The PI: A Job of the Future

Maybe first it was Adam and Eve, then a few generations later it was Eve’s descendants hooking up with a lawyer and a primitive private investigator to get the goods on Adam’s scion. Maybe ancient P.I. on surveillance skulked behind cacti and scratched infidelity sketches in the dirt. His retainer? A goat.

Private investigators have been around a long time and will continue well into the future. I hope in these last eleven columns I have given you a look at what the work is like. I have tried to show an honest picture of what I really do and to dispel myths.

We will always need professional fact finders and gatherers. Multiple information sources bombard us on the internet and in the media. More than ever we need trained professionals to ferret out the truth or bring all the facts into the open.

As someone who has been in the field for more than 15 years these are the positive developments for the industry and for consumers, locally and nationally.

  •  Increased professionalism. The State of California has long had strict licensing requirements in that 6000 hours or three years full-time experience are required before an applicant may sit for the exam to try to obtain a license. Other states are following by increasing licensing requirements.
  • Scandal du jour. Whether it was the Hewlett Packard debacle where information brokers hacked reporters cell phones, or England where unscrupulous PI’s hacked cell phones, or locally where private investigator Chris Butler and law enforcement cohorts set up marks in “dirty duis,” the public and law makers now know how low the profession can sink. Awareness and skepticism are good for reform.
  • Increased competition. When I broke into the business each major city perhaps had three to five major players in the investigations business. The number has grown significantly. San Francisco now has about 20 major players, Oakland and Contra Costa with at least 10 firms each.
  • The rise of internet reviews and social media. Scummy investigators who don’t treat clients well will be outed in the form of negative reviews. The postings are not always fair but serve as warnings to treat people right, or else.
  • Diversity of backgrounds. The work used to be the exclusive domain of former law enforcement. The profession, at least in California, is being pursued by highly educated men and, more than ever, women. Some are even former reporters with graduate degrees from Berkeley (yours truly…).

The work of a private investigator has its exciting moments but we are small business people and share the same challenges as small law firms, CPAs or insurance brokers. We have to run a business. It’s not just enough to be good at the work but we have to wear all the hats, from business development to daily administrative tasks.

Our value to customers is that we are professional and detached. We charge hourly and cannot guarantee results. Advocacy is best left to lawyers. “Just the facts, ma’am,” as Joe Friday said.

Most of my work through the years has been for attorneys. But I would offer the same advice to other clients: Start your investigation early and beat your opponent to the punch. Get them in an informational submission hold.

Process Serving Pit Bull

Research, lurk, hunt and strike. Whether you are an archbishop about to say mass, a taxi driver or a deadbeat attorney, if you have legal papers coming to you I will ensure you get them.

I take pride in finding people and serving them with legal process. My pulse races when I see the “Oh crud!”-look on someone’s face the second before I tell them they are served. After more good serves than Roger Federer, I still feel the adrenaline of the work.

Process servers are officers of the court, whether private investigators or sheriff’s marshals. The legal system would fall apart were it not for the court’s power to compel witnesses and defendants to appear to testify or to produce documents. It doesn’t matter if you live in Blackhawk or in East Oakland, no one is above the law.

Private investigators are exempt from having to register as process servers. Private investigators who are not registered process servers may serve all documents except bank levies and similar documents. (My rule of thumb is to use a registered process server if the document is to take money or property.) Private investigators cost more than process servers but usually are more dogged, resourceful and effective. Use a private eye when it absolutely, positively, has to get served.

If people were honorable I wouldn’t have a job. I try to be direct with those I need to serve but if they are being evasive it’s “game on.”

Several years ago I served former Archbishop of San Francisco, William Levada, just before he said his final mass before leaving permanently for Rome as the Vatican’s top-ranking American. The papers were in connection with sexual abuse lawsuits in Portland, where Levada had also been archbishop. He was a witness in that he knew about the priests involved and the diocese’s finances.

I had called his office for about three weeks prior to the mass, trying to do business discretely. There was no response. When I found him preparing for his final mass I told him that I would prefer to serve him now rather than interrupt mass. He grumbled. I told him that he was served and left the papers next to him. (For a legal serve, the person does not have to take possession of the papers. The factors are “awareness” and “proximity.”)

