The change in divorce laws wiped the detective out of a job he remembers as “the most interesting I’ve ever pursued.”
As an assignment for a private investigator, it was almost too good to be true. The job guaranteed several weeks’ work at full pay with no risk at all to the investigator. Naturally T.J., a San Diego private eye, snapped up the job. In these lean days, not many jobs like this come your way.
An insurance company suspected a car accident victim was claiming a false injury to collect more money. The company turned the job over to a lawyer who retains T.J. as a private investigator.
It was a piece of cake, recalls T.J. The job involved nothing more than tailing the guy and seeing where he went and what he did. And to make it easier, the guy was confined to a wheelchair.
“I had to report in each week. And after two weeks I had a strong suspicion the guy was not what he claimed he was.”
T.J. tailed the suspect, an unemployed Pacific Beach man in his twenties, to beach restaurants, downtown bars, and up to Sharp Hospital where the man received physical therapy.
He never once got out of the wheelchair. All day he played the part of the crippled accident victim. That is, until he got home to his Pacific Beach apartment. Then he rose out of the chair and walked without crutches or any type of assistance into his apartment.
T.J. tailed him for five weeks, and after he had reasonable proof the man was a fraud, T.J. called him on the phone.
“I laid down a few facts to let him know that I was on to him. I told him who his attorney was, what he was claiming, and that I had followed him for five weeks and had film of him walking around as healthy as anyone.”
TJ. of course had no film, but saying he did sounded good. The next day the attorneys met and the insurance case was dropped.
“Even his attorney was taken in. The claimant played the act right to the end. The attorney wheeled him in the wheelchair and then the guy just stood up to the astonishment of his lawyer. He didn’t figure his client for a crook.”
It was a perfect case for T.J. He uncovered an insurance cheater,, received five weeks of work, got the chance to ply his skills as an investigator, and to this day the claimant does not know who did him in.
Unfortunately for T.J. and the dozens of other private investigators here in San Diego, well-paying cases such as this one are few and far between. A private eye, even with good connections, might wait months for a case that lasts more than a few days. And between cases, there is a lot of dead time when the phone doesn’t ring, and the bills pile up, and the investigator starts to wonder if it’s all worth it.
The private detective, the subject of thousands of fiction books and dozens of movies, is in the real world having a tough go at it. What Raymond Chandler called “the small time dick” is on the way out. As Atlantic Monthly writer Clifford Mays puts it, “He is a dying breed. He is being muscled out by the growth of the big securities outfits such as Pinkerton, Burns, and Wackenhut, by the increasing use of advanced and expensive investigations technology, by changing times and a merciless economy.”
In San Diego, even the big agencies are having their share of troubles. The local Pinkerton Agency hires only two full-time detectives, while Wackenhut supplements investigative work with security guard service and the sale of electronic gear.
‘The solo operators are dying out,” says Frank Nugent, former director of the California Association of Licensed Detectives. Nugent is a casualty of the business crunch. After opening his own agency three years ago, specializing in courier service and domestic investigations, he was forced recently to close down. Now he operates out of his apartment in Mission Hills, and augments his income by teaching business courses at City College.
One reason for the demise of the “small time dick,” and for the paucity of clients in general, is the. fee that investigators must charge. Rates vary, but a licensed detective charges between $8 and $15 an hour for such work as background checks, industrial snooping, and missing persons investigations. The price can escalate if there are heavy out-of-the-pocket expenses or if the case looks as if it might be dangerous. “In Los Angeles bodyguards are getting between $15 and $50 an hour,” says Nugent. “Standard rates in San Diego are between $8 and $25 an hour.”
Any way you slice it, investigative work comes out to be a costly venture, and many prospective clients simply can’t afford to hire a bodyguard or pay to have their missing children returned.
Another jolt to the solo operators and the small agencies was the liberalization of divorce laws. Tailing spouses suspected of adultery was bread-and-butter for detectives. A former Houston photographer, now retired from the detective business, told me he used to make a profitable, if dangerous, business out of gathering evidence against adulterers. A detective would scout out the motel room used for the lovers’ rendezvous, and persuade the manager, to lend him a master key to open the door. Then came the photographer’s turn. He waited outside the door, camera lens pre-set, and at the right instant he ran through the door, camera clicking shots of the couple flagrante delicto.
