Aram Roston Private Investigator 04

I Was Tailed by a Private Investigator

Constantly being watched in secret can be almost paralyzing—even for a longtime investigative journalist. So who from my past was paying this P.I. to follow me?

“This is awkward for me,” said the man in the driver seat of the black BMW. “It really is.”

At a glance, he looked like a middle-aged version of Fonzi from Happy Days. He wore a brown leather bomber jacket with a plush fur collar and sported a 1950s pompadour.

Jonathan Cate
(Aram Roston/Vocativ)

His outfit, however, wasn’t the only awkward part. For at least two days, the man, Jonathan Cate, 46, had been trying to surreptitiously follow me in his car around Washington, D.C. A private investigator, Cate was working for a Virginia-based firm called Interprobe. Now the police had made him show his ID, I was at his car window, and he was admitting he’d been hired to tail me.

Cate’s surveillance left me rattled. Constantly being watched in secret can be almost paralyzing for a journalist. Eventually, however, I turned the tables on him. Few things are worse for a private investigator than getting made.

“This is a really bad day,” he said, ruefully shaking his head.

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“I’m sorry about that,” I said, as I stood near his car. I was only half serious.

*

Aram Roston

I don’t know exactly when Cate started tailing me, but I first noticed his car early Tuesday morning last week. A snowstorm was coming, and around 8:30 a.m. I rushed out of my house. I was driving my beat-up Corolla toward the hardware store when I noticed a black BMW behind me. I parked across the street, and when the Beamer parked three cars back, no one got out. It was strange.

When I left the hardware store, I saw that the BMW was still parked in the same spot. There was someone inside, though I couldn’t make out what he looked like.

Just for kicks, I hid in a doorway and jotted down the car’s Maryland plates: 7AE3651. As I pulled away from the store, the Beamer followed me, as if I was in some sort of Elmore Leonard movie. When I arrived home, I told my wife what happened and put the note with the car’s plate number in a drawer, just so she’d have it.

(Aram Roston/Vocativ)

I had a story to file around 1 p.m., so I quickly hopped back in my car and headed to a local Starbucks. The snow was just beginning to come down, and the BMW followed me as I drove north.

I parked near the coffee shop, watching over my shoulder as the BMW passed, then made a U-turn. Either the driver thought I was oblivious or he didn’t seem to mind if I spotted him.

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Sitting in my car with the engine on, watching this mystery man in the black car, it crossed my mind that I was being paranoid. I called my editor and we went back and forth over who might be tailing me. I’m a national security reporter, and the Justice Department has been cracking down on whistle-blowers. The Obama administration is even threatening James Risen to testify against a source, or face jail time.

But I’m no James Risen. There are few people who would find it worth their while to follow me around town.

Then there was the question of the car. As I explained to my editor, there’s no way a federal agent would drive a BMW on a stakeout. It’s too easy to spot.

Could it be revenge for an old story? Or was it a story that I was doing research on?  Either way, I couldn’t understand what purpose following me would serve. Were they looking for my sources? Or just something embarrassing about my personal life?

My editor told me to sit tight, but if I saw the car again, he advised me to approach the man inside and ask him who he was.

After we got off the phone, I walked into Starbucks to have some coffee and write my story. Not long after I sat down, I saw a man with a gray pompadour shuffle inside and sit nearby. He was wearing loose-fitting pants and looked like he’d just woken up.

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Before long he was gone, and I worked for a while. As I left the coffee shop and walked up a hill toward my car, I saw that the BMW was parked behind it. Someone was getting inside.

I ran toward his car and gestured so that he’d lower the tinted window. When he did, I saw that the man with the pompadour was sitting in the driver’s seat. He smiled.

“Are you following me?” I asked. It was a dumb question, and I immediately regretted it.

“No, I’m not,” he said cheerfully. “Stay safe in the snow storm.”

Then he raised his window and drove away, leaving me standing in the cold.

*

For the rest of the afternoon, the snow fell furiously, up to 8 inches of it. The next day, the government and schools were closed, I was snowed in and there was no sign of the black car outside.

On Thursday, however, when I left my house early in the morning for Starbucks, I caught sight of him following me as I passed the corner. He was clinging to me like a bad smell. At one point, I almost hit a car in front of me because I was looking in the rearview mirror.

I drove slowly, trying to make sure he didn’t know I was onto him. Soon, I pulled over and emailed my editor, asking him to check the plates of the car.

By noon, when I left the coffee shop, I decided to call the police. The BMW was still tailing me. If I changed lanes, he changed lanes. I didn’t try to lose him, mainly because I didn’t want to cause an accident.

