Transcript

447:

The Incredible Case of the P.I. Moms
Transcript

Originally aired 09.23.2011

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/447

Prologue.

Ira Glass

OK. Here was the idea. They were private investigators, detectives for hire. But they were not grizzled ex-cops in trench coats or old Humphrey Bogart characters in fedoras dragging on their unfiltered cigarettes. They were moms. Soccer moms. Telegenic, sexy soccer moms. Like some kind of MILF Charlie's Angels.

And you could see why that would be a hit. Why people loved that. And why it was really only a matter of time before they would show up as guests on some daytime TV talk show.

Announcer

On the next Dr. Phil. They look like your average moms, but they're also--

Dr. Phil

Gun-packing, hard-hitting private investigators. You would never expect a mom in a minivan to be somebody that's on your tail.

Ira Glass

The brains behind this whole PI Mom thing was a guy named Chris Butler. The way Chris Butler tells it, he'd been running a regular PI firm, when at some point, he hired a mom. According to Chris, this was the Eureka moment. He realized that moms have what it takes to crack cases. Patience, organization, hunches. Plus, they blend in.

Anyway, that was the shtick. Chris called it his secret formula, and he built a business around it.

Chris Butler

--5 PM. Charmagne to run on point. That photograph in front of you is when we did recon. That's what the layout of the rooms look like.

Inside this bag, we have the recording units.

Ira Glass

Chris Butler didn't want to talk to us. This is a tape of him running a sting operation on the hour-long episode of Dr. Phil that featured the PI Moms. And that was just one of several big media appearances for Chris and the Moms last year. There was also the Today show, and Fox and a People magazine article, complete with a two page photo spread of three PI Moms in dresses and heels, posed like Charlie's Angels.

Pete Crooks

I was first approached by his PR agent in Beverly Hills. And his PR agent told me that they had just been on the Today show, and in People, and they were just about to be on Dr. Phil, so I should write about them.

Ira Glass

This is Pete Crooks, a writer and an editor for Diablo magazine. Diablo is one of those glossy monthly magazines that lots of places have, like Chicago magazine, or Columbus Monthly, or Memphis magazine. This particular one serves the East Bay area outside of San Francisco, including the Diablo Valley. The magazine has restaurant reviews, and local events listings, and enthusiastic profiles of celebrities from the area. Pete covers entertainment, so he is the one who got the pitch from the PI Moms public relations person, who told him that Chris Butler and the Moms had just landed a deal for a reality TV show on Lifetime.

Pete Crooks

I said, you know, we have to do something about this, if this is going to be the Real Housewives meets Magnum PI, and it's all filmed in our backyard with East Bay moms and an East Bay boss. And the PR specialist promised me that I could do more than interview. I could actually ride along on a case and be embedded with the PI Moms.

Ira Glass

Which was perfect. He'd be ahead of the curve on this story that was going to be on national TV and had this strong local angle, and it was a fun story. An easy story. One day reporting, where you ride around with the Moms, photos on a stakeout or whatever, which could be great, a quick writeup. And that is the way it started.

But Pete ended up spending months on this simple feature story. It unfolded and unfolded, and by the end, he found himself caught up in a very strange world where he was getting mysterious messages from an anonymous informant. For a while, it was unclear who he should believe about anything. And things that were not what they seemed were even less what they seemed than he thought they were when he first discovered they were not what they seemed.

Today we take you on that same trip that he went on. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Today, The Incredible Case of the PI Moms. Stay with us.

Act One. A Pretty Dame Walks In.

Ira Glass

Josh Bearman has been talking to all the available witnesses in this case, and he tells the story.

Joshuah Bearman

So one Thursday, Pete Crooks goes down to the PI Moms HQ. He introduces himself, gets some background interviews, and meets the Moms and their boss, Chris Butler, the man at the wheel of this minivan full of suburban spy gals.

Pete Crooks

Chris met me at the office. He was Mr. Cool, like right out of a TV show. In fact, I walked in and I saw there were framed 8 by 10 photos of, like, Colombo, and Cagney and Lacey, and Magnum PI, Charlie's Angels, all the '70s and '80s private eyes from television.

Joshuah Bearman

Chris actually was an ex-cop, but he parted ways with official law enforcement because, as he described it on his website, his bosses, quote, "had trouble understanding his tactics and drive," which were well above the standards of routine performance.

Pete Crooks

And then was Chris, who's this kind of puffed-up sort of burly guy with a blond goatee and, like, a very tight black sort of motorcycle T-shirt, tight jeans, and very expensive leather boots. He kind of looked like a biker cowboy cop. His voice just didn't ever change octaves. He definitely had this coolest guy in the room attitude.

Joshuah Bearman

Chris sat behind his desk, flanked by his posters and two PI Moms, Charmagne Peters and Denise Antoon. Pete had seen them all on the TV segments. And then, to everyone's surprise, a client showed up.

Pete Crooks

Chris sees a a luxury car pull into the parking lot right outside his office. And this woman comes in who has retained Chris to follow her fiance around to see if he's fooling around. She comes in. Attractive woman in her early 50s. And she explains the situation, and tells me how long she's been engaged to this man, and where she met him.

And over the past six to eight months, she's just really noticed that he's becoming more distant, and that he goes to the gym on Saturdays. And he used to go for an hour and a half to work out and come home. Now he's gone for seven, eight hours at a time. And on one of these recent trips to the gym, when he came back, she peeked inside his gym bag, and all his workout clothes were clean and neatly folded.

She was composed, and then she starts crying and saying that she just needs to know. If there's some funny business going on, she needs to know now. Because this is a big point in their relationship

Joshuah Bearman

It's like the opening scene of practically every detective film ever made. Nice-looking lady walks into the PI's office with tears in her eyes. Except this one has a PI Moms twist.

Pete Crooks

When the client starts to cry, one of the PI Moms jumped up with a box of tissues, and the other one said, "Do you need a hug?" And they had this sort of bonding moment, the two PI Moms and the crying client.

