Investigators are experts in following paper trails that lead to a defendant or a witness. But what to do when there is no paper trail?
Most of us create a proverbial “paper trail” as we go through life, from birth certificate to the inevitable death certificate, with a multitude of documents punctuating our voyage along the way. Additionally, almost any American leaves a virtual record: voter registration information, civil and criminal court filings, address listings, crisscross directories, Motor Vehicle Department records, credit card records, Social Security number, sometimes police reports…the list goes on. And for investigators, skip tracers, and bail enforcement pros, these records are trails of bread crumbs, usually leading right to a subject’s door.
But what do you do when the subject of your search lives at the fringes of society, and leaves no paper or virtual trail? Is it even possible? Yes, it can happen, and it does happen surprisingly often.
An expanding segment of our population doesn’t leave the usual clues.
There are an estimated 600,000-plus homeless people living in America. Some are on the run, mentally impaired, physically ill, or are alcohol and drug abusers. Some have lost jobs, houses, families. Some have served time. And more than 60,000 of homeless Americans are veterans of war.
Because of their vulnerability, and sometimes their own acts, homeless and indigent often turn up as the victims, witnesses and perpetrators in criminal incidents. But how do you find people who have no address, no current driver’s license, no workplace—people who often don’t wish to be found?
Over the last few years, my company has been hired to locate a number of these defendants. In one case, the victim, the assailants and the witnesses (who all knew and traveled with each other) were transients living under a bridge a few blocks from downtown Austin, Texas.
One thing I learned quickly: Homeless people do move from place to place, often covering great distances. I’ve found street people in Central Texas who’d moved from Michigan, California, Mexico, New York, and points beyond. Some relocate to more moderate climates or places where they’ve heard it’s easier to get assistance or avoid prosecution; some relocate on a whim, sometimes to far off places. In the case mentioned earlier, we learned that a bail fugitive had traveled from Austin to Dallas—a distance of almost 195 miles—in only a few hours,when he heard we’d apprehended his co-defendant.
As with any investigation, you begin with a lead—some reason to believe that your subject is in a certain place. You might get a lead from a subject’s old friends, relatives, associates, ex-employers, or your client (if acquainted with the subject). The subject may have written or called someone and provided some clue about his location or destination. This is gumshoe work: knocking on doors, making calls, visiting shelters.
Jails and police departments are also great places to start. Be sure to include PDs and jails in nearby and adjoining counties. (In Austin, we can get incident reports that list dates, times, locations and the primary participants.) If you do turn up a record of police contact with your subject, it’s usually outdated; but at the very least, the records can confirm that your subject was in the area on a certain date and time. They may also point to an area where your subject hangs out regularly.
Sadly, hospitals and morgues are the two other institutions that have frequent contact with the transient population. If all else fails, check there.
Your next step is to develop two lists: the first, of shelter agencies that cater to transients; the second, of places that homeless people typically congregate. The first list may include:
- Salvation Army locations
- Churches and church-sponsored locations, including “soup kitchens”
- Privately funded charity organizations
- YMCAs, YWCAs, etc.
In many places, street people have formed coalitions or associations to help survive day-to-day life on the streets. Any of these groups may be able to give you leads. On your list of locations frequented by transients you will find:
- Bus or train stations
- Plasma centers that purchase blood from donors (and other income sources)
Day-worker pickup locations where they can obtain labor jobs lot a short period
- In the vicinity of the shelter agencies like the Salvation Army
- Parks, bridges, highway overpasses, etc. (protection from the elements)
In Austin there’s an area called “The Drag,” a strip along a major street that runs along the west side of the University of Texas campus. There are several places here where transients gather to exchange information about shelter locations and available assistance. They panhandle passers-by, share food or drink and (in some cases), drugs and alcohol. Many sleep here, along the sidewalk.
Every city has a place or places like these; any shelter worker will know where they are.
Once you’ve compiled your lists of places to look and checked with the jails, police, and hospitals, you’re almost ready for the ground-search.
Hopefully you have obtained some or all of the following:
- Subject’s full name, aliases, nicknames
- Age and/or date of birth
- A photograph, as recent as possible, and physical description
- Medical data (illnesses or deformities)
- Mental health information
In some cases, as a next step, you may want to prepare a “Missing” or a “Reward” poster, whichever is appropriate for the locations you intend on displaying them. These are useful for leaving with businesses or individuals, or posting in shelter agencies and areas where other homeless people may frequent. You can also give them to people you interview along your way.
The posters may generate additional leads on your subject’s whereabouts, particularly if there is a reward offered for information. The posters should include a picture of the subject, name, description, maybe a reason why you are looking for the subject, and how to contact you if someone has information. If you’re offering a reward for information, the poster should say so.
You may encounter problems getting information from some of the shelter organizations. Some facilities keep records of the people who pass through them: For example, the Salvation Army shelter in Austin keeps an index card on every individual who spends the night. The card shows a name and the date the subject stayed and has a short questionnaire for the subject to fill out about any health or mental problems. But many facilities have policies or legal restrictions preventing them from divulging much, if any, useful information. In those cases, it’s helpful to have a copy of the defendant’s warrant with you. Most facility operators don’t want the kind of trouble that might follow from not cooperating with an investigation.
If you are going to use a pretext method, I recommend leaving a message for the subject to pick up (if appropriate to the case). Many facilities will take such a message for the subject and post it for their clients to receive if they come in to stay. Be sure to leave a “Missing” poster and your business card with the supervisor and the desk clerk. We have had several cases where, after we had made contact with the facility management, we received anonymous tips that our subject was at a specific location. (These tips seem to come in at around one or two o’clock in the morning.)
Finally, it’s time to head to the hangouts, talk to people, and check out leads. It may take all of your interviewing skills and some patience to get information you can use—many of the folks you meet may not trust anyone who seems like an authority figure. As with any potential witnesses, they may be evasive, manipulative, intoxicated, or even mentally ill. Be courteous and respectful, but persistent.
Remember the following steps as you go about your investigation:
- Obtain a description of your subject and define a starting location for your search
- Check jail logs and other local records
- Develop lists of shelter agencies and locations frequented by transients
- Make a “Missing” or “Wanted” poster in appropriate cases
- Contact shelter agencies
- Check the areas frequented by transients
This is an excerpt from Apprehending Bail Fugitives, an online training course for bail enforcement agents and bounty hunters.