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Tidings and salutations, bibliophages. Thank you for joining me on True Crime By The Book where every other Tuesday we meet up to talk real crime one page at a time. I’m your host, Tasha Pierce. There is, of course, more than one type of crime. This week, we’ll discuss a case that unfolds like a cheesy made for TV movie. Today’s conversation is based on the book “The Setup: A True Story of Dirty Cops, Soccer Moms, and Reality TV” by Pete Crooks. I listened to the audiobook (shout out to Audible) which ran for about 10 hours and was narrated by Keith Sellon-Wright. I thought Sellon-Wright did the story justice. I could almost hear the twinkle in his eye. I followed up with the Diablo magazine article as well. The Setup was a wild and winding adventure told from the point of view of the author, Pete Crooks, who had inadvertently stumbled into something HUGE. According to the Audible author’s page, Pete is a Bay Area journalist. We’ll learn that he has been an editor at Diablo magazine, which serves the San Francisco /Diablo Valley region, for 14 years. After exposing this absolutely unbelievable tale, he has been a guest on This American Life and 48 Hours on CBS.
Before we jump into my summary, let’s get the Goodreads synopsis:
The pitch went like this: Chris Butler, a retired cop, ran a private investigator firm in Concord, California. His business had a fascinating angle—his firm was staffed entirely by soccer moms.
In fact, Butler employed PI Super Moms: attractive, organized, smart, and trained in investigative techniques, self-defense, and weaponry. This American Life host Ira Glass described them as “MILF: Charlie’s Angels.”
When this story came across Pete Crooks’s desk when he was working at Diablo magazine in 2010, he was instantly hooked. He’d heard a little bit about Butler and his super moms in the news; they’d been featured in People magazine and on Dr. Phil. What Butler’s publicist was offering was too tantalizing to pass up: an opportunity to ride along with Butler and a few of his sexy PIs as they prepared to start filming a reality TV show.
He soon found himself deep in the underbelly of fake sting operations, wannabe celebrities, police corruption, drug-dealing, reality television, double-crossing employees, and more twists and turns than a dozen crime thrillers.
A wise person once told me to believe half of what you see, none of what you hear. I am not sure that sage advice was meant to cover audiobooks but, while I was listening to The Setup, I more than once thought to myself “There is no way possible this happened”. By the end of the story, I was exhausted! If you are unfamiliar with the case, I hope it’s as thrilling for you. Of course, there is no way I can hit every high and low during this episode. Regardless, I hope my telling encourages you to read the book.
Like we’ve already revealed, Pete was an editor at Diablo magazine in 2010. He covered entertainment, and there was the word that a local private investigator firm would be getting a reality TV series. The show, PI Moms, would be airing on Lifetime, because- where else?. There was a lot of buzz surrounding these “soccer moms” who doubled as private investigators, including being featured on the Dr. Phil show and People magazine. They had a boss named Chris Butler. Chris was a former cop and the Charlie to their angels. Chris was a stocky guy, blonde hair and goatee. A form-fitting tee shirt, tight jeans, and fashionable boots seemed to be his uniform. He kind of looked like you expected him to. Well, this was a pretty nice report to feature in Diablo- the show would be about the PI’s but the Bay Area would be the backdrop of their escapades. Pete was contacted by the firm’s public relations and asked if he’d like to interview the ladies for an upcoming issue. He was quite enthusiastic about it. Interestingly, he was even invited to do a ride-along with the moms. He could cover a routine day in their lives while interviewing them for his article. Well, this is more than he really hoped for so he agreed. Little did he know, this ride-along would change his life and hand him the biggest story of his career.
On September 9, 2010, Pete made his way to the warehouse that served as headquarters of the PI Moms. The first things he noticed were the photos of all the TV cops from his youth- Moonlighting, Columbo (my personal fave), Cagney and Lacey- and, of course, Charlie’s Angels. After meeting the staff and getting through obligatory niceties, Pete was eager to get a glimpse of the girls in action. These ladies came from divergent paths but were united by their preparation- investigatory techniques, self-defense, weaponry training, and a 6-month intense training program. Pete was to be a fly on the wall of their operation. Soon, an attractive middle-aged woman named Sharon entered the office and was in need of their services. She tearfully explained to the group that she had a much younger fiance. Lately, he had been MIA on Saturday’s and this rather well off woman needed to have her doubts relieved before she could go ahead with their planned wedding. She said that he told her that his unaccounted-for time was spent in a local gym, but she suspected that he was lying. She wanted the PI Moms to track him down and either verify his alibi or confirm her suspicions.