My local police district told me to call 911, so I drove to a quiet residential area with a fountain in the center of a traffic circle and pressed the number on my phone. The BMW followed.

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The operator questioned me. “So this person is stalking you?”

Well, he’s following, me, I said. I’m not saying he’s stalking.

“Following is stalking,” the operator replied.

I gave him the BMW’s plate number and waited in my car, trying to look busy so the man with the pompadour wouldn’t get suspicious. Whoever it was, I assumed, wanted to know what I was doing and who I was meeting with, so I figured I’d play the role.

Soon three patrol cars surrounded the BMW. The officers got out of their cars and pulled their guns, which surprised me.

Cate with the police
(Aram Roston/Vocativ)

The BMW’s driver stepped of the car, too. It was the same man I’d seen in Starbucks, and he smiled nervously as the officers towered over him.

By then, my editor sent me a note. Back at the office, a colleague had discovered that the car belonged to Cate, and that he was a private investigator working for Interprobe.

The police told me Cate was registered, and as long as he stayed on public property, he could follow me.

As the police were leaving, I walked over to Cate’s car and we started chatting. He seemed uncomfortable. He told me Interprobe had hired him to follow me, but he repeatedly claimed he didn’t know why. He’d been told it wasn’t an adultery case, he said, and it had nothing to do with insurance fraud.

(Aram Roston/Vocativ)

“And you don’t know who the client is?” I asked. “Or you just won’t tell me?”

“I don’t know it!” Cate answered. The boss, he said, “wouldn’t tell me for some reason.”

“Does he normally tell you?”

“Yeah!”

I felt bad for Cate. He showed me his private investigator’s registration card and I photographed it. He’s been doing work like this since 1989, he told me. In 1994, he said, a car accident damaged his left eye, so he couldn’t try and work in law enforcement.

He seemed upset that I’d spotted him. “It’s very hard to follow people in the city,” he pointed out, apologetically. I’ve followed people myself, and I know he’s right.

I had to call the police, I told him. It was nothing personal, but he continued following me and I needed to know more about who he was.

“If I was in your position, I would have done the same thing,” he replied.

“You’re basically stalking me, right?”

“Yeah,” he answered.

*

(Aram Roston/Vocativ)

Soon my editor and I called Interprobe. The company responded that it was just a case of mistaken identity. Cate, in their version of events, hadn’t meant to follow me at all; he was just supposed to serve legal papers, not conduct surveillance. “You just fit the description of a witness we were trying to serve for an insurance fraud investigation,” said a woman who identified herself as the company’s office manager.

Later I talked to Kevin Hooks, the firm’s founder and president, who said the same thing: Cate was just acting as process server and got mixed up. “This is very routine in terms of following the wrong person,” he told me. “We have no interest in you.”

There was one major problem with that explanation: Cate never tried to serve me any papers. And when the police talked to him, he didn’t mention anything about being a process server.

I eventually asked Hooks if he could prove it. If there was a person who lived near me, who looked like me, who they were trying to serve papers to, then I welcomed them to show me the details. At first, Hooks said that sounded fair enough.

But later the Interprobe office manager told me via email that she couldn’t do that. She said an unnamed law firm that had hired them to serve the papers wouldn’t permit it.

To check out how plausible Interprobe’s story was, I called some local private investigators and asked them if it sounded like a case of mistaken identity. They were skeptical and believed I was the target of surveillance.

“There’s no way that I can conceive of an investigator following the wrong person, for several days, only to serve papers,” said John Morse of Morse Investigation Services in Richmond, Virginia. “You appear to be the subject of an investigation for whatever purpose. You have every right to be concerned. It’s intimidation for someone who’s a journalist.”

Philip Becnel, another local investigator, agreed. “It’s not likely that this involved process serving,” he said. “That’s a common thing that you would say to someone if you were caught.”

So who hired Interprobe? I have some theories. In the meantime, I’m checking my rearview mirror more than ever these days.

Respond Now
  • Next time just pull him out of the car and take out the other eye.  Then his stalking days are OVER and your problem is resolved. 

  • Who cares? Wasted a whole minute of my time scanning the writing of winer. Thanks looser.

  • Very unlikely that anyone would pay a $100 an hour private detective to do the job of a $10 an hour process server…. for four days.$4800 vs $10 (the first hour he spotted you).You do the math.  This was open-ended surveillance designed to be noticed…there’s only one possible client in that has unlimited budgets with little scrutiny over spending… the federal government.

