OF VOYEURS AND LAWYERS

How the manager of a plumbing-supply company got a little too interested in the female employees' plumbing

It started three years ago, with pencil-diameter holes strategically placed in the drywall of Miracle Supply Co.'s new unisex bathroom. Bookkeeper Betty Hofstetter -- 59 years old, struggling with her weight and horrified by the possibility of a peeper -- mentioned the holes to the company's founder and president, Martin Holtzman. He told her to have them caulked but refused to take any further action. She says Holtzman called his female employees (five of the plumbing-supply company's staff of 20) "overly sensitive."

When a larger hole appeared, this one offering a bird's-eye view of the toilet area from an adjacent bathroom, the women took their own action and covered it with a Band-Aid. Then, on April 10, 1997, Peggy Jackson walked into the bathroom, looked up and yelled for her mother, Norma Davidson, who also worked for Miracle. Hofstetter joined them in the bathroom, and all three agreed: The hole in the ceiling was definitely growing.

Hofstetter, 5-foot-3, stood on the toilet and stuck her finger in the hole. Soft and wet, the ceiling tile crumbled around her finger. "The roof had leaked onto the dropped ceiling -- that's what was making the hole bigger," she says. "But when I stuck my finger in, I felt something hard. There was something up there!"

They resolved to do a little exploring that afternoon, after company manager/vice president Mike Dattilo left on a weekend fishing trip. Hofstetter returned to her desk, but later she went back to the bathroom and, just in case, stuffed a piece of Kleenex in the ceiling hole. Toward noon, she saw Dattilo go into the bathroom and come out looking angry, carrying the Kleenex box. Then he left. With the coast clear, Jackson, 5-foot-7, climbed onto the toilet and pushed up the ceiling tile. Hidden in the recess were a coil of coaxial cable and two orange electrical cords.

The women traced the wiring into the furnace closet, down the wall and into the office Dattilo shared with the company president. (Holtzman, then 79, had begun spending winters in Florida.) The wiring went straight to an entertainment center with a big-screen TV, a VCR and a closed cabinet below. Behind those cabinet doors, the women found a second VCR they hadn't known existed. Kneeling, they moved aside some rags on top of the VCR, reached back and found a videocassette that had slid behind the VCR. Slowly they fed the video into the machine, hit "play" and saw the back of Jackson's head -- and her partially unclothed body -- as she used the toilet in what she'd believed was total privacy.

Jackson's use of the bathroom had been recorded at least 11 times, on different days, in clothes ranging from winter wools to spring cottons. But there was another woman on the video, a woman who, from behind, looked just like Laura Vaughn, the employee who did accounts receivable. Vaughn -- who'd been watching the video with them, but had stepped out to answer the phone -- heard them yelp her name. She came in to see a woman she, too, mistook for herself -- same light hair, same build from behind -- sitting stark-naked in the office bathroom, wiping herself repeatedly. "But I've never been at work naked!" Vaughn thought bemusedly.

The tape rolled on, and they realized that the light-haired woman was not Vaughn after all. To this day, she's referred to as the "mystery woman."

The only other subject on the video was Mike Dattilo himself, urinating as he glanced up toward the camera lens.

The women turned off the machine and spent the rest of the afternoon trying to figure out what to do. The next morning, Hofstetter gathered the other female employees and suggested they go to the University City police.

Nobody dared go. Finally Hofstetter picked up the phone and made the call herself.

The police came immediately, took photos and fingerprints, confiscated the video, a Fuji videotape jacket and a Chinon camera housing assembly. They also found a blued-steel .44-caliber Magnum and a box of American Eagle ammunition in Dattilo's desk. Frightened of the hot-tempered manager's reaction when he returned from his fishing trip on Monday, the employees begged the police to take the gun. To get permission to remove it from the premises, Det. Tim Hedrick rousted Holtzman, the company president, from a bridge game in Florida.

Unfazed by news of the covert surveillance but deeply anxious about bad publicity, Holtzman demanded to know who had called the police. He asked Hedrick to put Hofstetter on the phone, and he told her, "You will regret that decision the rest of your life." She started to cry. Hedrick took the phone and urged Holtzman to stand by his female employees. No one could hear Holtzman's reply, but Hofstetter remembers the detective slamming the phone into its cradle after his third attempt, then turning to them and saying, "You girls need an attorney."

Michael Dattilo was arrested that Monday and charged with 11 counts of invasion of privacy, a misdemeanor. He was back at work on Tuesday. Nothing more was said about the incident until Jackson, who had quit the company, sued Dattilo, Holtzman and Miracle Supply Co. for invasion of privacy.

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