By Nora Gallagher
October 08, 1979 12:00 PM

They went to jail as undercover agents investigating prison corruption, met later in a grand jury hearing room and now live routinely in harm’s way. Jack Palladino and Sandra Sutherland are a husband-wife private detective team. Visions of Nick and Nora Charles, Mr. and Mrs. North and the new ABC-TV connubial sleuths, Johnathan and Jennifer Hart, are not appropriate. For Palladino and Sutherland, the work is not glamorous and sexy; it is always hard, sometimes exciting and once in a while scary as hell.

Since they opened their agency in San Francisco in 1977, the two have spent most of their time digging into fraud, medical malpractice, personal injury and non-front-page murders. The company they keep is not always nice, the work day long—they average 70 hours a week—and the pay isn’t spectacular at $35 an hour. Nonetheless, they love the life.

“I was planning to be a lawyer,” says Jack, 35. “I didn’t know in those days that investigations would make everything else seem dull, unchallenging and uninvolving.” Adds Sandra, 39, “I had a tremendous desire to know how the world actually worked and to expose things that were wrong. My work now is valuable for exactly those purposes.”

Neither of them is in a position to argue that detective work lacks all romance. They met while working, independently, on the same case.

It was 1971. Palladino was a moonlighting Berkeley law student, Sutherland, a neophyte investigator. They and 15 other operatives were hired to pose as inmates in Nassau County jail on Long Island, to gather evidence of brutality, racism and prostitution. Their experiences were degrading. Palladino, supposedly in for fur theft, took scalding showers “to cleanse the institution from me and just to feel something.” Sutherland, booked as a fence for a heroin-pushing boyfriend, remembers feeling “like a cockroach.” They met the next year during the proceedings that led to the indictment of 24 prison guards.

Nothing happened between them for four years while both worked at San Francisco’s Hal Lipset agency. (Lipset was consultant on Francis Ford Coppola’s film The Conversation). One day, Sandra accepted Palladino’s dinner invitation. “I can go out with good old Jack,” she remembers thinking, “and we can talk shop. It was a lot more pleasant than I expected.”

Next date, Jack had a serious question—not about matrimony, but philosophy: If you were mountain climbing, tied to your partner, and he fell, would you cut the line or be pulled over the edge too? Sandra gave what he considered the right answer (“Don’t cut it until the last possible second, even if it means missing that second”). “I was knocked off my feet,” he recalls.

In 1977 they married and left Lipset. Since then, says Palladino, “We’ve developed levels of trust that most married couples can’t explore.”

Sandra, the team’s murder-case expert, does the undercover work. She’s played weepy housewives, bedraggled waifs and, to catch a corrupt California policeman, a hippie. The officer later said that she was so “dippy” he wondered if she had “understood a word I said.” She, in fact, had typed up every damning remark.

“I get to people by being brash,” says Palladino. “She finds the grace in them and somehow pulls things out.” Still, he knows some tricks, too: “I put on jeans and a sport coat when I have to find out why 50 pounds of cocaine were found on a doctor’s doorstep. I save the three-piece suit and the pigskin trenchcoat for the ghetto.”

One recent case involved Huey Newton, head of the Black Panthers, who was being re-tried for the 1974 murder of an Oakland prostitute. After his first trial ended in a hung jury, Palladino and Sutherland were seeking evidence to impeach the main prosecution witnesses, who included convicted prostitutes and a burglar. Last June the couple recovered the Grateful Dead’s stolen truckload of equipment.

Before they opened their own agency, Sandra had collected evidence for the defense of Angela Davis; Jack had worked on the Hearst food giveaway demanded by Patty’s kidnappers. While on that job, he had to fire one “very very difficult” woman employee. It was Sara Jane Moore, who later tried to assassinate President Ford.

Though both say the tedium of investigation exceeds the danger, she was once beaten up by marijuana dealers while checking out a car crash. Both are skilled marksmen, but neither carries a pistol (though legally they could apply for one). Palladino explains, “Guns make you lazy, so you don’t look for more creative ways out of a situation.” Speed is their real weapon. “The police are basically crime historians,” says Palladino. “They’ll investigate a missing person when they find the body. Then it will be too late to find the killer.”

He adds, “We have a doctor friend who always reminds himself to avoid talking about a patient as ‘the liver in 314B.’ That’s a guy in there who’s got a wife and kids, and he’s scared to death. We constantly remind each other of the difference between a dead legal fact and a real person.”

Palladino has “an angry preoccupation with justice,” from growing up in a tough area of Boston, where carrying school books could earn a kid a beating. The son of a pipe fitter, Jack went to Latin School and scraped up the money for Cornell University. He arrived in Berkeley to study law just after a friend back home was sent to prison for armed robbery. “I watched too many people not get out,” Jack says.

He had married a fellow student at 19; that marriage lasted four-and-a-half years. Sutherland, who was born in Australia, came to the U.S. a year after her marriage to a research physiologist. They were divorced six years later. Of Sandra’s three children, Nick, 16, and Amanda, 13, live with their mother and stepdad. Jude, 9, stays with his father. Sandra taught preschoolers at first, then tried free-lance writing before being hired by a Bay Area detective agency. She also writes poetry, some of which appeared in a 1975 anthology. In introducing her poems, she admitted, “I work as a private investigator, an occupation which exemplifies that ‘genius for lying and adoration for the truth’ which Denise Levertov has attributed to the poet.”

Sandra is a gourmet cook, but family schedules dictate frozen dinners until Saturday when she prepares a candlelight spread. Her son Nick says, “There are times when we eat soup out of cans because ‘Sandra’s in Wisconsin.’ And we get a lot of ulcers waiting—people get killed in places where my mom goes. On the other hand, it raises my status in school to think that Mom is Mrs. Rockford.”

Mom and Dad downplay the melodrama but, to insure the family’s safety, invite only trusted friends to the house, which is mortgaged under a bank’s name. The phone is in a pseudonym and unlisted, their driver’s licenses give their office address, they aren’t registered to vote and their marriage license is from another state. Still, Palladino says, “I suppose there’s some way we’re traceable.” Sutherland adds, “We could find us.”