Joshuah Bearman

The client suggested the following Saturday for the stakeout. Charmagne and Denise were ready with their surveillance minivan, [UNINTELLIGIBLE] recording devices, and the subject's photo and address. Pete sat in the back, taking notes.

Sure enough, the fiance quickly appeared. They followed him to a 24 Hour Fitness, where Denise and Charmagne videotaped him going in.

Pete Crooks

Within ten minutes, he came out of that same front door of the gym, dressed up in this sort of Tommy Bahamas leisure wear. Like khaki slacks and dress shoes and a short-sleeved sort of dressy shirt. And Charmagne said, oh, don't we look pretty?

Joshuah Bearman

And that was just the start of it. They tailed the fiance to a gated community where a young, attractive brunette appeared. She was half the client's age, buffed, glossed, and tattooed up her entire right arm. The couple got in the car and the Moms followed.

Pete realized they were headed for Napa. The cheaters would spend the day wine-tasting. Classy, Pete thought.

But Pete started noticing a few things. He was no pro at clandestine reconnaissance, but he did wonder at times about the PI Moms' strange technique.

Pete Crooks

We'd been following him from his house to the gym, from the gym to the gated community, and from the gated community to the freeway, exactly one car length in the same minivan behind this guy.

Joshuah Bearman

When the fiance turned, they turned. When he made a mistake and had to pull a sudden illegal U-turn, the Moms pulled the exact same maneuver. At one point, the couple stopped at Starbucks. And if you'll just visualize this for a moment, the mommy minivan was right behind them, subject car and tail car, crawling towards iced mochas, alone in a half-empty parking lot.

Pete Crooks

And I started to ask, you know, don't you have to hang back a little bit? And Charmagne and Denise said, no, no. You know, he's in his own little world there, on his date. He doesn't even realize we're here.

Joshuah Bearman

Did you just think that they were incompetent at doing this kind of thing? Or did you think that they in fact knew exactly what they were doing? When they reassured you, did you say, oh, well, they've done this before?

Pete Crooks

I have to admit, I went along with it and thought, they've been doing this five days a week, and I've never gone on a ride along with an investigator before. And I just continued to record notes and go along with it.

Joshuah Bearman

Pete and the Moms followed the fiance and the mistress for hours. They watched them shop for discount jewelry and then move onto a Napa restaurant called the Rutherford Grill.

Pete Crooks

The subject and the mystery date parked their car. We parked right behind them. They walk right in front of our van. Denise is running a video camera through the front window of the van, and they stop right in front of the van to kiss. I mean, five feet in front of us.

Joshuah Bearman

So Denise has a camera trained at them.

Pete Crooks

Point blank, yeah. A big, bulky camera, too. Not some sort of hidden camera.

Joshuah Bearman

It was a lovely day-- the kind of day that brings people out to Napa-- and the restaurant was packed. Turned out the only place for the PI Moms to sit was a communal table, where, as it happened, the fiance was already seated, hoping to feed his mistress French fries.

And so the investigators and Pete wound up essentially having lunch with their targets. Again, Pete wondered if their cover could be blown by being that close. So close that Pete had to say hello to the mistress as they sat down, and then listen to their lunchtime chatter.

Pete Crooks

Their conversation was lurid. The fellow kept saying, boy, you look hot today. She says, yeah, I'm hot. I'm sweating. And he says, I'd like to lick that sweat off of you. And she goes, oh, yeah, I'd like that. But like, just without any passion whatsoever.

And then she says, I was thinking about going horseback riding tomorrow. And he goes, yeah, where do you go horseback riding? And she says, oh, I've got some friend who has a stables out in Bullinger Canyon. And he says, is that near where we got that hotel room that night? That was a wild night.

So he always kind of turns the conversation back to sex talk, and she kind of goes off talking about horseback riding or whatever. It was very bizarre, and it just sounded like, if this is what infidelity is-- there's just no passion or substance to it whatsoever. And the client back in the East Bay is better off without this guy.

Meanwhile, Denise and Charmagne were ordering burgers and ribs, and not really paying attention to the conversation. And we all sort of scarfed down burgers and ribs, and it was just like a very casual lunch. And nobody seemed to be concerned at the awkward situation except myself.

Joshuah Bearman

I know. This sounds fake. And that's because it is fake-- fakety fake, totally fake. And the only person who doesn't know it's fake, at this point, is Pete. Everything else-- the mistress, the crying client, the hot, hot horse-ridey sex talk, the affair itself, has been meticulously choreographed by Chris Butler.

Sharon

You know, one thing I will say-- Chris was very, very good at reading people. He knew how to read people, and he knew how to push the right buttons. He was very good at it.

Joshuah Bearman

This is Sharon Roof. She's the client-- the woman with a cheating fiance. While most of the people playing roles in the fake case were actors or friends of Chris Butler, Sharon is interesting because she had actually hired Chris Butler and the PI Moms months earlier, to follow her real cheating fiancee, and they caught him. She'd been impressed by Chris, and thought he was a nice guy. He'd gotten the truth for her, after all.

And then he convinced her to come and work for him. Sharon agreed, doing mostly office management, until one day, Chris took Sharon to lunch and told her about this big upcoming feature in Diablo magazine.

Sharon

And he asks me, he goes, are you comfortable? I'd like to use your story.

Joshuah Bearman

By "use her story," Chris meant he wanted to reenact her case. Sharon was skeptical at first, but eventually she agreed.

Sharon

So then we sat down, you know, all of us, in the conference room, going over, OK, so this is what's going to happen. And then he starts changing the story. And I pulled him aside. I said, Chris, why are you changing the story? And he said, well, it's not exciting enough. Your story isn't exciting enough, and I want to just make it more exciting.

So then everything started changing. So it's like, OK. Now we're play acting. And I really didn't feel comfortable with it. But then he said, you know, Sharon, think about all the women that you'd be helping. All these women that their husbands, their boyfriends cheat on them, and you know, blah, blah, blah. So I did. I went along with it.

Joshuah Bearman

But for the drama to work, Chris wanted Sharon to nail the emotional heart of the performance.

