A guy cheating on his wife speeds down the freeway in his Ford Mustang; hot on his tail is a suburban mom in a Honda minivan. Charmagne Peters, 39, is talking to Mustang Guy's wife on her cell when she gets another call. "Hi, Dr. Francis, it's Charmagne. My son's been complaining about an ear infection for three days now." Peters makes an appointment, then switches back to the wife: "I just want you to know that your husband did make a stop and he did pick up a blonde female, approximately 5'7"."
There's multitasking, and then there's what Peters does: juggle cookouts and stakeouts. A mother of two (Grant, 8, and Madison, 7), she is also a private investigator working for Butler & Associates-a premier detective firm in California's Bay Area that hires only women as P.I.s, most of them moms. A traditionally male-dominated field-agencies used to stock up on retired male cops-the industry is now welcoming a new breed of snoop with a special set of skills. "Moms are natural multitaskers, holding the phone in one arm and the baby in the other," says Chris Butler, 48, whose agency employs seven female detectives, five of whom are mothers. "After 20 years an ex-cop has lost all his creativity; he's burned out. But these women have energy." Adds Francie Koehler, president of the National Council of Investigation and Security Services: "Mothers need good listening skills, and that translates well into P.I. work."
Butler's firm specializes in locating witnesses for attorneys, ferreting out industrial espionage and that P.I. staple of uncovering adultery. In fact Peters stumbled into the business when she hired Butler to investigate a family member. Impressed with the female P.I.s she met, Peters accepted Butler's offer to learn the ropes. In the year she's been there she's worked on dozens of cases, including undercover stings and bogus workers' comp claims. "A lot of my life is predictable; this is not," says Peters, who lives in the Oakland suburb of Orinda. Besides, "as a kid I always wanted to be [Charlie's Angel] Jaclyn Smith."
Peters' colleague Michelle Allen, 46 (mother of Nicolle, 16, and Clayton, 12) says the best disguise for a mom P.I. is often no disguise at all. One of her favorite tactics while trailing a suspect is to act like she's on her cell with her daughter, when she's really talking in code to a fellow P.I. "I'll pretend we're talking about yoga clothes. I'll say, 'We have a green one here, but it has some glitter,'" she says. "And the guy is thinking, 'Okay, this is just some mom with a high-maintenance kid.'"
That's another advantage for mom P.I.s: "Nobody, but nobody, believes they're being spied on by a woman," says Jan Tucker, chairman of the California Association of Licensed Investigators. Take mom P.I. Julia Kostina, 30-she deftly placed a GPS tracking device under Mustang Guy's car during the stakeout with Peters. Later they followed him into a bar and sat nearby, secretly snapping photos. The only place anyone gets suspicious of her is at home, where her son Mark, 10-who knows about her double life-wonders if she's snooping on him. "Mark thinks he has a hidden camera in his room because no matter what he does, my husband, Juraj, and I somehow know about it," says Kostina, who's expecting her second child in July. "He thinks the teddy bear has a camera in its eyes."
This, perhaps, may be the biggest occupational hazard for mom P.I.s: having their cover blown by their kids. "The other day I had just come off surveillance, and one of Grant's friends saw me in my black overcoat and black glasses," says Peters. "He said, 'Mommy, there's Grant's mom! Guess what she does? She's a spy!' So his mom pulls me aside and says, 'Nolan just said something so funny.' And I said, 'Yeah, kids do say the darndest things.'"