On the Job

updated 11/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

It's 8:45 a.m. in suburban Schenectady, N.Y. In the cluttered ground-floor office of a comfortable three-bedroom split-level, the lady of the house is still in her bathrobe. With a cup of coffee in one hand, the country's premier finder of missing persons, Marilyn Greene, 39, reads a letter from someone who wants her help.

A 40-year-old mother of two writes that her oldest child is a 17-year-old boy born out of wedlock after her brief romance with Thomas W. (not his real name), an Air Force serviceman. The father, from rural Georgia, was transferred to the Aleutian Islands before learning of the pregnancy, and though "he promised to write," the woman had quickly lost contact with him. Now her son is curious about his father; the woman knows only his name, his hometown and his birth date. She wants to know if Greene can help find him.

Greene picks up the phone and calls information in the man's hometown. There's no listing under the family name, and the town is so small there is no police department. No problem. Greene calls the county seat and gets an elderly county sheriff. He suggests she try the local Baptist church, it being Sunday morning and all.

"Now it comes down to technique," says Greene, as she dials the church. "This family probably doesn't know their son has an illegitimate child, and it's not my place to tell them, so I have to think up a 'pretext story.' It's legal, and it protects everyone from getting hurt."

Greene reaches a minister who, sure enough, brings Thomas Sr. to the phone. Then Greene spins a yarn about being the wife of an Air Force buddy of his son's. They are moving and have found some of Thomas Jr.'s belongings with her husband's. If it isn't a problem, could Mr. W. tell her where Thomas Jr. is now? It turns out that "Tommy" is still in the Air Force and stationed at a base in California. Greene calls the West Coast, and the base operator confirms that he is there. She hangs up. Her coffee is still warm, and in 20 minutes she has located a man who had been "missing" for nearly 20 years. "Reuniting families is the upbeat part of my job," says Greene happily.

Although she has found more than 200 missing people in the past two decades, the endings are not always so happy. Greene's specialty is wilderness searches, and sometimes her sleuthing leads only to a dead body. Armed with a German shepherd trained to "air scent" like avalanche-search dogs, and a 20-foot sonar-equipped boat, Greene is often called in when local police come up empty. Sometimes just knowing the odds helps. Lost elderly people tend to head for low ground, says Greene; persons planning suicide usually head for the highest elevation; hunters more often than not wander uphill within a three-mile radius or downhill within a six-mile radius of where they were last seen. Even so, "that still leaves massive amounts of territory to cover," observes Greene.

Sometimes she is too good. "I was once accidentally on the verge of finding a person relocated under the Federal Witness Protection Program," she relates. "A well-meaning family member wanted to find a lost brother. The FBI asked me to keep it to myself. So I told my client I'd failed," says Greene, who declined even her usual $500 minimum fee. On other occasions, successful sleuthing has brought her face-to-face with murderers on the lam. "I never feel threatened because I never really confront them," she says. "I have a Columbo style of appearing to be off-base."

For Greene, finding lost souls has often seemed easier than finding peace of mind. Her round-the-clock hours and obsession with work began two failed marriages ago and have at times stirred second thoughts about her career. Her search for herself and others is described in her autobiography, Finder, co-written with author Gary Provost and published this past summer. The book has brought even more clients, says Greene, and Warner Bros, recently purchased the rights to her life story.

That tale began in upstate New York, where Greene, the daughter of a factory worker and a housewife, was raised with her younger brother. After graduating from high school in 1967, she decided to become a state trooper but was told that women were not accepted. Undaunted, she enlisted as a volunteer in the local search-and-rescue team and began trekking through the hillsides looking for lost children, wayward campers and other strays. Finally, divorced and with two sons to support, she decided in 1979 to become a licensed private investigator.

Greene was married for the third time eight years ago, and she has found not only a mate but also a partner in Edward Van Wormer, 32. A private investigator himself, Van Wormer is a skilled underwater diver who often works as Greene's partner in the field and, at home, does most of the cooking for her and her two boys, Joe, 15, Paul, 20, and foster son Scott Vander-zee, 18. "Marilyn should charge more for her services," Van Wormer says admiringly. "I've seen her go into an area and find people no one else even got close to. She has a sense for where to look that you just can't teach a person. She was born with it."

For some of her clients, it's a skill that's often needed before they even meet the sleuth. "People ask the way to our house, and I say, 'It's a right and three lefts.' Yet no one can ever get here on the first try," she says. "But don't worry—if they get lost, I can find them."

—Ned Geeslin, and Jamie M. Saul in Schenectady

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