Ann McKenna Fromm
WRITER: Books, Essays, Ghostwriting
Behind the Scenes with a Private Eye
March 21, 2016Behind the Scenes with a Private Eye
First published in the former Pittsburgh Press (Sunday Magazine Cover Story)
“I used to say we never put the wrong guy in jail,” said Stephen Tercsak, a former city detective, who resigned last year after a residency rule flap and became a private investigator working out of his Upper St. Clair home. “Now I’m on the other side of the fence.”
Tercsak does not just mean that he lives outside the city limits. He means that formerly he was on the prosecution side of the legal bench, arresting suspected murderers and bringing them to trial when he was sure they were guilty. But when Tercsak became a private eye, it did not work out that way in the first homicide case he took on.
I started out convinced the guy was involved in the murder, “Tercsak admits. “I was hired by the family and attorney only to make sure he hadn’t actually fired the gun himself. He had confessed to the crime. But the more I looked, the more aware I became that the guy hadn’t even been there at the time. It’s scary. I’m on the side of the defense now, and it’s my first homicide. Did it ever happen in city work that we put the wrong man behind bars?”
Thinking back, Tercsak does not believe it did. For doubts make a good detective. Tercsak has always doubted, and now he’s putting the doubts – and skepticism learned during his nearly 30 years with the city – to work as a private investigator. He is a tall, hefty man who wears glasses, talks fast, and has a faint scar creasing his forehead like the old outline of a jagged jack-o-lantern. The scar is a souvenir from a pistol-whipping by thugs shortly after Tercsak joined the police force, when his wife Monna was pregnant with their second child. After the beating, Tercsak himself pushed his dislodged eye back into the socket and claims he owes his life to the surgeon who sewed his head back together.
Last October, Tercsak’s long career with the city police, much of which he had spent as detective and chief of all the major squads (vice, burglary, homicide, theft), abruptly came to an end. An anonymous tipster reported to the Civil Service Commission that Tercsak violated the city’s live-in rule, an ordinance dating from 1902 which states that a city employer must live within the city limits. Tercsak owned a home in Brookline within the city limits, and paid his taxes there; but he had also installed his family in an Upper St. Clair home in 1980. Tercsak decided to resign and, as he put it, “to go out gracefully” from his city job. He formally resigned on Nov. 5, 1986. What remained was the challenge of establishing himself as a private detective and unraveling cases wherever they led: toward prosecution or defense.
“That first Monday morning,” Tercsak says from his game room/office in Upper St. Clair,” was the worst day of my life. The phone’s not ringing off the hook for me, I don’t have a job. What do I do now?”
His wife, however, had plenty for him to do. The kitchen cabinets needed refinishing and Tercsak gave them a coat of fresh white paint. He tore up the kitchen floor and resurfaced it. He mowed the lawn and collected the dry autumn leaves. But it wasn’t enough. He was a television addict and a sports fan. He played penny ante and read Joseph Wambaugh’s detective novels. But the house was empty. Mrs. Tercsak was out selling real estate. Their married daughter lived in Shadyside, the second in Oakland where she worked as a nurse. Deirdre was a college psychology major, Mark also in college, and Matt in eighth grade.
“It felt like I didn’t belong anywhere,” he said. “A psychologist I worked with said the first two weeks after such a transition are a time of real mourning. My father just died, too; I was served my violation papers the day of his funeral. So I’ve gone to church sometimes – St. Augustine’s, where I was an altar boy as a kid and hollered my lungs out at the songs. But now, I just sit there. It’s peaceful. My psychologist friend said that after those two transitional weeks, you either sink or swim.”
In this game room seven people – Tercsak, his wife and their five children – have congregated for years and stored the debris of those years. Books and trophies line the bookshelves, other shelves display Tercsak’s gun collection, a rainbow of karate belts, the collection of ceramic liquor bottles a friend always brings him from trips. Tercsak rotates on a swivel chair beside his desk. He gestures as he talks, remembering what he did to chase the gut-wrenching emptiness after his resignation.