  • Sounds like intimidation to me. Were you investigating the thugocracy? Be careful. The IRS is on the case and Eric the Crooked will have a team of lawyers that should be busy investigating that selfsame IRS on your case.It’s Obama’s Amerika now. Live it. Love it. You elected it. You deserve it.

  • Hey people:Something that’s not being considered here?Suppose this is a “Bogus” story designed to elicit “me too” responses? (for the NSA to siphon up?) Why did this “P.I” allow his ID to be photographed? This was too extremely Overt surveillance, it was meant to produce a reaction. Perhaps this entire report is just an experiment perpetrated for feedback from the naive sheeple? Just another angle to consider?

  • …plausibly another great use of hard-working American tax dollars.

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  • Matt Drudge: Have an exit plan.It’s coming…

  • In the photo, that’s a Virginia DCJS private investigator registration and is valid only in VA.  To perform private investigator functions in DC, he must also be registered in DC as a private detective/investigator by MPD and DCRA.  If he’s not registered, it’s illegal, and I’m surprised the police didn’t notice that.

  • Any chance he’s following you to tag an anonymous source?

  • We’ve read the story about Michael Hastings, and the questions that surround his untimely death.Too, we’ve read the story about Andrew Breitbart, and the quesitons that surround his untimely death.Truth is stranger than fiction.Mr. Roston would do well to check his phones, get a track phone in another persons name, switch cars often, and decline all food deliveries.

  • And now we ask ourselves, what is the NSA doing that is any different.   I do not like bein cyber watched and I feel it is my free right not to be.    Yet the liberals excuse it away.

  • #SCARYSTUFF This brings creepy to a new level!!!

  • 1. The investigator wanted to be seen2. Reporter got too close to someone/something3. Intimidation4.

  • I venture a guess they were looking for an issue, like an extramarital affair, something to bargin with.

  • It’s James Rosen. Nice editor.

  • Nothing personal,  that’s just how the Progressive-Marxist-Democrat establishment operates.  Dig up dirt tomdefame detractors rather than attempt to defendmtheir flawed policies.

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    • Not sure I like the way it was said, but I definately agree with your view.

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      • Yeah.  They’ve been getting pretty Soviet lately.Another possibility is that this easily spotted toadie was just a diversion.  The chick in Starbucks who slapped a USB drive into your laptop for 15 seconds while you were on the phone is the one to watch out for.

  • Whoever hired them wanted you to know you were being followed to unnerve you.  These Obama folks are thugs in the first order.  It’s the Chicago Way.

  • You need to as Eric Holder!

  • stop sleeping around on your wife

  • Damn! Very rattling experience. Just received an email from a Saudi Journalist regarding a woman I met with years ago for lunch. She told me she was a “political consultant.” After googling her name following the recent email, she is cited as being with the NSA. That may explain why I have had to replace my hard drives repeatedly in recent years.

  • This would not sound so bad if you didnt read about the story of Michael Hastings, the journalist who was reporting on a national security story when his car suddently locked the doors, rolled up the windows, and put the gas pedal to the floor, and his car burst into flames, killing him in a huge explosion on June 18th, 2013.

    1 Reply - Reply Now
    • Yes, prior to the crash, he had sent several friends late night text messages saying he was going underground for a while, but would be in touch later.Too, there were questions about the car’s engine, and the distance it was found from the accident scene.

  • I’m sorry, I dozed off.  How does this story end?

  • As incompetent as this guy was, he had to be working for the federal government.

  • Do some investigative journalism.  Get a restraining order against the detective and his agency, and then depose everyone you talked to and subpoena all their files for those paper he was supposedly serving, etc.The guy admitted he was stalking the reporter, the 911 operator described it as stalking, that’s enough for a restraining order.

  • Follow the power or the money. Who has the most to lose form the stories you are or have recently worked on? 

  • You know this is someone hired by the government to watch this guy. He will be found in hte river b y the fall, and it will be the government behind it. You see how this adminastration hates whistle blowers and this guy has a target on his back, complaments of Obama and Holder.

  • If you’re going to tail someone for an ivestigation, then you would rent a car that looks just like your targets vehicle or an older ‘well used’ vehicle in grey or brown color.  Nothing flashy.  If your tailing for intimidation or misdirection, then you’ll use a flashy car and be conspicious.  While your coleague is planting bugs in the house and ransacking the electronics (image copies of all your data).  Welcome to Obama’s socialist police state, junior journalist Aram Roston, who doesn’t know your own rights and the local police procedures.  What a naif.  Since the guy is a licensed PI reverse the intimidation.  Pick up some eggs and let them rot or inject acid into the egg, pay some kids to egg his car while he drives by or use rocks and baseball bats.  Kids will do a lot for $20.  What’s he gonna do?  Call the police… No, he won’t.  Because then he would have to admit to a misdemeanor or felony.  At the very least get photos of him and his vehicle; then his fingerprints (off his door handle or a coke can that he drops).  Post them online at one of the anti-stalker websites.  This guy is not dressed like a PI but a Fed or retired military moonlighting. 