A change in divorce laws wiped him out of a job he ruefully remembers as “the most interesting I’ve ever pursued.”
Yet if prices seem exorbitant to the public, the investigator feels he is obligated to charge these rates for his services. “After all, it is his life on the line,” says Nugent. And considering that plumbers and construction workers make that much and more, the pay is not out-of-line.
Money is one limiting factor. But oddly enough, private detective work is one of the lowest paid professions. According to a RAND study, ‘The average private detective makes something less than $4,000 a year. Most are guards' inside plants or apartment buildings; of those who do case work, almost all are restricted to pre-employment background checks on personnel, background checks on insurance and credit applications, plainsclothes undercover work to detect employee dishonesty and customer shoplifting and investigation of insurance claims.”
But this is only part of the story. Many large businesses who might have been shopping for private detectives in the past are now hiring investigators on a full-time basis. Insurance companies have their own investigators though there is a spill-over, as in the case of T.J. Department stores also hire their own security men, finding it cheaper and easier in the long run to hire their own rather than go to an outside agency..
Despite the shortage of business, the number of private eyes keeps increasing. There are over one thousand “ops” in the state who have passed the stiff written requirements for licenses. There are another three or four thousand detectives who work without the license, skirting the law by free-lancing their services to lawyers and insurance companies.
“About seven years ago the market was flooded with investigators,” observes Nugent. “Retired FBI agents, police, military investigators ... I don’t know the reason for it. There were just quite a few looking for work.”
Private investigators find themselves either going into the larger agencies or teaming up with law firms. Almost all investigators specialize out of necessity. If they go with Pinkerton or Wackenhut, the two largest in the country, the investigators can count on spending most of their time doing background checks.
“We will not do any investigative work concerning marital problems,” maintains Howard Wood, manager of the local Pinkerton agency. “Pinkerton will not investigate a sensational, publicity grabbing case. If an agent stumbles across a kidnapping, murder, whatever, he notifies the local authorities immediately.”
“The private eye’s client has changed,” affirms New York Times' Nicholas Chriss, who covers the paper’s crime beat. “It is not a distraught chorus girl or a wealthy socialite who looks like Mary Astor. Most clients of private detectives are large corporations. They may want their corporate secrets protected from the snooping of a rival company. They may want to know that the board room isn’t bugged. They may want to find out who’s peddling marijuana in the employee cafeteria or how to stop employee pilferage.”
Rarely will the investigator get to see the kind of wild action that in the public’s mind goes hand in hand with the job. More often than not, he will spend a lot of tune on the phone checking past employers or going through official records, looking up names, dates, and places. Often, the job has all the glamor of an accountant’s job. An eye for detail, the ability to comb through legal records without losing your mind are qualities more in line with the job than, say, ability with a gun or prowess in a fist-fight.
“The fallacy of detective fiction,” says Harold Lipset, a famous San Francisco investigator and one of the few solo operators to make it big, “is that writers think they have to add violence. I don’t carry a gun, and I wouldn’t hire anyone who packs a revolver or gets his ideas about the business from the movies and books. I’d prefer to hire an investigative reporter, someone like that.”
But if the job is less than it appears to those naive souls who believe that the private eye spends most of his time nursing a bottle of bourbon and waiting for a blonde to walk into his office with a handful of greenbacks and a heart full of woe, it is not as dry and lifeless as some investigators would lead you to believe.
There are personal rewards in investigative work, even if the detective never leaves his office. And now and then there is the case that takes him out of the office and puts him on the street. And then his blood gets moving.
“A private investigator ideally should be a combination of Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and Don Quixote,” Nugent muses. “He needs the tenacity of Holmes, the bravery of Bond, and the Quixotic spirit of adventure.” Nugent gave up his agency, but he still is an investigator specializing in bodyguard service and missing persons work.
Of the former, Nugent notes that the need for bodyguards seems to be on the upswing. He says the social climate for high paid executives, what with the rash of kidnappings and the increase in urban terrorism, has made the wealthier executives turn to bodyguards for protection.
Bodyguards are also used for more mundane purposes, such as at conventions and tense board meetings where strong-minded outspoken types are liable to confront each other. In such cases, a good bodyguard can be effective in protecting a person from himself.
