."

And, Mesis said, women are becoming more and more of a presence. About 15

percent of private investigators in the country are women, he said, up from 2

percent or 3 percent five years ago.

A woman who made a switch

One of those is Vicki Multer Diamond, 37, of Plainview, a former prosecutor

in the Brooklyn district attorney's office. Diamond works for Fortress Global

Investigations & Security in Great Neck. She said she made the switch from the

courtroom to the corporate office in 2000 because she likes investigations. But

it's a job that can be unpredictable.

"There are times I'm on the phone with the kids in the background," said

Diamond, the mother of two.

Jim Mulvaney of Long Beach left the newspaper business almost a decade ago

- he had been a reporter at Newsday and, subsequently, at the Orange County

Register in Santa Ana, Calif., where he formed an investigative team that won a

Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for uncovering an embryo theft scandal at a fertility

clinic. He is now managing director at Tactical Intelligence Services, which

has offices in Long Beach and Manhattan.

Mulvaney found that the world of the private eye was a familiar one. "We're

paid to find and analyze information," Mulvaney said. "In the [newspaper]

days, we wanted to know which politician was cheating. Now, we want to know

which husband is cheating," he said with a laugh. The bulk of his work, he

said, involves fraud cases and protection of brands and intellectual property.

A former FBI agent

One of Long Island's best-known private eyes is John Good, a partner in the

Babylon firm of Lawn, Mullen & Good, who spent 30 years as an FBI agent,

retiring in 1986 as supervisor of the Hauppauge office.

Good's reputation was built in the late 1970s, when he masterminded the

FBI's ABSCAM operation, a sting that led to the convictions of seven U.S.

congressmen and one U.S. senator for taking bribes. Now 69, Good says he is

part investigator and part business executive, a role to which he is still

adapting.

"It's a challenge," Good acknowledged recently. "Sometimes, we're up half

the night writing proposals" for potential clients, he said. "I've done well,

but I'm not a millionaire."

But few in the business get really wealthy, said Gatta, the private

investigator on the Kissel murder case.

Money is often not the goal, anyway. "This has got to be in your blood,"

Gatta said. "I like solving things. I like saying, 'I caught you.'"

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