We’ve broken the sound barrier.
In our first Pursuit podcast, we dig into the myths and misconceptions surrounding private eyes, then peel back the curtain to offer a glimpse into the real lives of professional investigators.
Over the last few years, Pursuit Magazine has kind of…sidestepped the issue of professionalism and public perception. Basically, we’ve just accepted — and I think rightly so — that our ranks are filled with professionals who are masters of the trade. And we’ve assumed that our clients and the public in general get this.
We were wrong. People, by and large, do not trust PIs. It’s not that people find individual PIs dubious; people don’t trust the idea of a PI.
We asked people, “What do you think of when you hear the term ‘private investigator’?” Cheating spouses, chain smoking, and “sheer indifference to the laws of Mexico,” admits reporter Daniel Potter (who produced this feature). Thomas Magnum, red Ferraris, and adjectives like “obfuscatory” and “unscrupulous,” said the average man on the street. “I think of just things gone awry…business fraud, or cheating scandals, divorce gone bad,” says Courtney Krampf, a Nashvillian whose ex is a PI.
“You know, it was funny, because everyone assumed his job was all exciting and everything,” Krampf says. “But really it was a lot of long hours, sitting in a car and watching a house for hours and hours and hours.”
Investigating the Myths
Brian Willingham, a Certified Fraud Examiner and white-collar crime investigator in New York, is fascinated by the myths and stereotypes surrounding private investigators. That fascination started early. “One of my colleagues that I originally worked with…said that when he’s introduced to people, he always says that he’s a garbage man.”
It took a few years for Brian to grasp why the guy wouldn’t want to make small talk about his job — which Brian considered exciting, and “one of the coolest jobs around.” And then he noticed how often people he met had weird ideas about what his work entails: “Asking me…can I break into somebody’s house, hack into people’s emails…and people are flabbergasted that I can’t do these kinds of things,” he recalls.
So in 2013, he did an informal online poll of around a thousand people, to get a sense of what the public imagined PIs were really like. He found that almost everybody thought that private investigators broke the law. They used words like “resourceful” and “shady” to describe PIs. And the one word they almost never used was “honest.”
On Being a Professional, Part 1: Specialize.
There’s an ongoing conversation — even debate — among PIs about professionalism and how people qualify to do the work. A vast range of people (with a vast range of skills) call themselves private investigators. Some states don’t even require a license for PIs to hang a shingle. And when you consider that PIs are dealing with pretty sensitive information, you don’t really want unscrupulous amateurs handling things.
That means that if you want to call yourself a professional investigator — and actually BE one — you’ll need to set yourself apart from the pack. Following the law is a great place to start. Education and professional designations like the CFE can make a difference, as can adhering to a personal code of ethics.
And for some, becoming an expert in one particular skill set is another key to distinguishing oneself as a professional investigator.
“Actually, I introduce myself as a ‘Certified Fraud Examiner’,” says Kelly Paxton, an Oregon PI who specializes in financial crimes. “Because if I say I’m a PI, people’s ears perk up, and they’re like, ‘Oh, you peek in windows.'”
Kelly doesn’t peek in windows. She examines spreadsheets and pores over the kind of software you’d use to handle (say) billing at a water department. Usually, she explains, accountants hire her to look into some unexplained trickle of money from the company’s accounts. She’s also responsible for reporting her findings to police, and often, doing post-investigative interviews with employees. “It’s very confrontational,” she says.
She got her start in the financial sector; then, when a client was arrested for white-collar crime, a bulb popped on in her brain. “Within a year I’m at the federal law enforcement training center in Georgia, and I had literally never touched a gun in my life. Never.”
There are plenty more stories like Kelly’s — of PIs who got their start well outside of law enforcement. Another is Eli Rosenblatt, Kelly’s go-to computer forensics expert and a fellow Portland, Oregon CFE. One of Eli’s main specialties is finding deleted files on Apple gadgets, essentially establishing who knew what and when they knew it. Eli has his own go-to guys, dispelling the myth of the lone-wolf PI.
