Sex, Lies & Videotape

Sex, Lies & Videotape

A Rockville private eye holds these truths to be self-evident: There will always be spouses who cheat. And there will always be some enterprising investigator to catch them.

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This is where love gone wrong leads: to a parking garage in Rockville, where private investigator Jared Stern wheels around his black Audi S5 coupe late one February afternoon, searching for a spot with a view of the exit.

Stern’s client is looking for proof that her husband is having an affair with a co-worker. The guy works in the adjacent office building, and Stern and his team have located his car in the garage. The wife has described the other woman as a slim, dirty blonde with big ears, and she believes the woman meets her husband for drinks after work. When the man leaves, they’ll tail him to the rendezvous with his girlfriend.

Stern backs into a space and turns off the engine. He could be here, slouched in his car, for hours, drinking bottled water and surfing the Internet as he waits for the guy to leave. When he does, the Rockville private eye and a couple of his investigators situated elsewhere in the garage will follow, taking pains to avoid detection.

This is not a job for Magnum, P.I. types with flashy cars. The business of catching adulterers requires a cool head, a quick mind and the ability to fade into the background—skills that the 45-year-old investigator developed more than 20 years ago as a U.S. Marine and contract intelligence operative for the CIA.

The surveillance that Stern does now offers few of the dangers he faced while fighting narco-terrorism overseas in the early ’90s. The biggest challenges? Staying awake and fighting the urge to abandon post to find a bathroom. That’s where empty water bottles come in handy.

“Oh, the drama,” Stern says sarcastically as he settles into the driver’s seat. “The reality is not like on TV, not like in the movies. There are no shootouts, no bikini babes.”

Glamorous it’s not, but catching cheating spouses is good business. Stern’s firm, Prudential Associates, specializes in risk management, security consulting and computer forensics. But most of the firm’s local work involves domestic investigations.

Prudential is one of several businesses in the Washington, D.C., area that deal with adultery. Some have web addresses—www.thecheatercatchers.com, www.eyesonthecheater.com—that leave no doubt about their specialty. Ward Investigations, with local offices in Rockville, Silver Spring, Bethesda and Gaithersburg, advertises online as a “divorce work specialist.”

These firms rely on a time-proven fact of human nature: Some spouses cheat. And history is rife with examples: former President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, for one. Then there’s former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who made headlines when he went missing for six days in 2009. He later told his staff that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail, when he actually had been cavorting in Argentina with his mistress. Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer was forced from office in 2008 after paying for prostitutes. And perhaps most scandalous of all: 2008 Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards was tried in April for allegedly diverting campaign funds to his pregnant mistress—this, while his wife was dealing with breast cancer.

Stern’s cases generally aren’t ripped from the headlines; they’re more likely to involve a wife who has gotten suspicious after hearing one too many excuses about “working late,” or a husband skeptical about that “spa weekend with the girls.”

After more than 20 years and thousands of cases, Stern is still amazed by how easy it is to catch these “Jack and Jills,” as they’re called in private-eye parlance.

Take the wealthy Bethesda woman in her 60s suspected by her husband of having an affair. Stern recently followed her and her older lover to a West Virginia public park filled with families on a sunny Sunday afternoon. From just yards away, he videotaped the woman as she sat on top of a picnic table and proceeded to sexually fondle the man.

“We don’t even have to try sometimes,” Stern says. “It never ceases to amaze me what people will do for a few seconds of muscle spasms.”

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