Beyond prying eyes

Jesse S is a private investigator and the owner of Vic Covert Investigations. Photo Travis Medhurst.
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Jesse S challenges the stigma surrounding his industry. Travis Medhurst reports on private investigators and people under their surveillance.

The woman is middle-aged with glasses and brownish-red shoulder-length hair. She works in a high-end jewellery store in a busy shopping complex in Melbourne’s south eastern suburbs. Jesse S. has been watching her for some time.

Jesse works as a private investigator, tasked with following her. Her husband of 25 years suspects she is having an affair with her manager and using inhalants at work. Jesse doesn’t seem to believe it, but he is getting paid and a job is a job.

The private investigator enters her store and asks the woman about a bracelet for a girlfriend who doesn’t exist. He films the exchange on his PV900 concealed camera. If you think a picture says a thousand words, how about an HD video? He then watches her from a café opposite her store. He will be there until she leaves.

Jesse, 38, is the owner of Vic Covert Investigations, a specialist private detective operation based in Melbourne that does both private and government jobs. Jesse says government jobs for organisations such as the Transport Accident Commission (TAC) and Worksafe (VWA) are about 75 per cent of his work. The rest are just like the one he is on now.

There are about 300 private investigators working in Victoria. At the minimum, all they require is a Certificate III in investigative services that costs $1995. Jesse was a semi-professional cricketer in Adelaide and worked as a sales rep for Panasonic before becoming a PI.

He aims to break the stereotype of the morally questionable hardboiled PI.

“We’re fighting an ethical barrier,” says Jesse, “I need to be over professional to break the stigma surrounding the industry. Some people think we’re cowboys who sit around eating doughnuts. I charge what I charge because I’m a professional.”

Hayden J. is the manager and sole employee of rival private investigating company Target Investigations. He agrees that there are a lot of misconceptions about their work.

“I think people think we snoop around and hide in bushes,” says Hayden, “But it’s not like that. It’s not like that at all.”

“I am an open book and am trying to build a good reputation here in Melbourne,” says Jesse, “that will happen if I stick to my business ethics and treat every client the way they deserve to be treated.”

Photo Travis Medhurst.

But right or wrong it’s unsettling to be followed by an investigator. Robyn Brown knows this first-hand.

“You feel violated,” says Ms Brown, “I wasn’t concerned they would catch me doing anything wrong, I just hated having my privacy violated.”

On June 4 2011, Ms Brown was involved in a car accident just outside of the country town of Barooga. It was a straight country road. The driver who hit her head-on had leaned down to pick up a bottle of water and veered across to her side. He was doing 110km on a 100km road. She sustained horrific feet injuries.

For the next few years, Ms Brown was pursued by TAC and an insurer.

“It’s all about trying to find you doing something that you tell people you can’t. I understand that people would do that for money, but in my case, I actually had 64 bones missing out of my foot.”

Jesse accepts there are legitimate cases like Ms Brown, but he finds that many claimants are dishonest in TAC jobs.

“Very rarely does a client show signs of injury” says Jesse.

The first time Ms Brown realised she was being followed she was at Barooga gym.

“I was on crutches and I was trying to figure out the best way to get down the stairs. I looked up and saw this long-range camera lens hanging out a car window and I realised it was trained on me.

“I felt like I was being watched all the time and I was. I knew they used to follow me at the pool. I can’t prove it but I knew they were there quite a bit because I did a lot of rehab.”

Ms Brown may have felt violated from her experience with PIs but Jesse and Hayden work within Australia’s privacy laws.

“We have rules and regulations to abide by so we just stick to those,” says Hayden.

“If you’re viewable in a public space I’m able to record. If you’re in your garage and I’m across the street in my car I can record you. I can’t if that garage door is shut,” says Jesse.

“I’m not interested in pushing the envelope. If a couple enters a motel I’m not going in that motel room.”

However, PIs do break some rules.

“You’ve got to have very dark-tinted windows that are illegally tinted. All the guys I know who are in the industry have illegally tinted windows” says Hayden, “We get pulled up by cops all the time but we don’t worry and we show them our license. It’s like a builder, his tool is his hammer. For us our tool is the tinted windows. We have to have them and we can’t do our job without it.”

“Mistakes happen all the time. You just have to be transparent,” says Jesse. “Say if you run a red light following someone. It’s a mistake with the law but not the client. If you’re transparent you can usually make up for it.”

The life of a professional private eye in modern day Melbourne is a far cry from the paperback adventures of Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade. Jesse and Hayden describe much of their jobs as writing comprehensive reports and being behind the wheel.

“A typical day there’s no interaction. You’re either comfortable with that sort of thing or you’re not,” says Jesse, “I love solving cases, the independence and the lack of face to face suits my personality.”

Nonetheless, the job is rewarding. Hayden’s most successful jobs have been related to kidnapping.

“There was a fugitive that had kidnapped a child and took that child to Tasmania. Weeks later they located the child in Melbourne. My job was to watch that building and watch the AFP to make sure they were doing their job properly.”

“The police went upstairs and didn’t find the child and I’ve gone around back and found the child in the alleyway with the fugitive. I walked up and started talking to them pretending to be a person who lived next door. I filmed them while I was talking to them and sent it to the client who sent it to the AFP (Australian Federal Police).”

Jesse has clients in high places.

“Decision-makers want to have a PI on board. Maybe it’s an egotistical thing. I’ve done jobs for CEOs and celebrities. But if you can afford it you can be a client.”

He is always discreet.

“I don’t ask many questions of my clients. As long as they don’t have an IVO (Intervention Order) then backstories are irrelevant. I want to know what I need to do and how much it will cost,” says Jesse.

As for the woman in the jewellery store, Jesse watches her all day, even following her to lunch. He can’t offer much information but he says he did a full day and night on Thursday and the job went fairly well.

The life of a private investigator in Melbourne isn’t always glamourous, but a job is a job.