He’s the man the rich and famous run to when a fan’s devotion gets out of hand. Jane Mulkerrins meets former NYPD detective Herman Weisberg.
From a rather unremarkable office suite on an unprepossessing street in Manhattan, Herman Weisberg operates a business that is anything but ordinary. A private investigator by any other name, 52-year-old Herman has gained a reputation as a ‘fixer’ – someone who can make anyone’s problems disappear – and been dubbed ‘the mistress whisperer’ for his skill in defusing affairs that have gone awry. Perhaps a former flame is threatening to expose her adulterous ex-lover, or attempting to extort money from him; Herman will step in and get his client out of a tight spot.
According to the sign on the office door, his company, Sage Intelligence Group, also offers ‘monitoring and surveillance services’. The former is controversial. ‘If someone with a lot of money is charged with a crime and doesn’t want to sit in jail waiting for their trial, they can hire us to create their own prison inside their home,’ he explains. It’s essentially legal babysitting for billionaires.
The surveillance side of Sage’s operations is no less colourful: white-collar crimes, embezzlements, custody battles. ‘Maybe a hedge funder’s wife is downing two bottles of wine with her friend at lunch, then picking up the kids from school. That’s dangerous and it needs to be documented,’ says Herman in his heavy New York accent.
But one of his steadily growing areas of specialism, and the one that I’m meeting him to discuss today, is stalking. The Office for National Statistics reports that the number of stalking and harassment offences in England and Wales increased 33 per cent last year, while one in five women and one in ten men will experience stalking in their lifetime. In London, the Metropolitan Police has set up the Stalking Threat Assessment Centre, a new unit specifically created to deal with the surge of offences in the capital (more than 1,000 cases of stalking were recorded by police last year). And there are several types of stalker to contend with, explains Detective Inspector Lee Barnard, who heads the unit: infatuated individuals – the most dangerous – resentful employees and predatory stalkers.
‘Stalking cases are not always easy to prosecute via the police,’ Herman says of the similar situation stateside. ‘Especially since a lot of stalking cases just go away by themselves. But there are those that don’t. And whether it is somebody texting you 500 times a day or someone standing outside your house, both are forms of stalking and make their victims incredibly anxious and afraid.’
Many stalking situations start innocently enough, says Herman. He relates the case of a female surgeon who met a man online and agreed to go on a date with him. ‘He completely misrepresented who he was – he lied about his job and the pictures he used looked nothing like him. The woman wasn’t interested in a relationship after the first date,’ says Herman. But the man refused to accept her polite brush-off, bombarding her with calls and messages. She blocked his numbers, so he began sending her flowers anonymously. A lot of flowers, on a daily basis.
‘A stalker isn’t a stalker until you’ve informed them that you don’t want the attention,’ Herman says. ‘Being sent flowers is not threatening in itself. The police are not going to say: “OK, everybody, get your helmets, we’re going to get a search warrant for this guy’s house.” But being sent flowers every day when they are not wanted – that’s creepy.’
The woman hired a lawyer, who, in turn, hired Herman, who intervened, instructing the florists not to deliver any flowers on behalf of that customer. Undeterred, the man began delivering flowers himself. ‘Once they ring the doorbell, you’ve got a different type of stalking. And, in many cases, that sort of stalking is a precursor to violence.’ Certainly, if someone turns up at your property, says Herman, you should not hesitate in calling the police.
Stalking behaviour was identified in nine out of ten murders studied by criminologists at the University of Gloucestershire. The research found that stalking had occurred in 94 per cent of the 358 cases of criminal homicides they looked at. Surveillance activity, including covert watching, was recorded in 63 per cent.
Herman has seen an increase in all forms of stalking in recent years, including the kind that starts in the workplace. He recently had a case in which a female executive of a hotel group was being stalked by a colleague. ‘He had been pestering her and making unwanted advances for some time. Then he began accessing her travel schedule to make sure he would be in the same city and hotel as she was,’ Herman says. ‘The company’s HR department wasn’t equipped to deal with it, so they brought me in.’ Herman’s methods were relatively simple: he instructed the hotel’s IT team to monitor and document how often the perpetrator was accessing his victim’s schedule, and when he was altering his to match hers. This allowed them to gather the evidence to terminate his contract based on a violation of company policies.
Herman spent 20 years as a detective with the New York Police Department. The walls of his office are decorated with certificates commemorating his time there, working in dignitary protection, looking after visiting presidents and celebrities, before spending a decade with the district attorney’s office. He speaks fondly of his time on the force. The only downside, he says, was the bureaucracy. So, eight years ago, he set up Sage. He still operates, he says, as ‘an old gumshoe detective’. And while he is based in New York, his work takes him across the US and beyond. The day after we meet, he is flying to Las Vegas to deliver a warning in person to a woman who has been harassing one of his clients.
But such services don’t come cheap – it costs around £4,000 upfront just to retain Herman, who employs around 30 surveillance and monitoring operatives. Consequently, his clients are very wealthy individuals or corporations who can afford to pay serious sums of cash to buy some peace of mind. ‘It’s expensive to do these investigations the right way – you’re basically renting a police department or a detective squad,’ says Herman.
