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Meet the Exterminator
Investigator turns from drugs to bugs to keep board room safe for business
By Laura Saari
Every day, every week someone new in Orange County is being watched. Someone new is being bugged. The electronic surveillance devices are cheap, but they’re worth a felony conviction to the person caught planting them. And they’re everywhere.
“The market’s clogged with these devices. Orange County is just flooded with them,” said private investigator Tom Martin, 42, whose firm, Martin Investigative Services, is headquartered in Tustin.
“If you want to have a conversation that’s confidential, do it on the beach. And do it in your swimming trunks.”
His ears muffed with an electronic debugging device, his arm sweeping an antenna similar to a divining rod across a corporate boardroom table in Orange, Martin listened for the blips that would tell him the room was bugged.
“How many executives in Orange County have ever looked under their desks or looked under the board-room table?” he asked.
A few months ago in this same room, the blips thundered in his eardrums. A corporate vice president has planted a listening device on top of a book in the boardroom library. The device picked up all boardroom meetings, and, situated near a door to the president’s office, it also picked up all his private conversations.
Martin gets at least 10 calls a month from people who want to plant listening devices. Many are from executives who want to beat the competition by getting inside information. Recently, he said, the chief executive officer of a Fortune 500 company asked Martin to bug a competitor’s boardroom.
Asked if he’d agree to such a job, Martin replies that he wouldn’t do anything illegal.
Martin removed the earmuffs and walked down the hall to a master phone room – a wall of colorful wires. He tested the phone room lines first. Then he tested the outside lines to detect if additional electric current was being gobbled up.
“This right here is where corporate America is losing out,” he said. “It’s ridiculous that corporate presidents aren’t taking care of this situation.” Seeing a stereo system in the room, he frowned.
“They don’t always take our advice, unfortunately,” he said. He had asked the company’s president to find a different place for the stereo – not the company phone room, where a disgruntled employee can walk in and place a cheap bugging device on any line.
“He’s making $6 to $8 an hour,” Martin said. “So a competitor says, ‘I’ll give you $1,000 if you place this monitoring device in the office.’ They’ll do it in a heartbeat.”
When Martin graduated in Pater Noster Catholic high school, he wanted to become a priest.
He enrolled in St. John’s Seminary College in Camarillo. He apprenticed as a priest in New York City’s Harlem section. He saw too many kids die. Drugs. Shootouts over drugs. Overdoses. It was 1968.
Martin gave up the priesthood and signed up as a Federal narcotics agent.
“It was shocking to say the least, the destruction to the lives of these people. I felt I can make some contribution to eliminating drugs coming into the country or seizing the drugs that already had penetrated the border.”
Martin progressed in his career to teach at the DEA Advanced International Drug Enforcement School in Washington, DC, and to supervise drug-enforcement operations at Los Angeles International Airport.
The rigors of the work – long hours of waiting followed by intense activity – aggravated a knee injury. On doctor’s orders, Martin reluctantly left the DEA and became a private investigator.
Martin today sometimes defend drug dealers when he feels they were denied their rights or improperly searched – and testifies against the DEA.
“Not that I have any great love for dope peddlers,” he said. “But this is still America. We still have a system where you’re innocent until proven guilty.”
When he testifies against the government, Martin donates 10 percent of his fee to Orangewood, a home for abused children in Orange. He said it’s his way of giving back to the government.
Spying on people for a living might seem smarmy, but Martin believes he’s providing a service – helping employer’s cut employee theft, for example, or helping jilted wives getting better deals in divorce court.
“Most of the time, these women’s entire career has been in the home,” he said. “She’s been married 32 years, raised 5 great kids, and her major talent is balancing a checkbook. Now he’s left her for another woman, and she’s stuck with the kids, without a job.”
Maybe they’ve already seen the telltale lipstick on the collar. But Martin’s reports confirm those suspicions.
