by Jeffrey B. Roth, photography by Phil Grout
No one paid any attention to the black SUV, with dark tinted windows, as it pulled into the parking lot of a York strip mall, on a cold, bright, sunny, mid-week afternoon in early January.
Sean L. Hall, private investigator and owner of Lancaster Detective Agency, sits in his car preparing to begin surveillance of a suspected errant husband, in a marriage infidelity case. Hall punches in a number on his mobile phone to check in with his partner, Jonathan Presnell. Presnell confirms he is already on stakeout at a southern, York City manufacturing company, the workplace of the target of the investigation, a 50’s-something, married business man suspected of having multiple mistresses.
The suspect’s SUV carries a hidden GPS tracking device stuck to metal on the underside of his car. The tracking device transmits a street map with real-time location and related information to a tablet computer mounted on the console between the bucket seats of Hall’s vehicle
“His car is still parked. We’ll know when he leaves work and where he goes,” said Hall.
A former U.S. Air Force security police unit member who has been a PI for 19 years, Hall has 20 to 25 active cases at a time. For a few years, he worked as a private investigative consultant for the controversial, but now defunct Discovery Channel television reality series, Amish Mafia. His private investigator sleuthing will be featured in a new reality show that premiers on a major cable network in April or May.
The name of the show and the cable network? Those details remain top secret.
On this brisk January afternoon, after a quick check of his equipment – a day and night vision Sony video camera with a telephoto lens – Hall retrieves a small box containing four generic-looking vehicle key fobs, each containing HD video cameras and SD cards capable of storing about a 60-minute recording.
Hall uses the key fob spy recorder when he follows a suspect into a public place, such as a tavern or restaurant. He places it on a table pointed in the direction of the person under investigation.
Cool gadgets come with the job. Hall designed a video camera that is concealed in a device resembling a small gray metal electronic utility box. When mounted on a pole, it has an unobstructed view of a suspect’s home or workplace. In addition to being a source of personal pride, this cool gadget and others are sold through his company, Waypoint Tracking Solutions.
It has been approximately four hours and Hall and Presnell have not seen their target.
“An investigator needs a good bladder, because it is not unusual to sit for hours on end during a stakeout,” Hall said.
A resident of Mount Joy, in Lancaster County, Hall works cases throughout south central Pennsylvania. Infidelity, cohabitation and child custody cases account for the majority of his cases. His cases have also included computer forensics, employment background investigations, missing person cases, insurance and workers compensation fraud cases.
“I’ve worked three or four domestic and divorce-type cases in Hanover,” Hall said. “Recently, I worked a child custody case involving a female in Littlestown, not far from Hanover. Yesterday I worked three cases in the area.”
On November 12, while on surveillance, Hall videoed a stalking suspect, dressed in a ski mask, outside of a Temple Avenue, Lancaster, home. Hall had been hired by the victim’s family after the stalker drove nails into their car’s tires and dumped sugar into the gas tank.
The video recording was used as key evidence in the case against John Geiman, who pleaded guilty to numerous charges, and was sentenced to 18-36 months in prison.
Hall said he often relies on his instinct and is rewarded with evidence for the client. He enjoys working surveillance along with related investigative tasks, but the job is far from the glamorous film portrayals of a PI. It can become very boring. Much of the work involves document and court record searches, filing reports and a lot of time sitting in a vehicle waiting for something to happen, he said.
Finally, at about 7 p.m., the man in the York infidelity case, exits the company, climbs into his SUV and drives away. Hall starts his car and follows the suspect, first to a Giant Foods store; he loses sight of the vehicle and uses the tracking device to pick up the tail. After a circuitous route, the suspect heads home to an upscale residential development.
Hall expects the suspect, whose wife was out of town, to hookup with a girlfriend, but that doesn’t happen.
That night – no evidence.
The next night was different.
“The case we worked ended with him going out to dinner the next night at a Mexican restaurant,” Hall said. “He told his wife he was in a business meeting. At one point we followed him, when he met a woman.”
Typically, in divorce and infidelity cases, Hall’s clients are wives who suspect their husbands are cheating on them.
Hall landed in the private investigation field almost by accident.
“I served in the Air Force from 1991 to 1995, stationed mostly in California,” said Hall, who was wearing wrap-around sunglasses, was dressed in casual cold weather clothes and sported a shaved head. “While I was in California, I took some criminal justice and reserve police officer training at a college that had a program almost like a police academy. When I came back to Pennsylvania, (his home in Spring City), while I was on the way to meet a friend for lunch, I got lost. As dumb luck would have it, I turned into the parking lot of a private investigation company. I went in there and they hired me.”
Unlike fictional private eyes, the majority of Hall’s cases do not involve potential violence or danger, but he carries a handgun in his car just in case it is needed.
“In one case, a suspect spotted me videotaping him. I was parked on a dead-end street. I called police immediately and they responded and arrested the guy,” Hall said.
Hall’s business motto – “Uncovering the Truth” – is one he takes seriously. It helps make the boring times, the no-action interludes of the job, more tolerable.