Did you think we were finished with Mike Spencer after Episode 5 of our podcast?
WE ARE NOT. There’s so much more.
There’s still a trace of Connecticut in how Mike Spencer forms words; but the Bay Area is in him. He met the place as a grad student, in journalism school at UC Berkeley. And even though he left for awhile, doing stints as a crime beat reporter in Virginia, California, and Florida, he left his heart in San Francisco and ultimately returned there.
When the economics of journalism stopped adding up, Spencer became a private investigator. The job fit him like a glove. And the the lessons he learned as a reporter molded his brain for private investigations work: He already knew how to coax information out of edgy witnesses. He knew how to get the story right, and get it fast. And he’d nurtured a healthy relationship with the Truth with a capital “T.”
Mike Spencer shared a few of those truths with Pursuit editor Kim Green one afternoon in San Francisco’s Mission District.
KIM GREEN: Did journalism prepare you to do what you’re doing now? Is that a natural transition, from a reporter to PI?
MIKE SPENCER: Yes. I started out as a newspaper reporter. In fact, when I was a child, that’s what I thought I was going to be. But after my newspaper career ended, it was a natural transition into working as a private investigator. In journalism, the worst thing in the world is to get something wrong. To have to write a correction. And that just sort of gets into your head: I cannot be wrong. That stays with me as a private investigator. I have to get my facts correct, because I don’t want to look like a fool later on.
The key difference of course being, as a newspaper reporter, you want your writing to appear to the world and for everyone to see it, but as a private investigator you want to keep your work confidential, just for your client.
KIM: I loved your blog post about being a crime reporter in Florida. What was that like?
MIKE: At Berkeley, I always heard from reporters that if you really want to be a police reporter, you need to go Florida. I did. I applied for job in Sarasota, Florida and got to work in Florida for a little over two and a half years as a police reporter. I got to cover Hurricane Andrew and a lot of bizarre crime—things right out of a Carl Hiaasen novel
KIM: Why does everybody say “Go to Florida”?
MIKE: It’s a melting pot. People go there to start anew. Florida represents this beautiful place in the sun. The state is so transient, so you wind up with people from all over. I don’t know what it is, but it does breed a lot of very strange stuff.
KIM: You must have some crazy stories.
MIKE: Yes. For example, I used to work the night cops’ beat. So my job was like 2:30 in the afternoon until 11:00 in the evening. One night I’m heading out the door, and at 10:30, one of those curly thermal faxes comes in from the sheriff’s office. It’s a fax about a body being discovered in a trashcan in a swimming pool.
That night, I went out to the scene. And underneath the corner’s crime blanket on a stretcher, the body was so decomposed, they had to keep it in the trashcan. The photo shows a trashcan under a tarp on a stretcher being carried out by sheriff’s deputies
As the story unfolded, the victim in this was a young woman, very attractive who may have dated a guy who was in prison at the time her body was discovered. What was speculated was that someone who had had an argument with the guy in prison killed this woman. There’s some sort of payback or revenge.
The story got even stranger. Sheriff’s deputies had been out to that same house just a few weeks earlier, but apparently the pool was so disgusting that they may not have seen the trashcan with the woman’s body in it. It was very disgusting, but also, a very Florida story. And I don’t think they ever made an arrest or really got to the bottom of it all, as in “What’s her body doing in the trashcan in the swimming pool?”
KIM: That’s kind of unsatisfying.
MIKE: Right. I think people always want to know, “Well, how did the story turn out?” In the private investigations world, sometimes these things don’t turn out. The story just ends.
KIM: People crave the end of the story. It’s a human nature.
MIKE: Human nature. We want our narratives in nice, tidy little piles.
KIM: Not trashcans?
KIM: As a crime reporter, you wrote about some of the most painful drama of real life that a lot of people don’t see but are curious about. Do you feel like you crave that sort of weird drama, in a way?
