Legal Legs- A Nashville Investigative Firm

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The Huntsville Times | Nashville Scene | Cosmopolitan

Published on February 27, 2003
Article by Matt Pulle

Undercovers: A scorned wife discovers that catching cheating spouses is her life’s calling.

Had he never strayed, she wouldn’t have discovered her latent talent for sifting through trash, squatting behind shrubs and staking out philandering women while crouched in a pickup truck off the Alabama/Tennessee border. Her husband’s infidelity, however, brought out the private eye in Janice Holt. Now 50, Holt is a respected sleuth, working for some of the city’s most prominent divorce attorneys and awaiting an upcoming made-for-television movie about her unusual career.

Thirteen years ago, Holt shared her life with a successful husband, raising her son and daughter in the comfortable confines of Williamson County. A petite blond with the reassuring good looks of a sitcom mother, Holt looked forward to a peachy suburban life, one with romantic anniversaries, family vacations to Orlando and backyard barbecues.

One weekend, after returning from a trip to Atlanta, Holt came home to find her husband missing. Married for nearly eight years, she suspected he was having an affair and hired a private eye to find out. She provided the snoop with plenty of leads, but he whiffed on all of them. One day, her husband told her that he was going to take a road trip to Knoxville with some of his buddies. Holt saw him off, then grabbed a wig and a pair of glasses and followed him. He drove to a nearby apartment complex, where an attractive younger woman jumped in his car. She again called the private eye and told him to follow the couple to Knoxville. But a day or so later, the snoop once again came back and said that he had nothing to report.

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Holt suspected that her husband was paying off the private eye. So she fired him and, when he told her that she owed him $900, she challenged him to sue her. Then, Holt said, she’d expose his double-crossing ways to the judge. The private eye went away. Meanwhile, her husband was onto his wife’s suspicions. Rather than explain away his duplicitous behavior, he taunted her, telling his wife, “You couldn’t track an elephant in the snow.”

He’d rue those words. One weekend, when her husband was out of town, presumably cavorting with his paramour, a persistent Holt dropped by the other woman’s apartment. She called a locksmith, told him that she lost her wallet and sweet-talked him into opening the door. When she walked into the apartment, she found pictures of her husband and girlfriend, including an 8x10 snapshot of the cozy pair at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. She inventoried the woman’s apartment and cross-checked items with her husband’s credit card bills. The elephant was busted.

The conclusion of her divorce brought Holt enormous legal fees. Approaching 40, Holt had grown up poor on an Alabama cotton farm. At the time, she worked as a jazzercise instructor and faced daunting prospects of ever finding the money. So to help her pay the bills, her lawyer, Bobby Jackson, who is still one of Nashville’s most prominent domestic dispute attorneys, hired her to conduct private investigative work on his cases.

“She did a great, great job figuring out what her husband was doing and who he was going with,” Jackson says. “She followed him around, got pictures.” The rest, as they say, is history.

Today, Holt bears no enmity toward her ex-husband, even expressing gratitude that he inadvertently pushed her to a job she was born to do. She continues to snoop for her old lawyer and for some of the city’s finest divorce attorneys, including Rose Palermo. Nashville’s preeminent celebrity divorce attorney, Palermo has doggedly defended all sorts of stars in the throes of marital discord, including Wynonna Judd, Tracy Lawrence and Sammy Kershaw. But Palermo never trusted private eyes until she met Janice Holt.

“You know why she’s great? She’ll follow people in rainstorms,” Palermo says. “Let’s just say that I have the utmost confidence in her. She gives 110 percent, she’s fair and honest with clients, and she’s extremely persistent.”

“There are some good private investigators in Nashville, but in domestic cases, there’s nobody better than Janice,” adds divorce attorney Phil Smith, who’s worked with Holt for 10 years. “She uses all sorts of disguises, she hides cameras in her purse, and she can be very disarming. People confide in her.”

On Valentine’s Day evening, Holt camped out in her car, keeping an eye on an oblivious sap up to no good. It was wet and chilly that night, and Holt would have been justified to flee the dreary setting for a warm fire and a good man.

