Stepping From the Shadows

Private eye Max Caulfield's mysterious past includes a stint in the federal Witness Protection Program. After more than a decade of intrigue and paranoia, he's going public.

It's a clear, sunny summer morning in a cul-de-sac in a middle-class section of Pompano Beach. Kids are quiet. Everybody is quiet, except the hired workers who trim trees and cut grass. Shiny cars sit in driveways. Suburban perfection -- nothing out of place... except that black, heavily tinted pickup truck with the camper shell. It's sitting on the side of a street next to some bushes. Nobody seems to really notice it, even though the truck's engine is running.

The man inside is Max Caulfield, private investigator and full-time shadow dweller. Beside him is his partner, Christine Caulfield, also his wife. They smoke Dunhill menthols while their radio scanner beeps and crackles. A compact Canon video camera sits in Christine Caulfield's lap. A cell phone is rigged to the dashboard. Binoculars lie within reach. The truck itself is a private investigator's capsule, like a very small minivan with no back seat. In back are several briefcases full of tape recorders, an electronic voice-changer, a frequency tester, a pair of brass knuckles, guns, and other weapons he doesn't expect to use.

"The rule when you're in trouble is evacuate, evacuate, evacuate," he says. "Run away and live to run another day. And don't touch the fucking brakes. Never touch the fucking brakes."

After 20 minutes, a black sport-utility vehicle pulls out of a driveway roughly 100 yards in the distance.

"That him?" asks Christine, brushing aside her long black hair and peering through the Canon.

Caulfield nails the gas pedal and the private investigator's capsule screams down the residential street. "That's him."

Now up to 50 mph, Caulfield blows through a stop sign and makes a hard right turn. Then he veers left into oncoming lanes and makes a screeching left-hand turn in the face of approaching traffic a good four seconds after the light's turned red.

"So, that's how you do that," Caulfield says, jamming on the gas to get positioning on his target. "We could have lost him right there."

It's a controlled chaos. Caulfield has gone to some of the best driving schools in the nation -- the same ones used by federal agents and other professional pursuers -- for precisely these situations.

Caulfield was paid to follow the man because a business partner suspects he's stealing. Soon, they're on I-95. At speeds up to 80 mph, Caulfield slides from lane to lane, dangerously close to cars and semitrailers, jockeying among them to keep abreast of his subject's movements. Other drivers must wonder: "Who is that?"

It's not Max Caulfield. His birth certificate, social security card and driver's license say so, but it's all federal fiction. The government erased his real name back in 1985.

His identity may be fake, but Caulfield is the genuine article. It's full-blown summer in Florida, yet his face is pale. That's because he's been in the shadows, in the bushes, in the blind spots. He's something between a cop and a crook. He's a hero and a menace, a protector and a predator, a valuable friend and a very frightening enemy.

Caulfield is sometimes troubled, sometimes desperate. He's struggling to overcome his dark, fascinating, and paradoxical past, a history sundered by several key events:

When the Chicago native was 13 years old, he wiretapped his own family phone. It was supposed to be an experiment. Instead it led his parents to divorce. Nastily. Call it his first case.

In his early 20s, Caulfield and his first wife, their two kids, and two dogs were inducted into the most famous of shadowlands, the federal Witness Protection Program, a result of his decision to testify against members of the Chicago Mob, which had employed him. Hence the federal make-believe.

Caulfield was then booted from the program for breaching his own security. He went from the Witness Protection Program to the welfare program and is still looking for an apology from the U.S. Marshals Service. He's an expert in many things, and holding a grudge, a.k.a. a vendetta, is one of them.

If he thought the ground between the Mafia and the federal government was treacherous, he found the world of private detection to be even meaner -- and he fit right in.

One of his closest partners turned out to be more than just a crooked schemer. He was a mass murderer. Strangled his girlfriend and slaughtered half of another family. Caulfield was especially sickened about the girlfriend, because he took pride in stopping deranged bastards from doing what was done to her.

He and Christine came to Fort Lauderdale in 1994. They chose it for the two C's, climate and crime, the latter a boost for business. He was then employed by a private eye who also happened to be a crack addict and stalker. This time Caulfield, at his own expense, protected the stalked woman. He watched over that vast dark space -- a place anyone ever seriously stalked can describe -- between the police and the courts. Caulfield has been credited with possibly saving the woman's life and helping to put the stalker in prison.

It was a shining moment in the midst of some very bad times. Financially strapped, he and Christine move from place to place, struggling to pay bills. Among the valuables they've pawned away was her wedding ring. He was stripped of his private investigator's license two years ago. A former partner, Rick Filauro, complained to the state that Caulfield had taken a cellular phone from him. Filauro says Caulfield is a "con man who likes to throw around his past to get what he wants."

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