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."
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.
Whatever the status of his office situation in the Golden State, Peterson claims he spent much of 1989 "doing a lot of work" for California celebrities.
Peterson, for instance, says he was hired to tail Roseanne Barr's love interest, actor Tom Arnold, although he won't say who paid the tab. It's a typical Peterson tease. In a 1993 magazine interview, Peterson dropped the names Elizabeth Taylor, H. Ross Perot and Adnan Khashoggi. One of them, he told the reporter, was a client. But he declined to say which one.
Despite his habit of dropping names, Peterson spent most of his time in the years following the Roseanne case consumed in the less glamorous business of pursuing the hidden stashes of S&L debtors. By 1993, he claims, upwards of 40 percent of his income came from the FDIC. And because his fees range from $100 to $125 per hour, the FDIC proved to be a lucrative client.
Even Peterson's detractors admit he's a wiz at tracking down hidden assets. Much of that has to do with his talent for utilizing commonly available public records. Some of it has to do with his computer expertise and a database he says contains "every source known to man." And some of it has to do with the fact that Peterson is not averse to employing what he freely calls "fairly devious techniques."
"I've heard investigators say that our code of ethics would fit on a matchbook," Peterson says. "The rules are, don't double-cross a client and don't break the law. But we do things lawyers can't. We're devious, we use ruses, sure. But police departments all over the world do that every day. Look at stings. That's the way you investigate."
Peterson's firm may have someone pose as a travel agent to get information, he says. Then there's the "secretary ruse"--phoning a businessperson and pretending to be an associate's secretary--or "the reporter ruse," in which the investigator pretends to be researching information for an article.
"In my opinion," says Denver private investigator Rick Johnson, "lawyers would raise their eyebrows at [Peterson's] methods." In Colorado, adds Johnson, a former Denver district attorney's investigator, using deceit to obtain proprietary information such as financial data "is a felony."
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Peterson, however, has openly bragged about using just such investigative techniques in his savings-and-loan cases. And that S&L work has provided him with plenty of good publicity--even if some of it was overstated.
In late 1990 Peterson was hired by Capitol Federal Savings to look into the finances of a company called M&L Business Machines. His task was to verify M&L's inventory, which the company had put up as collateral for a $6 million loan. But when Peterson began checking, he found contradictory business statements and little else. On February 4, 1991, frustrated by efforts to assess the company's assets and inventory, court-appointed bankruptcy trustee Christine Jobin began going through sealed boxes of "computer equipment," only to discover that the cartons were filled with bricks and dirt. Peterson was present when Jobin uncovered the company's scheme only because U.S. marshals had been unavailable to provide security. Somehow, though, Peterson eventually became the hero, credited with uncovering one of the nation's largest Ponzi schemes.
Within a year, Peterson's growing reputation would win him back an old client with a hefty reputation of his own: Marvin Davis came back into the fold.
end of part 1