But, inexplicably enough, Holt loves her job, even when toiling 75 hours a week and playing eyewitness to some of the more pathetic perversions of infidelity. Sometimes she doesn’t hit the sack until 2 a.m. Three hours later, the first phone calls arrive, usually from distraught clients who want to cry about their philandering spouses. Then there are the tedious stretches when she’s waiting hour after hour for a spouse to stray. “When she goes to work a case, she’ll pack trail mix and water because she can’t exactly stop for food,” says Mary Frances Rudy, a local attorney and one of Holt’s closest friends. “Plus, the situations of how she goes to the bathroom are really interesting.”

Basically, when nature calls, Holt finds a Dixie cup.

Of course, it’s amid this mix of sleaze and boredom that Holt uncovers the truth. And that’s no small accomplishment. Sometimes Holt records the reckless behavior of a bad mom or dad, ultimately allowing the more deserving parent to gain custody. She’s thwarted kidnappings, rescued kids from drug-addled parents and busted women who lied about their husbands’ abuse. But mostly, Holt seems to love the thrill of the chase. She beams just talking about “the rush” she gets from nabbing an errant spouse.

“If I go three or four days and haven’t accomplished what I’ve wanted to, I won’t be happy,” says Holt, who’s been attacked and carries a stun gun for protection. “But then I’ll get three or four busts in a row, and I’ll be in a great mood.”

Holt’s first professional case as a private investigator had nothing to do with adulterous behavior. An older woman in Grand Rapids, Mich., wanted to gain custody of her 2-year-old grandson from her no-good son-in-law. The woman’s daughter had died of an AIDS-related illness, presumably becoming infected by her drug-using husband, Kenny. Holt’s job was to prove that the older woman, and not Kenny, should raise the young boy—a daunting mission, given how courts rarely side with grandparents.

After a little sleuthing, Holt discovered that Kenny and his friend Richard had been scamming an elderly couple. The couple sold boots out of their home in Rutherford County. On the pretense of fixing the couple’s refrigerator, Kenny and Richard made their way into the house and stole the merchandise. Holt tracked down the couple, who agreed to testify against Kenny in court. The private eye also kept tabs on Kenny and Richard, nabbing them as they tried to sell the couple’s boots at a flea market in Smyrna.

Still, to wrangle custody of a boy from his father, she’d need more than a few pairs of stolen boots. So after discovering that Kenny used to work for a furniture rental store on Nolensville Road, she met up with Kenny’s old boss. Turns out Kenny had been fired for wrecking a delivery truck. More relevant to a judge, however, was that Kenny didn’t receive his dismissal with grace. He doctored a photo of himself making him look like a devil. A clean-cut looking man in his late-20s whose appearance belied his roguish character, Kenny handed the photo to his employer and delivered a not-so-veiled threat. After hearing about the custody dispute from Holt, the employer readily agreed to testify against Kenny.

Ultimately, a judge awarded the Michigan grandmother custody of the young boy due in no small part to the damning evidence Holt had collected. The judge also made the father pay child support. Not the brightest ember in the campfire, Kenny didn’t win any points when he showed up at the trial wearing a pair of boots that he had stolen from the elderly couple.

Holt had won her first professional case. And she did it by the book—no breaking into apartments or anything, just good, old-fashioned detective work. Right then, Holt knew that she had happened upon a new way to make a living.

“That first case was like a movie in itself,” she eagerly recalls. “By the time I finished, I was hooked.”

After the custody hearing, Kenny sidled up to Holt and told her, “You better keep looking over your shoulder.” Years later, Kenny wound up in a homeless shelter for people with AIDS, a situation that, somewhat disturbingly, Holt recounts with relish. Her clients gush about how compassionate Holt can be, but she’s tougher than a middle linebacker when you’re lined up against her.

Meanwhile, more than a decade after that first case, Holt still hears from a grateful grandmother who thinks, perhaps correctly, that the private investigator saved the boy’s life.

Meanwhile, one of Holt’s most important cases came when she helped solve an abduction. A California ex-con told his estranged girlfriend that he planned to kill her and kidnap their child. Nobody believed the woman, except Holt, who took on the case. Sure enough, one day the ex-con took his daughter and drove west on Interstate 40. Holt doggedly followed him in a rented Ford Escort, but he got away. Dejected, Holt phoned the client’s lawyer to tell him that the father was kidnapping the girl.

But there was nothing they could do at that point. Because the ex-con had visitation, they couldn’t call the police for another 24 hours. By then, he’d be long gone.

“Not only did I lose him, but I had to drive back and tell the mom that the kid had been kidnapped,” Holt says.

