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On Assignment with
The Ace of the Bugging Business
Life Magazine - 1966 - John Neary
Each day Bernard Bates Spindel rises to face the heady challenge of living yet another episode in the life of his favorite character; Bernie Spindel – expert pilot, consummate lock-picker, foreign adventurer, electronics wizard and the No. 1 big-league freelance eavesdropper and wiretapper in the U.S.
URGENT ASSIGNMENT. With tools, Spindel sets off to place a bug – shown here step by step. The bug will record talks with a man who may testify against Spindel's client's client.
On this particular Saturday morning the limp 6-foot, 210 pound sack of a man ambled out of a gray clapboard house in upstate New York, filled up the trunk of a Lincoln sedan with tools and gear from an inventory of 3,000 electronic components, slumped himself in behind the wheel and set off for a few brisk hours of hard work in the city. It would bring $350.
Both the underworld and law enforcement admit Spindel is the best in the business. Jimmy Hoffa, who should know, calls Bernie an expert technician.
“I have no doubt,” says a government prosecutor who has more than once locked horns with him, “that if Spindel wanted to tap my phone, he could – and for all I know, he has.”
“I'm a private practitioner,” Bernie says earnestly, “and I work for anybody who wants to find out if anybody’s on ‘em and I don't ask for a pedigree.” He will not work for law enforcement agencies, and he says he will not knowingly break the law – or Bernard Spindel’s conception of the law. In the end, Bernie says, “It's not what you do, it’s what you get caught doing.” In short, Bernie sees himself as a sort of latter-day transistorized Robin Hood of privacy invasion.
CASING THE FLAT. Hunting for inconspicuous spot for bug, he peers into bookcase of the study, decides instead to plant a dummy phone-terminal block with mike in it on the wall below.
His impressive letterhead lists some eight separate security services. It mentions not a word about offensive tactics like tapping employee phones to check for leaks. Bernie handles that sort of thing too.
On the particular day Bernie had three stops to make in Manhattan. His first was in Spanish Harlem, where he met a short, flat-featured man in a black raincoat. They walked together around the corner. A few minutes later Bernie, hustling now, got back in the car and headed for a cafe in the downtown Italian district – a “Mafia hangout.” After a 2 1/2 hour search for police-installed microphones or wiretaps (he found none) Bernie headed uptown. He rolled the Lincoln to a gentle stop on West 57th Street and double-parked. Soon a detective friend climbed into the back seat of the Lincoln. Quickly he sketched the floor plan of a nearby flat where a conversation was to be bugged.
DOWN TO BUSINESS. With the practiced ease of a surgical nurse, Bernie sorts and lays out the tools he needs and readies his ratchet screwdriver for quick installation of a terminal block.
Out of the trunk Spindel took an aluminum box, two recorders and the black briefcase that goes with him on every job. In the briefcase is an incredible paella of paraphernalia, from a standard phone company tone generator to a lock pick.
The Lincoln was parked in a nearby garage, and Spindel and the detective went up to the apartment. This client, said the detective, was involved in a little tiff with a government agency. A friend of the client was going to have a chart right here with a man who might give crucial testimony at a forthcoming hearing. A tape of this conversation might be an advantageous thing to have. Bernie set swiftly to work (see pictures).
Time was short, so the installation was relatively unsophisticated. “It isn't the device so much as it is the use of imagination on where to put it,” says Bernie. “What I care is, when I get a call to go out and do something, I do it.”
Driving up to Central park West a short time later, he scanned the buildings along the West Side almost lovingly. “I've done a job in at least one building in just about every block along here. Sweet and luscious on the outside, but you find out what really goes on. . .”
Bernie prodigiously tapped his first phone at age 12. It was a pay phone in a tenement hallway. Bernie could hear it all from earphones in the coal bin. “It began to give
me a very peculiar feeling of power, to know what everyone in that building was saying and what they were doing. I've never lost that feeling. I have knowledge that no one else in the world has about certain individuals."
Bernie was in the Signal Corps during World War II, and after his discharge he quickly found himself handling wiretap jobs for New York City detective agencies.
His work, most matrimonial and business investigations, went well. Then, through a series of influential jobs, he was recommended to James Riddle Hoffa, a Detroit Teamster official who needed some work done. For actions stemming from this notable liaison, Bernie was brought to trial with Hoffa four years later on a charge of conspiring to wiretap. Both men ultimately were acquitted.
Spindel’s refusal to go against Hoffa, in this case and thereafter, has produced a mixed yield. On the one hand, he feels he has been mercilessly badgered by government agencies. On the other, business has flourished, for Bernie has won the respect of the fink-wary underworld, whose patronage pays well. “I could make ten calls right now,” he says, “and I guarantee you, I'd have $100,000 in cash by noon tomorrow. Interest? None.”
WIRING IT IN. Crouched in the study, where the apartment's tenant would shortly be holding his conference, Bernie reams a hole through the wall for mike cable. Sweating from tension – the man whose conversation was to be recorded was already on the way – Bernie tried the cable over the door but ran it along the baseboard to save time.
As his contacts improved, Bernie branched into foreign work. He can spin endless bizarre yarns such as the one about throwing a “top agent of Truillo’s secret police” out of a second-story window in Santo Domingo (after jamming the slide of the agent’s automatic with his thumb).
Circle of acquaintances, as divined from public sources.
