From the introduction to Becoming a Private Investigator, by Howie Kahn
This is a book about real-life haunting. The private investigators chronicled are the ones who choose to take it on, working on behalf of the dead. Each of the deceased was laid to rest, but without peace. Their families and friends remained. Believing they’d been forsaken by law enforcement, they all sought help at the fringe of the law.
Not all private investigators focus on the dead. Some make a living busting cheating spouses for fees ranging from $50 per hour on the lower end to $500,000 for a longer-lasting, high society sting. Other PIs work on contract for insurance providers, investigating claims ranging from alleged on-the-job injuries to property and vehicle damage.
Fortune 500 caliber companies hire PIs to conduct background checks on potential employees, to look into current employees suspected of wrongdoing, and to make sure disgruntled ex-employees don’t return to their erstwhile offices with a gun and the intentions to use it. Increasingly, wealthy parents are hiring private investigators to deliver intelligence to them on their sons’ or daughters’ significant others in order to avoid bringing a fraud or a grifter into the family fold. Other parents need private investigators to help them find their missing or kidnapped children. Those cases can last hours, weeks, or years.
According to the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, 41,400 private investigators were working in the US in 2016 with a projected occupational growth rate of 11 percent by 2026. Seven percent is the average occupational growth rate for jobs here, so the number of PIs in America, according to the BLS, is growing “faster than average.” That may be because of the dying nature of privacy itself. As social media has made it easier than ever to take account of the lives of others, more people spend at least some part of their day investigating somebody else in a casual way. A desire to professionalize that behavior with greater frequency seems inevitable in our burgeoning surveillance society; Facebook stalking can easily be an antecedent to a career in computer forensics. Start-up culture, hinged on the notion of disrupting institutional norms, may also contribute to the growth of the private investigation field. Since the criminal justice system does not always perform with the greatest amount of precision, PIs can often fill in and expose staggering investigative gaps thereby acting as disruptors. According to the Murder Accountability Project, a nonprofit founded in 2015 by a retired investigative reporter turned homicide archivist named Thomas K. Hargrove, there have been more than 200,000 unsolved murders in the United States since 1980.
In talking with more than a dozen private investigators, each one emphasized rehabilitating the image of their profession. There’s concern, industry-wide, that there’s too much confusion between their actual work and that belonging to hard-boiled detective characters from TV, on film, and in literature. Being a PI has nothing to do, one investigator told me, “with a pebbled glass door and a leggy secretary.”
News headlines can also cast PIs as morally dubious bottom-feeders doing the dirty work for the wealthy. In 2006, Anthony Pellicano, a famous Hollywood PI, was indicted on 110 counts, including charges of racketeering, conspiracy, wiretapping, and identity theft. Ultimately sentenced to fifteen years in federal prison, Pellicano is scheduled for release in March 2019.
Even more recently, it was reported that disgraced (and disgraceful) film executive Harvey Weinstein hired PIs from Black Cube (a firm led by former Israeli intelligence officials) to assume false identities and probe and gather information on the women who would go on to publicly accuse of him of an array of sex crimes, leading to a June 2019 trial.
Even the history of the profession is steeped in stories of PIs working beyond the pale, seeking justice, but flexible and conditional about the definition of the term. The first PI is largely said to be Eugène François Vidocq, a Frenchman who lived from 1775 to 1857. From age thirteen, Vidocq was a thief and a prisoner, a performer in a troupe of traveling entertainers, an active soldier, and a military deserter. At twenty, he went back to prison, escaped several times, and had his sentence extended for forging a prison pardon. More arrests and escapes followed for the next decade. But at thirty-four, Vidocq chose to become an informant for the police and eventually parlayed that job into starting what became the investigative wing of the Paris police department. In his late fifties, Vidocq founded Le Bureau des Renseignements in 1833, a private detective agency with almost a dozen detectives on staff. His agency and the police quarreled constantly over money, power, influence, and the legality of his work. They raided his office and arrested him on several occasions, charging him with deception, corruption, and financial crimes.
The United States’ first famous private investigator, Allan Pinkerton, a Scottish-born barrel maker whose Illinois home was a stop on the Underground Railroad, founded his agency, first called the North-Western Police Agency and, later, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, in 1850. During the Civil War, Pinkerton was said to have once saved Abraham Lincoln from assassination. Later, Pinkerton specialized in railway security and was hired to track down Jesse James and put an end to his criminal outfit, the James Gang. The pursuit was relentless, but ultimately a failure. After Pinkerton’s death, his agency took on corporate clients who hired them to bust up fledgling labor unions. According to the Pinkertons’ time line, the company is also responsible for hiring the United States’ first female PI, Kate Warne, in 1856, establishing the country’s first criminal database, and disbanding Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch. In 1999, Pinkerton’s was bought by Securitas AB, the Swedish global security giant, for almost $400 million.
“This is a real profession now, with real money at stake,” one investigator told me. “It’s legitimate, like being a lawyer or being an accountant.”
