When Surveillance Begins At The Airport


When the person we are about to follow flies into town our margin for error flies out the window. If we don’t know where they will be staying–which is most of the time– getting on them after they land is our only opportunity.

The stakes are high. A client has paid his or her retainer and expects results. If we don’t do the job right we will be refunding that deposit out of honesty and professional pride. I am proud to say we have never had to make such a refund in nearly 20 years of business. I am good at what I do and select the veteran licensed investigators to assist on each case. We do most of these surveillance starts at San Francisco International, the 12th busiest airport in the nation at more than 38 million passengers per year. We often work our trade on crowded Friday and Saturday nights.

When I started in this business about 20 years ago a boss gave me a book called The Secrets of Surveillance. I scanned the book but it may as well have been written in Sanskrit. At the time I was not doing much surveillance so I couldn’t relate to the language, diagrams, etc. As rocker Nick Lowe once said: Writing about rock-n-roll is like dancing about architecture. The same could be said for writing about how to do surveillance. It is ultimately a skill that can only be learned through experience and trial and error.

Perhaps more so than inĀ  other investigations, little and numerous details make for success at the airport. Remember, if we can’t find follow them to where they are staying the case likely has no future because it becomes a guessing game or finding a needle in a haystack. Post 9-11, the airport pick-up of a subject presents lots of challenges.

What we need:

  • Airline, flight number, arrival time, etc.
  • What are they wearing when they board? Take a photo of them right before if possible.
  • What is their most distinguishing characteristic? Glasses, jewelry, hat, purse color, etc
  • What does their luggage look like? I had a recent case where I could not tell the physical characteristics but identified them based on a unique luggage logo.
  • Will they check their bag(s) or just go carry-on?
  • Cab, rental car, friend picking them up, etc?

How we do our job:

  • Though we have been successful with one spotter and one driver you should use at least one spotter and two drivers.
  • One spotter should take the closest exit point to where passengers enter the general airport area. Another spotter should be near the luggage carousel or possibly covering another exit point from the gate area.
  • One driver should be far back but try to remain in the same terminal area. This driver at a crowded time will have to delay or might be moved forward by airport security.
  • Another driver should be a “rover” pretty much driving in a loop through all the terminal areas. If first driver gets pushed ahead or forward of the surveillance subject, Rover might be able to circle around and become the primary chase vehicle.
  • Spotters and drivers need to be ready for anything. If the subject gets into a cab, the spotter needs to be in phone contact with a driver to give the number of the Taxi and other identifying information on the Taxi and the subject. The spotter might need to get on a rental shuttle or follow the subject into a parking area or get a plate and description for a car picking them up.

Commit the financial and personnel resources to the airport pick-up at the beginning of the surveillance. You can always drop the number of personnel as the case warrants but if you lose a subject at an airport the case is severely jeopardized.

Case Studies in Commitment

What went right, what went wrong? I apply this to cases good and bad. Let’s take a gander at success and failure.

I had two recent successful outcomes in surveillance. One case was a client wanting to know what her husband was doing when he withdrew a couple hundred bucks from the bank at ATMs in San Francisco. She had previously hired an investigator who illegally used GPS on her husband’s work vehicle. (California law only only allows for someone to use GPS on a vehicle if the reg and title is in their name.) The other PI used the real-time GPS and still could not get results.

I told her that this would require two separate PIs, me and another detective. The first time he drove like a madman from the East Bay into SF and we lost him. The second time he never left work. The third time, we followed him into San Francisco and found that, during the day, he was going to one of his old haunts where he scored drugs. She heeded my advice and we found what he was doing. We could not have followed him without the second investigator. She/we committed and got results.

Another case was a woman wanting to know whether her partner, the father of their child, was being faithful to her. I went out on him three or four times, no activity. The final time she called me a couple days ahead of time. I followed him, to the cheating side of town, after he dropped off thier kid to her place. He drove like a demon but I went bulldog-mode. It was a sushi date!

Another case involved a divorce matter from Missouri. A PI in Missouri brought me into the case, and I contracted with another investigator for the three of us to follow the woman when she and her paramour arrived at San Francisco Airport. We could not have followed them from the airport without the three private dicks working as a team. The client back in the Show Me State took the advice of the first PI and committed the necessary financial and manpower resources.

The bad. I had a family law case. The client wanted me to follow the spouse , a convicted drug trafficker, to see what he was doing when he was with their child. I got on his tail when he dropped the child at daycare one morning. It was rush hour and I had no choice but to cling tight. He made me and gave chase. My mistake? I was not forceful enough with the client to insist on a second or even a third operative. Police use rolling surveillance teams but budget is an issue in the private sector.

I had a case to serve deposition subpoenas on two witnesses in a civil action. The client offered a small retainer. I put in multiple hours, well over the retainer, to try to get the one witness. The roadblocks were twofold: the witnesses were looking over their shoulders because of what they had done and the client had previously unsuccessfully used a process server. I had the client pay another retainer but it was more of the same. People who are guilty and who know they are going to be served will go to great lengths to avoid service. My mistake? Not telling the client the potential for how hard this was going to be.

One of my former bosses, Jack Immendorf of San Francisco, once told me, “When you work a case, you don’t want to be thinking about the money and should only have doing the job right on your mind.” Jack is a wise man and in many ways the dean of San Francisco private eyes. True dat, Jack, true dat!

Commitment is a two-way street, from the client and to the investigator. The phrases I dislike most from clients: “It shouldn’t be that hard” or “It will be easy.” I have done this work long enough to assume nothing. I will listen to my inner-voice more and steer clients away from attempts on the cheap.