Magnum PMS

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."

Bailey and her sons, like the student PIs she teaches twice a week, are learning the trade as they go along. On a Wednesday evening in a classroom lined with surveillance photos from class projects, Bailey holds court over future graduates of City College in Fort Lauderdale, the same tiny community college where she picked up the basic investigative skills that helped launch her PI career five years ago. Students trickle in -- a goateed ruffian with three earrings, a stocky woman with long blond hair, a Latino guy with a shaved head. Midway through a discussion of how to read body language for signs of deception, a knock is heard at the door. A stout young man with curly brown hair strides into the room.

"I sell steak and seafood, chicken and pasta," he says. "Frozen food, its good. I'll bring some in, it'll take two seconds. I've got the truck right outside."

"There's no soliciting here," says Bailey.
The young man leans down, grabs his black backpack and disappears out the door. The students sit in stunned silence.

"Now write down just what you saw," says Bailey.
"He took your purse," says a student in the front row.
The staged robbery is an exercise in observation designed to show the disparity between the reality of a crime and eyewitness accounts. The thief, it turns out, is Bailey's son Jason, who really did sell steak and seafood before joining his mother's company.

Such play-acting comes easy to the woman who once performed at birthday parties as Jazzo the Clown, Bertha Berkowski the Bag Lady (a role she once used as a cover to eavesdrop on a conversation in a public park), or a leather-clad Sadie Marquis. "I knew a lot of rich people then," she says. "They knew me as that goofy lady who would get them on stage at fundraisers wearing a shower curtain and carrying a toilet brush. They couldn't believe it when I became a PI." A few of those people, she says, have since become clients.

But why the change from clown to sleuth? Bailey, sitcom fodder in her own right (PI Mom. "Coming soon to the WB, a clown turned PI helps the downtrodden.") says most of her motivations come from television. At first it was mostly Murder, She Wrote. "I wanted to write mysteries," she says. "I thought I'd take some classes and learn how an investigator thinks." When the investigating bug took hold, Angela Lansbury morphed into Cybill Shepherd. "I'm still waiting to meet my Bruce Willis," she says. And today? "I'm Magnum PMS," she says. "I'm just like Magnum. Did you ever see him get paid?"

Contact Jay Cheshes at his e-mail address:
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Jay Cheshes