David Fechheimer, San Francisco's premier private investigator, died April 2 after open-heart surgery. We'd been friends for 44 years, minus two. David is Stephen Best in this piece the AVA ran in January, 1990. The original title was 'Nuts.' — FG
Stephen Best, the private investigator, got a call last week from a woman with an accent he couldn't quite place. She wanted to retain him right away. He told her to come to his office right away. About a half hour later there stood a petite and elegant olive-skinned woman of about 50 in an ankle-length mink with a silk scarf around her head. She introduced herself as Alice Boada and repeated that she wanted to retain him.
Stephen said "Retain me to do what?"
She said "I can't tell you."
He explained that in order to help her, he'd have to know what the problem was.
She already had her checkbook out. "May I write you a check for two thousand dollars? Then I'll tell you. I don't want you to back out. I want you to help me."
He assured Mrs. Boada that that was his goal.
"I hear voices," she said, handing over the check. She'd been hearing them for about a year: a man and a woman telling her when to Ieave or not leave her house, and other "very odd things" she didn't want to divulge at that point.
Stephen ascertained that she was the widow of a Portuguese shipping tycoon and lived in Presidio Heights with her teenage daughters. He arranged to inspect the place that evening.
He drove out there with Harry Jablonsky, the wire and electronics man. Harry has been in the business as long as Stephen, more than 20 years, which can give you a cynical outlook. “There are others technically capable of installing wiretaps,” said Stephen, “the streets are full of recording engineers— but Harry looks at the practical aspects of the job. How will the device be installed? How will it be powered? How will the tapes be changed?” (On the other hand Harry is so practical he once built an airplane in the basement of a building on Post Street and then couldn't get it out.)
The fog was penetrating that night and the Boadas' mansion seemed cold and empty. The maid had gone, the daughters were upstairs studying. The place was extremely quiet --the better to hear voices in, perhaps.
Harry conducted an electronic sweep which yielded nothing. Stephen searched the house and discovered a pile of religious tracts in Alice Boada's bedroom. He gathered from the daughters that they never heard voices or strange sounds. "Do you think my mom is crazy?" the younger girl asked bluntly.
Stephen told her that wasn't his field of expertise.
He saw no point in running up the bill. He ran out to Radio Shack and bought a voice-activated tape recorder for $62. He told his client to leave it in her bedroom and notify him when she got the voices on tape. But not until then.
Driving back the two detectives talked about nuts. "They're always out there, only the specific form of their phobias seems to change," Stephen observed. Years ago he'd had a spate of calls from women living alone who complained that someone was putting piles of dust in their apartments. Around the time of Watergate a lot of people "knew" they were being poisoned by the government. Harry recalled doing a sweep of a woman's breasts. She believed a transmitter had been implanted in them.
"A large number of individuals in our society," Stephen generalized, "are certain that they have swallowed transmitters." He once obtained a $25,000 Hewlett-Packard FM band sweeper for an engineer who claimed that while drinking ginger ale at Yosemite he had heard the clink of a transmitter falling out of his tooth. His plan was to sweep his stomach regularly. "The man had a PhD," Stephen added.
One pink-faced gentleman in a seersucker suit and straw hat came to the Lipset office (where your correspondent worked a long time ago) and said he had a lot of things he wanted to do in his life but couldn't because he was totally occupied by his problem: "they" had radiowave access to his brain. They forced him to masturbate, filmed him in the act and then showed brief clips on television, between commercials on the late movie. Using their radio controls of his brain they made it impossible for him to see these clips, but he knew they existed because when he went to Safeway, other shoppers would point him out as the man they'd seen masturbating on television.
For this client Harry built a heavily insulated copper helmet. The apparatus, which resembled a diving helmet, took weeks to make and the agency lost money on it because Harry got so involved in the production. The client would come around for fittings and the secretary and the bookkeeper would flee the office to keep from laughing out loud in his presence. The day the helmet was finished Harry demonstrated it to the client by placing it over a radio which then ceased to function as a receiver. The client was overjoyed, and everybody thought that was the end of the matter but of course it wasn't. The man came back a few weeks later to complain about his lack of mobility. He didn't like to be seen in public with the helmet on, and he couldn't even watch TV comfortably.
Stephen then proposed that the agency build him an insulated van for $50,000. That must have been more than his trust fund could provide because they didn't hear from him again. "Every so often on the Bay Bridge I would check to see if the driver next to me was wearing a copper helmet," Stephen said.
"I do to this day," said Harry.
Harry had a client back in the '50s who lived on the ground floor of a duplex in Sausalito. His landlord, who happened to be Chinese, lived on the floor above. According to the client, the landlord possessed "powers" and would beam electrical waves at him through the floor, preventing him from getting an erection. His marriage was suffering as a result.
The client proposed a plan. Harry would sit outside the house in a car. When the client was ready to make love to his wife, he would lower the shade as a signal. Harry would then go upstairs with a bucket of water, ring the landlord's bell and heave the water into his face. This would startle the landlord, short-circuiting his powers and enabling the client downstairs to get it up.
"I think it worked," Harry says.
One time Stephen couldn't get rid of a guy who claimed to be a CIA agent. "They won't let me come in from the cold. They won't even acknowledge my existence." Stephen told him to go to the Labor Commission and file a complaint for back wages. “Didn't take a nickel from him,” he notes.
And there was a woman who used to fly up periodically from Phoenix and have him tail her to find out if she was being tailed. She never was —except by Stephen. "These people can be the bane of a private investigator's existence," Stephen reflects. "You know you can't help them and you don't want to take their money. You start out feeling sorry for them and wind up feeling used as they pull you into the web of their delusions.
“Once you've started talking to them you're in trouble. If you don't take the case they're convinced you're working for the 'other side.' If you recommend a doctor they're convinced you're the enemy. They've all studied the technical aspects of their problem, so any attempt to reassure them that there's nothing to it is immediately waved off. There's great psychological force behind their fantasies and they can have you hopping from foot-to-foot for weeks, serving their strange needs. Sometimes you come to see them as con artists using you as props in their game.
"But it's not always easy to spot a nut," Stephen adds. "Some have syndromes you've never seen before."
The New York Times obituary by Sam Roberts noted that Fechheimer's clients included “Black Panthers, Koby Bryant, Angela Davis, Robert Durst, John Gotti, Daniel Ellsberg, Patty Hearst, Timothy McVeigh, Roman Polanski and Martha Stewart, among others.” The obit included a photo of Fech with his mentor, Hal Lipset, in which my eyebrow is clearly visible.