A Nigerian taxi driver once jumped me at his San Bruno apartment. He did not grasp the finer points of jurisprudence but he sure did grab me. Fearing he was armed with a knife, I countered with a bear-hug to pin his arms. A few seconds later I unclenched and ran for it. It taught me to never let my guard down.

A couple weeks ago I couldn’t find a witness in a wrongful death case. He had been served prior with deposition subpoenas but ignored them all. I had to serve contempt papers on the 6-foot, 280-pound bar bouncer and Raiders fan. I checked his name in family law court and saw that he was due for a court appearance. I zapped him in the court hallway. He looked like a wounded elk.

Everyone comes home. Holidays and Sunday evenings are good times to hunt. I looked for one guy for two months once before finding him Easter dinner at his parents’ house in Union City. A couple weeks ago I served a summons and complaint on a deadbeat attorney in Walnut Creek. He was using a mail drop but I learned his parents were locals and served him at their house.

I’ve never had to resort to disguises or do too many other pretexts. But as an old friend in the business warns those who might be dodging service, “Look out for little old ladies in track suits.”

The Upscale Suburban Gangster

I have a friend who investigates Medicare fraud for the feds. You know, bogus medical equipment cases in south Florida and what-not. “Reality is that we only have the resources to go after the worst 10-percent of offenders,” he said. “If you are not greedy, you can get away with it for a long time.”

He might as well have been talking about city, county and state law enforcement. I have a case right now where a lady gangster is stealing thousands from several different men but is so adept at covering her tracks and muddying situations that there is no concentrated effort to prosecute her. Law enforcement has limited resources, not just monetary but more so in terms of the lack of personnel.  Fraud investigations such as identify theft, bad checks and other financial crimes take time and energy. And if the losses don’t approach millions or victims are not exclusively elderly, then they are not necessarily a high priority. (I have found local law enforcement to take financial crimes against the elderly quite seriously.)

She drives a Mercedes C class SUV and rocks Gucci purses. Oh, she talked one of the men into leasing her the Mercedes because she did not have proper documentation to lease or buy such a luxurious ride. Her method is usually as follows:

She starts a sexual or romantic relationship with the men, most of whom are older. She comes across as educated, wealthy and successful. She got into the country through a marriage to an older man but is apparently still here without proper legal status. She talks them into various investments. She might move in with them. She assumes different identities with different Social Security Numbers.

When she senses trouble and pressure, she will seek restraining orders against the men. She does not do all of her crimes in the same jurisdiction but pursues her craft in San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa counties.  So when a local police department starts to pursue her, her side of the story is that she is a victim. Right or wrong, many of the police departments tell the victims that it’s a “civil matter” and that a criminal case is not the proper forum. So she has been arrested a few times but never prosecuted. One victim got the courts to evict her from his house but before she could finally be thrown out she had a moving van take the man’s household goods and other items.

Police might take reports and investigate but prosecutors want solid cases not murky ones. She might hit a rough patch or two but is an artful dodger avoiding significant convictions or penalties. By rotating jurisdictions and creating the illusion of true romantic relationships she derails criminal investigations and prosecutions. She knows how to game the system. She does not have a valid California driver’s license but has committed a couple of hit-and-runs without eyewitnesses. When police stop her, they just give her another citation for driving without a license.

She will write bad checks to these men from various accounts, under different names, and then try to take cash out of the accounts. She apparently likes to text photos of large amounts of cash in her possession, as if she is bragging about her scores. In terms of real assets, such as property, she doesn’t own anything. So going after her in a lawsuit is not that great of an option either.

She plays the game and she plays it very well.

A Mother’s Mysterious Death

I believe in numbers, probabilities and odds. How often do mothers of two boys go for a walk, at night, down onto a freeway and wind up dead? How often do drivers who might have struck a pedestrian fail to stop and just go sailing merrily down the road? Answers to both: Hardly ever.

But these are the questions more than five months after the body of 47-year-old Roma Bhatia, a mortgage consultant, was found on a Saturday night just south of the Bollinger Canyon Road overpass off to the side of the northbound 680 freeway. The cause of death was listed as blunt force injuries from being struck by a vehicle. According to the California Highway Patrol, it’s still an active and ongoing investigation.