September 11, the day of the ride-along, arrived. Pete met up with Charmaine Peters and Denise Antoon. These were the spies who were taking point on Sharon’s case. The team leaped into action- what gym was he a member of? Did she have a photo? What type of car did he drive? What time did he usually head to the gym? Armed with this information, the ladies and Pete jumped into a minivan (because we all know that soccer moms only drive minivans) and took off in order to stake out the gym. Butler and the client would stay behind, keeping in contact via phone or text.
Pete couldn’t believe his luck! He never expected that they would get a client and hit the road just like that. He sat in the back seat taking notes and wondering how the case would turn out. He didn’t have to wait long for the next chapter to unfold. The fiance, Al, drove up to the gym in the described Mercedes. The moms pulled out a camcorder and trained it on their subject. He was wearing his workout gear and carrying a gym bag. It looks like he may be really going to work out. Imagine how surprised the PI’s were when he returned minutes later dressed in a casual outfit. He jumped back in the car and drove off.
The moms pulled out behind him and tailed him- in what the book describes as one car length behind. They made the same turns as him. They made the same traffic violations as him. This has got to be the worst example of secretly following someone EVER. If the man looked in his rearview mirror the “trained’ investigators would be made. Pete mentioned this to them, but they assured him that the driver was in his own little world. He wouldn’t notice the minivan with the camcorder in the windshield that had been following him since he left the gym. Well, they were the professionals. What the heck did Pete know? He’s just a freaking “entertainment” editor for Diablo, right? These skilled and highly disciplined experts were actually going to be part of a reality show! Pete stayed in his place.
They continued to trail the Mercedes until it got to a gated community. There was no following him in there. They’d be forced to wait for him to come out, and they couldn’t definitively tell their client what he was up to. This felt like a dead end.
BUT– it seemed luck would prevail, once again. Playboy pulled back on the highway, but this time not by himself. Al was now accompanied by a beautiful young woman. With the chase back on, the group shadowed the couple to, among other places, a jewelry store. The oblivious lovebirds stopped dead in front of the minivan with a whole damn camcorder set up on the dashboard and shared a kiss. Then they went into the store and spent some of the old lady’s money. Three hours in and they’d already confirmed the client’s worst suspicions, but the moms were ordered by Chris to continue their surveillance. In fact, he was dispatching a second team to further document the fiance’s actions. Pete didn’t understand why they would need any more evidence, but he kept his mouth shut and rode along.
The next stop for the caravan was a restaurant- Rutherford Grill. The fiance and his lady friend went in and found seats. Minutes later a flashy black Mustang carrying an even flashier couple pulled up to the restaurant. The backup had arrived! Out stepped Carl Marino, and his wife Ilona. They went over to the van to see a picture of the target and then waltzed in the restaurant and sat next to them. Soon, the Marino’s had struck up a conversation and were really getting acquainted with Al and his date. Well, the trio in the van were starving, so they also went inside and sat RIGHT NEXT TO THEM. This was really odd. Pete was closest to the cheater and his lady friend- in fact, he could hear their REALLY juvenile conversation. Thankfully, he and the Moms went back to the van after eating. Carl texted them that he and the misses had been invited to join cheater and friend at a hotel. Because that’s a thing that happens on random Saturdays between strangers.
The motorcade was soon traveling to a Holiday Inn Express- the cheater and his date in the Mercedes, the Marino’s in the Mustang, and the Moms in the minivan bringing up the rear. A text announced that another car would soon be joining them- one carrying Chris and Sharon the client.
Pete thought this was HIGHLY irresponsible and problematic and told Charmaine and Denise. Sharon was the last person who needed to be present at this hotel. Things could go south in a real Jerry Springer sort of way.
The Moms and Pete watched the two couples go into the hotel. Then, Chris and the client pulled up. Chris came over to the van and instructed them to follow him. Then, he and Sharon jumped into the Mercedes and raced off- seemingly leaving her fiance stranded at the hotel. They met up at a nearby parking lot. Before the car was even parked, Sharon leaped out and ran over to the Mercedes- her car- that the scoundrel had been driving. Using her keys, she popped the trunk and rifled through his date’s bag of gifts. After seeing the evidence of Al’s dalliance, she began to sob inconsolably.
After completing the 10-hour stakeout and witnessing its aftermath, Pete went home. Two weeks later, he joined the moms and Butler for a self-defense class at the UFC gym- the official gym of Butler and Associates. He used this time to also chat with the crew. He had material for a hell of a story. Later, he began the writer’s process of putting together an article that would captivate his audience. Three months later, he was ready to start writing the piece. BUT– on Jan 3 he received an email. It read, “I am writing this as a courtesy to you. It would be a mistake to publish the article on the P.I. Moms and Chris Butler that you came and did a story on a few months ago. Chris totally played you. The case that you sat in on was totally scripted. All of the participants were employees or paid actors. The ‘client’ actually works for the agency and was a former client. The ‘boyfriend’ was a friend of Chris’, and his ‘mistress’ is a hired ‘decoy.’ The entire Napa ‘trip’ was planned out, and the investigators knew exactly the course of events. The only reason Butler wants to be in your magazine is for advertising purposes. The whole ‘P.I. Moms’ thing has even been crafted just to get on a TV show. You have a great and classy magazine, and I would hate to see it cheapened by someone of low character such as Mr. Butler.”It was signed “R Rutherford”
Who the heck is Rutherford?
