The truth behind P.I. Moms scam exposed
The PI Moms (Robert Gallagher 2009)
This story was first broadcast on Feb. 18, 2012. It was updated on Nov. 17
Produced by Chuck Stevenson, Peter Shaw and Greg Fisher
In 2010, reporter Pete Crooks was invited to profile a group of San Francisco Bay-area soccer moms-turned private investigators.
"When I got this story, I knew I had something and I stayed up all night writing..." Crooks told "48 Hours" correspondent Maureen Maher. "I was invited to come out to Chris Butler's office. I walked in and the first thing I noticed was the walls of the office were covered with 8x10s of all the 1970s and 1980s detective shows that I watched growing up... 'Charlie's Angels' and 'Magnum PI'...Those are the shows I loved when I was a kid so I was kind of charmed by it. And I knew the guy wanted to be on TV."
Crooks is a senior editor for a local pop culture magazine called Diablo and a CBS News consultant. To him, the attractive, confident women were real-life "Charlie's Angels" and their boss, Chris Butler, a charismatic entrepreneur who spent 10 years as a cop -- was straight out of central casting.
"It seemed like a no-brainer that we would, that we would cover that story," said Crooks.
Chris Butler bought the agency in 2000, and turned it into what he claimed was one of the most successful private eye firms in the Bay area, investigating everything from insurance scams to cheating husbands.
When he added soccer moms as investigators, he said his business boomed. And Butler's team was getting noticed, from People magazine to morning TV shows.
The P.I. Moms also became a big story for the "Dr. Phil" show.
Ami Wiltz was one of the P.I. Moms.
"We were beautiful women who went out and you know...worked this male-dominated career, this job... and we were different... we were funny...exciting..." Wiltz told Maher.
Like Butler, Wiltz was also a former cop-turned professional private investigator. But she was juggling a home life with three kids, which Butler believed made her and the other moms uniquely qualified for the job.
"Being a mom...I'm able to multitask...I'm also, you know, just naturally nosey...and always trying to figure out what my kids are doing..." she explained.
On the "Dr. Phil" show, Butler talked about why he chose soccer moms:
"...they come into this field prepped for the type of work that they're gonna be encountering...they're very good listeners," he said. "...they're probably more sensitive to people lying to them."
Potentially dangerous, it wasn't a job for the fainthearted. But Butler said he had that covered.
"He said that, also, that he trained all these P.I. Moms extensively in self-defense, in investigative techniques... and firearms," said Crooks.
Besides the moms, Butler also employed attractive women to be "decoys"; women like Ryan Romano.
"I'm easy on the eyes basically... it was acting...it was my normal life..." Romano told "48 Hours."
The decoys -- also known as "operatives" -- worked alongside the P.I. Moms in standard field work, but sometimes the decoys went beyond that to do some not so standard operations. For example, a sting Butler shared with Dr. Phil McGraw where a decoy "Sharon," catches a cheating husband.
"We inserted Sharon into the hotel bar...Well sure enough, once our investigator was in the bar and he walked in, he made a beeline right for her," Butler told McGraw on his show. "Sharon is a professional and she does know what's expected of her on these cases, and that's gonna include hugging, kissing...and she knows to stand at a 90-degree angle to the camera so that if there is any kissing that's going on...we'll be able to get that."
On the show, McGraw even questioned whether Butler had gone too far with the decoy, "Sharon."
"One of the P.I. Mom operatives was in a very romantic situation with the target here," McGraw commented to Maher. "And you know, I kept sayin', 'Wow, I mean, are there boundaries to your scope of employment? Because things are getting pretty rich up on the balcony here.' I mean, that to me seemed, like, to go beyond the pale, it's like-"
"They'd overstepped their bounds?" Maher asked.
"--is this OK with you? Is it OK with your husband? Is it-- this wouldn't be OK with me. And it's, 'Well, you know, you do what you gotta do.'"
Criticisms like that didn't slow Butler down. In fact, his real-life private investigating team was about to become a reality TV show for the Lifetime cable network.
"He just was like on the rise of being this huge star in his mind... and that this was gonna be it..." said Romano.
With the reality show cameras following the moms on their investigations, Butler would need help with the caseload.
"I've always been the type of person who's always wanted to, to you know serve... to help people..." said ex-cop Carl Marino.
"How did you end up meeting Chris Butler?" Maher asked Marino.
"I'd actually seen his ad on Craigslist," he replied.
Marino spent 17 years as a deputy in upstate New York. Butler's ad seemed like a terrific opportunity for Marino, who had recently moved to San Francisco.
"...They were looking to hire decoys for -- I think he termed it as 'the most successful private investigative company in the Bay area,'" he said.
But when Marino interviewed for the job, he learned it wasn't a typical "P.I. agency."
"It was kind of a strange interview..." he told Maher. "They asked a lot of strange questions."
"Like what?" she asked.
"You know... do you drink alcohol? ...How comfortable I was with nudity?" Marino explained. "...and they were telling me the reason they're asking those questions was because in decoy situations you might possibly have to drink shots...and possibly get naked in a hot tub...with whoever the person is..."
Marino didn't seem to mind and with his law enforcement experience, it was a perfect fit. Butler hired him.
"It was kind of the type of work that I'd always imagined PIs doing..." he said.
"A little on the fringe?" Maher asked.
"Always on the fringe," Marino replied.
For a place operating on the fringe, there were plenty of real cops coming and going, including Norm Wielsch, the commander of the Contra Costa County Narcotics Task Force. Wielsch and Butler had worked together and were friends.
"He would show me how, how well he was doing, he would tell me how well he was doing...he was...he had a beautiful car, he had a great lifestyle... at least it appeared so," said Wielsch.
With those real cops hanging around, Butler's employees didn't challenge him on some of his questionable operations... like the ones that came to be called "dirty DUIs," which set up husbands in the middle of bitter divorces.
"I was hired by Chris Butler...to be a decoy to attend a party in hopes to get the target to do something illegal...to see if I could see if he was involved in any illegal stuff, including drugs...and just to be a pretty face... I mean, who's gonna say no to a pretty girl?" said Ryan Romano.
The trap: Send in a pretty girl or "decoy," as Butler called them, to come onto the husband, get him liquored up - and then suggest they drive somewhere to have fun. Just as the husband would pull out onto the street, a cop, who had been called by Butler, would pull over the husband for driving under the influence.
Romano says Butler paid her to drink and flirt with those "targets."
"It was like dangling candy in front of a baby," she explained. "It's hard to say no to a lot of things in life... and when you have alcohol in the picture and you impair their judgment...it makes it even harder..."
The arrests of the men caught in Butler's stings would then be used in court proceedings, which would clearly put the soon-to-be ex-wives in a much better bargaining position.
"...There was something not right in the fact that he probably got high off of doing all this... like, he found a thrill," said Romano.
With the reality show now in production and the national media exposure, Chris Butler's dreams of stardom appeared to be just a red carpet stroll away. But what no one knew was that dream was about to turn into a nightmare.
"I was floored... the amount of stuff that he was doing was just unbelievable!" said Romano.
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