There she is. Get ready,” says Gary DeFinis, grabbing his Sony camcorder and pointing it out the windshield of his minivan, which is parked on a quiet street in Northeast Philly on a recent Wednesday morning. About halfway up the block, his subject—a late-30-something woman—walks out of her house and toward a sedan that pulled up a few minutes earlier.
“She’s moving pretty well,” DeFinis murmurs. The driver of the sedan slides over to the passenger seat and the woman opens the front door and gets behind the wheel. “She’s not supposed to be able to drive.” She pulls out into the street.
“OK, here we go,” he says, pulling out and slowly following her, camcorder still trained on her car.
For the previous two hours, DeFinis has been explaining the deal: The woman, a hospitality worker, has been claiming extreme injuries due to a slip-and-fall at work. She insists she can barely move, can’t operate a car. The insurance company that’s been sending her disability checks is skeptical, and that’s where DeFinis comes in.
He’s a licensed private investigator, proprietor of the Philadelphia Surveillance Company—his one-man operation—and, as the name implies, surveillance is his expertise. He’s been staking out the woman’s house for about five days without so much as a glimpse of her. Today, finally, some action.
After the woman returns home from running errands up and down Cottman Avenue, DeFinis parks his minivan up the block again and dials the insurance company on his cell, telling them what he’s seen and what he’s got on video.
DeFinis, 42, has been a P.I. for 22 years. Insurance fraud’s his bread-and-butter. He also investigates cheaters and takes on clients involved in child-custody battles. “They want to know if the person the parent’s dating is a felon, or if the parent is smoking around the kids, or who’s picking up the kid after school while the parent’s working—I’ll do a surveillance near the bus stop and sometimes it’s Cracky the Crackhead coming to get the kid. That stuff makes a difference in court.”
The reality of P.I. work is pretty far removed from the romantic notions we’ve all learned from TV and the movies, says DeFinis. Most of the time, he’s in the back of his minivan, and not much of anything happens.
It’s worth it, though: DeFinis bills his clients $85 an hour, and work is steady because he’s known for ultimately getting results, for being in the right place at the right time when something does happen.
But the downsides are many. DeFinis has observed so much crappy behavior that he has a hard time trusting people and doesn’t think too highly of humanity. He’s had confrontations with subjects, but he’s managed to talk his way out of it or get the hell out of there before things turned violent. And being the bearer of bad news to clients, particularly in cheating cases, takes its toll.
“At first it was really exciting, and when I caught somebody in the act it was like, ‘Yeah, I gotcha!’ But then I realized that this is people’s lives. When I turn to that husband or wife and give them the evidence that they didn’t really want to see, that’s their whole world crumbling. I have adults crying in front of me. It’s hard.”
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