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On the Lam? Don’t Stumble In on This Bunch

New York Times

 

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A big man in a black fedora and trench coat over a plum-colored shirt and a matching tie, swung open the double wooden doors on a Thursday evening this month into a hidden back room with dark paneled walls surrounding red leather booths. Inside, a group of about 20 mostly middle-aged men sat around a table running the length of the room.

Above them hung imitation Renaissance paintings in gilt frames. The regulars around the table looked like poker players from a Dick Tracy comic, or characters out of the board game Clue.

And so began the monthly meeting of the Society of Professional Investigators at Forlini’s, a venerable Italian restaurant behind the Manhattan Criminal Courts Building on Baxter Street in Chinatown. The restaurant, considered the Sardi’s of law enforcement, is where judges and mobsters sit side by side, digging into plates of pasta. A plaque on the wall designates the society’s official meeting place around the corner from the booth where Robert M. Morgenthau, the Manhattan district attorney, and a patron for 35 years, eats twice a week.

In addition to active and retired law enforcement agents, the society, which was established in 1956 and meets once a month, includes lawyers who work in an investigative capacity and several genealogists, who help track down missing witnesses, lost heirs, delinquent debtors and people who jump bail.

“It looks like Skull and Bones,” Bruce Sackman said, referring to the secret society at Yale. A retired federal agent who has put a doctor and a nurse who were serial killers behind bars, he is now the senior investigator at Mount Sinai Medical Center dealing with fraud and employees who steal patients’ identities. Observing the room, Mr. Sackman, in a pink silk tie, added, “It’s like a 1970s mafia movie.”

Until a few years ago, the society, which has 150 members, had been largely stagnant. But a former president, David Zeldin, led what members call its “phoenix rising,” recruiting younger members and reaching out to those who had fallen away. The group’s Web site (www.spionline.org) plays the theme from “Peter Gunn.”

At the end of the table at Forlini’s that night was Albert Belcher, a retired New York Police Department detective who works as a private investigator and is the society’s sergeant-at-arms and doorkeeper, in case order needs to be restored. His services are often called upon as a joke when the conversation gets boisterous. The presence of Mr. Zeldin, now the society’s chairman, was telegraphed by the distinct aroma of the cigar he smoked on his way to the restaurant.

A former bodyguard for Whitney Houston, David P. Roberts, was also on hand. A dapper Englishman with a silver pencil-thin mustache, in a pinstriped suit, he is the president of British American Consultants, an investigation and surveillance company based in New Jersey.

Efrat Cohen, 25, who came to America with her parents from Israel when she was 12 and who is new to the surveillance business, sat beside Mr. Roberts. She investigates local white collar crime, mostly involving insurance fraud, for his company. “One day, I just thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be a private investigator?” Ms. Cohen said, who wore a crimson top and pointy-toed heels.