  • Standard operating procedure by political operatives in the Executive. Apparently not enough to refer to justic or the FBI or criminal attention so someone with deep pockets is doing it themselves. Is any information that can remotely be turned over to benefit the executive the FBI will be his next “stalkers”. Bush league politics at it’s best, full of lies and distortions until the feds get a hold of it.

  • test

  • I’m sure they have ties to the Marxist cabal from Chicago that’s based out of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave…..

  • If he wanted to serve papers, the first time that Roston asked if he was following him would have been the perfect opportunity to hand him papers..  So that is a lie.

  • Cool Story…but did we need to hear EVERY detail of EVERY route the guy took…and what color socks you had on!? We get it…you were followed.  Anyway…what PI would expect to successfully tail someone in a black BMW?

    1 Reply - Reply Now
    • Thats what differentiates a story about someone being followed to a tweet about it.

  • Clearly, this is an intimidation tactic. If you’re reporting on national security issues, it’s not off the wall to think that the PI was hired, directly or indirectly, by a government agency.The KGB, Stasi, and every other security organ of dictatorial states engaged in similar behavior. Welcome to the new police state.

  • That’s an amazing story.  But I have to ask – how did your colleague “discover” that the car belonged to Cate and that he was employed by Interprobe?  Did they get that info by using his plate number?  If so, who gave your cowroker that info?  The police?  Is that legal?   

  • It is my firm beliefe that more reporters should be followed around, more specifically those reporters who gleefully make their livings off the misfortunes of others and call it investigative reporting.  Reporters who for political reasons engage in partisan ‘gotcha’ reporting, I would love to see these guys be followed and all their dirt exposed to their viewers.

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    • Right? It’s great when the media dogs a “subject” until they make him or her crazy. Prying into personal matters…exposing private information…reporting with a personal slant. BUT…BY GOD! DO NOT infringe on the reporter’s right to privacy!

  • My guess is that he/they wanted you to know you were being followed, and that was either the entire intent (warning short of horse head on pillow) or to distract you from something more sinister underway.  Seasoned PI wouldn’t do sloppy job unless instructed. Why would Interprobe (who runs and uses it?) expect you to trace this, like they were waiting for your call.  Your emails are no doubt being read, so they know the earlier conversations with your editor, and knew you’d called the police and expected the rest. Good actor.There’s a slightly peculiar useful technique to jog your memory. Force yourself to throw up, and the first picture/word/image/thought that comes into your mind is the answer. Then you’ll know whose target you are. Totally brilliant of you by the way to post all this. Safety in daylight. Sometimes.

  • NSA, Obummer’s Secret Police.

  • NSA, Obummer’s Secret Police, …

  • Uh, the Fox News reporter’s name is “James ROSEN.”

    2 Replies - Reply Now
    • James Risen is a reporter for the NY Times.

    • Uh, yeah but, James RISEN is from the NYT, as stated correctly in this article. Uh-duh.

  • Very few reporters actually get involved in doing research as they are developing their stories.  When one is intimidated that is an infraction against everyone wh wants to know the truth.  This administration is especially bad about using Chicago-style tactics to intimidate but I’m sure it happens on both sides of the political aisle.

  • Di you say something bad about Barack Obama or Hilary Clinton?  This seems like a Clintonesque caper.  They used to hire thugs to investigate opponents.

  • Just look at the articles and books he has authored. All are related to national security and incidents related to Afghanistan and Iraq. I would suggest looking at what agencies and individuals he has had an effect on as a starting point. It will probably be a big number. Maybe there is a “common denominator” in all his investigations.

  • I can only imagine the discomfort of being followed…but receiving illegal car registration information is pretty dicey. Clearly everyone feels they can bend/break the law when it suits their purposes.

  • Sounds like this reporter did a thoroughly professional investigative job when he perceives a threat to his own security. Why can’t we get even one on his kind to investigate even one Obama Administration scandal?

    1 Reply - Reply Now
    • great post!

  • This happens all the time, the cops sometimes hire PI to follow someone also…It could be anyone who has money and has nothing better to do and they hire someone to follow you..The main thing to remember is if you are follwed copy license plate # in case something happens…Also if anyone is followed once and the PI is caught, the person who is being followed will always look back, and thats a good thing…even if  its many years later..Its always good to look back once in a while even if you are not doing anything.

