Private Eye in the Public Eye
Famed NYPD detective and private eye Gil Alba dishes on what it takes to be a top sleuth.
Photo By Stefan Radtke
Since retiring from the New York City Police Department in the late 1990s, Gil Alba has been a private eye in the public eye, thanks to his reputation for cannily connecting the dots in challenging cases. The Somers resident, who has lived in Westchester for 40 years, has been a popular talking head for TV networks like CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. They turn to him for insight when reporting on mass shootings, missing-persons cases, acts of terrorism, and other high-profile crimes.
Case in point: When wealthy formal-wear maker Harvey Weinstein (not the Hollywood producer) was kidnapped in New York City in the early 1990s, Gil Alba and the NYPD team not only helped bring him back virtually from the dead—Weinstein was buried alive by the kidnappers for 12 days in a five-foot-wide container—but also retrieved a $3 million ransom that was already in the kidnappers’ possession.
With headline-making stories like that in his portfolio, it’s no mystery that Gil Alba is a sought-after security consultant and investigator par excellence. The lawman’s bona fides carry the cachet of a distinguished 28-year tour of duty with the NYPD and a current two-year tenure as president of the Associated Licensed Detectives of New York State (ALDONYS). In 2004, that organization honored him as Private Investigator of the Year.
Alba deftly combines a laser-sharp focus on the matter at hand with the charm of a people person. Those twin traits have served him, his colleagues, and his clients very well. The same “man’s man” who relishes talking about his career of stakeouts and shootouts, about rescuing kidnap victims and recovering multimillion-dollar ransoms, is equally effusive when discussing the backyard squirrel he befriended and invited into his immaculate kitchen.
It had fascinated Alba to see the squirrel return day after day. He took time to not only train, but name, the animal. “I named him Jonathan, after one of the rats in the animated movie The Secret of NIMH, which I’d watched with my son,” he says.
“I still look for that squirrel,” he says wistfully, explaining that since a bad storm and new-home construction nearby, neither Jonathan nor any other local animals have returned that he’s aware of. The only evidence that remains of the unlikely friendship is a video Alba made that shows the feral rodent scampering onto Alba’s broad shoulder as he relaxes on his deck.
For someone born in Puerto Rico and raised in Harlem whose profession was spent in the pressurized cauldron of New York City policing, relocating to bucolic Westchester was “like going on vacation every day,” he says. Alba and his wife, Janet, moved to Yorktown in 1977, where her extended family had already resided.
In 1986, with two young sons in tow, the Albas upsized to their current spread in Somers, a stone’s throw from Route 6 and the Putnam County line. However, the Big Apple continues to beckon. (“To not go there at all would drive me crazy,” he volunteers.) This past spring, for instance, he traveled daily to a Bronx courtroom.
Over the years, Alba has worked cases for many Westchester lawyers and clients, including Grace & Grace in Yorktown Heights. Michael Grace, one of the firm’s partners and the current town of Yorktown supervisor, who used to play basketball with Alba, recalls winning a sizable settlement after a protracted period and then having his client basically vanish, unable to receive her monetary award. He called Alba. “For any cases that require investigations, he’s the go-to guy,” Grace says.
In his spacious home office, Alba showcases a wealth of artifacts from his youth and active files for his ongoing career. Out of one drawer, he pulls the paperwork for a prototype of a gun with a camera—a notch up from the body cameras currently in use by various police departments. The device would start recording automatically when removed from a holster. A patent lawyer sent it to Alba because he wanted the well-connected investigator to help sell it to law-enforcement agencies.
On the walls of his office, movie posters for the Jack Nicholson classic Chinatown and Q&A, with Nick Nolte, attest to his penchant for Hollywood detective stories. A plaque certifies his place in the Hall of Fame of St. Francis High School, a Roman Catholic, Franciscan preparatory school outside Buffalo, New York, where he was a three-letter athlete, excelling in football, baseball, and basketball. (Today, 15 years after a quintuple bypass, he still pounds the parquet, shooting hoops in a competitive weekly pick-up game with men decades his junior at Jefferson Valley’s Club Fit, where he’s a 20-year member.)
Alba’s years at St. Francis, hundreds of miles from his Harlem home, provided a stark coming-of-age for the fatherless adolescent. When Gil was four, his dad, Gilbert, a well-to-do banker in Puerto Rico, died at age 28 from polycystic kidney disease. Along with mother Edith and brother Louis, he found himself in a markedly different environment after they’d moved from Puerto Rico to 144th Street in Harlem, where Edith had family.
