Hal talks with Bay-Area PI Mike Spencer about his podcast, “The Gary Murphy Assassination: A San Francisco Cold Case,” and how obsession fuels his creative work.
Mike Spencer is a former crime-beat journalist who rinsed off the ink and turned his skills to private investigation in the 1990s. He’s also a writer, colleague, friend, and longtime contributor to Pursuit. We’ve even interviewed him before for the podcast, back in 2014.
This week we’re asking him about obsession — how it can fuel good work but also, if not kept in check, eat away at your sanity. For Spencer, obsession drives his creative endeavors, as a writer and recently, a podcaster: “The Gary Murphy Assassination: A San Francisco Cold Case” is the story of an old case from early in his PI career that burrowed into his brain and would not let go.
So far, he’s produced two episodes about the original case — which began as a simple custody case that wasn’t so simple after all — and his reinvestigation of its deadly aftermath. “I can be a pain in the ass who knows a good story,” Spencer says in episode one, as he introduces himself and states his motives and methods. “I am not objective. But I am fair.”
And really, what more can you ask?
Our editor Hal Humphreys spoke with Spencer last week about the podcast, the case, and the role of obsession in creative work.
HAL HUMPHREYS: Can you give us a little background of the case your podcast is about, and how you got involved in that case?
MIKE SPENCER: As a fairly newly-minted private investigator in 1998, I had an ad in what us old-timers call “The Yellow Pages.” And I get a call one day from this woman. She explains she has a child custody matter she wants investigated. I meet with the woman. The assignment is, she had a daughter who died of a methadone overdose up in Victoria. It’s her granddaughter, at the time six years old, who was the subject of the custody battle. And she explains she is trying to get custody of this little girl from the biological father, a man by the name of Gary Murphy.
So initially, I’m very sympathetic. And she lays it out to me that Murphy’s an ex-con who’s into sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, and she wants to get custody of the little girl by finding dirt on Gary Murphy. That’s how the case begins.
HUMPHREYS: I want to play a brief cut from your podcast:
excerpt: I have dwelled on a cold case murder for 22 years, going to police and the media, alerting the FBI, and now doing this podcast. That’s because I’m a witness in it. Not a percipient or direct witness, as attorneys might say, but as someone on the ground floor of the Murphy saga, if the killers were ever arrested and put on trial, I’d be on the stand and I would welcome it.
This podcast, which I’m calling “The Gary Murphy Assassination: A San Francisco Cold Case,” is about my search for the facts in his brutal killing. A few themes run through the case: vengeance, drug addiction, anger, hopes for justice, including my own, and even love and redemption…
HUMPHREYS: You say in the first episode, “It’s strange the things we cling to, and what clings to us for a lifetime.” This case became personal for you. Maybe it became an obsession. Why?
SPENCER: A lot of reasons. I think it’s sort of a swirl of wanting justice, wanting a form of revenge against my former client. If I can go into the case a little more, the grandmother wanted us to find enough dirt on Murphy that he would have his parole violated, and she would get custody in the case. Our surveillance wasn’t yielding much. And then one day this grandma client verbally erupted, and we told her, “We can’t work with you. You’re impossible.”
Three months go by, and I open the San Francisco Examiner a June day in 1998. And I read that Gary Murphy has been assassinated in broad daylight at a halfway house out in the avenues near the ocean. At 11:30 in the morning, he was gunned down. Upon reading that, I contact my former associate, and we go to San Francisco police, give them our case file, and lay out our involvement in the case. And it’s a good thing we had each other to corroborate our accounts because it would have gotten hairy for either one of us.
“It’s strange the things we cling to, and what clings to us for a lifetime.”
HUMPHREYS: In your 30 years of interviewing people and assembling their stories for a living, have you found obsession can be a positive driving force for you?
SPENCER: I divide my professional life from my creative life. Let’s face it, in civil and criminal cases, we have budgets. There’s not a lot of room for taking your case above and beyond a budget. If you do it, guess what? You’re losing money. So I find the obsession tends to come in more into my creative projects, like a book or a podcast, because then that obsession is what fuels your project.
HUMPHREYS: In your personal life you can allow the obsession, but in business, we’re doing this to earn a living.
SPENCER: We’re businesspeople. I would advise anyone, especially if you work in the legal arena, know where that line is drawn. If we can’t run our business successfully, we’re not going to have a business.
HUMPHREYS: At what point does obsession become a negative force? When can it become detrimental to your business and your mental health?
SPENCER: I haven’t had it be detrimental to my business, but I think where it takes a toll emotionally is where you see what something has done to a victim’s family. I’ll always remember a case, he was a twenty-year-old kid deejaying at the bar, and this bar had a history of violence and problems. This kid was trying to protect a woman from a fight. He was shot and killed. A horrible case. But what I remember the most is just the hurt in his parents’ eyes, especially his mother.
“Those types of things, you do not forget. Those types of things rattle around in your head and weigh on your shoulders. They’re under your skin. They’re in your subconscious.”
Those types of things, you do not forget. Those types of things rattle around in your head and weigh on your shoulders. They’re under your skin. They’re in your subconscious.
HUMPHREYS: I worked on a case in Texas where a young man shot and killed his father. He was being charged with murder. There was a really strong case for self-defense. The damage that family felt — loss of Dad, the kid facing prison — you can get sucked in. You don’t want to let people down. It’s a lot to carry.
SPENCER: It’s why I don’t do criminal defense exclusively. It’s heavyweight stuff, and I couldn’t live that every day of the week. It’s why I balance it with civil cases and some locates and even occasional surveillance, to keep a little more even-keeled.
HUMPHREYS: Getting back to your podcast: Without any spoilers, what’s the takeaway?
SPENCER: The redemption of sorts has been what I’ve uncovered. I started looking at it in 2019, 2020. So the redemption is that I got off my ass and actually did something.
And I can’t really call it a cold case because what I uncovered was police know the gunman, they know the getaway driver, I obtained a copy of the search warrant, we know who did it. The mystery — and I want to digress a little bit. When we turn on TV news, we see “cold case this, cold case that. Help us solve this.” In my case, Gary Murphy was not a sympathetic victim. He was not a blonde, pretty woman from the suburbs. He was an independent biker with a drug use history.
So the greater mystery in this case, and in my second episode I talk about this, is where did the case go wrong? I still don’t know what happened. Was there an evidentiary screw-up? Why couldn’t they make an arrest? Why couldn’t they charge? They had a lot of information. I do know that my former client, right after this happened, she moved back to Canada for about six years. So there are still a lot of unknowns. I’ve done two episodes. If I’m gonna have a third one, I need one of those former cops to talk or the informant in the case to talk to me.
I do keep in touch with Gary Murphy’s daughter, the girl who was the subject of this whole investigation in the first place. That’s another thing I want to mention: A driving force in it is I come from a big family. There are seven kids in my family. Gary Murphy had about four siblings. His parents passed away. So part of my motivation is trying to find answers for his daughter and his siblings. As someone from a big family, it just leaves a big hole for them. So that’s why I’m doing this, too.
About the guest:
Mike Spencer owns Spencer Legal Investigations in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is also the author of Private Eye Confidential, Stories From A Real P.I. (published by 99: The Press). He’s on on Twitter at @SpencerPI.