James Queally January 26, 2015
This article appears at the following website: www.nj.com
ON A RAIN-SOAKED Wednesday morning in Monmouth County, a fairly nondescript woman exits a 7-Eleven with a cup of coffee and enters her car, where she sits idling for a moment, not yet drinking from the cup.
It’s 8:30 and this trip to the convenience store seems innocuous, forgettable.
But not to Bari Kroll.
“She got another coffee,” says Kroll as she watches from her truck, parked a safe distance away. “Is it for him? Perhaps? No? Oh maybe,” she says, fidgeting with a camera while she weighs the variables of her subject’s java habit. “Let’s see if she drinks it, cause she was drinking coffee already.”
Ten minutes later, the 7-Eleven woman is driving on the Garden State Parkway, as Kroll follows. Suddenly, the woman puts her blinker on and quickly moves into Kroll’s lane.
“See? That’s how I know she doesn’t think I’m following her. She just cut in front of me.”
Whether the target is a woman barreling down a highway for a rendezvous with her secret lover or a man out dancing when he’s supposed to be home on disability, no one seems to notice Kroll — until it’s too late.
And that’s exactly how it’s supposed to work when you’re a private detective.
Kroll is a rarity in the sleuth world. New Jersey is home to just a few female private eyes and even fewer who own their own business, industry experts say.
But Kroll, at age 39, has her own agency in Monmouth County.
“I am way more versatile than any man,” she says. “I’ve been a Puerto Rican woman, a black woman. … You name it, I was able to infiltrate any venue up to this point.”
There are more than 1,500 registered private detectives in New Jersey, according to Capt. Stephen Jones, a spokesman for the New Jersey State Police. But the records are not kept in a printable or public form, so it’s not clear exactly how many women work as investigators in the state, Jones says.
Jimmie Mesis, an investigator who also is the editor in chief of PI Magazine, and who lives and works in Freehold, says only 5 percent of the state’s private detectives are women. But that’s changing fast, he says, pointing to the rapid appearance of women at the private detective conferences he’s been speaking at for 30 years.
“When I looked out in the audience, there used to be a handful of women out of hundreds of PIs,” he says. “Most of them were spouses.”
Ask other investigators about Kroll and the adjectives flow easily: tenacious, creative, personable. But that’s after working more than 10 years in the business. When Kroll first got the itch to move into private investigation in 2002, she says she had trouble cracking the “boys club.”
“I’d make calls and they would laugh at me.”
Kroll didn’t harbor a lifelong dream to become a private investigator. Far from it.
She grew up in Old Bridge and studied psychology at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft. Kroll didn’t finish college because she was offered a job at Prudential, helping train new employees at recently opened call centers. But after she married and had a son, Kroll became a stay-at-home mom.
“That wasn’t really working out for me,” she says.
Bored at home, Kroll began researching a second career. Naturally curious, she always fancied herself as something of a born snoop. So she started cold-calling, asking licensed detectives for training or work. It was like walking up to the plate down two strikes, she says.
Being a woman was only half the problem. Many of the investigators she called when she was looking for entry-level work wanted someone with law enforcement or military experience. Kroll had neither. In New Jersey, private eyes need to spend at least five years working in the field before they can apply for a license to open their own firm, so she was low on options.
Her luck changed when she happened upon a phone number for James McCabe, a private investigator with an office in Monmouth Beach. At least he didn’t hang up.
But it only took a few minutes for Kroll to feel as if she was swimming upstream again.
“Can you type?” McCabe asked.
“Shit,” she remembers thinking. But the door was open, so Kroll walked through.
As a part-time detective for McCabe, her first assignment was to tail a subject suspected of lying about the extent of an injury. “Professional medical liability work” is the industry term, she says.
The task was simple: follow the woman wherever she went. She was supposed to be home on disability, but Kroll tailed her to a beach.
Keeping the subject in sight as she bought a bathing suit, Kroll slipped into the Shore crowd, snapped some photos and video, and helped McCabe secure valuable evidence for a client.
Maybe it was basic, but for someone who had never done that type of work before, it was exhilarating. “I’m just a naturally observant person. I kind of like to say I’m a natural born stalker. I was hooked. It was fantastic.”
McCabe, who has since retired and moved to Florida, says he had no issue with hiring women. But for a long time, they simply weren’t applying. Before Kroll, McCabe says, he received possibly four résumés from women.
“I never even thought of it,” he says. “But after thinking about the fact that she was female, I thought maybe we could do a couple of things we couldn’t do before.”
He was right. Kroll brought a new dimension to the office. She had no background in shoe leather detective work so she didn’t rely on police resources, a trait that sometimes trips up cops who become private detectives.