Alba immersed himself in sports at St. Francis, until he sustained a knee injury that sidelined him from football. Steeped in self-pity and not knowing where to turn, Alba found redemption in the form of one of the school’s priests, Father Rufina, who was affectionately known as Father “Ruf.” Father Ruf sensed that Alba was foundering, so he stepped in with some sage advice that made all the difference to the young man. “I was walking around with my shoulders hunched,” Alba recalls. “I stopped eating. Father Ruf called me over and said, ‘You’re going to make a name for yourself. Make up your mind right now what you want to do. Are you going to play again or go back in your hole?’”
That encounter, which Alba calls “a big-time turning point in my life,” was soon followed by another.
After studying metallurgy at Erie County Community College, Alba underwent a baptism by fire when he decided to return home and join his Harlem buddies as a New York City police officer.
The very day in 1968 that he was to enter the police academy, civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The usual six-month training was deferred for his entire class of recruits, so they could hit the ground running as racial unrest erupted in reaction to the fallen King.
In an essay Mr. Alba contributed to the anthology What America Means to Me, he wrote that it was a “tumultuous era,” adding, “What a great time to personify law and order!... I had to become ‘blue’ before I first experienced the bias, anger and frustration in our own country, but truly a proud American I am.”
Alba ultimately rose to the rank of Detective First Grade, an elite status, he proudly points out, that only 80 of the department’s 40,000 officers achieve. In that capacity, he worked with the FBI Violent Crime Task Force and NYPD Major Case Squad.
Having reached the pinnacle of his profession, Alba now warms to the phrase “pay it forward.” He not only thrives on soaking up information, he embraces sharing it as an in-demand public speaker and teacher. To kick-start his post-detective career as a freelance investigator, he launched Alba Investigations, Inc. 18 years ago—the same time he began teaching a course at Westchester Community College. “I had [students] investigate actual murder cases,” he recalls. “A couple of students tried talking to the killers, so I had to stop them.”
Lately, he prefers staging his own seminars at colleges. “They call me from all over the county,” he says. He spoke this past spring at Concordia College in Bronxville, which he attended later in life as an adult student who graduated with straight As. “At this point in my life, what I like to do is give knowledge back,” he says. It’s also why he entered police work. “It wasn’t to have a gun and power, but more to help people,” he explains.
Paying it forward is a passion of Alba’s. If the spirit moves him, he will work the occasional case without pay—something that requires that he dig into his own pocket for expenses. However, one type of job he avoids altogether is what he calls “domestic cases,” in which a P.I. is hired by a husband or wife to snoop on their spouse.
He also takes young people under his wing, including his own granddaughters, echoing how Father Ruf had influenced him all those years ago. The Albas look forward each Saturday to lunch in Greenwich Village with their Vermont-bred granddaughter Monica, a sophomore at The New School’s Lang College. Alba also enjoys spending time with his other granddaughter, Monica’s 14-year-old sister Jessica, helping hone her considerable basketball skills at Club Fit whenever she visits from Vermont.
Alba and his wife value their social life, which is populated by a large circle of friends. They have a music scene that revolves around oldies concerts at venues like the Meadowlands and Tarrytown Music Hall, which they might attend with as many as 60 friends and acquaintances. The couple take in a lot of Yankees, Knicks, and Giants games. He defers to Janet as the family’s sports aficionado, though: “She knows everything about the Giants, Yankees, and Knicks.” he says. (The couple met at a Yankees game.)
For all his skills, perhaps Alba’s greatest gift is that he is as well liked as he is respected. Along stomping grounds that stretch from the depths of New York City to the farthest reaches of Westchester County, Alba seems to be welcomed with open arms wherever he goes. When his aforementioned speaking engagement at Concordia was pictured in the May 2016 issue of Westchester Magazine, several Somers shopkeepers excitedly shared with him a copy of the page on which the photo had appeared, as if to suggest they were commemorating the latest in a long line of laurels and that they were proud of him. “I know a lot of people,” says Alba unassumingly. “I’m a friendly guy.”
Bruce Apar is chief content officer of Pinpoint Marketing & Design. As alter ego "Bruce The Blog," he is a weekly commentator for local print and electronic media.