Today, he says, “if a man like Hoffa, or a foreign government, or an underworld character calls me for a confidential mission, they know it will remain confidential. The ability to maintain a confidence is he one attribute they respect.”
Jimmy Hoffa takes a somewhat less fulsome view of Bernie’s ethical reputation. “A copper’s a copper, says Hoffa of Bernie. “Any kind of cop or investigator, you’ve got to figure that anything they find out they're going to sell to somebody else. But you hire a guy like this to tell you, and you don't tell him nothing.”
Whatever the esteem in which his clients hold him, Spindel claims to have a vault full of vital tape recordings within easy access of his beneficiaries, just in case his confidence should prove to be poorly placed. “Just say I'm well insured,” he says.
Spindel has about 35 reasonably steady clients. In addition to his underworld customers, he does work for a discount merchandising firm for which he installed hidden cameras, a cosmetics firm fearful of losing trade secrets, and assorted unions who call him on a per-crisis basis. He also serves as a consultant to several firms engaged in manufacturing security products like cameras and alarms.
What exactly does, a “search” of your premises by Bernie Spindel consist of? That depends on who might be after you. If it’s just another private eye or the local cops, Bernie can service you out of his car trunk. If it’s the FBI or the CIA, through – that’s something else, calling for Bernie’s big mobile lab and a dazzling checklist of electronic procedures. Similar methods were employed by Spindel in connection with the celebrated jury-tampering trial of Jimmy Hoffa and others in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Spindel was called in during the trial by the defense lawyers who, seeking grounds for an appeal, wanted a complete check on any government surveillance of defendants and their attorneys. Bernie set up shop in the Patten Hotel and began a complete security sweep of rooms occupied by the Teamster defendants. He quickly picked up what he was sure were FBI signals from a nearby transmitter and proceeded dutifully to make recordings. He later swore that caution had prevented him from making a complete trace for phone taps. The instruments used for such a check were the same as those employed in actually tapping a phone, and he didn't want to risk getting caught and giving anybody the wrong idea. In part, this wariness had been induced by messages intercepted from the FBI transmissions. “I think we are tuned in,” went on FBI broadcast. “That's probably Bernard. Hiya, boyney, Bernie...making lots of money working for Mr. H? . . . Go home, Bernard.”
Spindel’s FBI recordings and Spindel’s testimony were part of a subsequent move for a mistrial by the defense, but they failed to convince the courts that the FBI was engaged in improper surveillance.
Still, Bernie had kept proudly intact his record of never missing a tape or a picture.
An inspection for a major commercial client follows similar meticulous patterns. A complete sweep of company offices, labs and conference rooms take Bernie and an assistant two or three days and costs the client around $2,500.
Spindel talks proudly of mikes he has pulled out of mobsters’ walls. He recently discovered “an FBI-installed” terminal block microphone in the office of a Mafia chieftain. How did he know it was FBI? “That's like saying, for an artist in the jewelry field, he can look at a piece of work and know who did it. It was too sophisticated for the police department, way over the heads of the D.A.’s office, certainly not the state police – it had to be made by somebody who knew what he was doing.” In this case, who else?
At home, Bernard Spindel is an accomplished barbecue chef, a horse fancier, builder of floating electric Christmas trees, husband, father of seven children and instructor of 4-H Club members on the subjects of photography, horsemanship, and of course, electricity. He designed his comfortable house – with a few bugs planted here and there in the walls. He buys the family meat by the thousand-pound load. The seven children share four ponies, three dogs and two cats. His svelte wife, Barbara, ferries the kids around on Saturdays to the movies and teaches 4-H Club girls how to sew.
Mrs. Spindel is also the chief executive of B.R. Fox, which is the company that owns the whole Spindel snooping operation. The Lincoln, the lab, the house, the inventory of parts – none of it belongs to Bernie, who legally holds the title to little more than the Waltham wristwatch with Jimmy Hoffa’s picture engraved on the back (Jimmy gave it to him for Christmas).
INSIDIOUS BUG IS PLANTED – AND IS ALL EARS
What he needs to do a job he requisitions from B.R. Fox (Barbara’s maiden name), paying for it out of the proceeds of the job. A $2,000 inspection for a longshore union leader might yield Bernie only $500 walking-around money – the rest going to B.R. Fox for rental of equipment. It seems an enviable arrangement – one that could be calculated to pique the curiosity of the Internal Revenue Service. Government sources acknowledge ruefully, however, that after three years of investigation, Spindel has come up virtually judgment-proof in this regard.
Bernie stays reasonable loose, varying his routine, taking different routes to New York, seldom catching the plane he made reservations for, checking over his house and car every so often with his search receivers, using pay phones (never the same one twice in a row) for important calls, always checking with his lawyers before a doubtful job. Such prudent living has largely kept him out of the soup.
He has been indicted or arrested 204 times – all but twice for offenses connected with snooping – and beaten every rap but one. A jury in Springfield, Mass. recently found him and a co-defendant guilty of eavesdropping. The fine, $500, has been suspended pending review.
Meanwhile, Bernie is now looking jauntily ahead to littler and better bugs. Already, he chortles, he's doped out a way to tap the forthcoming video-phone, jumping the circuitry in such a way that he'll be able to see right into the subscriber’s home.
The subscriber, as usual, won't be able to see Bernie.
Just 15 minutes after he started, the bug was working so well it caught a whisper – over traffic noise – at 20 feet.