The mother of two teen-age boys had been a victim of domestic violence throughout her marriage, according to court records, and had been embroiled in a lengthy divorce and child custody fight. She had also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder but had moved back in with her family in the months before her death.

For a number of reasons I wrestled whether to even write something about this case. For starters, I had done some work on the case for the victim’s side of the family right after the death. I canvassed for possible witnesses and interviewed some people at the hair salon where she was last seen alive. I just asked that anyone who knew anything call the CHP. It’s not like the movies where I worked on the case around the clock. In the real world, you do what you can do within a budget.

A bigger stumbling block to writing about it was my fear of the subject matter attached to the story: Domestic violence. But the reason not to write about something –FEAR– is probably why we should confront and examine the subject. It seems like domestic violence wants to be whispered about and kept in the shadows, or as embattled San Francisco sheriff Ross Mirkarimi supposedly labeled it, a “private matter.” Domestic violence also happens in the suburbs.

Roma Bhatia was last seen, about three hours before her death, walking out of the Fantastic Sams hair salon, 11040 Bollinger Canyon Road, about 5:15 p.m. She had paid $87.85 out of a $100 bill for a tint, cut and moisturizer. Her body was found about 8:20 p.m. and her husband apparently called San Ramon police looking for her about two hours later. She was quiet at the salon but mentioned that she was going to spend Thanksgiving with her two sons, stylist Tina Tran told me. Her youngest son had apparently given her a ride to the shop.

A major question though is: Did she really walk the 2.7 miles at night from the salon down onto the freeway? Her sister and friends are unanimous that Roma was not a recreational walker and would never even pass up valet parking. In the days after her death I had asked the Safeway store near the beauty parlor to preserve any video they might have had from the parking lot, in case it might have shown her getting into a vehicle. I don’t know if the store had any such video or if they turned anything over to the CHP.

Another troubling aspect, to me anyway, is that the husband never seemed to be in the public eye after the incident asking the public for information to help in the case. We all grieve in different ways I suppose. The CHP lost valuable time on the case because the investigating officer was off for five days immediately after the case due to scheduled time-off.

So the real reason I bring up this case is to humanize the victim and to keep the case alive. All mothers are special. She must have been a strong person to raise a couple of boys and suffer in an abusive marriage.



Spencer Elrod Services

Spencer Elrod Services


Lessons From A Scandal

The Dirty Dui/P.I. Moms/Contra Costa Narcotics Scandal just won’t quit.

In the latest bomb a former New York state deputy turned actor, who moonlighted as a private eye (or was it the other way around?), went on the record with the San Francisco Chronicle talking about how he is the informant in the case against Butler and disgraced former county narcotics commander Norman Wielsch. The two and other law enforcement associates are accused of running a soup-to-nuts criminal enterprise that would make Harvey Keitel’s character in The Bad Lieutenant blush.

I never knew Chris Butler other than having a professional relationship with him over the phone and talking a couple times a year. I knew him as a competent, professional private investigator skilled at both video recording and setting up video systems. Let’s just say he had advanced technical and investigative abilities.

Butler used his skills to sting unlicensed private investigators, shown by ABC-7’s investigative team. In a case where we had a common target, he used an undercover investigator to get a covert recording of a psychic offering to make cancer go away if she was paid hundreds of dollars.

The first time I ever thought something was odd with Butler was when The East Bay Express ran a glowing profile of him and his firm in May 2007. The article was called “The Honeytrappers” and it detailed how Butler used attractive female operatives to catch cheating husbands. Many of my professional colleagues looked sideways at this. And yes, there was some professional jealousy. But most private eyes feel uncomfortable using undercover agents in garden variety domestic cases. (A cheater is going to cheat, it just might take a few times to catch him or her.)

One potential red flag in the Honeytrappers article was that it said he had been on the Antioch Police Department but just resigned and cashed out his pension to start his agency. Most private investigators who are former law enforcement come to the private sector after long, long careers. Some of the others perhaps were forced out. I don’t know the circumstances of Butler leaving the force, where he had worked with co-defendant Wielsch.