He takes the results of his surveillances seriously, “At best the marriage will go to counseling,” he said. “Usually it means the breakup of the marriage.”
Martin said much of his job requires psychological counseling – he regularly listens to radio psychologists Dr. Toni Grant and Dr. David Viscott because he faces the same situations they do. Martin had to counsel a jewelry storeowner who discovered that his oldest friend was stealing from him.
Martin’s private investigation business is big enough now that he leaves most routine marital surveillances to his staff – he takes on the bigger projects, such as corporate debugging, oil well and oil rig surveillance and, last month, gathering evidence for the defense of a US college student charged with rape in Yugoslavia.
Jill Martin, who was married to Tom for 19 years, describes his husband as an informal man who prefers dining with friends ‘from the old neighborhood, who we went through Little League and PTA with” rather than socializing with high-powered people with whom he does business.
His clients make “enormous demands” on him, sometimes even seeing him as a confessor, she said. “Sometimes I think he should have been a psychologist or maybe he should have been a priest. He’s the kind of person who can sit down and talk to an 80-year old man or a 2-year old child and be very comfortable.”
SOMETIMES OLD FASHIONED DETECTIVE WORK IS STILL NECESSARY
Computer data banks do the legwork. With the press of a button, Tom Martin can locate a missing person, comb civil and criminal records, perform real property searches, find tax liens, bankruptcies and defaults, read Department of Motor Vehicle records and investigate corporate records.
But it’s still luck, confidential sources, chance clues and old-fashioned detective work that inevitably help him solve his cases. Here are a few recent gems:
After $150,000 worth of jewelry was stolen from a county jeweler, Martin subjected all 25 employees to polygraph tests.
They all came out innocent.
“This guy had rock solid, honest, beautiful employees,” Martin said. “None of them had as much as stolen cleaning fluid to clean the jewelry.”
Martin told the client he was stumped.
“He said, ‘You think you’re complexed? Me and Bill can’t figure it out either.’ Martin said, “I said, ‘Who the hell is Bill?’
‘Oh he’s my assistant,’ the client said. ‘He’s been with me 25 years.’
“I said, ‘Bingo! There’s your guy!'”
Martin approached the assistant.
“I said, ‘I want you to go with me now and show me where the jewelry is.’ He broke down crying.”
The man had planned to use the $150,000 for his retirement.
“The owner shed as many tears as the guy who had been caught,” Martin said. “Because the owner had lost a friend.”
When a commercial and industrial complex in Fountain Valley went up in flames, the owner of the company came to Martin.
The owner said the police suspected he had set the fire to collect the insurance.
Using a data bank, Martin did background searches on all the employees. He discovered that the controller of the company had an arrest record of defrauding another company of money.
Martin visited the controller at his home.
“His girlfriend was there,” Martin said. “To my shock, but deep pleasure, this girl tells me with a straight face, ‘It was pretty weird, he got up at 4:30 a.m. (the day the fire was set) and had me drop him off a block from the office.'”
“Sometimes in this job, it’s better to be lucky than smart,” Martin said. The controller is now in jail, Martin said: “He had stolen $122,000, and he set the fire, which completely gutted the place, to cover up the records.”
The life of a young college student weighed heavily on Martin’s shoulders as he boarded a plane to Yugoslavia last month.
The 22-year old student spent 16 days in a Yugoslav jail after he was arrested on suspicion of rape. The student and a girl left a cruise ship together one night and checked into a hotel. The girl accused the student of rape, and he was tossed off the ship and thrown into jail.
Martin’s assignment: Gather evidence that would help the student in the Yugoslav court.
Martin visited the girl who had accused the student of rape.
He said the girl told him she had had 12 vodkas and initiated the sex.
Martin was able to use her statement to convince a judge and jury of the student’s innocence.
“If I didn’t have Tom, I’d still be over there,” the student said. “I can’t believe the results he got with the girl – making her realize the insanity of what she had done. Tom’s got charisma.”