New York Times - March 24, 2008
By: Lily Koppel

A big man in a black fedora and trench coat over a plum-colored shirt and a matching tie, swung open the double wooden doors on a Thursday evening this month into a hidden back room with dark paneled walls surrounding red leather booths. Inside, a group of about 20 mostly middle-aged men sat around a table running the length of the room.

Above them hung imitation Renaissance paintings in gilt frames. The regulars around the table looked like poker players from a Dick Tracy comic, or characters out of the board game Clue.

And so began the monthly meeting of the Society of Professional Investigators at Forlini’s, a venerable Italian restaurant behind the Manhattan Criminal Courts Building on Baxter Street in Chinatown. The restaurant, considered the Sardi’s of law enforcement, is where judges and mobsters sit side by side, digging into plates of pasta. A plaque on the wall designates the society’s official meeting place around the corner from the booth where Robert M. Morgenthau, the Manhattan district attorney, and a patron for 35 years, eats twice a week.

In addition to active and retired law enforcement agents, the society, which was established in 1956 and meets once a month, includes lawyers who work in an investigative capacity and several genealogists, who help track down missing witnesses, lost heirs, delinquent debtors and people who jump bail.

“It looks like Skull and Bones,” Bruce Sackman said, referring to the secret society at Yale. A retired federal agent who has put a doctor and a nurse who were serial killers behind bars, he is now the senior investigator at Mount Sinai Medical Center dealing with fraud and employees who steal patients’ identities. Observing the room, Mr. Sackman, in a pink silk tie, added, “It’s like a 1970s mafia movie.”

Until a few years ago, the society, which has 150 members, had been largely stagnant. But a former president, David Zeldin, led what members call its “phoenix rising,” recruiting younger members and reaching out to those who had fallen away. The group’s Web site ( plays the theme from “Peter Gunn.”

At the end of the table at Forlini’s that night was Albert Belcher, a retired New York Police Department detective who works as a private investigator and is the society’s sergeant-at-arms and doorkeeper, in case order needs to be restored. His services are often called upon as a joke when the conversation gets boisterous. The presence of Mr. Zeldin, now the society’s chairman, was telegraphed by the distinct aroma of the cigar he smoked on his way to the restaurant.

A former bodyguard for Whitney Houston, David P. Roberts, was also on hand. A dapper Englishman with a silver pencil-thin mustache, in a pinstriped suit, he is the president of British American Consultants, an investigation and surveillance company based in New Jersey.

Efrat Cohen, 25, who came to America with her parents from Israel when she was 12 and who is new to the surveillance business, sat beside Mr. Roberts. She investigates local white collar crime, mostly involving insurance fraud, for his company. “One day, I just thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be a private investigator?” Ms. Cohen said, who wore a crimson top and pointy-toed heels.

Across the table was Rainer Melucci, whose expertise in electronic eavesdropping protection and antibugging services took him into the home of Tom Cruise in Los Angeles and the offices of the Church of Scientology. He said he was practically investigated by the church, which conducted several rounds of interviews with him while deciding whether to employ him. The most memorable part of that process was a private screening of “The Firm” in Mr. Cruise’s home theater.

Ronald Mark Semaria, a forensic accountant who specializes in employee and executive embezzlement and identity theft, sat next to him. Cases he has worked involved check forgery, the purchase of gold bars by people associated with the Taliban and , and divorces involving hidden assets.

Over red wine and antipasto, the talk covered topics from inside jokes about stakeouts of cheating spouses, which some of the younger members are sent on, to national security.

He is now lobbying in Washington to protect private investigators’ access Social Security numbers, the primary identifier in tracking people, especially those with common names or false identities.

Those who have spoken before the society have included Robert F. Kennedy and John Cye Cheasty, a revered former member whose undercover work helped establish the Waterfront Commission, which investigates criminal activity on the docks of New York Harbor.

At this meeting, the speaker was C. Gabrielle Salfati, director of the Offender Profiling and Crime Scene Analysis Research Unit at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who also trains police officers. Her area of expertise keeps audiences tuned in to television shows like “Law & Order” and “C.S.I.”

“There are an awful lot of myths that we get inside peoples’ minds,” Dr. Salfati said. “I’m going to use murder as my example.” She went on to describe a case of the rape and murder of two young girls in a small town in England and how profiling, had it been used at that time, could have helped solve it. She said a profile could have narrowed the pool of suspects by using scientific research that would have pointed to characteristics to look for. Instead, DNA samples from every male member of the community were tested. Of the crimes, Dr. Salfati said, “I’ll spare you the details since we’re going to have dinner.”

She sought to dispel a popular stereotype of the serial killer who was “obsessed with his mother and wears red stockings” just as the waiter, with red reading glasses perched on the end of his nose, took orders for veal parmigiana and chicken marsala.