Another of Butler’s marketing tools was the “P.I. Moms” for a reality show. It seemed that he was everywhere. Butler had all the tools and abilities to make an excellent living doing corporate or legal investigations but is alleged to have engaged in: running a brothel, selling methamphetamine and other drugs and the now infamous “Dirty Duis” where his undercover agents drank with subjects who drove off and were arrested by Butler’s associates in various area police departments. It seemed like he was bent on being a television star.

As private investigators, we are business people. I admit, I have an ego and like some publicity. It’s just that serious private dicks don’t want to be too well-known. The Chris Butler story is a cautionary one about ambition. He was using methods that amount to short cuts. If a case is going to be in a court it’s all about having the moral high ground and getting evidence legally. Any client such as a lawyer, a business or a private party should know their investigator and how they operate. Ignorance is not bliss.

Love Gone Wrong

By now Valentine’s Day has come and gone and you likely heard stories on “private investigators’ busiest time of the year for infidelity cases.” Hogwash and bunkum. The P.I.s getting busy with cheating cases on Valentine’s Day is in the same league with the falsehood of Super Bowl Sunday having the most cases of domestic violence.

Eighty percent of the work load at our firm involves sleuthing for lawyers and for businesses–straight-forward meat-and-potatoes stuff. Perhaps my least favorite question at cocktail parties when I let down my guard and tell people what I do is: “So, you do cheating spouse stuff. Like ‘Cheaters’?”

I don’t much care for boyfriend-girlfriend surveillance-type cases. We screen our clients pretty carefully to weed out stalkers and freaks. But we do handle family law and domestic surveillance assignments. If it’s boyfriend-girlfriend situation and not much is at stake I would advise the potential client to just have some trust, or if it’s going badly just break it off and onto the next fish in the sea.

However, I do sympathize for what is a common scenario for our domestic clients. The most common customer is a professional woman about 40 to 55 years old looking at a divorce or involved in a child custody case. Some want ammo for court in child custody matters but others just want to see who has replaced them. If the husband had some honor and told the truth sooner we would not have these clients. What thanks is this for a woman who has raised the kids, likely held a job too and kept the household together?

This is not to say that it’s only men who cheat. Three out of five of our last cheating cases involved married women. The husbands had suspicions and acted on them after intercepting e-mails. (We never engage in touching another person’s email, phones, etc., all illegal acts.)

We catch the cheats with patience and stealth. Clients ask “how long does it take?” and we honestly cannot tell them as to do so would imply us having a crystal ball or other magical powers. The best analogy I have is that doing surveillance is like hunting or fishing: you might have to cast your line over and over, day after day to land one. I have gone out on someone six or seven times before they bolted for the cheating side of town.

And I have seen it all: There was the Australian businessman who we caught in San Francisco with a hooker after his wife became suspicious when she saw some of his Viagra pills were missing.  There was the “case of the jealous blind man” who thought his wife was in porn 40 years ago and who thought he was not the biological father of his daughter. (“No” to the porn rumor and “yes” to him being the father.) I have had several cases where men fell for women and gave them cars, hiring us to find and repo the cars but then relenting and giving the cars back. My first domestic was in 1994, capturing images of an illicit kiss on this stuff called “film.”

And for the record, December and May or June tend to be busiest for domestic investigations.




Spencer Elrod Services

Spencer Elrod Services

Can I Get a Witness?

My old newspaper buddy Doug and I talk a few times a year. We used to work for the same paper in Sarasota,Fla; I covered crime and he still works there as a sports columnist.

In traditional male mode, I am not super chatty. But I find myself in these calls talking for 10 or 15 minutes straight to my old friend. It’s no coincidence that Doug has had a great career as a journalist and columnist. How does he rope-in me and his other interview subjects? He listens. I try to remind myself of Doug’s patient and active listening strategy when I am in the field interviewing witnesses.

There are several different schools and methods in private investigations and police work that focus on interviewing or interrogations. Some of these techniques perhaps go overboard on the interviewer controlling the subject, content of the interview or even the seating. The truth in the private sector, as compared to law enforcement, is that as investigators we have no authority what-so-ever to force people to cooperate or to talk. You lose all credibility if you make a threat you can’t enforce. Whereas as there potentially are charges for not cooperating with or lying to a law enforcement officer, there are no consequences for telling a private investigator to get…lost.