And she had an aptitude for social media, able to track down a subject’s misdeeds through Facebook and Twitter, which improved McCabe’s already successful business, he says. She was a wizard behind the computer, often cyber-sleuthing her way onto the trail of targets whose addresses and routines would have otherwise been a mystery.
One of Kroll’s earliest cases involved tracking down a young woman who claimed to have sustained a serious foot injury. Her address wasn’t public, but Kroll found out the woman’s brother owned a fledgling clothing company in Newark. He was hosting a launch party at a club in the Brick City, and, of course, he’d posted the event on Facebook.
The woman, who was black, was listed as an administrator on the event page. She’d be there. She’d probably be dancing. Now, Kroll had to find a way to take video, but she had a problem. She would be one of few, if any, Caucasian women attending. So the costume changes that have becoming something of her trademark got a little extreme that night.
“I literally dressed up in like a fedora hat, I put on a little bronzer, I did up my lips a little fuller and some of the guys were like, ‘Oh, Alicia Keys,’ ‘Oh, Alicia Keys’ and they invited us right in,” she says.
Kroll got the information she needed, though it wasn’t what she expected. The woman didn’t dance and sat at a table near the door all night. Kroll says it’s important to remember that not everyone she tracks down is doing something wrong.
But Kroll’s ability to vanish in crowds lends itself to crazy story after crazy story.
There were the nights with three costume changes. The case for which she danced on a table while filming someone.
Another time, a woman hired Kroll to find out if her husband, a high-powered attorney, was not only stepping out on her but also cross-dressing. Kroll got what she needed for the client, but the man confronted her in the process.
“I think he was more scared than I was,” Kroll says.
Then there was a former neighbor who wanted Kroll to find out if her husband was cheating. The only problem was the husband would be able to recognize Kroll. Two wigs and three outfits later, she got her man.
As Kroll’s case load increased, so did McCabe’s admiration. But the job was putting a strain on her home life. With a young son at home, Kroll says, her husband wasn’t thrilled with the idea of his wife sneaking around in dark corners and tangling with sometimes dangerous targets. He worried about her safety.
But as time went on, he adjusted. Now, married for 15 years, her husband is so interested in her cases, he sometimes asks if he can help.
By the time McCabe was ready to retire, Kroll was “pretty much running the office,” McCabe says. So he made it official and sold the agency to her, turning over the “book of business,” his all-important client list in an industry that relies heavily on referrals.
Ask McCabe if he had any regrets about his first female hire and he’ll laugh. “I wish I met her 15 years earlier,” he says.
Kroll certainly isn’t the first woman to break into the private eye world, but experts say she’s part of the industry’s changing face. McCabe calls women “integral” to the business, especially for domestic issues.
“Women are the fastest growing segment of the industry, and the reason for that (began) in 1975. That’s when a lot of women started getting hired as police officers,” says Mesis, whose magazine has more than 25,000 readers in the United States, the United Kingdom and 30 other countries. “So you figure a lot of those women put in their 20 to 25 years and are now retiring. Now, you have an abundance of female former law enforcement that wants to stay in the profession.”
As recently as the 1990s, McCabe says, women in the business were often restricted to office work. The reluctance was part chivalry and part chauvinism.
“The thing you have to understand is, depending on what kind of investigation work you do, is that it can be dangerous,” he says. “In retrospect, a lot of guys that owned investigative companies didn’t want to put women in harm’s way or didn’t think the job was appropriate for a woman.”
Kroll doesn’t necessarily agree with that sentiment, but she can appreciate it. Especially when she recalls the time a 400-pound man tried to punch through her car window.
The case was a prime example of the zero-to-60 nature of her job, when monotony can suddenly turn to chaos.
It started out in her wheelhouse: professional medical liability work. A malpractice suit had been filed and the hospital’s attorneys wanted to know the extent of the plaintiff’s injuries.
The target was a man built like a mountain. Well over 6-feet-tall and nearly 400 pounds, the South Jersey resident was said to have a heart condition and once “basically died on the table,” she says. Kroll sent a female investigator, one of several young women she’s taken under her wing, to scope out the man’s house.
There was no action the first day, which is not uncommon, Kroll says. So Kroll did a little Facebook sleuthing and quickly found out the big guy apparently had a source. On his Facebook wall, she found a misogynistic, profanity-laced and grammatically mortifying rant about the investigator who had been sitting outside his home all day.
Kroll wondered how he knew, and then remembered she had placed a phone call to the local police department as a professional courtesy to let them know she’d be working in the area.
The best Kroll could figure, the big guy had a friend in the department, one who dropped a dime on her investigator.
