The Further Adventures of Mark Chauppetta, P.I.
He’s been a corrections officer, a candidate for office, a male model. Now he wants to be the state’s first celebrity private eye. If that makes the covert parts of his job a little more challenging—hey, so much the better.
These are the last words I hear from Mark Chauppetta as he goes sprinting across the hotel parking lot. All I can hear after that is the slap-slap of my own footsteps and the raspy staccato of my breath, what’s left of it. A few moments earlier, Chauppetta and I had been strolling toward the lobby, a few feet behind a woman we’d been tailing for the past five hours. Then, out of nowhere, everything went haywire—rather than entering the hotel, the woman met some guy at the door, climbed back in her car, and, with her potential paramour in the passenger seat, drove away.
A smallish guy—he’s 5 foot 7, about 175 pounds—Chauppetta can really run, and by the time I reach his Ford Taurus, the car’s already on the move. “Get in!” The door slams and the tires screech as we swing an impossible U-turn and barrel headlong into a stream of taxicabs. It’s like something you’d see on TV. And that, as far as Chauppetta’s concerned, is excellent news. If everything goes right over the next few months, American viewers will see a lot of him speeding through bleak urban settings, making observations like “This is the thing with mobile surveillance—this could turn into a cluster-bleep.”
Chauppetta, 37, is a private detective, based out of Brockton. He is, to the annoyance of some of his peers, an unconventional P.I. He dabbles, for instance, in bare-knuckle boxing. He is also the manager of a hip-hop band, a talk radio host, actor, screenwriter, former model, budding television pundit, and, he hopes, reality-TV-star-to-be. Two years ago, he ran for state rep for the 10th Plymouth District, on the Republican ticket. I’d profiled Chauppetta back then, for the Boston Phoenix, and he’d sounded bullish about his chances. “Boom!” he said. “It will skyrocket just like my business.”
There’s a fine line between Renaissance man and candidate for Ritalin, and Chauppetta straddles it. At the time he ran for political office, he was fast gaining a reputation as one of the top criminal investigators in the state. His success was built largely on his energy and tenacity, his willingness—in an age when many P.I.s work from behind computer monitors—to get out on the street, to knock on doors and shake things up. “I don’t know if this guy ever sleeps,” says Brockton attorney Kenneth Diesenhof. “If he does, it’s on alternate Tuesdays.” Chauppetta also has a knack for getting people to speak to him—either by charm or intimidation.
“I’m a roll-up-your-sleeves-type investigator,” he says. “I speak from my heart.”
Chauppetta has the kind of personality that can make a profile writer weep with gratitude, but as a politician he had his limitations. A decade spent dealing with “some of the seedier people in life” left him with a tendency to speak a little too candidly, often using language that might be deemed inappropriate at policy breakfasts. And there were other things that made him a less-than-ideal candidate: the 9mm he carries around, his street-fighter physique, and the fact that, as he puts it now, “I didn’t like the stuffiness, I didn’t like the pretentiousness, I didn’t like the suits, and maybe I just didn’t like the party that I chose.”
In November 2004, Chauppetta lost the election to incumbent Christine Canavan. Shortly afterward, for reasons that remain unclear, he stopped getting criminal-investigation work from some long-term clients. Struggling to rebuild his caseload, he went to work for another investigator, a man named William Connors, a move Chauppetta calls a “major disaster.” (Asked to comment, Connors says, “I am a very direct, very candid person, and I would not want to say anything detrimental about Mark. Consequently, I’m not going to say anything.”)
I’d kept in touch with Chauppetta after profiling him, but the tone of his e-mails—“Hi Chris, how goes it… Mark :)”—gave few clues as to how bleak things had gotten in Brockton. “I hit a low,” he says. “I lost a substantial amount of income. I have all these responsibilities. I felt hopeless for a couple of weeks in the summer of ’05. I was extremely down in the dumps.”