But Holt had been spying on the ex-con, meticulously recording the tag numbers of friends who dropped by his seedy apartment. She traced one number to a friend in Mississippi. Sure enough, local police made their acquaintance with the friend and, after threatening him with aiding and abetting a kidnapping, he coughed up his buddy’s whereabouts.

Later, the ex-con was arrested on a drug charge in Buffalo and police nabbed him.

Despite the portrayals of adultery in such movies as Unfaithful, where extramarital dalliances seem ripe with excitement and danger, trysts in real life are apparently more tacky than provocative.

About five years ago, a group of deacons from a North Carolina church hired Holt to follow their pastor, who they believed had a girlfriend he planned to meet in Nashville. Holt staked out the pastor as he checked into a hotel along Music Valley Drive in Donelson. In the parking lot, she noticed a man in a nearby car, who also seemed to be watching the same target. When the pastor left the hotel and drove to lunch, Holt noticed that the mysterious man in the car left in pursuit as well.

Confused, and more than a little irritated, Holt called the deacons and asked them why they enlisted the services of two detectives. They did not, they explained, and the deacons promised to figure out what was going on. Shortly thereafter, one of the deacons called her back. The pastor’s wife hired the other detective.

She should have gone with Holt. The male private eye quickly abandoned the case, while Holt discovered the pastor’s hotel room and managed to stay in the room across the hall. Holt then propped the door open and had her daughter play in the hallway, while a hidden video camera peaked out through her room. She caught the pastor on tape returning with his attractive mistress later that night.

“My son is playing video games, my daughter is doing cartwheels. Meanwhile my camera is on and running,” she says. “There’s no way he could ever have suspected I was a private eye.”

Always trying to prove herself in a man’s field, Holt is relentless in pursuing a case. She screens her clients carefully and, if she feels they are telling her tall tales, she won’t agree to work for them. But if she’s confident that her clients’ accounts are honest, she’ll nearly kill herself trying to prove them right.

“She can go on little or no sleep,” says Kimm Garbler, a private investigator who’s worked with Holt. “She just goes non-stop. She’s absolutely tenacious.”

She’s also blunt when she needs to be. One client talks about how he suspected his wife was entertaining the advances of another man, primarily because she stopped holding his hand in the movie theater or while the two were driving. He met Holt through a mutual friend.

“I was hoping I was wrong,” the client says. “But Janice told me flat-out, 'She’s having an affair.’ ” I asked her how she knew, and she said that she had a gut feeling on two levels—'One, I’m a woman. Two, I’m an investigator.’ ”

Within three hours of taking the case, Holt caught the wife grabbing, touching and sharing a cigar with a ponytailed man, who, ironically enough, was himself an undercover cop. On the advice of his lawyer, the husband had to pretend that he knew nothing of his wife’s dalliances so that Holt could document a long-standing pattern of illicit behavior.

“I would rather go through Vietnam than deal with all of that again,” the client says. “But Janice was great. She was so supportive. And her ability to read a situation correctly is extraordinary.”

Today, in an odd twist, given how she stumbled into the business, Holt works mostly for male clients who are trying to gain custody of their children. The reason, she explains, is that a father typically faces a tougher legal challenge convincing a judge that he deserves custody—even when he’s the better parent. “The woman almost always gets custody unless the man can prove she’s not a good mother,” Holt says. “So they need me to level the playing field.”

For example, one of Holt’s clients came to her with this problem: His wife was spending all her time on the Internet, neglecting him and their children. She behaved mysteriously, and he wondered if she was doing more than logging onto Making matters more suspicious, the woman returned from a trip once with an unusual T-shirt advertising a Web site. Holt had an assistant sign onto the Web site, which was an elaborate social forum for would-be couples.

The Web site announced plans for an online wedding between the client’s wife and a man from Ohio. The Web site included a picture of the e-couple along with 20 pages of wedding invitations and even, believe it or not, online seating arrangements. But this was more than a bizarre fantasy. Included in the Web site were plans for the pair to consummate their Web union at the Hampton Inn on Donel son Pike. On the night the two planned their illicit rendezvous, Holt followed the woman to a liquor store and then to a supermarket, where she bought strawberries and whipped cream. When they arrived at the hotel, their room wasn’t ready yet. So the anxious couple began their honeymoon festivities in the hotel parking lot. Holt recorded their activities on videotape while crouched in her idled car at the adjacent Holiday Inn lot.

