Cheating Hearts

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Hey, you. Yeah, you. You with the nice house, and the wife you take for granted, and the girlfriend on the side. You're not getting away with it. A private investigator, hired by your wife, followed you all Valentine's Day.

And it wasn't the first time. He's been on your case a good month now. He knows where you live. He knows where she lives. He knows where you work. He knows where she works. He has even got videotape of the two of you kissing.

On Valentine's Day, very early, while you were still asleep, he sneaked up your driveway, slid under your car and installed a tracking device, so he could follow you, but not so closely that you might notice. Still, there were times when he was in the car right behind you.

When he wasn't following your car, he was sitting, for minutes, even hours, outside those places you visited. Sometimes he was within your view. More often, he was just outside of it. That's what he does most days. Every morning, he makes sure he brings a big bottle of juice so that, when nature calls, he can use the empty container and not have to leave the vehicle. That's how intent he is on nailing you.

His name is H. Austin Sheppard - "Shep" for short - and, under different circumstances, you would probably like him. He's 51 and has 14 years experience as a private investigator, the last seven of those with his own agency, the Premier Group in Laurel. It's just him and his wife, Stacy, a private eye also, and five part-time agents. They work out of their home, where they have a big dog, an Argentine Dogo named Kaos, a deaf white cat, and three children.

On Valentine's Day, Shep left home about 3:30 a.m., his usual starting time. After a full-day of following you, he got home about 8 p.m. He gave Stacy a box of Ghirardelli chocolates, the caramel-filled ones, and a nice card. They didn't have anything planned in particular. She, as usual, would be up working way past midnight typing notes - on this day, the ones Shep had dictated into his microcassette recorder every time you moved.

In the morning: "Jack did not arrive for work ... Will proceed to nearby motels to see if signal can be picked up."

At lunchtime: "Both Jack and Jill's cars are as previously observed ... No change."

In the late afternoon: "Lost Jack in traffic ... Receiving no signal ... Will proceed to Jill's residence to see if he is there."

Those are the code names he uses for you two - Jack and Jill. Shep won't reveal your real names, because that would be a violation of his ethics. He may go through your garbage, or try to buy the hotel sheets you slept on to have them tested, but Shep has ethics.

He has drive, too, and, nothing personal, but he really wants to catch you - just a photo or videotape of the two of you walking out of a motel room, and the case is pretty much closed.

He would then have the two things he needs: proof of a display of affection and proof that the two of you at least had the opportunity to have intercourse. Shep thought Thursday would be the perfect day to get that.

Lovers, especially illicit ones, make extreme efforts to celebrate Valentine's Day together - even more so than licit ones. It's sad, but true. And that is why, on this particular day, Shep was on your tail.

Some studies say adultery is increasing in America. Some studies say it is most commonly committed by people who work together. Some studies say that more than 50 percent - possibly even more than 60 percent - of husbands have cheated. And that cheating wives, though still under 50 percent, are, for various reasons, gaining ground.

What the studies don't say, though, is that, just as adultery may be increasing, so are the chances of getting caught - and not just by guys like Shep.

The Internet, for example, has been both boon and bane for those who don't wish to limit their sexual relations to their spouse. Countless husbands and wives have had affairs with people they've met online. And countless numbers have been busted by computer as well.

Cell phones have made it easy for philandering spouses to stay in touch with their paramours, but itemized cell-phone bills and caller ID have helped them get found out as well.

From GPS (global positioning systems that track cars by satellite) to DNA testing, adultery detection has gotten far more sophisticated than looking for lipstick on the collar. Technology, double-edged sword that it is, has made it both easier to commit adultery, and get discovered.

But back to you. Shep thought you might try and meet your girlfriend before work. Or that maybe the two of you would just skip work and spend the whole day together.

He knew - because he is in regular contact with your wife - that you were planning to be back home by 6 p.m.

To help keep track of you in the interim, he installed a magnetic transmitter, about the size of a hockey puck, underneath your car. This was legal because your car - no matter whose name it is registered in - is considered marital property, and Shep had your wife's permission.

From a few blocks away, he waited for the $15,000 monitoring system in his vehicle to let him know that you got in your car, and which way you were headed. Some of your neighbors were curious about Shep sitting there, but none approached. When that does happen on a case, he tells them nicely that he's waiting for a buddy, or has some landscape work to do in the area.

If they get nasty and persistent about it, he tells them, "I'm doing what you need to be doing."

"What?" they invariably ask.

"I'm minding my own ... business," he answers.

Shep wore jeans, a Yankees cap and a shirt and jacket chosen because they match the upholstery of his vehicle, allowing him to blend in. As he waited, he loaded his video camera. Not counting its zoom lens, it's about the size of his fist, which is very big for a fist, but very small for a video camera.

When Shep does videotape a couple inside a residence, just so you know, he makes sure the window frame is visible. Zooming in any closer - seeing more than someone standing at the window might see - could be construed as an invasion of privacy.

In his car, he also keeps duct tape, binoculars, a flashlight, batteries, rubber gloves (for going through trash), work gloves, audio tape recorder, change of clothes, spare shoes and a collection of hats. Your file was in his backseat, too.

He was going to drive by and check the transmitter under your car - it was sending a weak signal - when you pulled out of your driveway. You followed your normal route to work, at least at first, but along the way, trying to stay far behind you, he lost sight of your car, and later lost your signal.

"Damn," he muttered.