A decade after he became a P.I., Chauppetta found himself facing the prospect of starting out from the bottom. “I feel like Rocky Balboa,” he says, climbing the stairs of a red-brick building in downtown Brockton. “This is my first office, from 10 years ago.” Looking around—the tatty carpeting, the scuffed walls—it’s easy to see how he might have thrown his arms in the air and admitted defeat. But Chauppetta is too stubborn for that. He relaunched his investigation firm, taking relatively lowly worker’s comp and domestic cases. He even changed his name (from Chauppette, which he thinks sounds a bit fey).
“I had to reinvent myself,” he says, “and that’s what I did.”
This wouldn’t be Chauppetta’s first reinvention. He started his professional life as a corrections officer at MCI-Bridgewater. “I hated it with a passion.” After that, he tried modeling. When he was 21, he packed up and moved to California, with the intention of becoming a movie star. “I was young, I was buff, I was good-looking,” he says. “I definitely had more hair back then.”
Hollywood, of course, is filled with young, buff, hirsute flops, and Chauppetta soon joined their ranks. A couple of years later, he returned home with a new look—“the cowboy boots and the spiked hair and the earring”—and a new career choice. He’d become a private eye. His adoptive parents, William and Elizabeth, were skeptical. They’d seen their son burn through half a dozen life plans; at various points he’d also talked about becoming a police officer, an artist, a gym teacher. But Chauppetta flourished in his new calling—to some degree, as a result of his experiences in Tinseltown. “When I started out, I wasn’t a good investigator at all,” he says. “But I knew how to act like a good investigator.”
Today Chauppetta still spends as much time acting like a P.I. as he does being one, but for entirely different reasons. His most recent vocational overhaul—the spark, he hopes, that will lead to another boom—is to take a second stab at show biz. For two years he’s had his own talk show on the Brockton-based radio station WBET-AM. The show, On the Mark (also the name of his detective agency), airs on Friday afternoons. It is, as the host describes it, a “zany, obsessive-compulsive” mix of private eye–themed topics and current events. “My dream,” he says, “is to be syndicated.”
Despite garnering more than his share of complaints—he’s given to dropping double-entendres like “It smells like dick in here”—Chauppetta has consistently topped ’BET’s listener ratings. The poky studio from which he broadcasts is not what you’d call glamorous: The silt-brown walls appear to be made from glued-together rubber bands, and the mikes keep falling off their stands. But Chauppetta is good—funny and spontaneous, ribbing his cohosts, infuriating his callers, and never allowing for a moment of dead air. “He’s a colorful character,” says Chris Marquet, a fellow investigator and longtime friend. “People gravitate toward that.”
Chauppetta’s hope is that On the Mark will become what people in the industry call a “platform”—the venture from which other ventures will spring. In 2005 he invited two Brockton-based hip-hop artists onto his show, Higgenz and Rhyminal (real names Dave and Eric), who make up the band Ballcklub. The appearance led to a collaboration with the newly formed OTM Productions (Chauppetta newly forms things a lot, as the need arises). “I now manage a white hip-hop band,” he says. “They’re writing a private eye track, which is going to be the theme for the radio show. They just have to do a clean version.”
Chauppetta is also cowriting a screenplay, Mercs, about a group of mercenaries attempting to rescue Army Rangers from captivity in Kosovo. The action sequences, he promises, will be interlaced with “poignant” moments. And he has begun to pursue acting roles, including a very, very small part in the Denis Leary firehouse drama Rescue Me. “They hired me because I have a police-looking car,” he says. “My car got paid more than I did.” In the end, neither Chauppetta nor his car appeared on the show, but he made $200.
Chauppetta’s most substantial role to date was playing an FBI agent in a film (yet to be released) called Fright World. “It’s a low-budget slasher flick,” he says. “A serial killer comes back to life at an amusement park and slashes everyone. My guys all get killed—one gets a spike through the head, another gets barbed-wired. The killer has a girl hostage. I have a personal vendetta because he killed my wife. I don’t know why—that was in the prequel.”
