Private investigators Peter Barton and his longtime business partner, Anita Bobee, are nothing like the hardboiled gumshoes of the 1940s film noir era. Anyone who notices them in a restaurant, bar or hotel lobby is likely to assume they’re just a retired couple on vacation, or in town visiting their grandchildren.
And that’s the perfect cover, Bobee says, for “blending into the woodwork” as they conduct the covert surveillance and background checks that are the bread and butter of their Brattleboro-based private investigation firm, Backgrounds Plus & the Barton Agency.
The agency, which Barton launched in 1974 as a security firm for Vermont’s growing ski industry, now offers a variety of services to clients throughout New England. They include criminal background checks for companies looking to hire new employees, loss prevention for retail outlets, internal probes of fraud or industrial espionage, and security and threat assessments.
Barton and Bobee also help individuals find lost family members and spy on spouses suspected of marital infidelities or reneging on child-support payments. Following the spate of embezzlement cases that have plagued Vermont in recent years, Barton and Bobee have occasionally been hired by companies to investigate internal thefts — then to make evidence of the offenses, as well as the offender, quietly go away.
In an age when police dramas and real-life crime documentaries are ubiquitous on television, Bobee says she often has to disabuse her clients of the notion that such investigations will be quick or easy. Some cases can take months, even years, to resolve.
“Private investigating is nothing like what you see on television,” she explains. “We are never able to solve a problem in 30 minutes or an hour. It just doesn’t happen.”
That’s not for lack of experience. Bobee and Barton both entered the field after decades of working in law enforcement. They honed their sleuthing skills in the pre-internet era, before people assumed that anyone could be tracked down with a few keystrokes and mouse clicks. In many respects, these private eyes still do their work the old-fashioned way: by interviewing subjects, poring over public records and conducting surreptitious stakeouts. However, for both safety and liability reasons, neither carries a gun.
Indeed, Bobee and Barton both say one of the more interesting aspects of their work is trying to devise clever — but legal — ways of acquiring the information their clients want. Private investigators must be licensed in Vermont, but that license doesn’t allow them to do anything that’s forbidden to ordinary citizens, such as trespassing, photographing or videotaping people through open doors and windows, or entering someone’s home or business without their permission. Private investigators also may not misrepresent themselves in financial transactions — though they’re not above the occasional act of pretext and obfuscation.
Barton recalls one case involving a family that had lost track of an elderly relative, whom they believed was living in a nursing home somewhere in Chittenden County. After “making some calls and talking to some people,” Barton says, they narrowed the search down to a single nursing home in Burlington.
Because of federal health care privacy laws, the nursing home would neither confirm nor deny that the woman resided there. Barton had to find another way of confirming that info — without breaking the law.
“So we sent some flowers over to her, and they took [the florist] right into her room,” Barton recalls. Barton’s hired delivery person confirmed the woman’s identity before handing over the floral arrangement. She got a bouquet — and the family found its lost aunt. Mission accomplished.
Bobee recalls another case, in Brattleboro, involving a woman who hired them after her mother admitted, on her deathbed, that she’d had a baby years earlier and given it up for adoption. Because the client’s other sister had died of cancer, Bobee says, the client really wanted to find her lost sibling.
After about six months of “dead ends,” Bobee mentioned the case to a town clerk, who revealed that the adoption, which dated back to the 1940s, had occurred in Claremont, N.H. Alas, Bobee later discovered the child had died in infancy, so she had the sad duty of informing her client that her lost sister was also deceased. At least, she says, her client now knew her other sister’s fate as well as where she was buried.
Other cases, Bobee notes, have happier endings.
“I had the pleasure of matching up a friend’s husband’s child with him after 30 years of not knowing where she was,” Bobee says. “So that was very positive.”
Barton and Bobee don’t just track down lost relatives. Barton recalls one case involving a high school graduation ring, which had been discovered by construction workers in Newport as they were laying a new sewer line. When the workers pulled out the old pipe, the ring dropped on the ground. Although it was engraved with its owner’s initials, no one could figure out to whom they referred.
Someone contacted Scott Wheeler, publisher of Vermont’s Northland Journal, to ask for his help. Wheeler, whose father attended high school with Barton’s wife, called Barton. In this case, the Barton Agency had no paying client — just an unsolved riddle.
It took more than six months, Barton says, but after searching through Social Security records, he eventually determined that the ring belonged to a woman whose husband had been a doctor in Newport. She was living in North Carolina under a new married name.
“I called her up,” Barton remembers, “and she thought I was Looney Tunes calling her about a class ring.” Evidently, the woman didn’t even remember losing it.
The Newport class ring case highlights one of the less glamorous aspects of the job, Bobee says. Much of the duo’s work involves combing through old birth and death certificates, court records and other public documents that are tucked away in municipal offices and not searchable online.
“A lot of it is tedious work, and no two cases are ever the same,” Bobee says. “There’s always some unique twist that’s in one [case] that wasn’t in the other.”
Bobee, 73, spent 31 years in Vermont law enforcement before becoming a licensed private investigator. The Brattleboro native started in an era when female cops had very short career ladders. In fact, she met her current business associate while working as a meter maid for the Brattleboro Police Department.
“Every time I came to town, she gave me a ticket!” Barton says with a chuckle.
Bobee was later promoted to office administrator, where she supervised clerks, dispatchers and parking-enforcement officers. Though she wasn’t on the streets much, Bobee says she always enjoyed the office work of coordinating police records, working with evidence and helping field officers with their investigations.
“Through osmosis,” she says, “I learned what to look for and where to look for it.”
Eventually, Bobee was asked to lend a hand at the Bennington Police Department — where, at the time, Barton served as police chief. The two became fast friends and have remained so ever since.
Barton, who’s 77, got started in law enforcement in 1959 at the Vermont State Police, where he later became one of the first investigators with the then newly formed Bureau of Criminal Investigation. He went on to serve as chief investigator in the Vermont attorney general’s office, and later in the Bennington County state’s attorney’s office.
Barton left law enforcement in the late 1960s to work as the security director for the Mount Snow resort and ski area. He launched the Barton Agency in 1974 to provide security services to New England’s rapidly growing recreational industry. The business quickly expanded into other industries, including retail, banking, manufacturing and utilities.
Investigative work has certainly changed over the years, Barton says, and not only because of the advent of the digital age. These days, private eyes need to know not only whom their clients are seeking but why.
Barton points to the case of Amy Lynn Boyer, a New Hampshire resident who was stalked by Liam Youens, a former classmate. According to court records, Youens hired an internet-based private investigative firm to learn everything he could about the object of his obsession, including Boyer’s birthday, Social Security number, address and place of employment. Armed with that information, Youens drove to her workplace on October 15, 1999, and fatally shot her as she left work, then killed himself.
The case sent shock waves through their profession, Barton says, because the investigative firm was later deemed responsible for providing the killer with all that information. Today, Barton and Bobee learn as much as they can about their clients’ motives, not only to forestall such tragedies but also to avoid potential conflicts of interest. Sometimes they get asked to investigate someone, only to discover later that the person is connected to a current or past client.
Though the work is unique and satisfying, Barton admits it’s not the most lucrative. “You’re not going to get rich,” he says, “especially in Vermont.”
Nevertheless, Barton and Bobee both say they love their jobs and the people they meet. It keeps them busy — physically and mentally.
“I have a lot of friends who retired who didn’t do anything, maybe worked around the house or played some golf,” Barton says. “I lost them all within a couple of years.”
Ditto for Bobee, who says she plans to keep working full time for the foreseeable future.
“I don’t know what else I would do,” she says. “Staying home and cleaning floors is just not my idea of fun.”