New Yorker - December 3, 2010
By: Zachary Kanan

As storm clouds conspired over Manhattan one night recently, the members of the Society of Professional Investigators, or SPI (pronounced “spy”), gathered for their monthly dinner in the wood-panelled back room of Forlini’s, just south of Canal Street. Mustachioed former law-enforcement agents huddled over breadsticks and calamari as they waited for the evening’s program—a PowerPoint presentation by a retired F.B.I. undercover agent named Joaquin ( Jack) Garcia—to begin.

Since SPI’s inception, in 1956, networking and professional education have been at the core of its mission. According to the group’s former president Charles Iadanza, to become a full member of SPI you must have completed at least five years of investigative service in law enforcement or seven years as a licensed private investigator. Iadanza, an investigator for the city, sat at a table rearranging his silverware. He recalled a case from his homicide-unit days: “I had a witness I was trying to find who went by the name of Boogaloo. He weighed over three hundred pounds, and he slept in a coffin that he kept in a hearse. And he ate only raw fish.” He pushed his wineglass forward an inch. “But he was the nicest guy you ever met.”

Bruce Sackman, the current SPI president, rose to lead the Pledge of Allegiance. Then he asked the attendees to introduce themselves: there was a city fraud investigator, a licensed P.I. with the U.S. Postal Service, a retired cop, the mystery writer E. W. Count (“Cop Talk”), and three guests she had brought from France’s Police Nationale. There was an anti-bugging expert, a missing-persons expert, a medical-fraud examiner, and a man who stood up and announced, “I’m Lionel—one name, like God.” Everyone laughed, and Lionel added, “I’m an underwear model and a shepherd.”

Next to Lionel sat Irving Botwinick, the chairman of the SPI board and the owner of Serving by Irving, a process-serving agency whose motto is “If they’re alive we’ll serve them; if they’re dead, we’ll tell you where they’re buried.” Botwinick passed out press packets that featured a picture of him jumping out of an airplane. A tall, snappily dressed Englishman with a trim white beard stood to introduce himself, sounding more James Bond than Sam Spade: “Good evening. David Roberts, former New Scotland Yard Metropolitan Police, in London, and the current treasurer. Who hasn’t got a pink ticket?” The P.I.s looked down to confirm that tickets were next to their plates, and a few hands went up. Roberts said, “That means you haven’t paid. Please see me after.” Iadanza leaned across the table. “Dry British wit,” he whispered.

Jack Garcia, the guest speaker, spent two and a half years undercover with the Gambino crime family, an experience that he chronicled in a best-selling memoir, “Making Jack Falcone.” Garcia, who likes to say that he is “three hundred and plenty pounds,” showed slides of himself in assorted disguises that had helped him nab drug dealers, money launderers, crooked cops, corrupt politicians, terrorists, the N.F.L. Super Bowl champion Mark Ingram (“I was buying stolen cars from this guy”), and the Gambino bosses Greg DePalma, Arnold Squitieri, and Anthony (the Genius) Megale (so named because he was “dumber than a box of rocks”). The second half of the presentation revealed Garcia’s interest in photographs of Frank Sinatra associating with known mobsters. When, suddenly, a slide appeared showing a ball of heroin that had been surgically removed from a drug mule (not Sinatra), he said, “Sorry to be showing this while you’re eating.” “We’ve seen worse,” someone yelled.

“Isn’t that Jimmy the Weasel?” Lionel asked, referring to a mobster with Sinatra in the next slide. It was. After a brief Q. & A., Garcia departed. Over veal parmigiana and stewed escarole, the P.I.s discussed business. Rainer Melucci, a former SPI president, who has a thin gray mustache, said, “I’ve done bug sweeps for Madonna, William Hurt, Tom Cruise, the Church of Scientology.” “This guy does it all,” Ron Semaria, a former I.R.S. agent and forensic accountant, said. “He’s a locksmith, fraud examiner, electrician, TV repairman . . .” “I learned that one from Mike the Nose,” Melucci said. While cannoli and slices of cheesecake were brought out, the Reverend Marine Jourdan, a new SPI associate member, was still working the room. Like many members, she is a graduate of John Jay College, but she explained that her investigative skills derive from her abilities as a medium. “I passed away—and came back, obviously—in March of ’09,” she said. “And that was my second time. The first time was November 16, 2005. That one was an intestinal strangulation. The second one was five perforated ulcers.” Through prayer, she said, she has helped discover the remains of the Romanov children. More recently, she put SPI on Facebook.