A detail missed in a long-ago investigation haunts a former police officer—and informs his try-everything approach to private investigations.
I stood looking at the busted back door on the house, and I told myself that I was going to solve this case.
I had been a police detective for a year when I was called to the scene of a residential break-in (B&E). There were around 20-30 new B&E cases in my zone every month, but I was typically not summoned to a scene.
This case was not typical.
The scene appeared to be staged. A lot of firearms had gone missing. Evidence pointed to three teenagers associated with the family, but of course, it’s not what you know, it’s what you can prove.
It took thirteen months for me to collect enough evidence to swear out warrants containing a combined eighteen felony charges on the three different suspects. If you’re not familiar with a fast-paced property crimes unit, thirteen months is a long time to work a case. Most would have simply closed it and moved on.
I could have easily given up, closed the case, and moved on by around the third week of the investigation—but not because the evidence wasn’t there. The evidence was there, and if I had checked everything, everywhere, I would have found it.
As a former supervisor used to say: Leave no stone unturned.
The Big Mistake
Around the time of the B&E, the three suspects headed to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and were stopped for speeding in a small town along the way. It crossed my mind to call the officer to see if the three had any firearms on them. But instead of picking up the phone, I decided it would be a waste of time.
The stolen firearms had all been entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), and if a police officer ran the serial numbers we would receive a hit—or a delayed hit. Usually, if a cop stops someone with firearms, they’ll run the serial numbers to see if the guns are stolen. And if a cop stops three out-of-state teenagers in the middle of the night with thirty guns—many being assault rifles—the officer is sure to run the serial numbers. Or so I reasoned, which is why I did not make the phone call.
More than a year into the investigation, I got a confession. The suspect told me that one of the guns had been seized on that traffic stop.
This time, I made the call. The cop who made that traffic stop a year before remembered the stop and confirmed the seizure of the gun. In fact, he recalled it very well because it was a unique gun. However, he did not charge the teens.
If I had made that phone call at the beginning of the investigation, I could have closed the case within a month, and maybe recovered some (if not all) of the guns with search warrants.
What I Do Now
Of all the experiences I had as a police officer, that one is probably the most important to me now in my work as a private investigator. Sometimes evidence may seem insignificant—so insignificant, that we decide to pass it up, to spend more time focusing on bigger pieces of the puzzle. But you can’t complete a puzzle without all the pieces. And sometimes, what seems like a small piece turns out to be the key to solving your case.
My firm was recently working on a traffic-accident case for an attorney. We had a list of witnesses, and another investigator had previously completed some work on the case. I thought we had exhausted all the leads. But I opted for the “leave no stone unturned” approach and went door-to-door to the houses along the road where the accident occurred—and not just in the immediate area of the accident.
I ended up finding a valuable witness more than a mile from the scene.
I run my firm with the “leave no stone unturned” philosophy. We have forms for planning cases, and checklists to make sure it is all done. At the end, we evaluate everything before we send off our invoice. Sometimes it delays the case, but we find it is better to wait a few weeks and have all the information than to turn in a quicker, substandard investigation.
Our philosophy is: Assume nothing, try everything, and have no regrets.
About the Author:
Christopher Borba owns Emissary Investigative Services, a Roanoke, Virginia investigative agency specializing in corporate investigations and litigation support. He served as an infantry paratrooper with the U.S. Army in Kosovo and Afghanistan. He also worked as a patrol officer and a detective with the Fayetteville, NC police department.