Sharon

Chris told me-- he said, Sharon, he goes, just go back in time to when you came to me those couple months ago, when Michael was cheating on you. And that's where your head's at when you come in and talk to Peter. So that's exactly where my head was at. So those tears were real. Everything was real. It was like I was reliving the same conversation I had with Chris when I came to first meet him.

Joshuah Bearman

And so there was Pete. An audience of one for Chris Butler's production, which only got more intricate as the day wore on, with an expanding cast of characters and plot-enhancing cameos. Such as this moment, when Pete and the Moms were approached by a car.

Pete Crooks

This souped-up black, late model Mustang zips in and parks next to us, and this married couple gets out. A second team of investigators.

Joshuah Bearman

Here is one of those investigators, Carl Marino, an actor and model from San Francisco.

Carl Marino

We drove over, pulled up with a flourish in front of them, with a nice, shiny black Mustang. Of course we got out all Hollywood style with the sunglasses on, and dressed to the T.

Joshuah Bearman

Carl and his wife that day were playing backup investigators. A good-looking rapid strike force. They went in, sat next to the couple, shared some wine, and texted reports back to Pete and the Moms about how friendly everyone was getting.

Pete Crooks

The first text said, "Made contact with subject." The second text said, "We are talking to them and taking pics together." The third text said, "They are drunk," and the fourth text said, "They just invited us back to their hotel." So within half an hour, 45 minutes of wine tasting with strangers, they've invited them to come swing at a hotel.

Joshuah Bearman

So that escalated pretty fast, sounds like.

Pete Crooks

Yeah.

Joshuah Bearman

Again, here's Carl.

Carl Marino

And that was something that wasn't planned out. That was something Chris kind of threw in there. And he was telling me what to text them.

Joshuah Bearman

Oh, that a snap decision, right there? Chris is like, let's just change this up a little bit?

Carl Marino

Yeah, take up to another level.

Joshuah Bearman

The next level turned out to be a Holiday Inn Express parking lot. Once everyone was there-- the cheating couple, the other couple, the minivan with the PI Moms-- Pete found out that Chris was en route with the last person you'd want there. The client, Sharon. Here's Pete again.

Pete Crooks

She now wants to see this with her own eyes, and so he is driving up to Napa with the client. And at this point, I said, Charmagne, that's a terrible idea.

Sharon

At one point, there was concern that Peter didn't believe it.

Joshuah Bearman

Again, this is the client, Sharon Roof.

Sharon

So there was talk in the car that OK, we've got to make this good, because Peter is very suspicious. Some of this stuff just doesn't sound right to him. So we have to be very convincing.

Joshuah Bearman

Sharon was to have a big final scene, where she would look in the trunk of the car, see the fake presents her fake fiance had bought for his fake mistress, and then, right there in the parking lot, Sharon would have a real meltdown.

Sharon

And then I just closed my eyes and I just thought about Michael. And it made it that much easier for me to get all upset.

Joshuah Bearman

You just went into the zone.

Carl Marino

I did. I did. And then, you know--

Pete Crooks

The client jumps out of the Chrysler.

Sharon

I got out of the car. The car barely was in park and I ran out.

Pete Crooks

Runs over to her car, opens the trunk, looks in the gift bag to see what kind of jewelry her fiance had bought his mistress, and then she just collapses into a heap of tears in the trunk of her car.

Joshuah Bearman

She actually falls into the trunk of the car?

Pete Crooks

Just crying. Just her upper body and her head just sort of disappear into the trunk of the car in this exhausted heap of humiliation. It was very awkward.

Sharon

Actually, somebody told me later that Peter was so upset about me that he couldn't watch. And I guess he went to go get a coffee at a Starbucks or something. So I don't even know if he saw any of my performance.

Joshuah Bearman

You were just doing it for yourself. Like, the audience wasn't even there.

Sharon

Yeah, I mean, I didn't notice who was around to be honest. But then somebody told me that Peter was here, and then I felt bad that Peter was upset. Because you think a reporter is immune to this, because you do this all day long. You see all this stuff that you're, you know, kind of like a doctor when you operate. You're used to it. But Peter had a heart.

Joshuah Bearman

Here's Pete again.

Pete Crooks

My story was to watch the PI Moms investigate, and not to dwell on this client's sadness or humiliation. And I had been craving a Starbucks for the past five, six hours, since I had seen the cheating couple go in. So I went over to the Starbucks and got myself a coffee.

Joshuah Bearman

So while she's kind of regaining her composure, you just went and got, like, a Frappuccino or something?

Pete Crooks

Yeah, I got a latte.

Joshuah Bearman

By the time it was done, the stakeout had lasted eight hours. And despite all the red flags, Pete still believed it all. Remember, these people had appeared in all kinds of news stories already. They'd been on the Today show. Pete presumed they'd been vetted and fact-checked. And there was going to be a whole reality show about the Moms. It was just about to start filming.

So Pete went home that day thinking, this is awesome. The desperate client. The tender-yet-tough PI Moms. The sweat-licking. And he started writing up his story. Until--

Pete Crooks

So this first email was sent on Monday, January 3, 2011 at 12:21 PM, with the subject line "Peter Crooks, Important, PI Moms." "Hi. I am writing this as a courtesy to you. It would be a mistake to publish the article on the PI Moms and Chris Butler that you came and did a story on a few months ago. Chris totally played you. The case that you sat in on was totally scripted."

Joshuah Bearman

So this is an anonymous message.

Pete Crooks

Well, it was a message from somebody named Rutherford with an email account that you could easily make-- you know, it seemed to me that this person's name was not Rutherford. It was somebody who had made up a new, Yahoo or Gmail account to contact me anonymously.

Joshuah Bearman

Pete's editors assumed the email was phony, written by someone with an axe to grind against Chris Butler. It seemed farfetched that the entire case was an intricate conspiracy and all those people were actors.

And yet this Rutherford person knew so much detail that Pete had to take it seriously. He called one of the PI Moms, and she swore it was real. Pete was still unsure, so he called Chris and confronted him directly.

Pete Crooks

And he just-- he screamed, "What! That is BULLCRAP!" And honestly, I could-- I think in text sometimes, and I could see the all caps when he said "bullcrap."

