Bruno Strebel spends his days tracking missing persons, insurance scammers and white-collar criminals. The former cop founded a detective school that teaches others to do the same.
ZURICH — He takes out an old leather briefcase and points to a tiny hole on the side the size of a pin head. “That’s where the camera is. Invisible from the outside,” says 60-year-old Bruno Strebel, head of Zurich’s Private Detective Academy, “the only school of this type in Switzerland.” This diminutive man is also the chairman of the Professional Detectives Association, and his cold blue eyes try to assess people quickly. He weighs every word he speaks.
We’re meeting at his academy’s offices in the Zurich neighborhood of Höngg. A former airport police officer, Strebel became a detective in 1977. “A man was watching me at my workplace,” he explains. “One day, he came up to me, told me I could be doing much better and gave me his detective card. A few weeks later, intrigued, I called him, and we started working together.”
In 2006, after some time in the U.S., he opened his own detective agency in Zurich: Swiss Security and Investigation. In February, at the urging of one of his two sons, he decided to start a school. “There had to be something else than correspondence courses and online manuals,” he says. He also had to give up his practice in acupuncture, his second passion.
“The trade has changed a lot,” he says. Equipped with cameras, microphones and night vision binoculars, much of his business used to be following husbands suspected of cheating. But since then, divorce laws have changed — adultery is no longer considered a matrimonial fault — and so now he tracks missing persons, disability insurance scams or managers suspected of wanting to leak or sell business secrets.
“Economic criminality is much more interesting than adulterous husbands,” Strebel says. “Some businesses also hire us to discreetly investigate the solvency of some of their customers. But don’t get any ideas: Working as a detective is not half as exciting as what you see on TV. Waiting is the central element of our job.”
The curriculum, as it were
What are the courses his academy offers? Law, diplomacy, psychology and target practice are among them, but there are also exercises in the art of tailing someone, often in a real airport where the main goal is to go unnoticed by the police. There is also bodyguarding. You never know, a Saudi Arabian oil tycoon visiting Switzerland may ask for special protection. “We bring our students to the city’s heated area of Langstrasse. Nothing like dodgy bars for a good practice.”
Being able to handle sophisticated monitoring equipment such as a tiny camera hidden in a belt, for example, is also essential. A detective must always be able to provide the evidence of his work to customers. In Höngg, learning how to be a detective costs about $9,000 for courses that are spread out over one year, including evening and weekend classes. If the trainee is successful and breaks through, he can earn between $105 and $140 an hour.
Vera, a slim 34-year-old woman who wishes not to use her real name, is one of Strebel’s students. After she graduated in literature and political science, she heard about the academy through a friend. “This job has always tempted me since my childhood, but I didn’t know how to access it,” she says. “I was also quite reluctant because of the reputation detectives sometimes have. There is a lot of abuse in this trade. But here, I have found something serious.”
Vera doesn’t see herself tracking unfaithful husbands. She is more interested in “secret services” and would, for example, like to take part in hostage negotiations. “I think women can bring something special to this job.”
Pedro, a young sales trainee from the Swiss city of Bienne who also wishes to remain anonymous, started at the school before Vera. He has already had a few detective jobs. “Once, I followed a woman for four days. I took photos of her, filmed her without her knowing, and didn’t bring back a single piece of evidence of a possible extramarital affair, which is what her husband feared.”
Whether the degree being offered is official is kind of a grey area. In France, there has been a diploma for such studies since 2006. But in Switzerland, the detective trade is neither officially recognized nor regulated. Only a few areas of Switzerland offer permits for this work. In Geneva, for example, a private detective who wishes to be recognized as such must obtain a permit. But no such thing exists yet in Zurich.
“We are allowed to carry out surveillances in the public area, but in no case can we violate the private sphere,” Strebel says. “For instance, we will never go to someone’s house to film,” Pedro insists. But in 2009, a federal court validated private detective reports for Swiss jurisdictions.
There are about 700 detective agencies in Switzerland, Strebel says. But for now, the association of detectives that he heads doesn’t count a single Romand (a French-speaking Swiss) member. Why? His answer is evasive. It seems he doesn’t have any contact with his Romand colleagues. In fact, he claims to run the country’s only detective “academy” when there are several schools in Romand Switzerland. There is one in Sion, headed by Jo Georges, a former police and military officer and bodyguard. It offers a theoretical apprenticeship from home and practical courses in Lausanne. Georges has been teaching for the past 17 years.
“Seeing as the trade is not regulated, anyone can claim to be a private detective or a trainer, and some of them are real imposters,” Georges says. “Lots of these schools shut down after a few months. Only the credible ones survive.” The fact that Bruno Strebel is, like him, a former police officer, reassures him. In the Valais area of Switzerland no permit is necessary.
“But look at what’s going on in Geneva, where there’s supposed to be a certain control,” Georges says. “You just need a clean criminal record, a certificate of good conduct, and a proof of solvency to get a permit. No specific training is required. At the end of the day, the only difference is that here, even a guy who just came out of prison can open a detective agency in the next hour.”
Back in Höngg
After 10 years spent in the Federal Department of Justice and Police, notably in the Federal Office for Migration, Michael Büchi is now an intercultural consultant. He runs his own agency and also teaches at Strebel’s academy. “On good manners, diplomacy and also on how to talk to people based on where they come from or their lifestyle, detectives must be real chameleons,” he says. “They must be able to adapt to any situation.”
He has been to detective school himself but is not tempted by a career change. “The diversity of students is interesting — from lawyers to doctors in biology and even animal groomers and military officers,” he says. “We also have a former bank manager,” Strebel adds, binoculars in hand and a serious look on his face. “He was mostly interested in the technology aspect.”
Strebel has never wished to work for the Swiss intelligence services. For him, being a detective is a natural progression from being as a police officer. Except that he is no longer limited by communes or cantons and is more independent. He enjoys telling the story of a case that brought him to the Bahamas. He was following a dentist, whose wife suspected him of embezzling money to lower his payout to her in the case of divorce. The plane had to proceed to an emergency landing in Ireland. “We were stuck in the transit area for three days, without really sleeping, and eating nothing but those small salty nuts. I met a woman there, and today, we’re married.”
There is another episode that Strebel does not enjoy talking about. It was a day when he was tracking someone abroad to return the person to Switzerland. “I had to use my weapon.” He freezes and looks elsewhere. He is completely silent and will say nothing more.
There are certain contracts Strebel refuses. “God loves crazy people, and he’s created a lot of them,” he jokes. He often sees “pathological cases” and “people who feel persecuted for no reason,” but he insists that he “never” agrees to anything illegal. He remembers the case of a woman “with a thick Russian accent,” keen to spend a large amount of money to find someone, without explaining why. “When the motives aren’t clear or transparent, I refuse.” He also needs to sort the detective trainees right at the beginning. “Their reasons are important. Once, a guy came to see me, and he was ready to pay for all the classes at once as long as he could have a weapon straight away. Naturally, I refused.”
It’s time to go. We climb into his Lexus with tinted back windows. A quick glance around the car reveals tiny cameras are watching us. “I can turn on microphones just by slightly pressing a pedal. No one can see it.”