“This is a real profession now, with real money at stake,” one investigator told me. “It’s legitimate, like being a lawyer or being an accountant.” An increasing number of high-profile stories show PIs working to unravel issues of global and political consequence. Christopher Steele, a former spy for MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service, and co-founder of Orbis Business Intelligence, a private investigation agency, was paid $168,000 to do opposition research on then US presidential candidate Donald Trump. Steele’s work on the case resulted in a dossier alleging close ties between Trump and Russia, helping to launch the current federal investigation led here by the special counsel, Robert Mueller.
Elsewhere in the UK, Bellingcat, who bills itself as a kind of private investigation-journalism hybrid project, led by a thirty-nine-year-old blogger named Eliot Higgins, has been working publicly to out a group of Russian men believed to have poisoned former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury, England, in March 2018. “States are increasingly losing their monopoly over spying,” Jonathan Eyal, a global security expert and the associate director of Royal United Services Institute, who trains governments and big businesses to protect themselves, told the New York Times. “Now it belongs to anyone who has the brains, the spunk and the technological ability.”
Gumption, tech savvy, and a high IQ aren’t the only credentials needed to become a wave-making PI. Private investigators have rules to follow and standards to meet. For the most part in America, states set the guidelines for who can be a PI and who cannot. Forty-five of our states have statewide licensing requirements. Idaho, Mississippi, and South Dakota all have private professional associations for PIs with their own bylaws. The Alaskan cities of Anchorage and Fairbanks have city-mandated requirements for PIs, as does the city of Cheyenne, Wyoming, where statewide licensing doesn’t exist.
There are no federal regulations as to who gets licensed, though certain states do send candidate’s background information and/or fingerprints to the FBI for analysis. Studying criminal justice for a formal degree or certificate program can help a new PI break into the fold; years spent working in a related field can be counted toward a license.
As a licensed PI, the scope of available work is immediately huge. Broadly, the job permits you to investigate pretty much anything on behalf of a client (within the scope of legal behavior). That may mean tracking down a serial killer or a fraud. It may mean conducting background checks on search engines not accessible to the public, or surveilling cheaters, kidnappers, people running for office, or candidates for high-profile jobs. Collecting accurate, relevant information is the aim. While writing this book, a number of PIs expressed their belief to me that there are no real secrets anymore. There’s only the time it takes to pry lips and information loose.
Plenty of PIs are former cops, but plenty of PIs also believe they have jobs because of what cops and other law enforcement agents can, and do, miss in their investigations. Cases stall out or go cold for many reasons. Sometimes, a police department doesn’t have the man power or budgetary resources to sustain a long-term investigation. Sometimes, they botch a crime scene so badly that they bury the case to make their own mistakes disappear from public view. And sometimes, there’s a strong whiff of foul play: corruption, collusion, cops, lawyers, and judges conducting illegal business of their own.
The PIs in this book believe justice isn’t a given. Justice is the result of tenacity, pressuring public officials, continuous public outrage, and asking the right sources the right questions at exactly the right time. Collectively, these PIs also believe that they’re the last line of defense for the vulnerable. “You don’t go to a private investigator like you go to a florist,” one prominent PI told me. “People call us because they’re in a terrible place.”
Calling on private investigators meant sustaining a posture of hope: there were answers to find and a PI, the right PI, might be the only person to find them.
Tellingly, the cases in this book come from the worst places: the living trying to make sense of somebody they love dying suddenly and violently. For those grieving—for months and years—law enforcement didn’t cut it. No satisfactory conclusions were reached by them. Calling on private investigators meant sustaining a posture of hope: there were answers to find and a PI, the right PI, might be the only person to find them. Unlike cops or feds who will ultimately have to move on to other cases, PIs can work a single case for as long they agree to and for as long as their clients remain satisfied with their efforts. The best PIs take on their clients’ ghosts as their own.
The investigations that follow are years-long; some, still ongoing. I chose to discuss some cases without conclusions because they best illuminate the most grueling elements of the job. Where so many of today’s careers demand lightning-fast results and daily proof of bulk achievement, private investigation can often move at a bygone pace. PIs must routinely be patient and careful. They know how to wait and know just when to strike.
It’s the most difficult cases that represent the highest virtues of the job: the balance between tenacity and empathy, the way a broken heart can be an investigation’s propellant rather than its deterrent.
The vast majority of the case information in these pages come from the rigorous investigative work conducted by the PIs themselves. Their cases yielded hundreds of pages of interviews, based on hundreds of hours of talking and developing sources. Reports and affidavits are critical as are grisly crime-scene and autopsy photos, computer-animated recreations of events, 911 call recordings, subpoenaed text and Facebook messages, and scientific reports examining everything—from blood alcohol levels to which way a body might float if lifeless in a certain part of a specific lake in the middle of Tennessee. It all reads like a story, but it’s really the evidence they’ve collected, the documents they’ve assembled, and the conclusions they’re nearing, still working toward, or have reached.
The rigor shown by these PIs is matched only by their moral focus. They see themselves as the only bridge remaining to the truth.