Modern Tools for the Modern Investigation
Some say Southeast Asia’s clouded leopards—dubbed as such because of the shape of the blotches on their hides—are excellent climbers. Living in mountainous jungles, it’s thought that the seldom-seen cats can weigh as much as 50 pounds and grow 6 feet long, prowling hungrily in the treetops, and dropping out of nowhere onto their prey below. Easy as a raindrop, but savage.
For months in 2002, Houston scientist Peter Riger camped out in the leopard’s habitat in Northern Thailand, hunting the hunters. Not for sport, but for knowledge, hoping only to observe them, and learn more about how they live—and how they die—that might help keep them from becoming extinct. Looking back, Riger describes a remarkable if discomfiting journey, sleeping in a tent, taking cold showers, wondering if a hungry cat would mistake him for food, and contracting a nasty bout of E Coli—ironically, Riger suspects, from a glass of water at a five-star hotel.
In other words, a dream job.
“We’re so lucky,” he says. “You take a 40-hour plane ride, and a 20-hour car ride... and the next day you’re in the forest. And it’s all worth it.”
Turns out that Riger, a still somewhat boyish 47-year-old who’s been with the Houston Zoo for eight years and was just made VP of conservation, is just one of many Houstonians who go to extremes at work, and love it. H-Town is swarming with globetrotting risk-takers—from an endangered-beast specialist like Riger to ex-prison-guard Daniel Weiss, a cyber-detective who uses a combination old-fashioned sleuthing and high-tech spying in his worldly work, and physician Edward Rensimer, a medical-mystery-solving version of TV’s Dr. House.
For his part, Riger, a native New Yorker, was inspired as a boy by news accounts he read of wolf researchers in northern Michigan, setting him on a course to become a wildlife biologist on a first-name basis with world-famous primatologist Jane Goodall. After high school, Riger found work at the Bronx Zoo, where he worked for eight years and also met his wife Sara, who is currently “supervisor of carnivores” at the Houston Zoo, overseeing big cats, bears and other meat-eaters.
These days, Riger spends about three months each year traveling, frequently with colleagues in the developing world, including Africa, Asia and the Americas. The Houston Zoo has global partners from Borneo to Botswana working to save threatened species. Riger has toured war-torn Rwanda, surveyed mountain gorillas and tracked pig-like tapirs through the tiger-ridden jungles of Malaysia.
He’ll return soon to an ongoing project in Mozambique, helping local authorities establish an education center—aimed at halting fatal conflicts between lions and the villagers who graze their cattle or build settlements in the heart of lion habitat. It’s not just the people who are in danger; villagers typically respond to lion attacks on humans or livestock by poisoning or finding other ways to kill the cats. Riger is hopeful he can help reduce the loss of life all around.
Riger says that, despite the cinematic-seeming peril of his work, you shouldn’t expect to see him wrestling a crocodile on Animal Planet anytime soon. “With people who love wildlife, we don’t think we’ll ever put ourselves into the sort of danger we won’t be able to get out of,” he says, adding with a laugh, “until we start talking.
“But,” he says, “there’s always a danger, the possibility that you’ll come across an angry animal, a poacher, or civil unrest.”
A different sort of wildlife concerns Weiss, one of H-Town’s most notable private eyes. A partner at McCann E-Investigations, which has branches in Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and New York, Weiss is on the edge of the global field of electronic investigations.
Because things can go sour in a split-second in his line of work, Weiss carries a concealed weapon. After all, he could run into an angry spouse, an embezzling employee facing jail time or an imbalanced client. “No one ever calls me in a good mood,” he says, noting that many investigations are of a very private, even personal nature, often concerning white-collar clients.
The requirement of discretion helps explain why there is no sign on the door of the local office, tucked away on a quiet Bellaire street just outside the Loop. It’s a quiet space, humming with the subdued efficiency of the world’s most blissed-out dental office. But don’t get the wrong impression: With a suite of forensic devices and specialized software, McCann is keeping malefactors on the run, handling not only missing-person and divorce cases, but also matters of embezzlement, contract fraud and cyber-slander.
