In his memoir, Utah private investigator Scott Fulmer offers a backstage pass to his most complicated cases, from kidnapped kids to disappeared diamonds.
When writing a memoir, the challenge is that in demystifying a profession people find cryptic and captivating, a PI-author may lose curious readers amid too much truth. But Scott Fulmer strikes a deft balance between realism and adventure, describing the ordinary tedium of a PI’s workdays and the many extraordinary moments he’s seen in his three decades of investigations.
Born to a family of nine kids, Fulmer grew up in Texas loving The Hardy Boys and “The Rockford Files,” then launched his career while still in college, by answering an ad in a San Antonio paper for a private investigator job. In the early pages of his book, he shares illuminating tidbits of his personal life, from combat experiences (and the war-haunted nightmares that followed) to the joy and anguish of raising children with serious health problems.
But it’s the field notes that reveal his most private self. In a wide-ranging career that spans several states and multiple specialties (including domestic-case and insurance-fraud surveillance work; paralegal investigations for public defenders; and background checks of corrections officers), Fulmer offers empathetic observations of the kinds of miserable human dramas most people never see: a drug dealer who settles a debt by selling his teen daughter for sex; a man who shoots his friend for taking the last beer.
Knowing firsthand what evils men do has made Fulmer wary; at times, he seems to mourn for that lost trust. It’s a melancholy, hard-won wisdom. “I’m more cynical than I’d like to be,” he admits. But he holds to his faith that a life’s work can and should have meaning. When one case—the recovery of a little boy kidnapped by his volatile mother—ends with a tearful reunion with the boy’s father and grandparents, Fulmer reflects that “as a private investigator, what I do has real-life consequences.”
The recovered child is a rare happy ending in a job fraught with frustrations. Fulmer doesn’t gloss over those challenges. He writes of isolation, exhaustion, financial insecurity, and the disillusionment of being lied to and swindled. But in the final pages, he confesses to a “familiar urge,” born in the libraries of his boyhood as he read Encyclopedia Brown and dreamed: “The need to help people find resolution. To solve problems. To make things right.
“I don’t think it will ever stop,” he concludes. “The game is afoot, and I am ready.” And so, in this enjoyable memoir, Fulmer reveals himself as a man who knows what evils people are capable of and resolves that his own capabilities are needed in the world, if only to balance the scales.
Now, sit back and enjoy one of Fulmer’s favorite happy-outcome stories from his case files. —KDG
Excerpt: The Great Tortilla Caper
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s book, Sign of the Four, Sherlock Holmes uttered his famous dictum, “…when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” This was something I would see again and again in my investigations. Like the Case of the Missing Tortillas, Part II.
Rocky Sepulveda, the senior facility manager at Caliente Sabroso Foods, had contacted me again. He said they had yet another theft problem on their hands and wanted to know how quickly I could be there. I wasn’t surprised. I had been expecting his call.
Years earlier, when Mario and I had helped nab the two thieves responsible for the first theft, I had given Rocky a warning: Unless the company upgraded their security and made some operational changes, the same thing was bound to happen again. Like the round shape of a tortilla, life has a funny way of coming full circle. Fast forward four years and I was meeting Rocky again about another theft problem.
I flew out the very next day landing at William P. Hobby Airport on the southeast side of Houston. I then rented a car for the short drive to Caliente Sabroso and was in Rocky’s office by early afternoon. He confirmed they were coming up short on their inventory again. This time he suspected it was the closing crew at the warehouse. But he needed proof.
Things had changed very little since my first visit to Caliente Sabroso, although they had moved to a larger warehouse in the same general area. The closing crew worked until about midnight each night. The warehouse was at the lonely end of commercial complex near the highway. It faced another warehouse in the same business park. The two warehouses were about seventy-five yards apart with employee parking spaces and a few tractor trailers in between. Unlike the last time, there was no suitable vantage point to conduct surveillance.
Since I was back in Texas and would need assistance on this case, I contacted Stu Hall, my former co-worker at Mike Farmer Investigations, and we got down to business. Logistically, we had a problem. The closing crew were keenly aware of all the vehicles that belonged in the parking lot between the two warehouses. They would obviously be alerted to any vehicle with which they were unfamiliar. As an alternative, we had Rocky rent a mini-van and park it in front of the opposite warehouse where it remained for about week. He told the closing crew the van had been used by a salesman and would be picked up in a few days. Each night, I would sneak into the van under the shroud of darkness and observe the closing crew through the open warehouse garage doors for any evidence of pilferage. It turned out to be a comedy of errors.