Joshuah Bearman

Chris promised Pete proof. He could show him it was real. But he never did. Instead, he started dodging Pete's calls.

Meanwhile, Pete and Rutherford kept emailing, with Rutherford feeding Pete information on Chris Butler, and Pete staying up late, trying to track people down on Facebook and piece it all together.

Pete Crooks

About 3 o'clock in the morning, Rutherford sends me one that we've always called in Diablo ever since then the "smoking gun email." And it was the itinerary of our Napa adventure.

Joshuah Bearman

Suddenly Pete was looking at a timeline of his entire day with the PI Moms-- a detailed schedule sent to everyone who was there.

Pete Crooks

It had the street addresses of the gym, of the Napa outlet store, the Rutherford Grill, of the winery, and of the Holiday Inn Express. In addition to that, it had a Google Earth photo showing an overhead view of the Holiday Inn Express with notes on it, saying, here's where the luxury car should park. Here's where the mystery date and the fiance will walk into the Holiday Inn Express. They'll walk--

Joshuah Bearman

Now Pete was certain. He'd been a mark. As it happens, Pete's a big fan of film noir. He knows all the classics backwards and forwards. And he noted that this one didn't just start like all the good noirs, with the dame crying in the PI's office. Pete had arrived at the inevitable turn where the protagonist falls down the rabbit hole of hidden forces and mysterious motivations, where you don't know who's in on the con and who isn't.

Why would anyone go to such lengths to fool Diablo magazine? What was Chris up to? And who was this anonymous source tipping him off?

Carl Marino

I tried to think of everything that could happen, would go wrong or could go wrong. And at one point, I was just like, I have to take a chance.

Joshuah Bearman

This is Rutherford. If his voice is familiar, it's because you've heard him before. The guy sending Pete those emails was Carl Marino, the backup investigator. You know, handsome guy. Black Mustang, sunglasses, dressed to the T, supposedly entertaining a foursome with the cheating couple? That guy.

Carl had met Chris Butler a couple years earlier, not long after he moved to San Francisco. Carl had answered an ad on Craigslist looking for someone with law enforcement and acting experience. Perfect, Carl thought. He was a former sheriff's deputy, and had started doing local acting work.

The two of them, both former cops, hit it off right away. Eventually Carl became a central part of Butler's team. He was given the title "Director of Operations." And he realized that this wasn't the usual PI firm. There were real cases, like cheating spouses. There were performances staged for the media, like the thing with Pete. And then there were all kinds of weird things somewhere in between.

Because that's how Chris operated. Even when people came in with actual problems, he would spin some fabrication around them, layering real over fake over real. He made stuff up when there was no reason to make anything up, And that's how simple situations often escalated.

One of the best examples of this is the case of the Candyman. Again, here's Carl.

Carl Marino

The mother came in with basically a blue ecstasy pill and said, I think my son's selling drugs. I found this.

Joshuah Bearman

This began as a real case when a woman came to Chris Butler with suspicions that her 19 year old son was selling drugs at college. Exhibit A was a pill that his mom found in his room. Exhibit B might have been that his friends called him the Candyman. Anyhow, it could have been a simple job. Follow the kid, videotape him selling X to college students, and the mom will have her proof. But that wasn't enough for Chris.

Carl Marino

And Chris basically said, well, we can not only do that, but how about not only do we find out if he's selling drugs, but we set him up in a way where he'll never want to do it again?

Joshuah Bearman

Chris's plan was to have the kid arrested-- or rather, fake arrested-- by Chris and his pals, who would then threaten him with jail time. You know, scare him straight. Incredibly his mom, the client, thought this was a great idea. So Chris planned an elaborate operation over several weeks, starting with phase one-- initial contact.

Carl Marino

He sent these two female decoys to the supermarket. Called the mother. Told the mother, send your son to the supermarket to buy chicken or whatever.

Joshuah Bearman

By decoys, Carl means young, attractive women Chris would hire through Craigslist to play temptresses. The story cooked up by Chris was that these two girls would meet the kid in the grocery store near the chicken, where they would flirt with him by asking for his expertise about the chicken, and then propose a date with both of them.

Joshuah Bearman

Together.

Carl Marino

Yeah. Both of them would go out on a date with him together, and I believe they went bowling or something like that. And during the course of this date, they would tell him that there's a party coming up soon that they want him to come to. They would insinuate that they like to hook up together, and how much they like this guy. And they would make out with the guy and stuff, too. These decoys, Chris would find decoys that had no problem doing that.

Joshuah Bearman

Wow. And was it Chris's idea to like, you know, let's make this a threeway, that'll be more exciting?

Carl Marino

Always. He would throw that in all the time.

Joshuah Bearman

Chris Butler was never the type to worry about gilding the lily. He had his decoys invite this kid to a party hosted by a third girl, a friend of theirs, who, of course, was a lingerie model. They intimated that this party would be so fun, they'd all wind up in bed together. It was a natural progression-- chicken, bowling, group sex at a party with lingerie models. Phase two, a Butler-style twist on the classic honey trap, was nearly complete.

And with the hook baited, the girls yanked the line. The party is off, they told the kid. It was going to be an ecstasy party, and their dealer flew the coop. Such a bummer, right? No ecstasy, so no party, I guess.

Carl Marino

He's like, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, hang on, hang on. Don't worry about it. I can get this stuff. Really? Can you? Great. Thank you.

Joshuah Bearman

I mean, they were talking to the Candyman, after all. And so, just as planned, the kid walked right into Chris's trap, arriving at phase three.

Carl Marino

We set it up in the parking lot of the Narcotics Task Force office.

Joshuah Bearman

This is a key detail. Carl is referring to the Contra Costa County Narcotics Enforcement Task Force, also called CNET. CNET was the top drug enforcement agency in the county, and the guy who ran it was Norm Wielsch.

Chris Butler was friends with a lot of cops, but Norm was the biggest. They'd actually been in the same department years earlier. And now Norm and Chris started collaborating on Chris's operations. It was a strange extracurricular activity for Norm, since Chris's operational whimsies were often illegal, like the elaborate fake bust that was about to happen in the parking lot of Norm's police agency.

