By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
part 1 of 2
Deadline-grabbing private eye R.W. "Pete" Peterson fits all the requirements of a media darling. He's glib, likable, quotable and presentable in a slick-haired kind of way. And due to a few high-profile cases (the Denver investigator is credited with locating the daughter that TV star Roseanne gave up for adoption more than twenty years ago), his name and face have appeared on everything from Larry King Live to People magazine.
Peterson also is an unabashed self-promoter who's learned to use publicity to his advantage. The latter-day Jim Rockford, who keeps a supply of disguises in his office and flies helicopters in his spare time, has been known to summon press conferences announcing his latest professional coups. In addition, he's helpfully compiled a three-page, quick-hit handout listing his appearances on television broadcasts and radio talk shows and in newspaper and magazine articles.
These days, however, most of the news about Peterson is abysmal. And it's likely to get worse.
The controversial investigator's problems began in January when Peterson employee Samuel Sprague was arrested on trespassing charges while trying to snap photos of Gennifer Flowers in the parking garage of a Cherry Creek condominium complex. Flowers, a onetime nightclub singer, claims to be President Clinton's former paramour, and Sprague reportedly had been hired to get the pictures for a tabloid TV show. (The paparazzi P.I. was later acquitted.)
In April Peterson lost a well-publicized lawsuit to oilman John Masek, a former business partner of billionaire Marvin Davis. Masek alleged that Peterson or his employees had burglarized his office, invaded his privacy and engaged in a pattern of "outrageous conduct." Denver District Judge Lynne Hufnagel sided with Masek and ordered Peterson to ante up $120,000, a judgment that could double if Peterson is found liable for Masek's legal fees.
In May Peterson and his firm lost an unrelated, and unpublicized, slander-and-defamation suit before Denver District Judge Paul Markson. In that case, one of his employees was accused of masquerading as an investigative reporter and telling potential witnesses in a civil trial that a Denver doctor abused cocaine.
In keeping with his shoot-from-the-hip style, Peterson has taken the court losses personally. He has since launched a campaign to unseat Judge Hufnagel, calling her "as corrupt and sleazy as any judge who ever sat on the bench in Colorado." And in contrast to his usual rosy relations with the media, Peterson recently clashed with Channel 9 newsman Ward Lucas. In a piece he aired on May 9 accusing sometime Peterson employee Alex Jaeckel of using her investigator's wiles to harass a woman with whom she'd had a traffic altercation, Lucas told viewers that Peterson threatened to smear him if he didn't back off the story. (Peterson denies threatening Lucas, to whom he refers as "the sleazebucket from hell.")
And still the dirty laundry piles up. On June 2 Peterson was named in yet another civil suit stemming from the Masek debacle. The Denver district attorney's office recently confirmed it has launched a criminal investigation into Peterson's business practices relating to the Masek case. And now private investigators in California and Colorado are questioning whether Peterson's biggest claim to fame--his assertion that he's been hired by friends of Nicole Brown Simpson to shore up the prosecution's case against O.J.--is merely a tall tale crafted by Peterson in an attempt to hop a free ride on the Simpson publicity train.
Few people are lining up to defend Peterson, who has made a lot more enemies than friends in his 22 years as a private eye. Over the years, Peterson has publicly disparaged attorneys, judges, police investigators and other private investigators. He speaks openly of using trickery and ruses--including lying about his identity--and of skirting the boundaries of the law to get what he needs to know.
Peterson has offended people in just about every line of work P.I.s come across, acknowledges his friend Tom Miller, who owns and operates his own Denver private-eye firm. "And after twenty years," says Miller, "the tree is bearing fruit."
The first time Peterson and Tom Miller met, back in the mid-Seventies, they took turns trying to kick each other in the groin. The men were in the same karate class together, Miller explains. By then, Peterson was already a gumshoe. Miller was a self-described "poet" and a correspondent for Karate Illustrated.
The men's friendship was cemented after they began frequenting the same bar and after Peterson used Miller as a source of information about some karate enthusiasts he was investigating. Apparently inspired by the experience, Miller eventually opened his own agency after serving a stint editing investigator's reports for the Pinkerton detective agency.
The investigation business, Miller quickly learned, "is a hard way to survive, and it's made harder by the competition and the scramble to make a buck." It's also, he says, a community marked by vitriol, internal politics and "huge egos."
That certainly describes Pete Peterson. In a 1994 interview with Newsweek magazine, Peterson blithely told a reporter that he had been hired in the O.J. case because "the police aren't as intelligent as we are for the most part."