2nd Place: Mike Spencer takes us deep undercover—into a defense case, his backstory as a newspaperman, and his personal philosophy about power, fairness and the justice we all deserve.
On a Halloween day, Scott, a finance executive, worked from home and ate lunch with his wife. He wore panties underneath his pants. Throughout their marriage, his wife wanted him to wear them and other women’s undergarments. He wore them to comply with her fetish.
But he had work to do. And besides, they weren’t going to be intimate that day. He left to run an errand at the pharmacy. Upon his arrival back home at his country club estate, still clad in panties, a small army of local police in squad cars arrested him. He was accused of felony abuse of his 12-year-old son, and of threatening his boy at gunpoint if he told anyone about his supposed extramarital affair.
A resourceful sort, Scott managed while handcuffed in the squad car to wriggle out of his feminine undies and stuff them into a pocket before being booked into county jail.
Scott had never been in trouble in his life. He was from a big family, and he did well in high school. He became interested in business and graduated from the local state university. His ambition led him back east to a top business school. He would later marry a fellow graduate student he met in school. Scott did everything right in life except, perhaps, choosing the mother of his children.
If Scott were to plead to a lesser charge or get convicted on anything, he could kiss his career and kids goodbye. Concurrent with his criminal defense case was a family law and divorce case. He was fighting for custody of his children.
He hired a criminal defense lawyer, and the lawyer hired me to investigate on his behalf.
We spent an intense four months working for him before the district attorney decided not to prosecute. His wife had to have set him up that day of the police raid, wanting to portray him as a panty-clad degenerate dad.
According to a police report and an emergency protective order, Scotty Jr. made the allegations against his dad to a therapist. Scotty claimed he had seen dad with his mistress, Susie, jogging together several times and even on the side at a family vacation in Disneyland. The boy detailed how dad had pulled him aside one day at home, held a shotgun to his head, and told him that if he told mom about Susie that he would hurt him, his sister, and mommy.
In this session with the therapist, the boy also went into details about how he didn’t like going target shooting with his dad, how his dad was drunk all the time, and how much his dad’s guns and other guns scared him. Police never bothered to check any of the information but just took the therapist’s words and report at face value and arrested Scott for several felonies. One of the local papers picked up the police blotter about Scott’s arrest and published his name and the charge in print and on the Internet.
Police immediately should have spotted a credibility problem: Scott Jr. was seeing the same therapist as his mother, and as it turned out, the mother directed and steered her son’s sessions. Obviously, the boy should have seen an independent professional. The marriage had its problems, but Scott swore he had never been unfaithful or abusive to his two children.
An Undercurrent of Deception
Perhaps at the root of the allegations was a play for Scott’s assets. Scott had twice caught his wife spending almost $100,000 behind his back. He got so fed up with her wanton spending that he had a post-nuptial agreement drafted, which she signed, that separated their finances and them as financial entities. He did not want her destroying the family’s credit and risking their financial livelihood.
My job was to go through each and every allegation contained in the therapist’s report and the police report and blow them out of the water. Scott revealed to us that what likely happened is the mother had trained the son and the daughter to spy on his computer. He acknowledged to us that the alleged mistress was a former girlfriend from nearly 20 years ago. He thinks his kids got her name, Susie, because he had exchanged a recent email with her and friended her on Facebook.
When lies are specific enough, mentioning names, dates, places, and so on, they can be proven false.
Scott swore to us that the substance of the email was telling each other where they were in their relationships but acknowledging that trying to rekindle a romance would be impossible for so many reasons. Scott thought that his kids likely told the wife about the Susie emails and then became agitated and turned the kids against them.
When lies are specific enough, mentioning names, dates, places, and so on, they can be proven false. Susie gave email and other statements to me and later to police detectives that she had never been in California at the time where Scotty Jr. had supposedly seen her jogging with his dad or near the family in Disneyland. Susie had the timecards from her work to show she was never in California. Scotty Jr. had alleged to the therapist that his dad drove drunk a lot and was often drunk at home.
But it was soon learned that the children’s definition of dad being “drunk” was having a beer. I went to all the restaurants the family frequented to interview waiters, waitresses, and staff about Scott’s drinking habits. Scott, before these allegations surfaced, had lost 20 or 30 pounds from reducing his small amount of alcohol intake and changing his eating habits. I learned from interview restaurant staff that Scott drank a lot of Diet Coke out with his wife and kids. It’s hard to lose a lot of weight if you are a heavy drinker.
Scotty Jr. claimed that his dad threatened him with a gun that he had in one of the rooms and how afraid he was of guns. Another fabrication to
shoot down discredit. I learned from going to gun shops and gun ranges, and even from the family’s pastor, that Scotty Jr. liked to target shoot .22 rifles with his dad and genuinely liked being around guns. I also found witnesses who knew that Scotty Jr. never seemed afraid of his dad and worshipped him. Scott did keep weapons in the home, but they were always in a locked safe that the children or anyone else but him could access.