Pete was perplexed. He wanted answers, so he made calls to everyone involved in that godforsaken ride-along. Charmaine, Denise, Marino, Butler. They all assured him that the whole thing was legit. He asked Butler to put him in touch with Sharon the client. First thing tomorrow was the response. Alone with his thoughts, Pete began to wonder. Had he been duped? He was beginning to think so, especially since Butler never got back to him with Sharon’s info.
In the meantime,
Rutherford made contact again- this time he named the mystery date. Her name was Ryan Romano. Pete did a Facebook search and there she was. She was Facebook friends with people who were friends with some of the PI Moms. Not even six degrees of separation, huh? He then did some pretty impressive detective work and came up with Sharon the client’s full name. He plopped that in the Facebook search and saw pictures of her and her real boyfriend. The further he went down this rabbit hole the more pissed he got. The absolute icing on the cake was when Rutherford forwarded an inter-office email that laid out the entire itinerary of the staged ride-along complete with aerial maps. They had wasted 10 hours of Pete’s time on his day off! This was now PERSONAL!
So. now Pete is big mad. Let’s be realistic for a second, though. The day of the stakeout played out like a bad Lifetime movie. Just listening to it I’m sure some of you had already come to the conclusion that at least parts of it were faked. If not, I know you noticed that the sarcasm dripped from my re-telling of the events. Things definitely appear different from the outside looking in. Pete had no reason to believe these people would lie to him. He had no idea that so many people would be part of this endeavour to set him up. The important thing was now that he knew, what was he going to do about it? It didn’t take long for him to reach the conclusion that he would expose them. There was a lot of questions about the validity of “reality television” and how much of it was actually “real”. Pete could definitively say that his experience with one wasn’t real at all. He planned for that to be the scope of his article- until January 13, when he received another email from the enigmatic Rutherford. “I am hesitant to tell you this. Mr. Butler is involved in some serious criminal activity right now. He is very well connected in the police community and with the Narcotics Task Force. I am not sure who to contact about this, and I assure you it is serious.”
When pressed for more info, Rutherford responded, ““[Butler] is selling large amounts of
marijuana along with other drugs (prescription Xanax and steroids) that have been confiscated by the Contra Costa County Task Force. The commander of the task force is taking the drugs from raids and giving them to Chris to move. They even have a couple pounds of C-4 plastic explosive.”
Okay- this was way beyond the scope of Pete Crooks of Diablo Magazine. Rutherford needed real help. If his allegations were true, Pete had to direct him to someone in law enforcement that he could trust. This was bigger than the PI Moms. It was now a matter of public safety. C-4 plastiques can easily be molded into any desired shape. C4 can be pressed into gaps, cracks, holes making it hard to detect and highly effective. The ‘conventional wisdom’ regarding plastic explosives is that a lump of C-4 the size of a potato will destroy an ‘average’ house. Imagine the amount of damage two pounds of the stuff could do!
Pete had a friend who could help. He told her about Rutherford’s accusations and showed her
Photos of the marijuana. She encouraged Pete to get “Rutherford’s” contact information so she could forward it to the right people. Cortez also told Pete that once Rutherford became a confidential informant he probably wouldn’t hear from him again. He’d be working very closely with the state’s Dept of Justice. Pete was just relieved that he could get him help.
So, I’m going to let the cat out of the bag here. If you’re unfamiliar with this case, I’m sure your biggest question is “Who is Rutherford?” We know that he is very close to Chris Butler and his PI firm. He has access to internal emails and the criminal exploits of the boss. We’ve all heard the term keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer. Well, this guy is as close as one could get. He is Butler’s right hand man- Carl Marino.
Carl Marino, according to his own IMDB page, was born and raised in upstate New York in the city of Hornell, the son of Carl and Carol Marino. He was the only boy of four siblings. After graduation from High School, Carl attended the United States Military Academy at West Point for 2 years. Following West Point, and while studying Criminal Justice at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Carl became a Deputy Sheriff in New York and served for almost 17 years on the force. He also signed with a modeling company in NY and worked on print and commercial projects. After his service and the passing of both of his parents, Carl moved to California to be closer to some of his family that had moved there years before. While in California, He signed with a modeling agency there. Soon after his arrival, he auditioned for a feature film, got the part, and made his big screen debut in the independent film Sedona’s Rule (2010). Almost immediately after this, he was cast in the NBC show “Trauma” (2009)_ that was filming in San Francisco, and became a recurring guest star. Since then, Carl has worked on and been featured in numerous feature films, network and cable television shows, and national commercials.