I don’t make a living if I don’t get witnesses to cooperate. In a high stakes legal case, whether criminal defense or civil, witnesses make or break it. Private investigators in the field are the eyes and ears for attorneys. We also act as buffers in communications between witnesses and lawyers.

As a newspaper reporter and private investigator I have been interviewing people professionally for about 25 years. I approach interviewing as a dialog and opportunity to get important information, sometimes which will result in a statement or declaration for court. If I try to steamroll, arm-twist or bulldoze, I will get shut down faster than a drug deal in a police station.

I want to build trust and get the interview off the street or door step and into a restaurant or home or some other place where we can have a more detailed conversation. (I once had a former P.I. boss tell me “to ask questions until they throw you out.”) Every witness is different, some will hate you at first but come back to you like a lost love, some are “dream witnesses” who have saved important documents, some get involved because they like inserting themselves into a situation and some are deathly afraid to talk.

Some witnesses or interview subjects are just angry, guilty liars. I have had a few interviews where I know I am going down in flames. When confronted, I will sometimes fire back with blunt verbal force that may or may not elicit information. Every situation is different.

My advice for anyone trying to obtain information from someone else is:

  •  Be prepared. Know something about the subject and or person and be willing to trade some information or facts.
  • Keep an open mind. Too many preconceived notions will poison the ability to listen.
  • Try the “power of silence.” Just be quiet and see how they respond.
  • Determine a “baseline” for your subject. See how they answer and talk about non-sensitive subjects before you escalate to more pointed questions.
  • Be aware of non-verbal cues and “micro-expressions.” These little shoulder shrugs or nose wrinkles may not indicate deception but might suggest anxiety, anger, contempt.
  • Take your time.

For more information or help regarding this topic, or any other security or investigative issue, please visit our website by clicking on our ad…

Spencer Elrod Services

Spencer Elrod Services


The Skinny On Background Checks

I call it, “The Myth of the One Button.”

Television shows, movies and internet hype have planted the notion that all you have to do to gather information on a person is log on, press one button and out spits reams of accurate data, like water gushing from an open fire hydrant. The detective or hero or heroine then has an informational submission-hold on the subject of his inquiry.

Numerous on-line background check services have been launched in the last few years on the internet; some have even become I-Phone applications to give “instant” criminal records information. I have found, however, that, in the best case scenario, you might get “some” accurate information with these searches. But I would never use one and put my name behind it. What’s the saying? Oh yes: “Good, fast and cheap never go together.”

As one critic said of the rise of on-line background providers, “This is a trap for the unwary. These data dumps are really data junk. The data is of very little use to someone on a date, etc, because of all of the holes in the databases used, but of great value to stalkers and sexual offenders.” The on-line background checks harness the power of aggregating, or collecting information quickly, and disseminating it.

It’s apparently not just singles checking up on the latest love interest who use the on-line services. One woman at a cocktail party told me that her 18-year-old son was denied a job at a major sports retail chain because the on-line background check turned up that he supposedly had an armed robbery conviction. However, the background check was wrong because they had someone with the same name but a different date of birth. The Wall Street Journal reviewed the leading on-line background check providers and found they frequently made mistakes, such as saying a subject had a bankruptcy when in fact the person did not.

I will give you a few local examples of why on-line background checks don’t work and why you often need to go to the courthouse in person to search the records. California has a “fractured” records system, meaning that not all the counties handle criminal and civil records in the same way. Some counties make records available on-line while some don’t.

The most glaring example of possibly missing information on-line in a criminal background check is in San Francisco. Why? The county does not make its criminal records available on-line. You have to go, in person, to the Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant Street, take a seat and start scanning the old-school printed ledger books. If you think you have a hit, you then have to order the record(s) from the warehouse.

A competent private investigator will make sure the identifiers, i.e. date of birth, middle name or a Social Security Number, match for the subject and for the record in order to verify it’s for the same person. In Contra Costa County, the on-line searches lump traffic and criminal records together so you have to go the courthouse to actually see the file.

My advice for a good background check is to first gauge what’s at stake. If it’s for a key position in a company or for someone who might be taking care of your loved ones, then don’t cut corners. Hire a professional private investigator for the job.