“I posted bond. I wrote letters and did paperwork. I ordered business cards and announcements. I talked to everyone about what I’d need to call myself Stephen F. Tercsak and Associates and run a professional operation. I wasn’t going to use any rent-a-cops picked up off the street, trained a little bit and paid minimum wage.” So Tercsak made arrangements with friends and former colleagues from the city. Four polygraph operators would do lie detector tests for him: a hypnosis expert would subcontract for victim recall. Three professional photographers with whom he had worked in the city agreed to help. A student of karate, Tercsak arranged with karate experts to offer services to corporate executives who needed discreet bodyguards at meetings or on trips out of town. He applied for a private detective license, and on Dec. 18 appeared before Judge Robert Dauer for awarding of that license. It is a day Tercsak remembers well.
The courtroom was crowded with attorneys and clients. The first order of business was the hearing of the three petitioners for a private detective’s license. The other two preceded Tercsak, one for a renewal of the license he already held.
“Are there any complaints?” Dauer asked of the first two men. “None, your honor,” replied William Best of the district attorney’s office.
Then it was Tercsak’s turn. He had appeared in Dauer’s courtroom many times in conjunction with various burglaries and thefts. He thought highly of the judge and hoped it was reciprocated. Tercsak stood before the bench.
The judge said, “I don’t think this man is qualified.” A hush fell over the courtroom. Into the silence, Dauer grinned and spoke loudly. “If this man isn’t qualified, nobody is.”
The banter went on and quiet murmuring resumed in the crowded courtroom. For Tercsak, 52, the rest was formality. He was now a licensed private detective.
Start here? Toward the end of the following month, it so happened that a wealthy city business executive – call him Mr. Smith – went on a trip. He left his new home in Regent Square for three days to visit his son in Washington, D.C. When he returned on January 27, he opened his front door to every returning traveler’s worst fear: In his absence, Smith’s home had been burglarized.
Thieves had taken the television and stereos; they had stolen credit cards, a checkbook, his passport and last will and testament, his valuable stamp and coin collections. Worst of all, they had made off with priceless artworks of great personal and emotional value to Smith.
“They were by James Warhol,” Smith cried. “Andy Warhol’s nephew just beginning to establish himself in New York. And a friend of mine! Irreplaceable. It seemed that the most valuable, and the ones I cared about most, were the ones they took.” Since Smith had still not fully settled into his new home, the paintings had been stacked in rows along he walls of the basement. Insurance covered only their market value, not their potential value tied to Warhol’s reputation. It looked like a professional job. Someone knew what he wanted; or, as Smith first suspected, it had been an inside job.
Distraught, Smith called Warhol in New York. “They stole your paintings!”
“They have good taste,” Warhol replied.
Smith was not consoled. He considered. The police, he knew, simply could not devote 100 percent of the time to 100 percent of the cases. And he wanted his paintings back.
Through a mutual friend, with whom Stephen Tercsak had once played football, Smith found his private eye. At first, however, Tercsak was unaware that he would soon be tracking irreplaceable James Warhol oils or invaluable Frank Howell lithographs. Tercsak was busy doing chin-ups. He was also thinking how strange it was to be in business for himself.
On the bare floor of the Pennsylvania Karate Academy, Tercsak is now jumping rope. Six other men jump with him in front of a wall-length mirror. So far, so good, Tercsak thinks, concentrating on his new business to block the fatigue from exercise. So far, he’s had no cash flow problem and he’s been paid what he’s owed, a flat hourly fee he charges everyone. He has bee ale to choose his cases, rather than simply taking what comes in. He has not been restricted to the city: he can, in fact, go anywhere in the world to hammer out a solution, as he has just done for the man whose stolen car he found in California. He is his own boss and he makes his own hours. He appreciates the lulls, time in which to collect his thoughts and allow the answers mysteriously to weave together.
Yet sometimes the lulls are not good, as when fear knots in the pit of his stomach that the phone will not ring with a new job. Tercsak jumps faster on the hard floor.
