On the night of Oct. 8, 1992, the towering pipes of the Texaco refinery in Wilmington, Calif., vented a sudden rise in pressure. Then the familiar hiss became a deafening screech, and a fiery explosion sent hundreds fleeing in panic from the poor Hispanic community that lies in the refinery’s shadow.
The fire burned for three days, filling the air with chemical fumes as far as five miles away. Eventually more than 4,700 property-damage claims and 14,000 claims of personal injury were filed against Texaco.
Soon after the blast, Texaco hired a private detective to investigate. But his mission was not to investigate the causes of the explosion; it was to investigate the claimants and lawyers whose class-action lawsuits threatened to cost Texaco millions of dollars in damages.
The nearly five-year investigation the detective unleashed offers a powerful illustration of the world of computer technology and information marketing that has turned private detectives into a vanguard of privacy invasion.
Through commercial data bases unknown to most citizens, law-enforcement computer files that are supposed to be off limits to civilians, electronic surveillance equipment readily sold in spy shops, and simple telephone scams common in the information underground, Texaco’s private eye quickly amassed sensitive knowledge about dozens of people involved in the explosion claims, according to court documents, interviews and sworn statements.
One claimant, a 23-year-old mother named Rossana Rivera, was frightened to learn that the investigator had generated a five-page computer print-out from her name alone.
The private eye had found her Social Security number, date of birth, every address where she had ever lived, the names and telephone numbers of past and present neighbors, even the number of bedrooms in a house she had inherited, her welfare history, and the work histories of her children’s fathers.
And his probe unearthed two delinquent traffic tickets, which the investigator then used to threaten her with arrest if she did not provide - or fabricate - damaging information about lawyers in the case, according to sworn statements she gave last year.
At a time of growing public alarm over the erosion of privacy by technology and data commerce, electronic dossiers have become the common currency of computer-age sleuths, and a semiunderground information market offers them much more: private telephone records, credit-card bills, airline travel records, even medical histories.
Web sites with names like Dig Dirt and SpyForU sell unlisted telephone numbers for $69 and bank-account numbers for $55, and they offer to trace a beeper number to the owner’s address for $59, though these searches do not always work. Finding out a person’s salary costs $75, and a list of someone’s stocks, bonds and mutual funds is $200 from one New Jersey information broker who offers volume discounts.
Private investigators have always followed the footsteps of people’s personal lives. But in the past five years the growing power of computers and the expansion of commercial data bases have made it quicker, cheaper and easier than ever for private eyes to collect individualized information that their gumshoe predecessors could not piece together even through weeks of dogged surveillance and research.
The result is more time, money and pressure to produce nonpublic information from a thriving gray-to-black market in purloined privacy.
“The amount of information available at the push of a button has just revolutionized the whole private-investigation industry,” said Jason Rowe, an investigator who frequently works on behalf of plaintiffs against large corporations. Even to the sleuths who benefit, he added, “it’s a little bit frightening.”
“Everything you want to know is for sale,” Rowe said flatly. “It’s a question of how much risk you want to take and what your personal morals are.”
In the Texaco case, one of the claimants’ lawyers, Duffy Buchanan, and residents of Wilmington have filed separate lawsuits accusing the private investigator, Christopher Coombs, and his corporate backers of violating their privacy and other civil rights as part of a strategy to sabotage the explosion claims.
Some claims have been dropped or settled; about 9,000 are still outstanding, including cases as diverse as a woman who needed a lung transplant and blamed the explosion, and children who complained of burst eardrums, worsened asthma or emotional distress.
In earlier court papers, Texaco maintained that it had hired the private eye in self-defense, to check out suspicions of insurance fraud after widespread improprieties in the way claimants were signed up before Buchanan joined the case, such as door-to-door canvassing by paralegals.
Company lawyers also say that the private investigator is protected from Buchanan’s suit because Coombs had probable cause to believe that Buchanan had violated the law, and he told the authorities.