Twenty minutes into the film, Chauppetta’s character engages in a fight-to-the-finish sequence with his nemesis. “He sends out some kind of energy and flings me against a wall. There’s blood coming out of my nose and my ears and my head. I spit up blood and I die.” Chauppetta says he performed his own stunts in the movie—“I still have a huge scar on my back to show for it.” Whatever blood wasn’t real, he adds, was made from a mixture of maple syrup and food dye. “I smelled like a big-ass pancake for weeks.”
The “big-ass pancake” thing is a funny line, and Chauppetta knows it. His talent for investigation is matched by his flair for self-promotion. On the Mark investigations recently added two new services to its roster—DNA testing of underwear, and the use of human decoys to trap suspected adulterers—and there are times when you wonder if these additions aren’t promotional rather than professional. Anyway, right now they seem to be attracting more publicity than clients: In November, Chauppetta gave two TV interviews, one in New York and one in Boston, about his decoy work.
The potential big break came this past fall, when a TV producer who’d seen Chauppetta get horribly bloodied in an Ultimate Fighting bout approached him and asked if he’d be interested in starring in a P.I.-themed reality show. A promotional tape has already been shot and, if all goes well, the show will run later this year on a major cable network. A lot of Chauppetta’s sentences these days start with the words “If the TV show works out….” “There will be money, naming rights, appearances,” he says, “the doors that it opens.”
The success of On the Mark—the working title of Chauppetta’s TV show—is by no means guaranteed. There’s a good chance it won’t even get made. And if it does, it will face stiff competition from Parco P.I., the heavily promoted Court TV show featuring the stocky, shaven-headed New York investigator Vinny Parco, who is described on the show’s slick website as “charismatic, colorful, funny”—the very qualities that Chauppetta’s bringing to the table. There are times when even he has his doubts. “Can you picture the cameras in my face as I’m doing this shit?” he says while driving around Brockton trying to find a notary public. “Is this interesting?”
Having had firsthand experience of Chauppetta’s P.I. work, I can confidently state that, with editing, it could be. About half of Chauppetta’s investigations these days involve domestic surveillance: spying on people to see if they’re having sex with people other than their partners. This is how we end up running across that parking lot, Chauppetta with his arms pumping like an Olympian, me flapping and puffing behind.
That’s the interesting part.
The evening begins less dramatically, with us sitting on the woman’s street in, as Chauppetta puts it, “a less-than-affluent part of the city.” Stakeouts, for sure, aren’t going to win anyone any Emmys. For a few hours, Chauppetta and I discuss every TV show produced over the past 30 years. When the TV shows run dry, things get more difficult. One time he fell asleep on a stakeout, Chauppetta tells me. Sometimes he has to pee into a cup. There’s an electric razor in his center console, a pair of nail clippers. We see a skunk, a bunch of cats, but no cheating woman.
Then Chauppetta gestures at the second-floor window of a nearby house. A face keeps popping in and out of view. Whoever’s up there is watching us. It’s getting dark now, but it’s easy to see that the person who emerges from the house is not a blond, slender, fortysomething woman. This is a large man wearing lots of chains. The emblem on his Red Sox baseball cap is made of leather.
“Whassup?” the large man asks us.
“Walk away!” Chauppetta says (a little too stridently, I think).
“Whassup?” The guy’s leaning into the window now. I can see his pores.
“You got a problem?”
“You got a problem?”
There’s a copy of PI Magazine on the dashboard, the cover story splashed across the front page in large, typewriter-y letters: “COLD CASES.” The guy looks at the magazine, looks at Chauppetta, and walks away.