  • Cate would have told all if only you would have offered him a grilled peanut butter, banana & bacon sandwich. 

  • Most transparent administration. . .

  • The only reason govt abuses its citizens is because they pay income taxes to make it so.GOOGLE excluded income, then follow and obey the law.

  • You get rid of the Democrats you get rid of the COINTELPRO program.

  • Probably more nonsense from the 4th branch of government. They used to be called bureaucrats. Not so now. I have my own stories.

  • Oh man, this is crazy. 

  • COINTELPRO never ended per the FBI whistleblowers, Ted Gundersona dn Mike German and hundreds of thousands of National Security Letters have been filed since 2000 with NO Probable Cause – self issued and filed in DC. These Extra-judically targeted Innocent Americans are going through a heck of a lot worse than this guy and there’s a total media black out.  All under the Cover Story of “National Security” whereas in reality it being used to punish journalists like Vic Livingston and Bryan Glazer, whistleblowers, x wives of government insiders, complainers about government abuses.  The more targets that can be produced the better the funding.  There is an incentive to target Americans on this Red Squad- COINTELPRO program.

  • Sounds like his wife suspected he had a girl friend.

  • Hopfully your smart enough to have a concealed carry permit. Just remember how uncomfortable you felt being followed, and the response time of the police. If this man wanted to do you harm, he could have done so many times over. Take charge of your safety and the safety of your family! Despite what you may think, there are evil dangerous people in this world. Unless you liked feeling helpless and vulnerable.

  • Would be nice if more in your line of work would actually become journalists instead of their current status of APologists. “Most transparent administration in history…” just continuing to act as the lawless regime they really are. 

  • How much business does a PI get from suspicious spouses?

  • OK, Cate has been doing PI work since 89 so, he obviously has some experience.Conclusion: He was intentially clumsy as a show of force to make Aram uncomfortable. So, whatever stories that Aram is working on now, one of them can be traced back to the culprit?

    1 Reply - Reply Now
    • Exactly my thoughts. If Cate’s been in the business since ’89, he’s been on the job nearly 25 years, and is therefore highly experienced. Why drive a beamer on a surveillance? Ridiculous, unless you want to be spotted. And why continue the surveillance once you’ve been made? Makes no sense, unless you’re doing an overt surveillance, for purposes of intimidation, as opposed to covert surveillance, for information-gathering. And surveillance is generally a high-expense, low-return tool in the PI world. I think Roston has the basis for his next article. Look at Interprobe. Do some dumpster-diving. I’m guessing they have a contract with a three letter agency, particulalry in light of Roston’s specialization as a reporter. Somebody is sending a message.

  • “. . . a colleague had discovered that the car belonged to Cate”Sounds like the colleague had received illegal registration information from a police source, a federal crime.  Oh well.  Your’re too important to worry about that.

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    • totally inaccurate claim, that vehicle registrations are private. 

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      • In DC, they are. Only police have access.

    • For a small fee in Indiana, you can look up whom plates are registered to.  The catch is you have to give your personal info.

  • In my part of town following a person like that could result in a call to Mr. Smith. Or Mr. Wesson.

    1 Reply - Reply Now
    • niiice

  • The first thing I would do is hire a Competent Investigator, Cate obviously has no idea or training to successfuly tail someone, The only thing he did correctly was enter Starbucks to determine if Aram was talking to anyone. Cate’s Beemer was pretty filthy…….He should have smeared some mud on his license plate’s. The last thing a PI wants to do is actually have a conversation with the person being followed or that’s the End of the Story. Cates did not break the Law…..He was just Sloppy! 

  • wow what a professional PI haha, I could have done a better job following you jesus this guy is an amateur. But yes this is the tactics that old crusty corrupt politicians will use to try and scare people off, this behavior only confirms suspicions because you are indicating they have a reason to want to get rid of you. Be safe out there!

  • Did you say something bad about Obama while on the toilet? Youknow these new toilets send a message to the NSA and Secret Service… So the next time you pushing a load, don’t scream out “Oh it hurts like Obama”

  • Good for you, Aram!  I hope you and your editor get to the bottom of this.  Having been (as a child growing up) under surveillance, I understand the feeling, especially when one can’t get any answers.  It’s not comforting, for sure.Good luck!

    1. Can you submit a Foi request to the Justice department to see if any transactions with interpobe were made? 
    1 Reply - Reply Now
    • That would be interesting, good idea.

  • Not much of an investigator… maybe he should be called a ‘public investigator?’

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