Mark Murnan shares his journey from avid Hardy Boys reader to 40-year veteran investigator with his own successful PI agency.
Adventure Stories and Inspirations
Long ago in a galaxy far away, the Hardy Boys weren’t TV characters, but characters in a long-running book series written by ghostwriters under the pseudonym, “Franklin W. Dixon.” Frank and Joe Hardy, sons of veteran detective Fenton Hardy, became embroiled in elaborate and occasionally dangerous mysteries which they solved with grit and imagination, often after escaping perilous predicaments. It was great stuff for young guys, true escapist literature, and filled hours of my life growing up in small town Florida.
Fast forward ten years, and I’m married and attending the University of Nebraska at Omaha and taking courses in criminal justice. I had just completed my four-year Air Force enlistment, and my wife and I were expecting our first child. The Rockford Files TV series was a great hit in the 70’s, and although I still had fantasies of becoming a real “private investigator,” I had no real desire to (a) get shot at, (b) get arrested, or (c) have recurring concussions from being struck on the head. Living in a trailer had no appeal for me either (or perhaps that was my wife’s hesitation).
Then came 1980, the year I came across two books that dramatically changed my life. The first was Gone, No Forwarding, book three in a series called The DKA Files, written by Joe Gores. Dan Kearny Associates (DKA) was a fictional Bay-Area agency specializing in repossessions, collections, and other types of private investigations. The books and short stories were based on Gores’s own exploits as a repo man in San Francisco in the 50’s and 60’s. The books were fascinating. I got hooked on them and eventually read the entire series.
The second book was titled Blye, Private Eye, written by reporter and crime writer Nicholas Pileggi. Like the DKA books, it featured a bona fide PI named Irwin Blye, who worked in New York City. He was a married guy with a wife and kids, driving a sedan and living in a nice suburb. He wasn’t getting shot at or beaten up, either.
I read the book over and over, absorbing details of how Blye located witnesses using phone books (I know I’m dating myself here), the department of motor vehicles, and requests to the post office. He did interviews all over the tri-state area on civil cases and criminal cases. I thought to myself, “Hey, I could do this.”
At roughly the same time, I began working as a loss prevention officer at a department store in Omaha. It was mostly tedious, but occasionally exciting, when we would catch shoplifters in the act and apprehend them. But the real opportunity presented itself when I met another LPO who was tracking some bad check passers who’d ripped off the company for a couple thousand dollars (big money in the early 1980’s). He had been a licensed PI before coming to work for the department store chain.
I spent the day with him as we visited different addresses, checked with the motor vehicle department in Omaha, stopped at the library to check out a Polk’s City Directory, and took photographs of a couple of suspects as they entered their vehicle. I was hooked! This was what I wanted to do.
Investigators Repo-ing Cars…Lots of Coffee
I immediately started to scour the Omaha Yellow Pages for detective agencies. It didn’t take long, as there were only four or five listings. I prepared a resume and floated it out to all the companies in the area. I received one call from a man who actually hired me and quickly put me to work doing skip tracing for repossessions. I had done it! I was a working PI in a small mom-and-pop detective agency doing repos, driving around all night looking for cars sold at “buy here, pay here” lots, and attending classes during the day. My wife wasn’t thrilled, but the GI Bill money wasn’t bad, and I made $50 per car I located.
Let me tell you, though: repos in Omaha, in January, well, they suck. This Florida boy soon realized that he was not cut out for bitter cold, biting winds, and months of gray skies. And by the way, Magnum, PI was now all the rage. There he was in sunny Oahu, wearing shorts and never, ever donning a parka.
Out of the Cold
That did it. I needed sunshine. I made plans to move back home to sunny South Florida and the balmy breezes of my home town of West Palm Beach. In September 1981, I took a position as a claims investigator with the old Equifax and became a field investigator for them for three years. Like my experiences in Omaha, though, I soon tired of surveillance. If you didn’t know, South Florida summers are stiflingly hot, and sitting in a car for six to eight hours at a time was a sure way to lose weight … and enthusiasm. I began looking at other options to stay in my chosen career.
In 1984, I took a position as a staff investigator for the Office of the Public Defender in West Palm Beach. I stayed there for several years and eventually went to work for the Federal Public Defender in the Southern District of Florida. Both jobs were incredible. I enjoyed the work, and the attorneys I worked with. Felony cases were always interesting, the hours were reasonable, and I rarely had to sit in the car for longer than it took me to get from Point A to Point B.
Hanging My Shingle
In 2000, I began to get bored with federal work and started to plan my exit. I wanted to start my own investigative agency. My wife and I took out a small home equity loan, and I set a target date of October 1, 2001. I applied for and received my investigator’s license and my agency license, secured insurance coverage, joined the state association, and planned to sublet office space from a friend who also had an agency. We were already to go, and I was counting the days throughout the summer of 2001.
Then the planes hit the towers. That morning, I was driving to Miami, visiting the main office of the Federal Public Defender for a staff meeting, and planning to announce my resignation. Instead, we all gathered around television sets watching our nation come under attack. I returned home early, and my wife and I comforted each other and our children during the long week that followed.
“A deep curiosity, a fascination with facts, a dogged determination, and most importantly, a great love for people, are the qualities that make a great PI.”
It didn’t seem like the ideal time to strike out on our own, but we had resolved to start our own enterprise. And on October 1, I reported to my office on the official start date of the “Great Southern Detective Agency.” Despite the turmoil of the times, my long career and associations in both state and federal courts paid off, and I received assignments from the first day of operations. My wife left her job as a paralegal for a well-known civil plaintiff attorney in 2003, and we opened our own office. We grew, hired staff members, and endured the long haul to “success” as it worked out for us, including expansion and recession, ups and downs, tragedies and victories.
Along the way, I served as a board member and eventually, as president of our state association, and also on the board of a national association. We made wonderful friends and built a long list of satisfied clients and law firms.
Living the Dream
The profession I longed to be part of as a young boy reading adventure stories has been a fruitful and satisfying endeavor. Many people assisted us in our journey, and my gratitude for each of them is immeasurable. When I get frustrated or irritated, I always remind myself, “Hey, at least I’m not a banker.” Having my wife as a partner and watching her grow as a skilled investigator herself has more rewards than I can articulate. And it’s been deeply satisfying to see people who worked with us go on to their own success.
If my math is correct, I’ve been a professional investigator for forty years, and self-employed as a private investigator for half that time. I’ve been a claims investigator, a criminal defense investigator, and a civil-plaintiff investigator. I have never been a cop, but I have many friends who are or have been. That’s not a prerequisite to being a successful PI. Instead, a deep curiosity, a fascination with facts, a dogged determination, and most importantly, a great love for people, are the qualities that make a great PI. I still have all those attributes, and for that I am forever grateful for this wonderful profession.
About the author:
Mark J. Murnan (President, Chief Investigator) is president and chief investigator of Complete Legal Investigations, Inc. in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. He’s a Certified Legal Investigator (CLI®) and a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE®). Mark studied criminal justice at the University of Nebraska and served in the United States Air Force, where he attended the Defense Language Institute and was subsequently assigned to the Air Force Security Service (now the Electronic Security Command). He’s the author of Marketing to Plaintiff Attorneys, and co-creator of “Investigators in Cars, Drinking Coffee.” Subscribe to that YouTube channel here or email him at email@example.com.