Nugent says the public has a misconception of what constitutes a good bodyguard.“He does not have to be physically big. And he doesn’t have to be an ex-prize fighter. A lot of good bodyguards, guys in the business for years, are just average size. Alertness is the key. A bodyguard should be able to anticipate trouble and steer his client away before trouble starts up.”
He should also have the ability to blend into the crowd. And he should do his homework on his client; meaning background checks on his client’s supposed enemies and his daily associates. The whole idea is to be able to spot trouble before it arises.
One hindrance to the job can be the truthfulness of the client. A client should tell his bodyguard why he needs a guard and who his enemies are, if any. But business clients have a way of being less than candid, admits Nugent. And while he has never personally run into trouble on that account, it has happened to others.
Protecting people is part of Nugent’s business; finding them is another. Missing persons, an old stand-by for the fictional detective, is still a real-life staple, too. Nugent specializes in finding runaway juveniles, and he says the chance of finding a runaway is usually good.
“There’s an 85 percent chance of finding the person,” he claims. “And most of the time it takes three days or less. Generally the kids are frightened, confused people and not very sophisticated at running away. They go to a friend’s house or a friend of a friend’s. Or they end up at a crash pad. Really, if a kid wanted to, he could simply disappear. But that’s not the case.”
The key to missing persons, for Nugent, is the street informant. Just like in the movies, the private eye has to have people out on the street, keeping eyes and ears open for a tidbit of information that might be worth a few bucks.
“The private detective is lost without informants. We have no wealth of information like the police have, no record banks to turn to.”
Maintaining an informant list means paying out cash, either on a monthly or a case-by-case basis. Nugent declined to say how much he p'aid his informants, explaining the amount would depend on a great many factors, the most important being how valuable the information was and how cheap it could be obtained.
It’s another facet of the business; the ability to size up people quickly and determine their worth.
One who might agree with Nugent’s assessment is Joe Minette, a middle-aged, rumpled-looking investigator who resembles Jimmy Breslin in appearance. Minette, like Nugent, plays down the inherent dangers of his job, although he once was whacked over the head with a two-by-four during the course of his duties. He is licensed to carry a-gun, but seldom does, saying it’s not all that important.
“You have to be a good listener,” he says of the investigative business. “During a conversation, I may ask the same question three or four different times and get three or four different answers. Then I know they’re lying.”
Minette works strictly on a referral basis, mostly for attorneys. Rarely, if ever, does he take private citizen cases. Minette swears by his informants. They are the underpinnings of success in a case.
“The whole thing in this business is contacts. And one thing I have here (in San Diego) is contacts. It’s knowing who to go to . . . and get straight answers. If I were sent to Chicago tomorrow, I’d have to sell shoes. I wouldn’t have the contacts there. You could knock on doors till your knuckles were blue without contacts.”
His contacts work both sides of the street: drug dealers, pimps, street people, both blue and white collar workers. All types. Part of his job includes rounding up witnesses and gathering facts for trial cases. He digs hard for information and he holds nothing back, even if the information looks bad for the attorney’s client. “I present all the facts . .. so there will be no surprises in the courtroom. If the deck looks stacked against the accused, my report says that.
“I think most people lie,” asserts Minette in references to witnesses in court. “Maybe embellish is a better word. Every witness is going to give you information. He wants you to have it—to benefit his own interests.”
Minette perhaps has reasons for his cynicism. One of his clients, a counterfeiter, tried to pay his bill with his own bogus money. “It got past the secretary who was working for me at the time, but I spotted him.”
Minette, like the other freelance Op’s in town, is on a feast or famine schedule. When there’s a client, especially one that lets an investigator ply his skills, it can be a good life. But the down side of the private eye business has its special hells to endure. Days and weeks can go by without a nibble. The lone operative kills time puttering around the office (if he has one) or fixing up the house (if so inclined) or just watching the hours go by like the other unemployed (but without the benefit of a twice monthly check).
After months of inactivity, he may entertain the thought of putting away his license and getting a job that pays a nice weekly check, without the worry and frustration that goes with the life of a “small time dick.” After all, starving is no fun, no matter what the line of work.