Carl Marino

Chris actually had one of the other investigators on the radio with a script. So when he called dispatch, she was going to be dispatch. Because he was going to be running the license plate numbers, running the kid's name. And she would be calling back like it was a police dispatch over the radio. So it looked very authentic.

Chris also had the hummer with the strobe lights on it, the flashing strobe lights. And Norm was going to come driving up in that with the strobe lights going so it looked like a police vehicle pulling up.

Joshuah Bearman

So Norm, A real police officer, is going to be driving in a fake police vehicle, but in the real parking lot of the police headquarters.

Carl Marino

Yes.

Joshuah Bearman

OK. Just to keep it all straight.

Remember, this kid was supposed to be a drug dealer. They didn't need to do any of this. They could've just followed him and filmed him. Instead, they now have a real kid selling real drugs to amateur actresses hired off Craigslist for real cash. Then they all get busted by Chris and his buddies pretending to be cops, alongside Norm, a real cop, who's driving Chris's fake police car. Again, here's Carl.

Carl Marino

And my job was to run around the front of the car, hold this kid at gunpoint. The other guy was going to go to the other side of the car. Chris was going to come running out of the bushes with the guns drawn.

Joshuah Bearman

And now, the guns are not loaded, presumably.

Carl Marino

No. The guns were not loaded. Except for Norm, Norm had his real gun, but he didn't draw it. It was just in case something bad happened, obviously, in case this kid did have a gun or something. But that's what Norm was there for.

Man

[UNINTELLIGIBLE] your hands up!

Joshuah Bearman

Oh yeah. And just to make this more interesting, Chris filmed the whole thing. Carl showed me the footage.

Joshuah Bearman

Is that Norm?

Carl Marino

That's Norm right there, yes.

Joshuah Bearman

Look at this poor kid. He looks like such a goof, on top of it.

Carl Marino

Yeah. He was. And he's a kid. And his eyes were giant when he had those guns in his face, and he was terrified. Rightfully so. I mean, I would have been terrified if that was me.

Joshuah Bearman

Why is his police jersey see-through?

Carl Marino

It's kind of like a mesh pullover thing that you can throw over the side. And we actually made a joke too, about that. That maybe he'd be in his rollerblades on the pier a little bit later.

Joshuah Bearman

Yeah. It looks like the kind of thing where he'd come to the door and be like, ma'am, you're under arrest, and then put down the stereo and start stripping.

Carl Marino

Yes. Exactly.

Joshuah Bearman

Chris had two cameras running for better coverage. He wanted to document the day and use the video for his sizzle reel. That's the trailer used to sell shows to TV networks. And it worked. When Chris showed this to Lifetime, part of hooked the network on the PI Moms was the takedown of the Candyman.

In truth, Chris was perfect for reality TV. He was a flamboyant character and a master manipulator. Someone who had already been living his life as though he was the star of a show always running in his mind. So it made sense that cable celebrity was the pot of gold at the end of his counterfeit rainbow.

Carl Marino

It was all geared toward getting this TV show and him becoming this Dog the Bounty Hunter-type reality star. I just think he thought somehow that he deserved to be famous.

Joshuah Bearman

Like any good reality producer, Chris understood the magic of story editing-- how blending some truth with fiction goes a long way.

Carl Marino

Oh yeah. He was always able to legitimize it somehow. And I fell into that in a few things, too. Because there were a lot of times where things we would do, while not quite illegal, kind of had that dirty, immoral kind of feel to them. And even when I would bring that up to Chris, like, should we really be doing this? He would always find a way. Well, you know, because the commander of the Narcotics Task Force is involved, it's kind of like a police operation. So we are allowed to do this, because he's allowing us to do this, and so it's OK.

And he always tried to interweave the whole business within the police organizations. Several different police officers were his friends in different jurisdictions. I mean, obviously the commander of the Narcotics Task Force being the highest level. It was always one of those things where we can always do this, because we always have Uncle Norm who can cover for us.

Joshuah Bearman

Is that what he called him, Uncle Norm?

Carl Marino

He did.

Joshuah Bearman

In addition to Uncle Norm, there were other law enforcement types Chris drew into his schemes. Like the real cops he had stinging unwitting people with DUIs, or the retired FBI guys who gave the PI Moms weapons training at a nearby police range. Chris even convinced Glock Firearms to endorse Butler and Associates, getting a bunch of free pistols and boxes of accessories. Another endorsement was Oakley, which somehow became the firm's official sunglasses, and UFC the official gym.

This was Chris's MO. Creating a seemingly valid world with a veneer of legitimate symbols in a kind of lifestyle forgery. And it was all in the interest of self-promotion.

Ira Glass

Coming up. We unpeel one more layer of the onion to reveal underneath all the fakery and pretense and self-promotion, real life crimes. Josh Bearman returns with more in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two. His Partner Drops a Dime.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today we're devoting our entire program to one story, The Incredible Case of the PI Moms. If you're just tuning in, this is a detective agency made of good-looking soccer moms created by a guy named Chris Butler, who would not confirm or deny any of this story for us. His attorney did not return repeated phone calls. The PI Moms themselves declined to speak. Josh Bearman picks up the story where we left off before the break.

Joshuah Bearman

Chris was thinking big. He had visions of a nationwide network of PI Moms franchise offices and detective schools, all with Carl at his side. And Carl was good with that, until he learned that Chris was expanding his operations into full-on crime. It was around the time the PI Moms started shooting their reality show with Lifetime.

Carl Marino

Well, at one point during the early filming of the show, Chris Butler brought me into the warehouse, and brought me over to a case, and basically said to me, you live in San Francisco. You probably know people that smoke marijuana. I'm like, I think everybody I know smokes marijuana in San Francisco. It's kind of-- I started laughing. He goes, well, would you know people who would be interested in buying it? I'm like, well, I know people that do smoke marijuana. I don't know who would buy or who doesn't. So he brings me over to this case, he opens it up, and I think there was nine pounds of marijuana wrapped in these plastic bags.