Ultimately, the husband wound up with custody of the children, not just because of his wife’s extramarital dalliances but also because that behavior turned her into a negligent mother. “She was just totally consumed with being on the computer,” Holt says. “She couldn’t get off.”

Holt often meets with male clients who are enraged at their errant wives and want custody of their children to exact revenge. Invariably, she reasons with them, encouraging them to think about what’s best for the kids, not what’s worst for their wives. Of course, it’s not easy communicating with people whose frames of mind aren’t predisposed to good judgment.

“Some men will tell me that they want custody of their kids because their wife is a whore,” she says. “Well that might make her a bad wife, but it doesn’t necessarily make her a bad mom, at least in the eyes of the court.”

Then again, sometimes it does. A few years ago, Holt sat in a pickup truck for nearly 27 hours as she staked out a 20-year-old married mother in Lewisburg, Tenn., just north of the Alabama border. The woman was supposed to be watching her 9-month-old daughter, but instead she spent the night with a man. The next day, Holt caught the woman peddling drugs and performing oral sex on a different man. Next to her, Courtney Love might as well be mother of the year. The client ultimately won custody of his daughter.

Holt also infiltrated a battered women’s group on the trail of a wife whom she suspected concocted a story that her husband choked her. The woman even had the man arrested. The woman’s husband called Holt and claimed that he never laid a hand on his wife. Sensing that he was telling the truth, she went to work trying to prove his case.

Evidently, the man’s wife was charming enough to become the de facto leader of a battered women’s group. Holt went to nearly every meeting, wearing a Rock City T-shirt and a pair of dingy jeans. She drew black eye shadow around her eyes. Mean while, the wife felt empowered as the leader of the group and one day blurted out, “The day I had my husband arrested and hauled in the backseat of a patrol car was a great day. Who cares if he actually did it or not?” Needless to say, the client won custody of his 10-year-old girl.

Holt’s array of colorful stories, along with her own, dramatic introduction into the business, has landed her on the pages of Cosmopolitan and on the Maury Povich show. Now Lifetime Television, appropriately enough, wants to film a movie about her life. Lauren Holly, the gorgeous red head who has starred in such movies as Dumb and Dumber and Beautiful Girls, wants to play Holt. If the movie is well received, the producers plan to turn Holt’s story into a series.

“She’s a ball of fire,” says David Kohner Zuckerman, the president of the Los Angeles-based Silver Lion Films, who will serve as the movie’s co-producer. “She has 1,001 stories to tell that are tremendously interesting. I just think she would make a fantastic central character for a television show.”

Of course, Holt’s story would fit perfectly on Lifetime Television, whose staple movie is typically a (surprisingly) engrossing drama about a beleaguered woman who somehow overcomes a series of formidable obstacles, only to triumph over all of them, finding peace, love and understanding in the process.

“It’s not just a story about a woman outsmarting a man,” says Billy Field, a screenwriter involved in the project. “That’s been done before. It’s a woman who didn’t know she was smart, didn’t think she could do anything and, as it turns out, she could.”

If there is a love interest for Holly in the movie, that part would be strictly fiction. Since her divorce more than 12 years ago, Holt hasn’t had so much as a serious boyfriend, a surprising revelation for a successful, attractive professional. And, according to her friends, no one is likely to threaten her single status anytime soon.

“She can be pretty jaded because she knows how men lie and cheat,” says Mary Frances Rudy. “It’s going to be hard for her to find someone who she finds trustworthy. Plus, she’s doing OK financially. She doesn’t have those needs that she has to have met. For her to find someone, he’s going to have to be exciting to compete with the life she has now.”

There are drawbacks to that life, however. It’s not just witnessing the anguished shattering of marital unions or the seedier side of human behavior. It’s always being a spectator—albeit one with a videotape—and never being the featured player. “I have no life of my own,” she says, although she does seem to have no shortage of male and female friends. “I live my life through other people.”

Just when she begins to elicit sympathy, Holt again becomes positively giddy about the next case she’s working on. The details are sketchy—something about a man having an affair, going so far as to rent an apartment for his lover. It’s a Thursday night, yet another rainy evening that has come to define this remarkably dreary winter, and Holt leaves Hillsboro Village to pursue her oblivious target. In her car, she has her stun gun, video camera and maybe some trail mix. It’s time to track another elephant in the snow. “Sometimes I hate this job,” she says. “But then there are times when I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

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