Scotty Jr. started giving different accounts about his dad in more interviews with an independent therapist. It became clear that his mother was driving the show because the independent monitor caught Scotty Jr. with a small tape recorder trying to secretly record their sessions.
What’s rare and commendable is that this detective listened to us. He wanted to get it right.
Concurrent with the criminal investigation was Scott’s custody and divorce battle. And throughout all of it, Scott kept performing well at work, trying to be a good father and participating in his criminal defense.
The attorney and I had a couple of meetings with the police detective who had taken over the case. What’s rare and commendable is that this detective listened to us. He wanted to get it right, but he never tipped his hand about what he believed or whether he was taking sides. With Scott’s direction, we put together a two-inch thick binder of statements summaries, taped statements, and other evidence I had gathered. The detective said that he would talk with the district attorney assigned to the case.
Almost five months after his arrest, Scott’s attorney learned that the district attorney would not be pursuing any charges against Scott. Scott got some measure of justice, but he had to pay about $20,000 to the defense attorney and about $5,000 to me, just to clear his name.
Think about that for a bit. Do you think poor people never get falsely arrested and accused of crimes? Scott had the resources to fight back. So what chance do you think poor or average income people have?
The Bottom Line
Last I heard, Scott is still duking it out in court over child custody and divorce. In another ripple from the case, the therapist who treated his children while also seeing the mother as a client faces a license suspension from the board of psychology for unprofessional conduct and negligence.
I have had close to 150 criminal defense investigations; many are through various “conflicts” or “court-appointed” programs where a local public defender cannot take a case, so the court turns it over to a private attorney. The attorney then picks from a list of qualified private eyes.
Criminal defense cases are the most pulsating, focused, fundamental, and meaningful of all my work. Why? The stakes are highest. I am helping in the search for justice and dealing with core issues of fairness, liberty, constitutional rights and all that other good stuff. If you can’t rally to fight authority, then you are dead inside. On the line is the client’s liberty, life, and reputation.
Criminal defense cases are the most pulsating, focused, fundamental, and meaningful of all my work. Why? The stakes are highest.
I confess my biases. Police and the state have way, way too much power. Who makes up the pool of judges? I’m not sure, but many come from the ranks of police and former prosecutors. About 80 percent of defendants can’t afford private attorneys.
My training as a reporter taught me to doubt authority. And who is more a symbol of authority than police? My disclaimer is that I like good cops and individual detectives. However, I see too many “true believers” in uniform who don’t play fair and who lie in reports and in testimony because they have gotten away with it for years.
Why do people do anything? Because they can.
I see the reality of police work. It reminds me in many ways of deadline journalism: It is done with a narrow focus—i.e. make an arrest or get the story—and is often hastily done. Of course, there is a distinction between probable cause to make an arrest and whether a person is factually guilty. But back to the deadline journalism comparison: Police in an urban environment work under time pressure and are subject to making honest mistakes. Their job is to arrest people. Sometimes, they might encounter witnesses who tell a different story.
I have investigated more than a few cases where police talked to someone at a scene but just didn’t name potential witnesses in the report or named them and did not accurately take a statement. I know, it’s Monday-morning quarterbacking, but we are dealing with fundamental issues of human liberty and fairness.
Scott is no doubt putting his life back together. But who knows how it would have turned out had he A) not slipped out of the panties before going to jail, or B) not had the resources for a good private investigator and attorney?
About the author:
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.
Why we chose it:
Mike’s journalistic past screams off the virtual page in his storytelling—he jumps right in with the backstory of his case, no introductions needed. The case is thorny and complicated, but he takes us into the ambiguities with a reporter’s clarity. What we love most is when he tells us why he believes in what he does. For him, it’s a little bit personal, a little bit ideological. He confesses his biases: As an ex-reporter, he mistrusts authority figures and sees himself as a check to state power. Focusing on a single case study works well, and his “This I Believe” statement is a powerful argument for the “why” of this field.
Also, we are excited for any opportunity to publish a story with “panty” in the title.
“I confess my biases. Police and the state have way, way too much power … If you can’t rally to fight authority, then you are dead inside. On the line is the client’s liberty, life, and reputation.”
“When lies are specific enough, mentioning names, dates, places, and so on, they can be proven false.”
Mike Spencer defines the essential problem in our system, and his motivations for working as a defense investigator, all in one: His client had the money to pay for a vigorous defense—others do not. “Think about that for a bit. Do you think poor people never get falsely arrested and accused of crimes? Scott had the resources to fight back. What chance do you think poor or average income people have?”