Joshuah Bearman

Carl was taken aback. But even more shocking was his second thought.

Carl Marino

When he opened this case, it was one of those revelations where I immediately knew where they came from. Which he immediately confirmed by saying, well, I'm not going to say his name, but you know where this probably comes from. And-- he wanted to refer to him as uncle. And that's where he started-- not even Uncle Norm. Just Uncle.

Joshuah Bearman

It's worth remembering here that Uncle Norm, now cleverly code named Uncle, was the top drug cop in the county. The guy you'd see on TV taking credit when there was a big drug bust where they'd show a table piled high with contraband. And now, Carl realized, Norm was stealing those same drugs from the evidence locker to recirculate them via Chris, who was extending a hand with a tightly wrapped pound to Carl.

Carl Marino

And it was one of those points in your life where you kind of feel almost trapped. And I remember thinking that I want to say no. I've never sold drugs in my life. I'm not a drug dealer.

But at that point, I'm also kind of like, this is a situation where I'm already wrapped up in Chris Butler's business. I know so much stuff about Chris Butler. If I say no and give this back to him, it's going to be a personal insult to Chris Butler, first of all. And it's going to be one of those things where I'm kind of scared if I say no.

Joshuah Bearman

And he knows you're not on board?

Carl Marino

I know what he's capable of. I've seen what he's capable of. I mean, to the point where he was going to plant drugs on people in the past for clients. And I've watched him set so many people up. I know Chris Butler will set me up somehow, to have some sort of leverage over me, so I don't give up his dirty secrets.

Joshuah Bearman

Carl takes a deep breath, says he'll try a cousin in San Jose, and takes the drugs home. There he tells his wife, who says he has to go to the police. But Carl has already thought about that.

Carl Marino

I'm like, who I go to? This came from the Narcotics Task Force commander. She's like, what are you going to do? Are you going to sell it? I'm like, no, I'm not going to sell it!

Joshuah Bearman

Well, you're really stuck here. Because you don't know-- now you realize that there are dirty cops at a very high level. And Butler knows people everywhere.

Carl Marino

Yes. So we sit and we discuss it for a while, and she's like, well, who do you go to? Do you just walk into the Concord Police Department and say hey, by the way, the PI down the street is selling drugs? And I'm like, Chris Butler knows half the guys in the Concord Police Department. Who knows if they're involved. I have no idea the level that this goes to. I think about going to the District Attorney's office, but I know that Norm knows all those people. He's testified, I'm sure, numerous times. I have no idea who's tainted by this. Honestly, I'm stuck. I don't know where to go with it.

Joshuah Bearman

Carl stalls for weeks. He's telling Chris that they have to wait for the buyer, making things up. Chris puts on the pressure, saying that Norm is getting nervous and they want the money now.

Carl Marino

So my wife and I go to the ATM that night and take out our own money.

Joshuah Bearman

Carl and his wife take out $1600.

Carl Marino

And I pay Chris Butler for the pound of weed, and just tell him that this money came from our buyer down in San Jose. Which makes him very happy.

Joshuah Bearman

So you bought it.

Carl Marino

Yeah. I ended up being the buyer of the pound of weed. Just to kind of satisfy Chris, and just so I can kind of buy a little more time until we can figure out who to go to.

At that point, we go back to the office. Since I did such a good job, here's another pound of weed. So I have another pound of weed I take my house, and I put it with the original pound in my closet. And my wife's like, what-- I can't afford to buy another pound of weed!

Joshuah Bearman

Carl was only getting himself in deeper. Since he couldn't go to the cops, Carl thought about going to the local paper, but he worried that a reporter on the police desk might ask the wrong cop the wrong question, and tip off Norm and Chris anyhow. So with limited options, Carl took the best one he saw-- the lifestyle reporter from the local glossy magazine.

That's how Carl became Rutherford, reaching out to Pete and revealing that the stakeout was fake. It was a way for Carl to test the waters with Pete, to see what he'd believe. And when Pete started snooping around, it actually put Carl in a strange bind, because Chris got spooked and asked Carl, his trusted lieutenant, to do some damage control. Again, here's Carl.

Carl Marino

Chris decides, well, you've got to make sure. Make sure you talk to Pete. Give him a call and convince him that everything was real. Like, being the director of operations and stuff.

So now I call Pete up on the phone-- as Carl Marino, obviously-- and I have an hour, hour and 20 minute talk with Pete, convincing him how everything was completely true. Going through every step of the way, and how, well, even though this might have seemed kind of funny, no, that was really real. Because it really would've-- and I'm completely honest on that part of it, because those are all real things that could have happened. And at one point, I just want to say, Pete, I'm Ronald Rutherford, all right?

Joshuah Bearman

So you're talking to him as Carl to convince him that it's true, while Rutherford is simultaneously, via email, trying to convince them that it's fake?

Carl Marino

Yes.

Joshuah Bearman

Right. But then also, as Carl, you do want him to not think that it's Carl, because you want Rutherford to remain anonymous. So you're actually kind of glad to be on the phone with him as Carl, trying to convince him that it's real.

Carl Marino

Yes.

Joshuah Bearman

So it took a while, but finally Carl trusted Pete enough to let him in on the much bigger, more serious scandal. Here's Pete.

Pete Crooks

I get this email from Rutherford that says, "I'm hesitant to tell you this. Mr. Butler is involved in some serious criminal activity right now. Butler is very well-connected in the police community and with the Narcotics Task Force I am not sure who to contact about this, and I assure you that it is serious."

And this started to get at this nagging question I had, which is why is Rutherford telling me all this information? It seemed like it was excessively helpful, as far as just protecting Diablo magazine and myself from writing a fake ride-along story for Chris Butler. But in my mind, I wondered, is there something that Rutherford needs to tell, and that's what it was?

So I wrote back and asked, what is this criminal activity? And Rutherford wrote back, "Butler is selling large amounts of marijuana along with other drugs, prescription Xanax and steroids, that have been confiscated by the Contra Costa County Task Force."

