Sweethearts & Cheating hearts For private eyes on adultery cases, Valentine's Day is a bonanza

February 14, 1993|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Staff Writer

Heart-shaped boxes of chocolates. Arm-in-arm strolls through city parks. Passionate kisses over candlelit dinners.

Ah yes, Valentine's Day. God's gift to the private eye working an adultery case.

Aside from Christmas and birthdays, the experienced gumshoe will tell you that no time is better for catching that cheating spouse in flagrante delicto than today, Valentine's Day. "People that are running around are obviously going to run around on that day," said Barbie Bunch, a private investigator in Severna Park. "You try to cover as many domestics as you can on Valentine's Day."

So today, like many a Feb. 14th during her 19 years in the business, Ms. Bunch, owner of Maxwell Private Investigations, will not be luxuriating in her own romance; she'll be spying on someone else's.

Oh, and she will be carrying a video recorder.

She will not be alone. Billy Thompson, a veteran investigator who teaches detecting at Anne Arundel Community College, encourages all his would-be sleuths to take advantage of Feb. 14 when they're on the trail of a suspected adulterer.

"That's just a day where you know there's going to be contact," he said. "It's a day where a wayward husband or wife is going to be careless."

For almost 40 years, detective Frank Alessi has turned that adage to his advantage.

A few years ago, Mr. Alessi, whose office is in Carney, was hired by a man who believed his wife, a business executive, was cheating on him. The woman told her husband she had to attend a conference in Chicago and boarded a plane on Valentine's Day. Mr. Alessi was right behind her.

He was also right behind her at O'Hare when she flew into the arms of another man.

By the end of the weekend, Mr. Alessi could all but assure his client an uncontested divorce.

Valentine's Day. The detective's dream.

"I've just found that husbands and wives will go to extreme lengths to be with their sweethearts at that time of year," Mr. Alessi said.

Ms. Bunch has found much the same. One evening last week, she was ensconced in an out-of-the-way booth in a Chinese restaurant near her office talking about Valentine's Days past and present.

She is a slim woman, with dark eyes, pale pink lipstick matching her nail polish, mustard-colored leather boots and a delicate cross hanging from a chain around her neck. Red curls tumble onto her shoulders. The hair, she said, is not hers.

"I have 24 wigs and all kinds of disguises," she said. "I can be everything from a man to a drag queen."

She was planning a conservative look the next morning when she was to start shadowing an Anne Arundel woman from her home to an anticipated Valentine's weekend romp with a lover in Ocean City.

"She went out and bought lingerie for the weekend, Victoria's Secret, Frederick's of Hollywood," Ms. Bunch said. "The husband found the receipts. He knew the stuff wasn't meant for him.

Other detectives in her firm are expecting to find themselves videotaping illicit lovers in Ohio, Texas and the Bahamas.

If today is like last year, it will be a banner Valentine's Day for Maxwell Private Investigations. (Ms. Bunch was a fan of the television show "Get Smart" and its title character, Maxwell Smart.)

"We had one case where a man left work, went home and wined and dined his wife," she said. "He then had himself beeped and left. We followed him to Harbor Court, where he had dinner with his girlfriend and then went up to her apartment."

Meanwhile, Ms. Bunch herself was following another quarry from Anne Arundel. In a couple of hours, she found herself at a Poconos motel, one of those with heart-shaped beds and champagne bubble bath.

Bingo.

The excuses used by the cheating spouse tend to vary by gender, Ms. Bunch said. "The men are always on business. The woman are usually visiting a sick relative."

That was the cover story used by a Severna Park woman followed by a Maxwell detective last Valentine's Day.

She told her husband that she was going to tend to her ailing sister. She did go to her sister's, but only to drop off her car and join her waiting lover. With a detective in tow, they headed for Annapolis, where they smooched over a dinner of Beef Wellington at the romantic Maryland Inn and then retired to a nearby hotel.

The woman's marriage did not last long after that.

In most domestics, the detectives are hired to pressure a cheating spouse into granting a divorce or to build an adultery case in the event of a trial.

Experienced detectives can sound like a textbook when they discuss the elements of a successful domestic case. They have to prove that their prey had an opportunity to consummate an illicit relationship by meeting a supposed lover in a private place, such as a hotel room or an apartment.

Opportunity alone, though, isn't enough.

To make an airtight divorce case, the detective must also observe "a display of affection."

"You've got to catch them kissing or hugging or undressing each other," Ms. Bunch said.

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