Surveillance Van Helps Catch Crooks

During his lunch break at the warehouse, this one fellow went home to sell goods stolen from trucks in the loading area.

A second man soon pulled up in a car and went into the house.

Jim Dunbar is a private eye with Kimmons Investigative Services, the detective agency hired by the company that was being stolen from. He wanted to catch the thief in the act of selling hot merchandise, and he suspected the fellow was doing business at his house.

Dunbar was a block and a half away when the fellow arrived home. And when that second guy came along about 15 minutes later, Dunbar was still a block and a half away.

He was precisely where he wanted to be, having arrived a couple of hours earlier, parked in the agency’s specially equipped van at the edge of a business parking lot to wait and watch.

Dunbar was in the back, a partition blocking the view from the windshield, and side windows of dark glass covered by black curtains. No one could see inside.

Waiting, Watching in Comfort

But Dunbar could see out just fine. Video cameras would show him anything that was going on in front, in back, on each side, all around the van. And through the periscope atop the van, another surveillance camera, equipped with a 400 mm lens and doubler, was focused on the thief’s house.

It was a summer day, with a midday sun beating down; it was hot outside. But in the surveillance van, Dunbar turned on Joe Cool, an air conditioner developed especially for surveillance work: an Igloo ice chest rigged with coils and a battery-operated fan.

If he got hungry or thirsty, Dunbar could open a little battery-powered refrigerator for a snack or cold drink. A portable potty eliminated another reason for leaving the van.

He could make or take calls on a cell phone, or use a computer online if, say, he wanted to run a check on a license plate to see who owned some vehicle. Most any work he can do at the office he can do in the van.

There is a comfortable chair in front of the handsome, stained-oak control center containing the video terminals and assorted other equipment. But if Dunbar’s 50-year-old back got to feeling a bit sore, he could switch on the vibrator in the chair, which also has a built-in hot pad.

A little soothing music? He could play his favorite CD or listen to the radio. He could watch the noon news on television or, if he cared to, watch a movie on the VCR. That would be the backup VCR unit. The other two are hooked up to the surveillance cameras.

You’re thinking he shouldn’t watch movies or do anything that would divert his attention from that house, in case those guys came out. But he could use the motion sensor, which would quietly watch the closed door and sound off when it opened, or if someone approached it, or if there were any other movement.

Too Pumped to Relax

Even so, Dunbar said he doesn’t watch movies on the job. Can’t relax like that. Too much adrenaline flowing. He said it has always been that way when there was the possibility of catching a crook.

He spent 27 years as a police officer and became a private eye after retiring as a sergeant from the Houston Police Department.

He said the surveillance van he spends so much time in now is a super tool that makes surveillance work much more comfortable and much more efficient than anything he got to use as a police officer.

Rob Kimmons, top banana at Kimmons Services, said more than $80,000 has been spent on the surveillance van. It looks from the outside like a regular work van used by any number of working men. But inside, the list of electronics goes on and on.

In addition to the features already mentioned, a GPS tracking system makes it possible to tail a truck for a company that suspects a driver of veering off course. There is even a button on the control panel for honking the van’s horn, so that whoever is being watched will turn to look and the video cameras can get a good shot of the person’s face.

When the door of that house opened, Dunbar saw it on the monitor. He switched on the camera and videotaped the two men toting goods out and loading them into the car. Got the cash payoff. Got them shaking hands.

Not only did it solve the case for the company, Dunbar said he showed police the tape, police showed it to the DA’s people, who gave the go-ahead, and the thief was arrested the next day.

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By Thom Marshall, Houston Chronicle, Sunday, December 25,1999

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