Joshuah Bearman

Again, here's Carl.

Carl Marino

So I don't hear back for a little bit. Of course, now I'm just frantic. Checking my email every ten seconds. Because it's like, where's this going to go? Does he tell the wrong person? I have no idea what's going on at this point.

Joshuah Bearman

At Diablo magazine, Pete Crooks covers culture and entertainment. He writes a column called Pete's Popcorn Picks. Crime is not his beat.

But it turned out that Carl had chosen the right confidant. Pete had a good police contact, a friend who put him in touch with the right people in law enforcement, and a full-on investigation started up. The case got kicked up the chain of command on account of the dirty cops.

And soon enough, Carl became an undercover informant. He wore a wire, sometimes two, recording not just sound but video. For weeks, he led a double life. Now he was staging fake drug deals, handing over cash for Chris's drugs, supposedly to resell in San Jose, while state Department of Justice investigators were stationed in the nearby van, or the bushes, or other tactical locations, watching it all.

If that's not complicated enough, in the midst of all this, it's easy to forget that the reality show was now in full production. There were two sets of cameras-- one for the DOJ and one for Lifetime-- and at times, they were filming the same people and places. There were so many overlapping storylines it was hard sometimes for Carl to keep it straight.

Carl Marino

Yes. It was very surreal. At one point, we would film on the one side, where the conference room was, in my office in the front, and Chris's office in the back. And that's where most of the filming took place. And the Video Village setup was in the storage part, which was the other half, where Chris kept all of his equipment. A few of the vehicles were there. And of course, the locked black case that had-- I think at this point it has 12 pounds of marijuana in it-- that the crew members are using as a chair to sit on.

And I remember walking in there and it's like, wow. How surreal is this? Here's this production crew, filming this reality show in the other room, sitting on 12 pounds of marijuana they have no idea is locked in that case right now. That I'm doing undercover operations for the Department of Justice to sting Chris Butler. I'll be buying those 12 pounds, eventually.

Joshuah Bearman

Meanwhile, Chris's main worry was that he was being edged out of the reality show. It turns out that some dude named Chris was simply not as exciting as sexy moms on the case. There was constant petty jealousy and small-time Machiavellian hijinks as everyone jockeyed for attention from the producers. When Chris realized he was not the star, he panicked.

But the show itself was a disaster anyhow. Cases were falling apart, and everyone-- the Moms, Chris, Carl, and the producers-- blamed each other. Part of the problem was that Chris had sold the show based on fake cases, and now there weren't enough real clients for the PI Moms to help.

That may be where the drug deals came in. One person close to Chris says that he was desperate for money to stage more fake cases for Lifetime and rescue the show. But it was too late. I've talked to people who worked on the program, and I can't use their names, but they said the whole thing was an insane mess. And in early February, Lifetime pulled the plug. The show was over.

All this time, the drug deals started to feel more dangerous for Carl. Chris was about to get his hands on some methamphetamine. Carl was getting increasingly paranoid. At one point, Carl says, Chris even tried to set him up, sending an unmarked police car to sit in the alley behind his house before one of the drug buys. The next day, in an I-know-that-you-know-that-I-know conversation, Carl says that Chris basically admitted he had fired a warning shot. But Carl still didn't know how much Chris knew.

Carl Marino

You know, I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop with Chris. If all of a sudden he finds out, I'm going to find myself going on a long ride into the woods somewhere. I've seen him set so many people up. And you'll never see it coming until it's already there.

Joshuah Bearman

By now, Carl had collected plenty of video of Chris selling drugs. But the DOJ only had Chris on camera, and nothing on Norm.

Then one day, Carl gets a sudden message from DOJ investigators. They've been watching Chris, and Chris is on his way over to sell Carl the meth. But he's not alone. Norm is with him. This was a surprise. Norm never showed up on these deals, and the unexpected change was suspicious.

Carl Marino

So now at this point, I'm terrified. Why is Norm coming back to the office? And at this point, I think the Department of Justice is terrified also. Why is Norm coming back to the office? I get a frantic text message. "They're coming back. Hide the devices."

Joshuah Bearman

This is from the DOJ people?

Carl Marino

Yes. So now I'm thinking, these guys are coming back to kill me right now. They have found out somehow. And the first thing Norm would do, I know, when he comes in this room, he's going to pat search me, and he's going to find my devices.

So I'm frantically hiding them, trying to think of what's going to happen now. And I'm the only one in the office. I don't have a gun. Both of them do have guns, and they wear their guns all the time.

Joshuah Bearman

And so by hiding the devices, also, does that mean now the investigators can't hear you? They don't know what's going on in there?

Carl Marino

No, no. So yeah. At this point, I think there's a chance I might die in this office.

Joshuah Bearman

Carl later learned that the DOJ had put snipers in position, just in case. But Norm, it turned out, was not there to kill Carl, and neither was Chris. It was all a coincidence. Norm had come with Chris that night so they could install a hidden camera in a coffee maker. Why would they need that? Carl didn't ask. He was just glad they weren't that interested in him.

Carl Marino

One of the biggest reliefs of my life, that moment when I realized, OK. I'm going to make it out of here today.

So they get done talking about the coffeepot, and they're like, OK, you've got the money, right? Let's do this. So I'm like, OK, sure. And at this point, I'm like, screw it. I'm going to film this, too. Because I've had enough of this. I honestly don't want to do any more drug deals. I'm going to get them whatever they need.

Joshuah Bearman

So Carl went into the other room, retrieved one of his hidden video cameras, and got into position as Chris and Norm weighed out a pound of meth. Carl taped them as they counted out $5000 in cash. Chris and Norm never suspected a thing. Mostly they joked about how the money wasn't in small bills.

It was Carl's last performance as a low-level distributor. That night, after it was all over, one of the DOJ cops even complimented him on his camera work. He told Carl it was the best footage they'd ever seen.

Announcer

Tonight the law enforcement community is stunned. A narcotics cop and a private investigator both accused of selling drugs. Commander Norman Wielsch and his friend Christopher Butler were booked into the Contra Costa County Jail in Martinez this morning.