His language is littered with the syntax of gamesmanship. ‘Each case is a chess game, and sometimes you have to play when you get to the table. Every one of my clients becomes my little brother or little sister,’ he says. ‘I take this as seriously as they do, sometimes more so. They’re handing me a ticking time bomb. I have to get this thing deactivated.’
His defusing strategies and solutions vary, depending on each case and how responsive a stalker is to warnings. ‘Sometimes all they need is a visit from me, sitting at their dining-room table,’ he says. ‘I let them know that I’m the last warning that they’re going to get. This is no longer my client making these decisions – I’m the guy they are dealing with now.’ But it doesn’t always work. ‘Sometimes, they’re not going to listen to me, or the police, or the threat of the five days that they’re going to spend in jail, but they will listen to their mum and dad.’
In some instances, however, he has to get heavy, with cease-and-desist letters from lawyers, or – the next step – an order of protection (also known as a restraining order). Should someone break the terms laid out in such an order, jail is a real option.
Herman’s mobile buzzes – one of many times throughout our conversation. ‘When you work with smart lawyers who give you a lot of cases for a lot of money, you have to react immediately,’ he shrugs. Herman only works on behalf of lawyers; clients cannot hire him or his team directly. ‘I get a lot of calls from entertainment lawyers who don’t know what to do,’ he says. ‘They’ve reported a stalker but the police department can’t devote too many resources to it, and this actor or singer wants something done – they fear for their family’s safety.’
Unfortunately for today’s celebrities, stalkers have become almost part and parcel of fame. To name but a few examples, a man named Marcell Porter tried to break into the New York home of model Gigi Hadid five times in a week before he was arrested for stalking and burglary; Dante Michael Soiu sent actress Gwyneth Paltrow ‘four or five letters, emails and packages a day’, including pornography, and Jason Luis Rivera was arrested after being found, armed with a pair of scissors, in Miley Cyrus’s garden.
‘At an hour’s notice, we can get a full security complement on somebody, to give them protection and peace of mind,’ says Herman. ‘At the same time, we can figure out who their stalker is, where their stalker is, and if they have the means to travel.’ That’s significant for high-profile people being stalked, he says. ‘The possibility that their stalker will turn up in another city in two days’ time is an eerie one.’
In a surprisingly high number of such cases, the stalker believes themself to be in a relationship with the celebrity. ‘They’re playing out the role of the fantasy spouse,’ says Herman, who dealt with one such case recently. ‘An emotionally disturbed person assumed the role of a spouse of a major [male] celebrity,’ he says. ‘She was calling and emailing the celebrity’s assistant, saying, “I need to get picked up at the airport, I want to take a little rest in the hotel”, as if she was planning the rest of the day with the celebrity. In the beginning, it was just an annoyance. By the end of it, his real spouse was getting annoyed and the celebrity was getting spooked by it.’
When it’s a woman doing the stalking, is the threat perceived is less serious? ‘Men generally present a greater capacity for violence,’ nods Herman. ‘But women are great at stalking. I had one case of a woman who had been through a divorce – after she had been cheating on her husband – and when he began dating again, she started stalking him and everybody that he dated. Soon he couldn’t get a second date with anybody because his ex-wife kept showing up, making a scene.’ Only a restraining order deterred her in the end.
‘Women are often more detail-oriented, and a lot of my female clients have better hunches than I ever will,’ he says. ‘That’s why I tend to rely on female detectives a lot too.’ Thanks to social media and the tendency to share every detail of one’s life, stalking has become a great deal easier over recent years. ‘It doesn’t take a lot to stalk somebody now,’ says Herman. ‘If someone is advertising where they have had breakfast, it’s not hard to figure out where they will be having breakfast tomorrow.’ He frequently finds himself cautioning clients to curtail their social media output. ‘I understand that for some of these people, it’s part of their brand to share details of their life, but I also tell them to take precautions.’
The extent to which most of us share personal information has also turned many of us into casual stalkers ourselves. There’s even a new phenomenon known as ‘orbiting’ – an
ex-boyfriend or girlfriend, or someone with whom you’ve had only one date or a brief fling, constantly viewing your Instagram stories, for example, in spite of no longer being in direct contact with you.
But the prevalence of smartphones, social media and data trails also means stalkers themselves are often easier to find. Two years ago, Herman recruited a full-time social-media specialist to his team, ‘a Brooklyn hipster, recently out of college, who had worked in investigations for a while’, to track people using their social-media usage and compile evidence from digital sources.
It’s a tense business, I note. How does he deal with the pressure of ensuring so many people’s safety, in a world that is changing so fast? ‘I’m great at taking stress,’ says Herman. ‘But God forbid that one of these things goes wrong. I’ll be done, finished – who’s going to call me after that?’ he shrugs. ‘Everybody needs to get home in one piece.’
What to do if you think you’re being stalked
- ‘Find a way to tell the person that their attentions are unwanted, but be tactful,’ advises Herman.
- If they persist, tell friends and family members what’s happening. ‘That creates a form of documentation, which is important,’ he says. ‘If you go to the police and say, “This has been happening for three months”, but you haven’t told anyone, they will question that. If you’ve told your friends and family, it will be taken more seriously.’
- Consider minimising or reducing what you share on social media – could someone easily track or predict your movements?
- If you don’t think the stalking is going to end without outside assistance, seek help from the police and/or a lawyer.