For some investigations, spy apps, GPS trackers, and social media are still no match for good old-fashioned people skills.
by Elliot Rysenbry
Human intelligence (or HUMINT, if you like acronyms and jargon) is the act of physically talking to people and gathering information in person, and it’s not losing relevance anytime soon. This is a story about how a bit of empathy and a few compliments can help you find a missing person when technology—and even police authority—have hit dead ends.
Jason Shaw (of BuzzFeed private investigator fame) knows that the most valuable skill an investigator can bring to the table is street smarts, experience, and humanity—not just access to a powerful database like TLO or Tracers info. Sometimes the ability to build rapport is the make-or-break factor in a difficult investigation. Case in point: finding Sylvia, a young runaway on the streets of San Diego.
When Sylvia failed to show up after school, her mother Marie realized that something might be wrong. And when Sylvia failed to appear by the next day, she did what any distressed parent would (and should) do upon realizing their child was missing: she reported the disappearance to the police. Unfortunately, the police’s investigation was over almost as soon as it started.
The only lead in the case was Sylvia’s friend, Amy. But when the police went to speak to her, they opted for the “authoritative” approach. This (predictably) did not go down well. In fact, they managed not only to get Amy offside; they upset Amy’s mother as well. Feeling disrespected and fearing that Sylvia was in some kind of trouble, both Amy and her mother denied having any information about Sylvia’s location and asked the officers to leave.
Marie refused to give up so easily. Runaway teenagers are at risk of more than just underage drinking and truancy. In fact, 1 in 6 endangered runaways reported to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children are likely victims of child sex trafficking. Desperate to locate her child, Marie hired Jason Shaw through Trustify to track Sylvia down before anything could happen to her.
Jason immediately read the police report to get a feel for the case, and to get a read on how the police’s interaction had gone with Amy, their best lead. Almost straight away, Jason concluded that Amy and her mother probably knew where Sylvia was, but had refused give the police the information. It was likely that they had clammed up either due to fear and mistrust of the police, or simply because of the way they felt that the officers had treated them.
The first thing to do was talk to Amy and her mother. They might not want to talk to the police, but they might be willing to talk to an investigator.
First impressions count. When Jason knocked on the door of Amy’s house, he knew right away that he could walk out of there with enough information to blow the case wide open, if only he could persuade Amy (and her mother) that he was on their side. Rather than taking the direct approach, Jason decided to be friendly. When Amy’s mother answered the door, he simply asked if he could sit down and talk with them for a moment about Sylvia.
These sorts of interactions can be tricky, but anyone who’s worked in sales or hospitality will be familiar with the tactics: lots of compliments with a side of empathy. After a few minutes of chatting, it was immediately clear that Amy’s mother had felt confronted by the police and disrespected by their conduct. Jason empathized with them by sharing (and perhaps exaggerating) a few of his own stories about times the police had been disrespectful to him, too. After few more minutes and a couple of well-placed compliments about their home, Jason hit pay dirt. Amy’s mother freely gave Jason the name and address of a boy that Sylvia was dating, and as far they knew, often stayed with. Jackpot.
Sometimes the ability to build rapport is the make-or-break factor in a difficult investigation.
Often it only takes one key piece of evidence—and in this case, one key witness to provide it—to solve a missing persons case. Jason quickly passed the address of the boyfriend to the police, who were able to locate Sylvia and return her to her mother’s house the same day. Thanks to Jason’s persistence, experience, and people skills, this case ended like cases involving missing teenagers so often do—with the errant adolescent being located at a friend’s place, having spent the last day or so skipping school and ducking their parents’ calls.
Needless to say, Marie was thrilled—and relieved—to have her daughter back at home where she belonged, and thankful that things ended so well.
This story is a perfect example of how important and simple HUMINT is. If you treat people with respect and give them someone to listen to, they’ll tell you just about anything. Despite the way that tech tools, spyware, and seemingly all-knowing databases have changed the private investigation industry, people skills are still a basic requirement for any investigator, and part of the real value that investigators can provide. When it comes down to it, intelligence and investigations are about people—not technology.
About the Author:
Elliot Rysenbry is the editor of the Trustify Blog. Hailing from Australia, he splits his time between hunting for decent coffee, and transcribing the wisdom and stories he learns from private investigators into blog posts that he hopes you’ll like.