“Thirty seconds!” the trainer shouts. Rope slaps on the worn blue carpet. Then they are shadow-boxing. Hisses and whhhhhhhsss fill the large room; the mirror is steamed, and the plaster-swirled walls are clammy to the touch. Beside the men, Tercsak’s son, Matt, who has already earned a brown belt, feints and thrusts into the mirror.
“Move!” the black-belted trainer calls again. “Control your body!”
Eyes scrunched behind glasses that slide down his nose, Tercsak does move. He began karate partly for self-defense, but more for the exercise that has helped him lose 70 pounds… and he has realized lately how the contacts with senior karate practitioners will help his business. Now the men work with partners, practicing parries. “Give him pressure, he’ll respond live,” the trainer directs. “Treat him weak, he’ll respond weak.”
They finish with sit-ups, crunches, and leg-lifts, then Tercsak and his son go home. Tercsak has showered and is riveted to the TV screen. His pug dog, Shadow, snoozes at his feet. The telephone rings. It is John Smith calling to ask Tercsak to take on the case of the stolen art.
They stole your checkbook, credit cards, everything?” Tercsak asks again. The two men, who will become friends during the course of this case, are standing in the front hall of Smith’s home.
“Yep.” Smith stares glumly at the floor.
“We’ll crack it when they start cashing the checks.”
Tercsak has a hunch that it was neither a professional nor an inside job. He points out how easy it had been to enter through a rear window. Because the mail should have been trapped between the mail chute and the door when Smith returned from his trip, but had already been tossed aside, Tercsak deduces that the robbers had easily exited through the front door.
“I was so green,” Smith would say later. “Had no dead bolts, no window screws, no floodlights.” He pauses. “But now I do. I’ve learned. I should probably even have a dog.” Tercsak thinks a dog is better than a gun. He’s probably seen too any unnecessary homicides, and notes wryly, “You can’t shoot a spouse with a dog.”
In the end, the case unravels exactly as Tercsak had predicted. The suspects had immediately sold the checks to a “fence” for a flat fee. The fence in turn slipped the checks to a professional check-casher, who hurried off to a mall. The latter is the real risk-taker, usually a junkie working for his daily fix. If he cashes a check for $100, for example, he returns $60 to the fence. In Smith’s case, $600 checks cashed against a Gold Card credit card began flooding the city. The giveaway check turned up at an appliance store for a VCR.
“He wanted the VCR that day,” Tercsak recounts, “but the merchant said he’d have to clear the check. The guy said OK, he’d come back for it. He got cocky, or the salesman was really smooth to make him fall for it. When the guy came back, he was handed a big heavy box, but it was filled with books instead. The police had been alerted and nabbed him, took him to the station for questioning. When they called Smith, Smith told them to call me. I went down and questioned the suspect right away. He blew the whistle on the whole game. Gave descriptions and everything. He was a street junkie who didn’t want to go to jail.
“But the real intelligence,” Tercsak continues, “comes from talking to the right people. ‘Who’s Danny-so-and-so running with now?’ you might ask another officer. So you find the street junkie’s pal, talk to him, and he leads you to another so-and-so until you eventually get your man. If you’re lucky, you find him hot … with the stolen goods.”
Tercsak had discovered his suspect “hot,” with a self-portrait of James Warhol, whose haunting eyes stare out of the picture; the portrait hung on a grimy wall of the man’s ramshackle home.
“Get me the other paintings,” Tercsak told the suspect. “In court, we can tell the judge, ‘this guy’s been cooperative; we got the paintings back.’” Tercsak recovered another Warhol, a lush canvas celebrating the Greek gods Zeus and Aphrodite. And Smith had in fact agreed to prosecute.
“It will help everyone,” he said.
Tercsak said he’d never seen a case in 28 years where anyone who prosecuted a burglar got hurt for it. “We owe it to our neighbors,” he said, “and ourselves.”
To Smith, the successful business executive, time was more important than money, and he grew increasingly relieved that Tercsak could save him time. Tercsak took on the legwork involved in going to banks, and the tedium of taking phone calls from merchants trying to collect the $4,000 the thieves had squandered in bad checks. But above all, John Smith is grateful to private eye Tercsak because he got his paintings back.