“Guys in law enforcement don’t even look at you like you do the same thing,” she says.
So the next day, Kroll and her investigator went back to the house and positioned themselves farther away, slouching lower in the car, eyes hidden under baseball caps.
Perhaps confident that the local cops had chased away the private investigators, the big guy went for a drive.
From there, it should have ended the way most of Kroll’s capers do. The big guy had no idea he was being followed, so he went to Home Depot, carrying heavy item after heavy item to his car. He walked briskly through a strip mall, an activity that should have been considered strenuous given the supposed extent of his heart condition.
Kroll caught it all on camera. Then the big man caught Kroll.
The now-veteran PI and her young charge were leaving the area, damning film obtained and mission accomplished, when they noticed someone driving erratically behind them. Sure enough, it was the guy, whipping past Kroll down the road and slipping behind the younger investigator.
He started playing bumper cars with Kroll’s fledgling detective. Kroll whipped out her phone, chasing the colossus as he chased her employee. She called 911, just as the young woman pulled to the side of the highway.
The big guy got out of his car, moving faster than his heft and heart condition should have allowed. Both fists cocked.
“I said, ‘Oh, shit, he’s gonna smash her window,’ and then he came to mine first,” Kroll says, remembering the thump of knuckles against glass, a nervous smile on her face. “I laugh about it now, but it was a little traumatic.”
A day after they screwed up her investigation, the local police came to Kroll’s rescue. The cuffs went on and the tapes got where they needed to go.
The case was one of several that made Kroll think about her future in the business. While she loves the field work, and she would never back away from it, Kroll also knows she can’t change costumes and chase cars forever.
In the long run, she plans to turn most of the ground work over to her growing number of younger investigators.
“I definitely see it taking another direction in the future. I don’t think that me just doing this is the be all, end all,” she says. “A lot of people want to know about it, want to learn about it.”
Television spots, a book and other types of mentor work could lie ahead, she says. But when a big case comes, Kroll says she still plans to put herself on the ground from time to time.
The Port Norris case also helped spark her political activism in the industry world. She often wonders how she would have defended herself if the cops hadn’t come when they did. What if someone else made a headlong rush toward her car?
Most private eyes have the right to carry a concealed handgun because of their status as former law enforcement officers. Those without that background lack that right.
“We feel like we have the same justifiable need,” she says.
Kroll has also contacted some politicos about updating the state criminal code to make assaulting a private investigator a felony on par with assaulting a law enforcement official.
At least one of those pieces of legislation is in draft status, but Kroll won’t identify the official. A woman, especially a PI, has to have her secrets.
Tick, tick. It’s 8 a.m. on a vacant Monmouth County street. Kroll fusses with a tarp in her truck, so she can hide.
She’s mumbling profanities about the lack of parked cars or trees along the block where the alleged cheating spouse lives.
It’s long before the woman’s coffee stop at 7-Eleven, and Kroll leaps from the front to the back seat, worrying over variables.
The target is supposed to drive down this block on her way to her love nest. At least that’s what her client, the husband, has told her.
Each case connects to the other. After 10 years in the business, she has all the scenarios down. The medical frauds. The cheaters. The liars.
Tick, tick. Kroll is getting impatient. She thinks about moving the car. But decides to stay put. This woman won’t think she’s being watched, she tells herself.
“There’s, like, a point in the affair where they get really, really, comfortable, like now, and she’s getting caught.”
Tick, tick. She’s been lied to by clients before. Kroll recounts a story about a man who hired her to tail his wife for months. The woman went to book clubs, stores, but never to another man’s bed. Kroll is starting to worry she’s been hired as an “adult babysitter” while the client is actually the one stepping out on the spouse.
Tick, tick. Someone looks at the truck a little too long. Kroll changes spots, recounts another old case, her voice excited and agitated.
Eventually, a car passes by. The phone rings. It’s the client. His wife is on the move. Kroll locks in, smiles and follows the car along the highway through the driving rain.
“We’re going to Red Bank. We’re going to Red Bank,” Kroll says in a singsong, before dropping an octave and growing annoyed. “Why is she going to Red Bank?”
The chase stops at an office, not at the apartment of an alleged lover. Kroll looks dejected. If this woman’s cheating, she’s not doing it today.
Tick, tick. A day goes by. The phone rings again and Kroll is off, still on the adrenaline high from the morning before.
“We got her!” she shouts, celebrating the secret kiss she has captured on video.
Twelve years after getting laughed out of job interviews, the woman who never carried a badge is hanging with the big boys and loving every second of it.
“You have to want to get to that answer,” she says. “You have to want to solve it.”