A veteran PI shares the story of her accidental path to private investigations and how she discovered her gift for tracking down people even the police couldn’t find.
Norma Tillman’s years in law enforcement taught her something: She has a preternatural talent for finding people. For years, she helped capture wanted criminals. Then she got her PI license and started using her skills to help families reunite.
In part one of our profile of Tillman, PursuitMag editor Kim Green asks the veteran investigator how she became an accidental PI and found her life’s work.
KIM: How did you get started as a private investigator?
NORMA: I burnt out working with the police after 11 years. What I enjoyed most with the police department was tracking down a criminal that no one else could find. When I left the police department, attorneys called me and said, “Would you find a missing heir or a missing witness?” And I had to become a licensed private eye in order to work for the attorneys.
I never set out to be a private eye. It just happened.
KIM: What’s your secret for finding people nobody else can find?
NORMA: When I worked in law enforcement, I loved to track down the ten most wanted or a criminal that all the other detectives had looked for and they couldn’t find him. I would say, “Tell me what you’ve done.” I would evaluate what they’ve done and find what they failed to do. And that’s what I would do, and I would find them every time.
Tracking down criminals was not easy. They don’t leave a good trail. But when I became a private eye and started working for attorneys, they wanted me to find people who are not deliberately hiding, and they do leave a good trail. I thought, “This is the easiest thing in the world,” and I love it.
I won’t give up. I’m pretty tenacious. I will go after that person until I find them. I won’t take anybody’s money unless I find them. I guarantee if I go after somebody, I’ll find them, or you don’t pay.
KIM: Any memorable cases you’d like to share?
NORMA: The one that comes to mind is a woman—46 years old, Pasadena, California—whose father took her when she was six years old. The mother had been searching for her since she was six, so the mother’s search had lasted for 40 years. The father told the girl that her mother died. So she was not looking for her mother. In fact, she had been in counseling because she had grieved for her mother for 40 years.
When I found her, of course, she didn’t understand. She said, “What kind of cruel joke are you trying to play on me? My mother’s been dead since I was 6 years old.” I said, “No, your mother has been looking for you since you were 6 years old, and your father has lied to you.”
She had to come to terms with that, of course, and confront her father. And he admitted, “Yes, I did lie. Your mother is alive.” After all this grieving, now she has to come to terms with her father deceiving her. But the mother and daughter were reunited.
KIM: How did that feel?
KIM: Have you ever been in a situation where you felt that you weren’t hearing the full story? How do you find people legally and ethically?
NORMA: I have really strong instincts and really strong intuitions. People have asked, am I psychic? And I say, “No, I’m psycho.” My instincts and intuitions kick in when something doesn’t sound right or feel right.
This one time, a gentleman asked me to meet him for lunch. He wanted to hire me to find a son that he fathered when he was in college. The story is that he and his girlfriend had a baby, and she chose to give it up for adoption. He’s now single and he wants to leave his estate to this only son he ever had.
That didn’t sound right. He didn’t try to contact the mother. He wanted me to find the son. I didn’t trust the guy, and I never signed a contract or took any money from him. I was just really curious about whether the story was true.
I contacted the mother, and it turned out he was going to extort money from her. He wanted to find the son and tell her,”If you don’t want me to tell him who you are, you’ll pay me $50,000.” It was an extortion. I just felt like it wasn’t right from the beginning, just the way it sounded.
I found my niche. It found me. This is what I love to do.
KIM: Are you glad you chose to be a private investigator?
NORMA: This path found me, rather than me choosing it, I think.
Again, it’s the most fulfilling thing. Finding a ’10 Most Wanted’ is one thing. I worked on a case one time, I thought, “I’ll never work on anything more exciting or more thrilling than this one case.” Then when I started reuniting families, it was so awesome! I found my niche. It found me. This is what I love to do.
To hear an excerpt of our conversation with Norma Tillman, check out our podcast:
Coming soon: Right and Wrong—part 2 of our conversation with Norma Tillman, in which she holds forth on the “right way and the wrong way” to do things as a private investigator.
Norma Tillman is president of the Tennessee Association of Licensed Professional Investigators, author of several how-to books on private investigations, and a frequent speaker at PI conferences, in classrooms, and even on Oprah.