During his 12 years as a private investigator, Ron Rugen has learned that husbands and wives are usually right to suspect infidelity if they feel strongly enough about it to dial his number.
“More often than not, if someone calls me and they think their spouse is cheating on them, they probably are,” Rugen said. “Unfortunately that’s how it is.”
Rugen operates Rugen Team Investigations out of a small office at the end of a corridor in second floor of the Stephens Building. He takes on two or three cheating spouses cases around Columbia each month.
“We call it domestic surveillance — it sounds less dramatic,” he said.
For domestic surveillance, he charges clients a retainer fee along with an hourly rate.
“After a while, you get an idea of about how many hours it will take depending on the kind of case,” he said. “Some people make a mistake real fast.
“I want my client to be happy. I say that I can’t control what your spouse does. Are you going to be happy because they didn’t cheat or at the time I was watching they weren’t cheating? I sit down and ask clients what’s the best nights or times to watch them (spouses) and take it from there, because you just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
During surveillance, Rugen uses such devices as a button video camera on his shirt or cigarette lighter-size video camera he can aim in a bar or restaurant.
“If you go into a restaurant or bar you have no reasonable expectation of privacy,” he said. “I cannot videotape through someone’s home window.”
Being a private investigator isn’t like being a Mannix or Jim Rockford, Rugen said. In spying on spouses, he spends long hours in parked cars armed with cameras equipped with long lenses that have night vision capabilities.
“I let the police know if I am in a neighborhood so someone doesn’t report a suspicious character and the police come with sirens and lights on,” he said.
“I tell people there are probably one of three reasons to hire me,” Rugen said. “One is if it’s a custody issue with kids, two if it’s a disproportionate share of assets, or just to satisfy their curiosity to make sure what is going on.”
Rugen said sometimes it isn’t easy telling clients his findings or showing them photographs.
Besides domestic surveillance, Rugen offers an array of other services. He can sweep for hidden video cameras in a home or office, or for wireless bugs on a phone, using special electronic gadgetry. Rugen can also perform pre-employment and pre-marital checks, criminal defense investigations, criminal background checks and personal injury investigations for pre-disposition interviews.
In addition to working as a private investigator, Rugen runs Heartland Judgment Recovery & Investigations, serving legal summons, collecting debts and past-due rent, or ferreting out hidden assets.
He has used such ruses as carrying a pizza box or a bouquet of flowers for a so-called delivery to get someone to open the front door.
At 6 feet 5 inches tall and well over 250 pounds, Rugen presents a formidable figure. In 12 years, his only physical encounter has been a dog bite.
“A lot of it is sitting in front of a computer knowing where to look,” Rugen said. “We are researchers of facts, like reporters. Instead of a gun, a smart P.I. uses a computer, a phone and nondescript sedan with no bumper stickers.”
Rugen owns a gun, but says he doesn’t carry it with him, except maybe when he works in a very rough neighborhood.
Many of his clients are law firms.
“If I’m looking for someone who’s avoiding debt payment, and they haven’t updated their address, I can punch in a Social Security number or a name into a database,” Rugen said. “Maybe they recently applied for a cell phone. I also start locating relatives and people they know.”
To avoid stalking, Rugen says he tells the person he’s seeking what his client’s name is and then asks the sought-after person to contact the client.
In this regard, one of his most interesting cases was locating a stewardess, one of the last people to see the legendary skyjacker D.B. Cooper in 1971, before he parachuted from a commercial airline flight, never to be found.
Rugen’s client said he was a writer composing a book on Cooper. Rugen found the woman, but made it clear that she would have to be the one making contact with the client.
“You never know, maybe he (his client) was really out to get Cooper for some reason,” Rugen said. “I don’t know if the woman ever contacted my client. He fired me when I wouldn’t tell him where she was.”
Rugen grew up on a farm east of Sedalia and aspired to become a newscaster. After college, he was an assistant news director at KLIK/Y107 in Jefferson City and later news director at KYMS/KY94.
A career shift took him to the Missouri Department of Social Services Division of Aging, where he was asked to monitor in-home nursing providers to make sure they were in compliance with state regulations.
“I found several providers were not in compliance and it was at this point I became interested in this line of work,” he said.
Rugen says he’s a crossword puzzle fan and what he does is like being able to put all the pieces together.