Joshuah Bearman

Chris and Norm were both arrested the next day. Between them, they were charged with 17 felony counts. They're both facing life in prison. The indictment describes an assortment of other alleged crimes we haven't even heard about yet. Like the happy ending massage parlor Chris and Norm are accused of running called My Divine Skin; and supposedly shaking down prostitutes they'd find on Craigslist.

Chris was arrested outside the UFC gym, where he immediately clammed up and asked for a lawyer. Norm, on the other hand-- well, here's Norm.

Norman Wielsch

I'm taking full responsibility of what I did. I'm not-- again, I did wrong, and I expect to pay for it. I know I'm going to have to go to jail and I've made peace with that.

Joshuah Bearman

When Norm was arrested, he started crying and confessed right away. Since then, he's been cooperating with investigators. And yes, Norm took responsibility for what he did. But during an interview in his lawyer's office with his wife by his side, he also laid out what he calls the mitigating factors that allowed Chris Butler to influence, and according to them, take advantage of Norm.

Norman Wielsch

Because of my ailments, let's say, I felt inside-- because I was always a big strong guy, you know, a big strong cop. All of a sudden I get sick, and bam, there goes my health. So I'm no longer that big strong-- even though I'm putting up a good fake for people, I'm feeling like a shell of a man.

Joshuah Bearman

Also, his mother had died. His daughter was sick. He was depressed and suffering from a disease that slowly deformed his hands and feet. I couldn't really picture why that would matter, but they pressed it.

Lawyer

Show them your feet. Show them your foot. If you were to look at his foot-- I want you see it--

Joshuah Bearman

Norm didn't show me, but then the lawyer flashed me a photo of Norm's foot on a cell phone.

Norman Wielsch

Over 18 surgeries in the last ten years.

Joshuah Bearman

The feet were pretty gnarly. I should mention, Norm really did sound like a guy who realized he had made a huge mistake and was reconsidering his whole life. Trying to understand how he could be so vulnerable to temptation. After all, the money was trivial. Turns out it was only around $12,000. And Norm had a lot to lose-- more than anyone else, probably. But he says it was Chris. He was just so convincing.

Norman Wielsch

Whoever's talked to Chris knows that he has the gift of gab. He could talk you into buying anything. I mean, I'm not blaming him. But he had his way of coercing a little bit more, you know? Where if I would say, hey, that's a stupid idea, all of a sudden the golden tongue would come out, and then all of a sudden I'd be driving home, thinking, oh, that's not a bad idea.

Joshuah Bearman

While Norm blames Chris, Chris blames Norm. Chris's lawyer has pointed out that Norm was the guy with the badge. Norm was the one who signed the drugs out of the evidence locker. The lawyer says Norm was in charge. It was all his idea.

Norm says no. Chris was the Svengali, the showman.

Norman Wielsch

He was always buying lunch. He always insisted on buying lunch. And he'd pull out his credit card, and then he would bring some of girls there, and he would make sure that they were dressed all pretty and stuff.

Joshuah Bearman

There's a little theater to it.

Norman Wielsch

There's a little theater to it, exactly. And then he would come in his black Mercedes. And you're impressed. You sit and go wow, you know? But anyway, we--

Joshuah Bearman

Even now, in his lawyer's conference room, you could hear in Norm's voice that he still feels it little bit. That Chris had some kind of hold on him, as he did on so many other people. It's obvious when you see Chris in action.

Lifetime won't release the PI Moms footage, so all I've seen is that video of the Candyman bust, the one I watched with Carl Marino. My favorite moment is not the bust itself, but when Chris is back in his office, presiding over his crew-- Norm, Carl, the two pretty girl decoys, and various other investigators. The bust has gone off without a hitch. Someone even thought to bring champagne. And Chris is recounting, in vivid detail, the glorious crescendo of his operation.

Chris Butler

But it means you're not going to jail right now, so sit down.

Joshuah Bearman

They're are hanging on Chris, reveling in his encore performance of the special scenes his team couldn't see, where he and Norm played a little good cop-bad cop with the Candyman.

Chris Butler

I said, I worked a month on his case, and you're just going to let him go? He's going, Calm down, just do what you're told. So go outside and chill out. And so anyway, I come back around the corner and I'm just-- you know what? I turn to him, I said, you know what? I've got seven years of following this. So don't even think you can get away with it.

Joshuah Bearman

Everyone in that room broke the law, but they were celebrating it like a civic duty. That's how Chris allowed them to see it. Because if Chris had a genius for fantasy, it was that he understood that everyone had their own particular fantasy, and he could spot it and harness it, and weave it together with the rest of the people in his web.

The Moms wanted to be on TV. Norm wanted to feel powerful again. The media wanted a good story. The Candyman got a little fantasy date. Even Carl told me that before he first blew the whistle on Chris, he hesitated. Not just because he was scared, but because he, too was taken by Chris's grand vision.

It's like something Chris said the last time Pete saw him before he was arrested. Chris was being filmed for the reality show. He was doing one of those confessional interviews, talking to the producer. "The thing about people," Chris said to the camera, "is that they want to believe you. You don't have to give them much, and they'll come right along."

Ira Glass

Josh Bearman in Los Angeles.

[MUSIC - "THE JIG IS UP" BY GENERAL RUDIE]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Sarah Koenig and Ben Calhoun with Jonathan Menjivar, Lisa Pollak, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Production help from Nikki Meek. Seth Lind is our production manager. Brian Judd is filling in as office manager.

At our website, you can get our free weekly podcasts, listen to our programs for free online, get our apps for iPhone, iPad, or Android, which are, by the way, fantastic-- especially that iPad one-- all at thisamericanlife.org.

[ACKNOWLEDGMENTS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

WBEZ management oversight for our show by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia. When he gets low on electrolytes, he is not shy about fixing that problem. No, no, no. He will walk up to any sweaty person, man or woman, any age, race, or creed, and tell them--

Pete Crooks

I'd like to lick that sweat off of you.

Ira Glass

Sweat, salt, electrolytes, anybody?

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

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