Magnum PMS

A former clown is South Florida's most compassionate -- and financially troubled -- private detective

Valerie Bailey is in her garage, sitting behind a big brown desk under a framed portrait of John Lennon playing a snow-white baby grand. The two-car garage has been converted into a makeshift office -- the walls are covered with plywood, the floor is lined with cheap carpeting and crowded with desks, a computer, and filing cabinets. And in those cabinets are manila folders bearing myriad tales of woe, sad and pitiful stories that have brought the Intracoastal Detective Agency to the brink of ruin.

"IDA, may I help you?" A cigarette between her gold-lacquered fingernails, Bailey takes the day's first phone call. "You're OK?" she asks plaintively. "You're not going to do anything stupid, right? All right, I'll call you later." She hangs up the phone. "I'm worried about her," she says. "She cuts herself all the time."

Bailey, a former clown turned private investigator, is a tragicomic figure who once wore a rubber nose and a painted grin. Now she's a pro bono PI, a bleeding-heart Italian mama, a detecting do-gooder with a joke up her sleeve. The president, CEO, and grand matriarch of the Intracoastal Detective Agency has an office that's nowhere near the water, a staff that's greener than toxic waste, and a raspy Staten Island accent that would make Al D'Amato proud. For many an abandoned child or battered spouse, though, she's the next best thing to Mother Teresa.

"She's very motherly," says Ron McMahon, the Fort Lauderdale private detective who helped train Bailey in the fine art of sleuthing. "She'll get sucked into someone's story and not bother to take care of the business end of things."

That might explain why she lost her office on the Intracoastal and now works out of the cramped corners of her garage. The former performer and low-budget film producer has been fully licensed by the state of Florida for only two years, but already she's racked up a considerable stable of clients. The only problem is that most of them are broke. "She really gets caught up in other people's problems," says McMahon. "Seasoned investigators know they can't get personally involved. Compassion doesn't pay the bills."

Nonetheless Bailey's a sucker for a sob story, like the one about the 18-year-old Haitian woman searching for the father she'd never met. "She was new in the country," says Bailey. "She had no money, what was I supposed to do?" Or the mother whose husband had snatched their daughter from school. "She was so distraught over her kid that she got fired from her job," she says. "Could you charge someone like that?" She couldn't.

Last year Bailey got a phone call from the Broward County jail. A man who'd been arrested for beating his wife claimed she'd framed him, ripping her shirt and ruffling her hair before phoning the police. The man, we'll call him Jim, was a real sad sack, depressed and at his wits' end. "It's her, not me," he told Bailey. "I just want out, I just want out of this relationship."

Before going into the detective business, Bailey says, she never believed in reverse spousal abuse. "I had a client early on," she recalls. "I was at the house. The mother turned to her teenage daughter and said, 'I'm going to phone the police and get this bum thrown out. Rip your blouse so it looks like he hit you.' Witnessing that really opened my eyes."

Jim told Bailey his wife had once taped his sheets so he couldn't get out of bed. Another time she'd thrown a clock radio at his head, and he'd gone to the hospital to get stitches. Bailey found the medical report corroborating his story. "I really felt for him," she says. "The guy was stuck in a bad situation."

She offered her investigative services free of charge, put him up on her couch after he got out of jail, and even got him a job as a mechanic.

"Valerie is just a good person," says Nadine Sergi, an orphan who found her birth mother through Bailey after a lifetime spent scouring the country for her. "I wanted to give her $60, and she would only take $30," she says. (Most PIs charge between $75 and $100 an hour.) "I bought her dinner and a pen and pencil set to show my appreciation."

Bailey didn't set out to become the martyr of the Fort Lauderdale investigative community. "When I started the agency, I had lots of friends with problems," she says. "Other PIs say I'm crazy, but I just can't say no when I know a person has really been victimized."

Her sons, on the other hand, aren't such pushovers. "They're always telling me, 'Ma, we need to collect money -- you know, the green stuff,'" she says. Jerrold and Jason, her sons -- previously an actor and a salesman -- recently started working at the three-man, one-woman, and six-intern agency. The boys are helping their mother drum up paying clients -- lawyers and corporations that will help defray the costs of servicing the impoverished at little or no charge.

Not long ago the brothers were hired to look for bugs -- men bug their wives and girlfriends with everything from crude tape recorders to tiny microphones. "My sons like all the high-tech toys," says Mama Bailey. "They're into surveillance and catching bad guys. One time my son calls up all excited, 'Ma, I found one, I found a bug. Now what do I do?' We hadn't gotten past that part yet."

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