The Magazine

Rat-Lines and Stakeouts

My life under cover in 1960s San Francisco.

Jan 22, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 18 • By RICHARD W. CARLSON
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The tone of girlish shock that permeated the news coverage of the Hewlett-Packard "spying scandal" was something to behold. Reporters surprised to learn about pretext phone calls? I don't think so. I know about these things. In a much earlier life I was a reporter. I also worked for one of the most successfully sneaky private dicks in America, the king of deception, stings, and wiretapping, the man who invented the transmitter in the martini olive: Harold Lipset.

I met Hal in San Francisco in 1965, and we hit it off over dinner and a bottle of red wine. Hal was in his mid-forties. He had been a private dick all his adult life, beginning as a criminal investigator in the Army in World War II. He had a face like a British bull-dog, round and flat, with a wattled neck and a plop of curly hair on top. He was well read and charming, a widower, as homely as a cement berm but a big hit with the ladies.

Had I ever done any surveillance, Hal asked? I had done a little over the past two years, I told him. My news partner, Lance Brisson, and I regularly tracked one weird person or another in real or imagined pursuit of news.

Hal asked if Lance and I would like to do some surveillances and an occasional investigation for him. He'd pay by the hour and match our Time magazine stringing fee--we always had side jobs--which was a hefty $10 an hour. He didn't have any specific cases in mind. Stand by, he said, I'll call you when I have something interesting.

Lance and I were the "investigative team" for KGO-TV, the ABC-owned station in San Francisco. Our evening news show, hosted by our boss, Roger Grimsby, was wildly popular with the local audience. KGO was famous for a lack of decorum and taste.

KGO had been tipped that a popular San Francisco state assemblyman, a buffoonish character named Charlie Myers, was being accused of petty graft. Myers's chief deputy had testified to a grand jury that Charlie had used state funds to pay $250 a month to his family babysitter, had "phantom employees" whose salaries he kept for himself, and had settled a campaign public relations bill with $300 in taxpayer-owned postage stamps.

The aide's name was Bob Visnick. He was in St. Francis Hospital with a broken hip and leg. Visnick had been on the losing side of an argument in Mike's Pool Hall. When he fled the building a few steps ahead of a fellow trying to brain him with a pool cue, he ran into North Beach traffic and was hit by a city bus, or maybe a taxi--I can't recall.

Lance and I visited the hospital room where he lay in traction. Visnick refused to be interviewed on camera but otherwise blabbed at length about Charlie Myers's alleged crookery.

Lance and I promised Visnick we would come back the next night after the news show and bring Roger Grimsby to meet him. Roger was a Bay Area celebrity. Visnick was pleased. We went to Hal Lipset and borrowed some bugging equipment, a small wireless mike, a Fargo transmitter, and a reel-to-reel recorder.

Lance Brisson was my cohort at KGO News. For a couple of years we supplied almost all of KGO's (and sometimes the ABC network's) blood and guts stories.

In the course of shooting film of weird and violent people, including at the Watts riots in L.A., the student riots in Berkeley, the draft riots in Oakland, the race riots in San Francisco's Fillmore and Hunters Point Districts, hippie riots in Haight-Ashbury, and dozens of drug raids, murders, shootings, "love-ins," "be-ins," arsons, horrendous rapes, and a documentary on prostitution for ABC called The Streetwalkers, we had been shot at a half-dozen times, crashed into the ocean in a helicopter off Point Reyes, been punched, threatened with knives and a sickle, bitten, kicked, and hit with boards and kitchen appliances, chair legs, bricks, and bottles.

Hal Lipset's office and home was a four-story, 25-room Victorian mansion at the top of San Francisco's Pacific Heights. Hal had made a lot of dough from snooping, particularly wiretapping. Hal's office (and his wire and tape room) was on the main floor. A rabbit warren of rooms and a squad-bay in the basement were where operatives typed reports or hung out. Two locked rooms contained Hal's broad collection of uniforms and disguises: mailman, security guard, waiter, dozens of conventioneer's badges ("Hi, I'm Kurt."), etc. Telephone linemen's pole-climbing equipment and hard-hats for wire-tapping forays hung from hooks. (Hal was the model for the Coppola film The Conversation and once owned his own Pacific Telephone truck.)

Hal Lipset's obit in the New York Times said he hired many intellectual operatives. I don't know about that. I must have been out the day the intellectuals arrived. But the detectives who worked for Hal were a clever group, and ballsy, and I liked them.