The back room scanning equipment is nondescript, but the $500,000 worth of technology can crack passwords, scan systems to uncover e-bugs, undertake surveillance, or lock down a corporate IT system attacked by hackers. The machines can download photos, emails and even GPS coordinates. All he needs is about an hour with your iPhone or laptop.
“There are plenty of ex-cops in Houston that are qualified to follow people around,” says Weiss, 43, a father of five who today sports a muss of sandy hair and a blush of 5-o’clock shadow he attributes to an old-fashioned stakeout the night before. “But they don’t know
“If I can get my hands on this,” he adds, holding up his own iPhone as a visual, “I can image all the information that’s on there.” He has turned up dirty pictures, “sexting” sessions and evidence of prostitution and online predators targeting young women. He’s used cellphone tracking to determine when and where elicit meetings have taken place.
Is that kind of sleuthing even legal? Weiss says that as long as the gadget he’s spying has been secured legally—it’s a company-owned asset, or, in the case of suspected spousal infidelity, a household property—then whatever material McCann’s crew comes up with is fair game.
“Usually I have to tell people that it’s worse than what you thought,” Weiss says. “The employee of 15 years has been embezzling. The mother of your children is turning tricks. The husband has a secret family. It’s sad.”
Weiss—who also works internationally, with a worldwide network of contacts worthy of John Le Carre—studied criminal psychology in college and worked in a maximum-security prison near Boston before he and his wife Michelle, a nanotechnologist, relocated to H-Town in 1994. He has a fleet of cars with blacked-out windows, and the traditional tools of the PI trade such as long-lens cameras and remote listening equipment, as well as body wires to record conversations. Still, the growth area in private investigations, he insists, is technological snooping.
And Weiss enjoys it, especially when he gets to help take down the baddies. “The truth is,” he says, just a bit menacingly, “I have a pathological hatred of criminals.”
Like Weiss, the good doctor Rensimer enjoys kicking butt and taking names. His dominion, however, is neither boardrooms nor bedrooms but the laboratories and exam rooms of his International Medicine Center at the Memorial City Medical Center, here in Houston.
Rensimer, previously the Memorial Hermann chief of staff, is H-Town’s answer to Dr. Gregory House, who solves medical mysteries on Fox’s House. “The difference is I’m not a drug addict,” says Rensimer, who is nonetheless a superstar in the world of infectious diseases.
The 62-year-old first launched his practice in 1981, with his wife Jane, who manages the IMC while the doctor sees patients. His expertise is hard-won, having earlier in his career traveled the globe assessing medical facilities in out-of-the-way countries, setting up ship infirmaries, writing reports on snakes in Chad, and consulting in rural Venezuela in the pre-Chavez era. “When things go wrong in these places,” he says grimly, “they go bad very quickly.”
In ’05, Rensimer was the first in Houston to diagnose leishmaniasis, a skin infection borne by sand fleas, in civilian contractors and American soldiers freshly returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. Eight patients arrived at his clinic, all fresh back from the Middle East, all complaining about painful blistering sores that refused to heal. The suppurating condition confounded other doctors, but thanks to Rensimer’s long experience in travel medicine, he soon narrowed the possible culprits and devised not just a treatment but also a program for prevention.
Patients include business and leisure travelers, from roughnecks to CEOs, headed to varied destinations, from offshore rigs in Southeast Asia to resorts in Cancun. Recent cases included calls to airlift a collapsed U.S. worker in Cairo to a heart hospital in Tel Aviv, hospitalizing a Houston couple that returned from India with typhoid fever, and long-distance treatment of a pregnant woman with malaria in Mexico.
All this happens in the state-of-the-art, fifth-floor IMC, which overlooks the Energy Corridor, where clients such as Schlumberger and ExxonMobile are also based. In fact, all the big energy companies come to the clinic to clear workers and treat the aftermath of trips to foreign and mysterious lands. “What we do here is unique,” says Rensimer, “and that has become a calling card.”
It’s interesting, exotic work, born of real-deal life-and-death drama—and, for some, just another day at the office.