Snakes in the Office

Copperheads invade a local real-estate company, but former employees say the biggest snake of them all is their ex-boss.

Riley, one of several former employees currently being sued by Peterson, also confirms seeing the mysterious man at the IHOP that morning.

"He looked like a bad Inspector Clouseau," recalls Riley. "He had this jet-black moustache that appeared to be pasted on, and he kept leaning closer and closer to our table. I thought he was going to fall out of his booth."

Says Greg Young, another former Blake & Davis employee: "It was ridiculous. I just started waving at him. We used to have a staff lunch every Friday on the lawn behind the office. The guy would be sitting in a grey Taurus in the adjacent parking lot watching us. Every once in a while he'd stick out a camera or what appeared to be a listening device. It was so obvious."

Kiss my asp: Irina Kish claims former colleague Joe Riley 
assaulted her and called her a “stupid bitch.” Riley says his 
exact words were “crazy bitch.”
Jennifer Silverberg
Kiss my asp: Irina Kish claims former colleague Joe Riley assaulted her and called her a “stupid bitch.” Riley says his exact words were “crazy bitch.”
Back before the discovery of a copperhead, a private eye and a hidden video camera, sibling and business partner Laura Peterson could enjoy her time in the company break room.
Jennifer Silverberg
Back before the discovery of a copperhead, a private eye and a hidden video camera, sibling and business partner Laura Peterson could enjoy her time in the company break room.

But by August 29 Gibson writes that the detective's presence had so alarmed some employees that receptionist Mary Halaska approached Peterson, and two of his allies, Blake & Davis agents Irina Kish and Kelly Shaw, to demand that they call off the sleuth. "She was told, 'It's not you that we were following.'"

The day before Gibson was again meeting with fellow agents Joe Riley and Cindy Fox when she reports that Peterson and Kish ambushed them at a restaurant. "When he tracked and hunted me on Aug. 28, 2006, and found me at the Embassy Suites lobby, I thought he had a gun and would kill me and the five others at my table. He has a history of physical violence. I'm afraid for my safety," writes Gibson in the restraining order.

Riley says that the group was meeting to discuss a new real-estate venture they planned to start after leaving Blake & Davis. Like Gibson, he says Peterson's outburst created a scene at the hotel restaurant and that he, too, feared for his life.

"The first moment I saw him, I thought to myself: 'Oh, God! He's got a gun. He's going to kill us!'" Instead, says Riley, Peterson fired all three employees on the spot. Riley counters that he was — in effect — already fired after receiving a registered letter from Peterson in July informing him his employment would be terminated in September. In light of that notice, Riley says he had a right to plan for his future employment outside of Blake & Davis.

Peterson's Clayton-based lawyer, Howard Wittner, contends the meeting was a direct violation of Riley's employment contract. "It's a breach of loyalty," argues Wittner. "If you're the acting president of a company, you cannot go into business with the competition while still accepting payment from the company with whom you're still employed. It makes no legal sense and it makes no common sense, either."

On August 29 Riley and others entered into another squabble when Gibson arrived under police escort to remove her possessions from the office. Irina Kish, according to Gibson's restraining order, denied her access to the building and later came out of the office with Gibson's computer tower and locked it in the trunk of her car.

In a restraining order filed against Joe Riley, Kish accuses the former Blake & Davis president of attacking her that day as she tried to confiscate the computer.

"I was putting the computer in the back of my car when Joe ran to the car, assaulted me by pushing me away from the trunk and he tried to grab the computer. I told him to stop pushing me and not to touch the computer. He then yelled 'stupid bitch' and then I called 911."

Riley maintains, for the record, that he called Kish a "crazy bitch" and that he never touched her. Kish's restraining order has since been thrown out.

On September 7 pandemonium again ensued when employees say they discovered a video camera hidden away in a light socket in the ceiling of the break room at the St. Charles office.

"Everyone crowded around to see it," recalls Karen Lupo. "It was pretty big, probably four inches in diameter, with a microphone attached to it. We followed the cord to the back room. There was a VCR and a router with two splices. My immediate concern was whether there was a camera in the ladies' room. It's an eerie feeling to know someone is watching you."

Peterson says he's unaware of the incident and suggests employees fabricated the story as a way of getting back at him. "They took offense to the fact that the president (Joe Riley) was terminated for competing against our company," says Peterson.

On the same September day employees discovered the video camera, Gibson, Riley and several other Blake & Davis castoffs were at work setting up a new office under the name Best Seller Real Estate in O'Fallon. Suddenly, Riley saw the shadow of a man pass by the outside windows. Moments later, according to Gibson's restraining order, Cindy Fox walked outside the office and screamed. "Another small copperhead snake was coiled outside the door."

This time around Greg Young removed the serpant with a dust pan. He surmises that the snake made its way to the doorstep from a nearby field. "I think the snakes are a freak thing," he posits. "The copperhead they found inside the office probably came in with a delivery of boxes. The other one probably wiggled its way from a vacant lot. But it sure makes for a good story."

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