“Why did you wind the window down?” My partner sounds annoyed. “He’s a fucking gangbanger!” Not only that, but a gangbanger who seems to think we’re here to watch him. I ask Chauppetta if he has his gun handy. He doesn’t. “I was on TV today. I didn’t think I’d need it.” Not to worry, he adds as he dials the local police. But I’ve seen enough movies, enough people shot in the head through car windows, to know that “not to worry” is probably an exaggeration.
Within minutes, it’s back to tedium again. Chauppetta rubs his face. “I’ve got to be up at 4:30 tomorrow to pull some lady’s trash,” he says. “Post-its. Post-its are great. You can get names, numbers….” And then—cue allegro guitar-twanging—our woman’s in her car and on the move and we’re swerving in and out of traffic to keep up with her. Normally, Chauppetta says, he’d have two cars on a job like this, but this was a last-minute deal, so we’re on our own, which means it’ll be a lot easier to lose our subject, and a lot easier to get hinked.
In the P.I. field, to get “hinked” is to be spotted by the person you’re following. A private eye will ask himself, Is this person getting hinky on me? Chauppetta was hinked recently. The guy he was following suddenly turned around and started following him. Then chasing him. For miles. It is, of course, a lot easier to get hinked if you’re a TV personality, but Chauppetta isn’t too concerned. As a P.I., he knows how to keep a low profile. “It’s not like I throw on a cheesy ’70s porn-star mustache,” he says, “but a baseball cap pulled down over the eyes goes a long way.”
In any event, the woman we’re following today is completely oblivious. We’re able to pull up beside her at lights and look directly at the side of her head—nothing. Even our abrupt about-turn at the hotel doesn’t faze her. It’s understandable. Worrying about being followed is, as far as most people are concerned, a step or two away from wearing tinfoil on your head to ward off aliens, or hearing the CIA through your fillings.
Here’s how we came to be tailing the woman: She’s dating a guy. The guy suspects she might be fooling around with another guy. The other guy is in the car with her now. They’re on their way to a restaurant. Our job is to sit and watch them eat. Maybe listen in on their conversation. Videotape them. Basically, we’re stalking this woman by proxy. It feels wrong, especially when we get to the restaurant and intrude, from a distance, on what seems like a perfectly nice dinner. Also, given the stakes, I’m bothered by the subjectivity. So the woman’s fluttering her eyelids. Maybe it’s a come-on. Maybe she got a bread crumb in her eye. These are people’s lives we’re dealing with here.
“I make a living people-watching,” Chauppetta says. “I’ll break it down: how close they sit, how many times her hand grazes his shoulder or his hand grazes her knee.” And then, if there’s anything to report, comes the grim part. “You’re like a cat bringing a mouse into the house,” he says. “The mouse is dead, and the cat’s all happy, and they’re, like, ‘You just killed a fucking mouse!’” What Chauppetta means, I think, is that catching an adulterer in the act gives the P.I. a certain amount of professional satisfaction, regardless of the client’s inevitable distress. “You can’t jump for joy,” he adds. “People are going to cry, or get angry. If they get angry, I slip into psychologist mode, ‘Okay, step back, breathe.’ Sometimes I’ll hold back information until the time feels right.”
As for the couple we’re watching now, there’s nothing for anyone to get upset or angry about—unless you’re a magazine writer or reality TV show producer. They eat, they chat, they order coffee and dessert. Ho-hum. Then—and this is the deathblow, as far as I’m concerned—the woman gets a doggy bag. I just don’t see passionate sex and a half-eaten portion of baked cod going together. As the two depart, Chauppetta calls the client and gives him an update. Even the boyfriend seems disappointed. The guy has, after all, just spent a significant amount of money on a whole lot of unanswered questions.
Still, we follow the couple to the car, back to the hotel. He gets out. She gets out. Chauppetta and I watch through the windows of a parked SUV (“Don’t lean on it!”). Then, unbelievably, they enter the hotel. We slip the valet 10 bucks and he tells us the woman’s car is here for two hours. They’re not in the bar. They’re not in the lobby. The leftovers stayed in the car. “They had me fooled,” says Chauppetta as we drive away. “They were smart, they were cautious, and they got busted.”