We don’t have a particular allegiance to particular parties in cases. We have an allegiance to the facts.” —Eli Rosenblatt
He says when it comes to investigations, it takes a village: “On any given case I might work with a DNA expert, a forensic accountant and someone who has been steeped for years in doing civil compromise cases.”
Another myth Eli hastens to dispel is the TV trope of the hard-boiled cop interrogator, pushing his subject to the edge — entertaining to watch, but it just doesn’t work that well in real life. “In reality…you’re going through a long process with someone to help them feel more comfortable, and get them to a place where they can admit what they did or…explain what their coworker did.”
Sometimes, you never get that perfect cinematic wrap-up: a confession, or the facts of a case, neatly tied with a bow. That may not be what a client wants to hear, says Eli. “We don’t have a particular allegiance to particular parties in cases,” he explains. “We have an allegiance to the facts.”
On Being a Professional, Part 2: Keep It Classy.
Specializing isn’t the only way to set yourself apart as a professional investigator. Take Joe Stiles, an ex-military guy with decades of experience as a bailman — on the bail bonding and the enforcement sides. Joe’s company, Bail Fast Bonding, employs about a dozen agents in a couple-dozen counties. You might call them if you happen to get arrested in East Tennessee.
Ask anybody in the industry, and you’ll find out that Joe earned his reputation as a professional not by specializing in a complicated field (like Eli and Kelly did), but by showing up day after day, year after year, answering the phone on the first ring, missing countless Christmas dinners to attend to clients, and treating people with respect. He’s known as a class act. He adheres to a code of ethics.
Joe Stiles bears no resemblance to Dog the Bounty Hunter — he's not big on the whole idea of showing up with guns and a camera crew and forcing skips to surrender.
Joe Stiles bears no resemblance to Dog the Bounty Hunter — he’s not big on the whole idea of showing up with guns and a camera crew and forcing skips to surrender. “If you’ve never fought anybody that you’ve ever picked up, then you just haven’t picked up enough people,” he says. “But if you end up having to fight every person that you pick up, you need to work on your people skills.
“I think the main thing that would surprise people is how boring some parts of it can be,” Joe adds. “On an average day, we will do things like answer the phones, dispatch agents, go to the jails to make bonds, go to court appearances we’re scheduled for, meetings with clients, attorneys, indemnitors…It’s 99 percent boredom with one percent of sheer terror.”
Usually, the terrifying moments come when Joe assumes the role of a bail enforcer. A bail enforcement agent steps in when someone misses a court date and maybe skips town, and has to be found and brought back. You might think of it as bounty hunting, but Joe says that’s a misnomer.
Mostly, he says, a bail enforcer’s job is a lot like a private investigator’s: He tracks down people, pores over courthouse records, pounds on doors, and interviews the bail skip’s family and friends. More often than not, it’s just another day at the office; the war stories are exceptions to the rule.
Myths vs. Realities
When people think of private investigators, they tend to think of 80s mustaches, Ferraris, or getting punched a lot, like in “The Rockford Files.” But the real day-to-day lives of professional investigators like Brian, Kelly, Eli, and Joe don’t necessarily make for great storytelling. The Stiles Files are mostly pretty mundane.
But here’s the thing: At the core of every myth, there’s a hint of truth. Stereotypes exist for reason, good or ill. The hardboiled constructs of Edgar Allan Poe and Dashiell Hammett anchor our trade in a tradition of noir and mystery. From Dupin to Spade, from Rockford to Magnum, from Taylor Jackson to Clete Purcell — these are the front men and women we’ve been dealt. They’re the source from which people craft their image of the modern private dick.
And you know what? That’s okay. Here at Pursuit, we accept that a lot of people think our jobs are cool, crafty, and sometimes dangerous. But we’re nowhere near ready to leave it there.
We’ll be back soon, to keep the conversation going about who we are and what we do. Look for Episode 2: Profiles later this spring. And in early summer, expect Episode 3: Technology.
It’s a wrap: That’s The Sound of Pursuit. Sound barrier broken.
Produced by Storyboard EMP
Our team: Jim McLeod, Hal Humphreys, Kim Green, Stephanie Mitchell, Doug Hayes, Ruben Roel