He met Butler when he answered a Craigslist ad looking for someone with law enforcement and acting experience. He was hired on the spot, became besties with Butler, and even was named Director of Operations for Butler and Associates. Over time they handled a shit load of cases- most of which entailed deceptive practices. They were experts at dirty DUIs. In these scenarios, a client would want them to get a subject (usually an ex-husband) in a situation to damage their reputation. They would throw sexy decoys at them to ply them with alcohol. If the gentleman wouldn’t be moved by beautiful women, they’d send Marino in as a potential business associate or reporter- basically, whoever could get the mark to heavily indulge in alcohol. When the night was over and everyone jumped in their cars to leave, Butler would send in some of his dirty cops. They pull the mark over, he blows above the limit, and is immediately arrested. This type of sting worked hundreds of times.
Then there was the case of a mother who wanted to “scare her son off of drugs”. She hired Butler. He came to their home and conducted a fake raid. They roughed the kid up a little and tossed his room where they found 4000 Xanax pills. Those were never turned in to police.
In another case, a mother worried that her 19-year old son may have been selling drugs. Butler sends in the decoys who entice the young man to get ecstasy for them. He goes and gets the drugs and out pops Butler and Associates pretending to be cops, guns drawn. They scare the shit of the kid, confiscating the drugs and the money. There was actually one real cop present for this dirty drug bust- Norm Wielsch, Commander of the Contra Costa County Narcotics Task Force.
Carl was down for the dirty busts and stings, but says he wanted no part of the drug dealing. So, while Lifetime was filming the PI Moms, Carl was filming Butler. The Lifetime producers were having a hard time getting material for their show. Since most of the Butler and Associates cases were fake, there were not many REAL active cases going on. I’m going to leave the deets of the show out of my re-telling because of a lack of time. Carl, on the other hand, had a lot of success with his reality show. The state Dept of Justice was building one hell of a case against Chris Butler. They needed a little more on the big fish, Norm Wielsch.
On February 15, they got everything they needed. Undercover officers watched Norm Wielsch take three pounds of meth out of the Contra Costa Sheriff’s drug locker. He had forged a “destruction order” to get the drug and then drove with Butler to the dump, where Wielsch poured three pounds of flour to fake the drug’s destruction. The two then drove to Butler’s office and sold a pound of meth to Carl—who filmed the entire deal with a hidden camera. The video evidence reportedly showed Wielsch and Butler weighing the meth, counting their money, and joking around.
The next day,Feb 16, Wielsch and Butler were arrested separately. Wielsch confessed, tearfully and immediately. He was the first officer from the state’s Department of Justice ever to be arrested on drug charges. During a court hearing, Wielsch apologized to the law enforcement community for his conduct and said he tarnished the badge. He accepted full responsibility for his crimes. After pleading guilty, he was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Chris was arrested outside the “official gym of the PI Moms”- who by now were no longer a thing. He demanded a lawyer. There would be no tearful admissions from him. He ended up pleading guilty and was eventually sentenced to eight years in prison.
Pete Crooks went on to publish the article in Diablo about the PI Moms and the uncovering of one of Contra Costa County’s most nefarious conspiracies.
The moms moved on to new careers and Car Marinol-
Well, he continued to cross acting with law enforcement. He plays a young Joe Kenda on Investigation Discovery’s Homicide Hunter: Lt. Joe Kenda.
And that’s Pete Crooks’ “The Setup”. I enjoyed this book quite a bit. I need to tell you that there is FAR more to the story. When all of our favorite true crime news shows come a-knocking, we learn the true motivations of some of the heroes. Hopefully, my summary makes you want to pick this one up. The tone of the writing was sarcastic humor that may at times make a self-deprecating turn. There are times when that took away from the material and other times that it was well placed and well timed. While listening, I found myself wondering if Chris Butler played some kind of Jedi mind tricks that made all these people join him in his dirty deeds. If the promise of reality TV fame was so alluring that they set aside their own morals or whether he just woke up their own twisted desires to be a part of something daring and dangerous. The book answers a few of my questions and I definitely encourage you to read it.
I’ll see you in two weeks when we discuss Charmer: The True Story of a Ladies Man and His Victims by Jack Olsen. If you have feedback, comments, or book suggestions, I’ll direct you to my email TCbyTB@gmail.com. Please subscribe to True Crime By The Book on Stitcher, Spotify, iTunes, and many other podcatchers. Follow me on Twitter @TCbyTB. If you like what I’m doing here, share the show with a friend. I would also appreciate ratings and reviews on your platform of choice. Thanks so much for listening. Later bookworms!