Eat that, Parco P.I.
In recent years, there’s been a concerted effort among P.I.s to portray their industry in a positive light. “It’s the profession, not the ‘industry,’” corrects Phillip White, a veteran Brockton-based investigator. “We are not plumbers.” The stated mission of White’s organization, the Licensed Private Detectives Association of Massachusetts (he’s cofounder and executive director), is to “enhance the image of the Massachusetts private investigator through member seminars, continuing education, legislative action, and positive public relations.” “We have a code of ethics,” he says. “We have a mechanism to bring people up on violations.” In extreme cases, the state police, who oversee the industry, will be called in.
White and his colleagues have been in damage-control mode lately, ever since Massachusetts-based private investigator Ronald DeLia ended up in court for his role in the Hewlett-Packard corporate spying scandal. Chauppetta, a member of the detectives association, has never come close to getting into that sort of predicament, but he is also unlikely to be held up as a paragon of the new buttoned-down, strictly-by-the-book breed. “I’m not one of those P.I. nerds,” he says. “I don’t take all these seminars or go to these conferences. I figure it out as I go along.”
Particularly rankling for the purists is the fact that Chauppetta plans to promote his tough-talking, gun-toting approach on national TV. “The thing that frustrates me,” says Connors, Chauppetta’s old boss, “is with so many decent, honest, hard-working guys out there—and I’m by no means suggesting Mark isn’t any of those things—that the more entertaining types [get the coverage]. It would be great to see a story about one of the more mainstream guys who put one foot in front of the other.”
“Mark’s looking to find a niche in the media world,” adds White. “I’m not sure what his reasons are.”
Chauppetta’s response to this is: “I’m a marketing whore.”
That might be overstating it a bit, but there’s no doubting that Chauppetta knows how to use the press for his benefit. At one point, he tells me that he was first attracted to P.I. work by “the mystery, the danger, the status.” When I ask if this is still the case, he thinks for a moment and says, “For the purposes of your story? Hell, yeah.” Every now and then, though, he lets his guard down a little. “There are moments when I don’t like what I’ve become,” he says during our stakeout. “You start believing your own bullshit, that’s for sure.”
Chauppetta spends a lot of time in his car, and it is here, when he’s on his own, that things tend to get on top of him. “Trust me,” he says, “I have my moments.” A divorcé, he has four children from two relationships. His twin sons, Andrew and Troy, 11, are stricken with the degenerative disease Duchenne muscular dystrophy. In the past year, the boys’ physical condition has started to deteriorate rapidly. “My sons,” he says, “they’re breaking down in front of me.” Right now, there’s no cure for Duchenne, so the only thing to do is try to slow things down—with medications, physical therapy—and make the boys as comfortable as possible. Chauppetta jokes about his hyperactivity, about how it makes him whiz from one improbable activity to the next, but it might just be that the chaos is easier to deal with than the wait.
One afternoon in November, Chauppetta stops by the Boston magazine offices with a DVD—the so-called taster tape for On the Mark. Watching it, I’m reminded of a conversation I’d had with Jimmie Mesis, editor and publisher of PI Magazine. He’d said a lot of things like “The 21st-century investigator is far more likely to be carrying a PDA than a gun,” and “The magnifying glass has been replaced by the computer,” and “An investigator’s research skills challenge those of any librarian.” Mesis, probably, will never be asked to appear in his own P.I. reality show. But Chauppetta just might be.
“If you’re up to no good, you’d better watch your back!” a voice-over informs us as the On the Mark teaser opens. Next, set to a funky soundtrack, there are eight minutes or so of Chauppetta running around doing the things he does best: spying on people, questioning people, talking tough, weaving in and out of traffic. The settings are gritty, the language coarse. “I love being a P.I.,” he says during one close-up, and this time, you actually believe him.