MIKE: At the time, I was happy as a peg, because this is what I’d prepared for since writing for newspapers when I was 15 years old. My story would be on the front page the next day, and I’d wake up and run out to the newspaper box to see my bio line. That’s an incredible rush. As it’s happening it’s just fantastic.
But when I was doing this, I was in my mid 20s. I think I was maybe lacking an empathy component. Because looking back on it, I just realize how awful this is for the families who have to be thrown into these stories. They’d become public figures, and they’re having the absolute worst events of their lives played out in the media.
KIM: Can you talk about your transition from journalism to investigations?
MIKE: It was a very rough transition. In the newspaper world, you do what your bosses tell you. I wasn’t happy with how some of the work was going. I moved back to the Bay Area without a job for about six months. I was just doing what’s called “stringing” and maybe trying to get a job. Put it this way: I was trying to find places that would take jeans or shoes to be donated for some cash. And I was driving a Dodge Dart that I had bought for $500.
I was ready for a steady job. Then one day I answered an ad in the Oakland Tribune for something called an AOE/COE investigator. At the time, I didn’t even know what that was. Basically, it’s “Arising out of Employment Condition of Employment,” or let’s say, workers’ compensation investigator.
For me, handling workers’ compensation investigations was not that professionally satisfying. You’re just helping an insurance company decide whether or not to honor a claim. Like, you have a teacher who’s developed plantar fasciitis, or the grocery clerk has gotten a carpal tunnel. After a while some of the things become pretty repetitive.
MIKE: It was a very gradual process. I met a couple of attorneys, and I was doing some criminal defense work. I really liked doing that, but I also was hired for some civil investigations by a guy by the name of Rick Simons—one of the first attorneys to get huge settlements against the Catholic Church.
So, at the same time, I was working as an independent contractor, was on John Nazarian’s payroll, and was on the payroll of this workers’ compensation company. I was getting the hours to qualify to pass the California private investigations examination.
I got to the point where I realized, we’re not lawyers. We’re not billing at $350 or $400 an hour. The only real money, I think, is in having your own license. And that’s what motivated me to get my own license and start my own company.
KIM: I’m guessing that you’re a guy who likes to work for yourself?
MIKE: Yes, I’m fairly independent. Restless, you might say. I think some of it has to do with ego, and also, how you’re brought up. You’re sort of told you’re responsible for your own happiness. You’re responsible for providing for yourself. I wouldn’t be averse to working under someone else but it would just have to be a good fit.
KIM: Do you think that you were made to do this job?
MIKE: I do a lot of witness interviewing. I think I understand how interviews work. You just can’t bulldoze people right away. As a newspaper reporter, I used to knock on a lot of doors. It’s the same thing, and I think I have a natural ability for knowing how information is shared. It’s not a one-way street. You have to create a dialogue with people and you have to earn their trust.
KIM: Are there any little tricks you learned in your reporting career for coaxing information out of people?
MIKE: It’s that very small phrase, “I need your help.” There’s something about people, if they’re good-hearted, they will listen to that and perhaps share information with you. I’ve heard it used in a very insincere way. I think most interview subjects can tell the difference.
KIM: For you, is this a great life’s work that is fulfilling and fun?
MIKE: It is. It engages me—every part of me. It engages my mind. I like to write. I like to win. What I like about investigations is that it’s a bit like sport. There’s no middle ground. You win or you don’t. It’s sort of black and white that way. In a lot of work that people do, not so much.
That’s what I love about the work: It’s put up or shut up. It’s deliver the results, and you are only as good as your last result. No one cares how you did before. It’s What have you done for me lately?
I love being a private investigator because usually the results are pretty clearly defined. You either get results or you don’t. You know how good of a job you did. I’m incredibly lucky, and I really hope to do this for another 20 years. Or who knows, maybe more.
To get a taste of Mike Spencer’s formidable storytelling skills, check out our podcast:
Mike Spencer owns Spencer Elrod Services, Inc., a Bay-Area investigations firm, and writes an excellent blog that combines writerly chops with a longtime PI’s storytelling savvy. Read it here, and also follow him on Twitter at @SpencerPI.