By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
That Peterson would make such a remark is surprising in only one respect: He claims to have once been a member of the blue fraternity. Back when cops were "pigs" and the smell of marijuana drifted from beneath every dorm-room door, Peterson says he spent six months patrolling the streets of the Chicago suburb of Downers Grove.
In news stories about his exploits, Peterson has provided differing explanations for his rapid departure from the police force. In one version, he left to escape the city. In another, it was the pervasiveness of pot that eventually led him to seek greener pastures; he says didn't want to be put in the position of busting his friends for smoking weed.
The Downers Grove Police Department is unable to verify either version--a spokeswoman there says the department's records don't go back far enough to confirm Peterson's tenure or his departure. But whatever the reason, Peterson packed up and headed west to Denver. And in 1973 he opened the doors of the R.W. Peterson Investigative Agency.
In rare moments of humility, Peterson allows that his first few years in the business were a learning experience. His office was a dumpy little room in a three-story walkup on East Colfax. But he mastered the art of locating people and ferreting out hidden assets. He did some bodyguard work--including, he says, a brief stint protecting pop singer Olivia Newton-John during a visit to Colorado. And despite what he describes as his dislike for lawyers, he did the occasional odd job for attorneys.
Peterson's first taste of life in the limelight may have come in November 1977, when he appeared on the cover of Westword, obligingly posing at the wheel of a Corvette convertible, an assault weapon clutched in his hands.
In the early days, Peterson admits, "I told reporters what they wanted to hear." And what they wanted to hear were tales of skulduggery, glamour, guns and babes. So he told them about filthy-rich sheikhs and corporate espionage. He described working for Marvin Davis and his then-partner John Masek to find out who'd been stealing oil from their pipelines. He says he broke that case by working undercover and by watching over the oil fields with night-vision binoculars. And though he said back then that the case involved the theft of "millions," he now acknowledges that the true figure was considerably lower.
In 1988 Peterson began doing work for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which was trying to untangle the savings-and-loan bailout and track down assets belonging to deadbeat millionaires. But it wasn't until 1989 that he vaulted out of the pack into the big leagues. It can all be traced back to an indiscretion committed a quarter-century ago by young Roseanne Barr.
In 1971 the unmarried Barr gave birth to a daughter at a Salvation Army center in Denver. The baby was put up for adoption and later moved with her new family to Texas. Eighteen years later, in April 1989, the National Enquirer reportedly hired Peterson to find Roseanne's long-lost child. (Brian Williams, general editor for the Enquirer, declines to confirm whether or not his paper hired Peterson. "It's important for us, in terms of doing business, to maintain that confidentiality," he explains.)
Peterson, however, brags that he located the girl "in about a week." He says he turned over the information to the tabloid, but that he got angry when the editors reneged on their promise to allow him to break the news to Roseanne as well. "I gave it to her anyway," he says, "because I wanted to be the investigator to the stars."
The Enquirer, Peterson adds, "milked the [Barr] story for six weeks." Peterson's been milking it for six years.
Peterson's brush with Hollywood inspired him to set up shop in Los Angeles. He received his California private investigator's license in June 1989, two months after taking on the Roseanne case. The California Bureau of Collection and Investigative Services lists Peterson as having two offices in California--a main office in San Diego and a branch office in Los Angeles. Eventually he would add an office in Chicago as well. He changed his Yellow Pages ads to tout his new interstate status.
But the ads are as illusory as the hat with the fake ponytail that Peterson keeps in his office closet. His Chicago "office," he readily admits, is nothing more than an 800 phone line that rings back to Colorado. But he becomes testy when asked for details about his shops in California. "It depends what you mean by `office,'" he says. He finally concedes that the San Diego office is located in a house where one of his investigators lives. "But the L.A. office," he says, "is a real office."
In fact, Peterson's San Diego "office" is his father-in-law's home. His Los Angeles office is also a residence, this one owned by a George F. Scott. A recent call made to the Los Angeles telephone number of the R.W. Peterson Investigative Agency was answered by Peterson's secretary in Denver. His L.A. investigator, Peterson says in an attempt to explain, "must be out of the office and he had his phone forwarded." A phone message left for Peterson's L.A.-based "operative" went unanswered.