“Sure I miss the city work sometimes,” Tercsak says. He has come into the Public Safety Building to shake hands with his old colleagues, and to banter with Fred Wolfe who replaced him. Static buzzes from the radios, and the smell of coffee and cigarette smoke permeates the large desk-filled room.
Tercsak grins. “We had fun.”
He winks at Mary Hrushka who had been his secretary during the years he had worked there. She smiles back.
Some of the fun was at Tercsak’s expense. Once, he had just left work at the end of the day and climbed into his car. When he started home, he heard a noise. He drove down the Boulevard of the Allies wondering what was broken. The noise sounded again, a muffled thunder from under some blankets he kept in the car for his kids. The blankets moved. Tercsak pulled off the road.
His colleagues had found a wino looking for a warm car. “Use this one,” they had told him, making the man cozy.
As he leaves, Tercsak waves to a few officers bent over their desks. He walks past the holding cell and lineup room, and the interview room with the hole in the ceiling where a man ripped out an insulating block trying to escape. He had tracked down murderers from this office, and eased prostitutes off the street. He has hunted down rapists and organized a sting operation, which netted the city millions in stolen goods. On a tip from an informer, he had foiled a man’s fake suicide from the Highland Park Bridge.
Willie Jones was that man. Jailed time after time for robbery, he finally contrived the fake suicide plan that would keep him scot-free for the rest of his life. But Tercsak learned that Jones planned to leave his car on the Highland Park Bridge with a final desperate note, saying he could not live with more police harassment about his auto thefts. Then he would disappear.
The next day, an officer said to Tercsak, “Your man’s gone. He jumped off the Highland Park Bridge last night.”
“No he didn’t. Don’t waste the money dredging the river.”
Tercsak telephoned the informant, who said Jones was staying in Homestead with a drug dealer. When Tercsak drove over to the home, he spotted Jones in front of the house, changing a tire. Bent to the task, Jones did not notice Tercsak easing his car toward him. With the suspect almost sandwiched between the two cars, Tercsak called out, “Lazarus, arise from the dead!”
Jones started. “Who are you? You don’t have anything on me.”
“Get in the car, Willie. I’ve arrested you so many times I ought to know you by now.” Halfway to the station, Willie Jones admitted that he was Willie Jones.
But all that is history, and one wonders whether Tercsak really misses the job. Is it better now?
“I miss the camaraderie,” Tercsak says, “but not the tension which is always part of a bunch of people working closely together. But I learned a lot in those years. I’m still learning.” He stops at the curb. “Like this supposed murderer we’re suddenly trying to keep out of jail.” He is talking about the homicide on which he has worked so hard, the case soon to come to trial. “Who knows why he confessed to something he didn’t do? It happens. But even if he’s a stone junkie, we have to protect his right not to be tried for the wrong crime.” Tercsak allows the light to turn from green to red again. “I think I really like working for myself better than for the city. Like with that art case. On my own, it is possible to give 100 percent to 100 percent of the cases I take on.”
Of the city’s residency rule that caused his career change, Tercsak thinks it should be updated. One suggestion is to let city employees petition after 20 years or so to live outside the city but still pay a tax percentage to the city. He would also be comfortable with an annual wage tax of, say, $100 levied on everyone who works in the city but lives elsewhere.
“Then people outside the city would be eligible to take the (police) test. These are complex times to be a cop. When I was a kid, if I did something wrong and got cracked over the head by a cop, I got creamed when I got home. Now it’s the other way around. The cop can get creamed. We need good people from wherever we can get them.”
Stephen F. Tercsak died of an apparent heart attack on March 26, 1993, seven years after I wrote this article.
According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette obituary, Tercsak was “revered for his keen memory and dry wit.”
I had dogged almost him almost constantly during the month I researched my article, and had learned quickly about Tercsak’s memory and wit. I liked him. He made me laugh.
I never saw him again after that assignment.
The artist who painted the stolen paintings Tercsak recovered now goes by the name James Warhola. According to his website, Andy Warhol’s nephew now lives in upstate New York and serves as consultant to the Museum of Modern Art.