The first night I opened the car door without disengaging the alarm. In doing so, the alarm was set off for twenty seconds while I tried to figure out how to stop it. I ended up having to abandon my surveillance attempt for that night. The next night when I got in the vehicle all the interior lights came on when I opened the driver’s door. In an attempt to get in and get the lights off I ended up hitting the horn with my rear end and announcing my presence loudly. Clearly, this was not going well. Either way, it didn’t seem to matter. The warehouse crew made no attempt to steal company product during that time. It was finally Stu who came up with a clever solution.
He would scale the roof of the adjoining warehouse and shoot video of the malfeasance from above. I would remain nearby in my surveillance vehicle prepared to follow the employees to where they were stashing their ill-gotten booty. Although the crew would be alert to any surveillance attempt in the parking area, they would never think to look up on the roof of the adjacent warehouse. It would be Stu’s idea that would break the case wide open. It was a brilliant and simple plan that, for the next week, still didn’t provide any results. I began to wonder if maybe Rocky was wrong about the closing crew. But then one night it happened. The thieves struck with daring bravado. And little did I know it was to be a family affair.
About a week after my car alarm and horn fiasco, Stu and I showed up at the warehouse at about 10:00 pm. It was an unusually cold clear fall night with a biting wind blowing in from the North. We parked our cars at a commercial bakery across the street from the business park and quietly made our way on foot to the back of the bordering warehouse. Stu had brought a yellow tow rope with a hook on the end which, after several attempts, we were able to hook on to the last rung of a ladder that descended from the roof of the warehouse. For safety reasons, the ladder ended about 7 feet from the ground. Stu then began to pull himself up the rope towards the ladder like Batman. I gave him a boost, pushing him up until he was finally able to grasp the last rung of the ladder with his right hand. He quickly scaled the ladder all the way to the top. I watched below in the darkness as he flung his body on to the roof disappearing from sight. I then ran back to my car, jumped in, and turned on the heater to warm up. My cell phone was on and everything appeared to be in order. I exhaled deeply and sat back and waited for his call.
From his solitary perch on the roof, Stu had a commanding view of Caliente Sabroso’s warehouse below. He could see down into the large commercial garage doors. He sat there for about two hours shivering in the cold before anything happened. We stayed in constant contact by cell phone. Right about the time he said he could no longer feel his face due to the cold wind, it happened. One minute, the parking lot was quiet and still; the next minute it was like a scene from the movie, The Italian Job where the Mini Coopers all line up to have the gold bars loaded. As if on a pre-determined schedule, multiple vehicles began to arrive. Several pickup trucks and mini-vans drove up in front of Caliente Sabroso’s warehouse where they parked side by side, all facing the same direction. Shortly thereafter, women and children emerged from these vehicles and walked into the warehouse. Stu raised his video camera and started recording.
“The children laughed and giggled as they, too, carried stolen product, running alongside their thieving parents as if it was all fun and games.”
A few minutes later the closing crew, along with their wives and children, emerged from the warehouse carrying multiple boxes and bags of Caliente Sabroso’s Mexican Food products. They began loading their personal vehicles and then returned inside for more. Bags and boxes of tortillas, picante sauce, taco shells and tortilla chips. You name it, they loaded it in their vehicles. The children laughed and giggled as they, too, carried stolen product, running alongside their thieving parents as if it was all fun and games. Each family made so many trips Stu began to lose count. The vehicles were filled to the brim. We later estimated that about $4,000 to $5,000 of product was stolen that night and learned that they had been doing it about twice a month for the last several months.
As they all began to depart, Stu notified me by cell phone and I pulled in behind one of the vehicles. I followed a family back to their apartment complex where I obtained video of them unloading their stolen plunder. On a subsequent night, I followed a different family home and watched as they backed their truck up to their garage. My jaw dropped when they opened the garage door. It was completely full of stolen Mexican food products. It was packed from floor to ceiling and from left to right. You couldn’t get a butter knife in between the boxes.
In the end, the same scenario played out as it had the last time. Caliente Sabroso called the police and the employees were busted. And just like the last time, they discovered after the fact that the supervisor of the closing crew had a criminal history. Evidently, he had been fired from his previous employer for stealing. Just like my earlier warning, I recommended to Rocky that the company make changes such as conducting pre-employment background investigations and upgrading their security cameras. Again, he demurred, stating that corporate was simply not willing to invest that kind of money.
Pay me now or pay me later, I thought to myself. Caliente Sabroso Foods wouldn’t invest in better security cameras.