My One Covert Mission

Spy Photographer Jerry

Back in the mid 1970’s, during a period when my Dad’s business was going full blast, we had an office down in San Diego that was being run by a crook.  We didn’t know this at the time, but we should have.  As Dad liked to brag, this was “one of Nixon’s old dirty-tricks guys.”  He enjoyed having one of Richard Nixon’s dirty-tricks guys on the payroll.  I don’t want to use his real name, so let’s just call him “Dick Headley.”

I hated the guy the moment I met him, and that’s a rare thing for me.  He was somehow oily, slithery, in a social way.  Smarmy and smart-ass.  I could just tell that everything he said was a lie.  He was the type to talk to you like a best friend and then insult and make fun of you the moment you walk away.

Dad realized there was something weird going on when a big check showed up at the office for work we had no record of performing.  Another thing we noticed, is every time my Dad left to go down there, our office manager would call Dick Headley and let him know Dad was on his way.  She did it, said another office assistant, even after my Dad told her not to.

We found later that this office manager was having an affair with Headley.  We also suspect Headley was slipping her money under the table.  It was a fact that she was spying on the main office for him.

What my father suspected was that Dick Headley was running side operations, using our employees and equipment, but pocketing the money.  The check sent in for work we didn’t perform had actually been performed, on the side, and the innocent customer had sent the check to the wrong place.  According to Headley, business was slacking down there.  During one “slack” week, my Dad called me into his office, and with the door open, said, “Hey son, how’d you like to go trout fishing with me up in Oregon?”

I gave him a funny look.  It was a Wednesday.  He wanted to go trout fishing?  In Oregon?  “Um,” I said, “sure, I guess.”

“We’ll fly up tonight,” he told me, saying that we’d stay at his friend’s ranch.  “I need to get out of here and relax.”

When we left for the airport, my Dad explained what was really going on.  He wanted me to go with him down to San Diego, and sneak around without the office manager tipping Dick Headley off we were in town.  I was going along to photograph evidence.

I’d never seen Dad so paranoid.  He acted like Headley might have spies everywhere.  We got into his plane, took off and flew North as if we really were going to Oregon, but after we got away from town he made a wide circle round to the south, and we followed the coastline down to the bottom of California.  When we landed, it was at an airport he never used.

We rented a car that no one would recognize.

Dad got us a hotel room and we ate in, watching TV, and then he made some phone calls.  One of the calls was to Headley, telling him he was up in Oregon and would be incommunicado for a few days.  Still no work?  No?  Got any promising leads?  Yes?  Great!  Go get ’em!

Spy Photographer Jerry
Spy Photographer Jerry

The next morning we started snooping around.  Dad made phone calls to some of our established customers to see if there was any work going on.  Nothing was brewing, although some said they’d have work for us later in the month.  Then one of the people he spoke to said he’d seen one of our trucks working at another site.  My Dad inquired where and when they’d seen the trucks working.  They were working that very day, down in the San Diego shipyards.

Bingo!

Dad and I piled into the rented car and zoomed out there.  We drove up and down the shipyards until we spotted one of our white vacuum trucks, removing sandblast sand out of the inside of a ship.  Dad had me sneak up and take photos of the truck and the workers with my telephoto lens.  I got a lot of shots, from several angles.  I recognized the guys who were working.

Then Dad walked right past me, out in the open, and crossed the yard to where they were working.  I followed, feeling nervous.  What was he doing?  I’d thought this was supposed to be a covert mission.

Dad asked them how the job was coming along.  The guys looked freaked – they all had that “Oh shit!” look on their faces – and Dad poked around and asked how long they’d been working on this job.  They all gave different answers, but it was clear it had been going on since Monday at least.

“Well, keep up the good work,” Dad told them, and he walked back toward the car.  He was walking so fast I had trouble keeping up with him.

He drove in a rush across town to the local office, which was a small warehouse in a shabby business park.  The place was closed and locked, and Dad’s key didn’t fit – Dick Headley had changed the locks.  There was a window open, though, up on the second story.  “Can you get up through there?”

“Uh…”  I looked it over.  “Yeah,” I told him, and started climbing.  I had to get on the roof of a lower building and work my way over the top of a large sliding door.  Swinging one leg through the window, I found … nothing.  There was no second story inside.  The inside wall, however, wasn’t finished – there were beams and supports that I used as rungs to work my way down inside.  I unlocked the door and let my Dad in just as someone pulled up.  It was one of Headley’s guys, a shop mechanic, coming back from lunch.

“Hey!” he yelled.  “What do you think you’re doing!  I’m going to call the cops!”

“Excuse me,” my Dad told him, “but I own this business.”

“What?”  He looked unsure.  It took him a few minutes, but he changed his tune, and afterwards was following my Dad around helping him.

Dad was confiscating all the paperwork.  The receipts, the ledgers – everything. He went through all the drawers in the office, all the file cabinets, all the desks.  When the guy asked him what he was doing, Dad said, “I’m performing an audit.”

We piled it all into the trunk of the car, and locked it up.  Before we could leave, though, Dick Headley himself came driving up, very fast, like there was an emergency.  Apparently he’d gotten a call from one of the guys at the job sight.  The car slid to a stop in the gravel driveway, and he jumped out.  “Jim!” he said to my Dad.  “I thought you said you were in Oregon!”

“I thought you said we didn’t have any work.”

“We just got some today.  I was about to call you.”

“Uh-huh.”

Dick Headley was desperately trying not to lose his cool, quick-talking a mile a minute.  Dad wasn’t listening.  At one point, Headley began getting belligerent, like my Dad had no business sticking his nose into what Headley was doing.  Dad, in one of his rare shows of restraint, just rolled his eyes and told me to get into the car.

Dad had an accountant go over the papers and receipts, and as it turned out, there were two separate ledgers.  This didn’t surprise the accountant – this was common.  Usually it was one real ledger and one for the IRS.  In this case, it was one for the company and one for Dick Headley.  Dad was able to take this down to the DA’s office and get a warrant.  They used my pictures as evidence, too.

Dick Headley went to jail.  At least, he ended up there for a few hours, only long enough to get himself bailed out.  He still had some strong political ties, as strings were pulled and he was let off, after paying back part of the money he stole.  It was only a small fraction, though, and then Headley walked away.  Smirking.

And people wonder why I’m cynical about the American justice system.

We didn’t get a chance to fire the office manager who was spying.  She quit the moment she heard what had happened.  She was gone by the time we got back.

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