When he got to your workplace, you weren't there, so Shep, being the sort who harbors suspicions, began a tour of nearby motels, to see if he could pick up your signal.

About 15 minutes later, he drove by your office again. This time, your car was there. He wondered, as he scarfed down some scrambled eggs later, what you might have done in that 15 minutes. A cup of coffee? A card for your sweetie? A quick meeting?

He was back at your workplace long before lunch, suspecting that you might meet your friend then, but you didn't come out. You must have worked straight through.

Shep shook his head, went to lunch and had a burrito.

Most private detectives, the Sheppards included, don't recommend conducting a do-it-yourself investigation, but more and more uncertain spouses are trying that.

"It's like telling a surgeon, 'OK, I'll begin the incision, then you take over,' " said Stacy Sheppard.

Nevertheless, hoping to avoid the thousands of dollars a private investigation can cost, distrustful mates, wary parents and suspicious singles are turning to an array of increasingly affordable high-tech spy gear. Probably the most popular is computer-monitoring software that reports every keystroke, reads e-mails and records chatroom and instant message conversations word for word.

Other devices available through the Internet (purchasing them is legal, but using them sometimes isn't) include "Envelope X-ray Spray" ($29.95 and "not to be used on U.S. Mail," a disclaimer advises) and the "portable bionic ear" ($189.95), an amplifier that can "pick up whispers 100 feet away."

There's the "Tel-logger 10" ($249.95), which not only identifies incoming and outgoing calls, but records them as well (illegal in Maryland without consent). For the more sophisticated amateur sleuth, there are wireless cameras, from $300 up, that come discreetly mounted in plants, smoke detectors, clocks, air purifiers, pencil sharpeners and lamps.

And then there's "CHECKMATE, The Five-Minute Infidelity Test Kit" ($49.95) from Evergreen Industries.

CHECKMATE is a simplified version of a test commonly conducted by forensic labs, known as the acid phosphatase test. It uses two chemicals, one that reacts with the enzyme in semen, the other a dye that makes the substance turn purple when a positive reaction occurs.

First marketed to the American public two years ago - though a similar product was introduced in Japan a year earlier - the simple swab test identifies invisible traces of dried semen that the company says can remain in unwashed fabric for up to two years. Underwear, the company says, is the most oft-tested item.

"Thank you so much," one CHECKMATE Web site testimonial reads, "I ordered your kit and I found semen!"

"It's been like inventing a new mousetrap: The world's beating a path to our door," said Bradley Holmes, the 43-year-old Seattle businessman who began marketing the kit in the United States two years ago.

Holmes said 85 percent of sales are to men for use on women's undergarments. Men, he acknowledged, "have a built-in excuse" and can provide alternative explanations for the substance being present on their clothing.

While the test does not pinpoint who the substance came from, customers seeking to find that out - or at least rule out a particular source - are referred to a DNA testing lab in California.

Holmes, a chemistry major in college who later worked as an underwater welder, is now marketing the product worldwide and recently started production on an infomercial. "This is the information age," he says, "and people want instant information, and that is what this product provides. Don't be surprised if it ends up in Wal-Mart."

About 30 minutes before quitting time, Shep parked in your company lot and debated replacing the poorly functioning transmitter underneath your car. It was chancy; and being seen sticking a device under somebody's car has, since Sept. 11, become even more problematic.

Installation only takes seconds, about the amount of time it takes to bend over and tie a shoe, which is sometimes what Shep pretends to be doing when he slaps one on.

Parking next to your car, he raised his hood to block the view, pretended to be inspecting his engine, and then reached under your car and replaced the old $250 transmitter with the new, longer-range one, worth $2,000.

You missed running into him by about three minutes.

The new transmitter sent a stronger signal, beating like a bongo drum as Shep tried to keep up with you - you were speeding, you know - after work.

"There he is, up there in front of that big blue truck," Shep said at one point, his teeth clenched, his temples pulsing, as he wove between lanes at 90 mph.

Shep, the son of a Marine and one of 12 children, was a signal soldier with the Army's 82nd Airborne division when he retired in 1988. Long divorced and raising his daughter, he met Stacy when they worked together at a detective agency.

Many private investigators, often former police officers or state troopers, look down on domestic cases, considering them just a notch above repossessing cars. But Shep gladly takes them. Cases like yours compose about 20 percent of his business. About half the time he works for a husband, half for a wife.

Seedy as the cases might seem, they are important, especially when child custody is at stake, says Shep, whom your wife is paying $60 an hour, plus expenses.

Like other private investigators, Shep is adamant about protecting his client's identity. He'll go out of his way to ensure her privacy. As for you, though, he'd sift through your trash in a second, hijack your bedsheets or do anything else the law allows.

He sees her as a turtle for whom he serves as shell. He sees you as frog he's free to slit down the middle and pin open for dissection.

On this day, you are outjumping him. Three times, you manage to fall off his radar screen. He curses, and lights another Newport.

Each time, though, he sniffs you down and patiently awaits your next move. He has spent entire days in his car. Often, he passes the time listening to books on CDs. Stephen King is his favorite.

So you know - though it could be back on your car by now - Shep retrieved his $2,000 transmitter before you got home. Shep always gets the transmitter back.

Shep, too, always gets his man, or woman, except in the rare cases - about two in 10, he says - where adultery is suspected, but not going on.

He is already convinced that, in your case, it is.

And he's equally convinced he can get proof of it - someday, somewhere, somehow, when you least expect it.

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