Not-So-Candid Camera

It was 1:00 a.m. when the alarm to her business woke her up. She thought it was another false alarm, so she didn’t want to notify the police for fear of incurring a false alarm fee. But it was a burglar, who broke the glass to the front door, trashed the place and got away with only about $50 in cash. The business owner, an acquaintance of mine, is now installing a motion-activated camera system. Now, she will have the proof she needs before contacting police.

We have tried to make the point in this column that you are responsible for your own safety and security measures, for your family and for your business. An alarm system does not offer much protection. By the time a security guard or police arrive, it will likely be too late to protect anyone.

So what’s the best approach for security? Hint. It’s akin to dressing for cold weather. Answer: Layers.

Our previous column discussed “human intelligence,” and how seeing something with your own eyes or verifying facts with your own eyes yields the most reliable information. However, it might be too expensive to have trained security personnel for your home or business. A good camera system, perhaps one with remote viewing, adds an extra layer of security. And, whether it’s for home or for business, a camera system is a fixed cost.

Law enforcement has made excellent use of video technology. It seems the video surveillance systems just keep getting better and cheaper. As a society we seem to be growing more accepting of cameras in public. The applicable legal standard for cameras is the old “reasonable expectation of privacy.” If you are in your living room, you have the expectation of privacy  At the grocery store, bowling alley or driving in a public place, you don’t have the reasonable expectation of privacy.

One local case highlighted the benefit of surveillance cameras in public places. Over the summer police charged a woman with the killing of nursing student Michelle Le. The charges were brought, in part, because of surveillance footage of the suspect at a Kaiser Permanente Medical Center parking garage. Footage showed the suspect in the parking structure before and after Le disappeared.

Police around the world are turning to cameras in hopes of reducing crime. Police can’t be everywhere at once. While cameras seem to be effective in fighting crime, how the cameras are deployed and how they are monitored are the key components. If criminals perceive the cameras are not being monitored, they are not going to change their behavior.

To recap, any single means of security or investigation might have its flaws. To rely solely on one database for doing a background check is not thorough enough, nor is hoping that an alarm system will protect you from all intruders. Rotate methods. Experiment and see what systems work best for protecting your family, your business and your assets.

The “Humint” Touch

My partner and I were having a business discussion. We share the same philosophy when it comes to obtaining good information.

“You don’t know something is true until you see it with your own eyes,” I said.

Elrod replied, “You mean humint.” 

“What?” I asked. 

“Humint,” Elrod repeated. “It’s a military term for human intelligence.”

The technology for society, business, private investigations, and certainly more so for the military, changes rapidly. How do you keep up with it and know which source provides good information? It was this question that the former Army ranger and I were kicking around.

We agree that: Technology is a tool and very good one. Tech can do some amazing things to shrink time and space and to save on manpower. But the best investigative results come from a marriage of technology and human intelligence, using one’s senses to assess a situation and to weigh the various factors or results.

Two tools many private investigators use are databases and GPS. Databases provide address histories and assemble public records information.  he pitfall with databases is that they often rely on information the subject provides and may be “stale.”  To determine where someone resides, you need to verify it a couple different ways and see them at the residence more than just once. Technology, such as social media or the internet, can also be used to manipulate a situation with false information.

Business, government and private parties use GPS to track movements of goods and personnel. It’s useful in that it can tell you where something is located at any given moment. However, GPS offers no context. You might own a business and have GPS on all the vehicles but you have no idea what those drivers or personnel are actually doing in the field. They might be selling trade secrets or not representing the company in the best light.

One example of technology run amok was the phone hacking scandal perpetrated by News of The World and other tabloids. The papers had relationships with unscrupulous private investigators who were hacking into voicemails of the royal family, business leaders and crime victims.

And yet, in the history of media, where have the biggest scoops come from? Not from short-cuts like phone hacking. Big stories come from industrious reporters who take the time to find documents, see patterns of information and cultivate sources who can confirm information or point them in the right direction.

Elrod brought up a battle in Afghanistan, Roberts Ridge, where technology used in advance failed to detect an enemy. U.S. forces had used unmanned drone planes to perform aerial surveillance but did not detect hostile forces. The enemy understood aerial photography and had dug in to the terrain. Fifteen service members were later killed as U.S. forces kept trying to land helicopters in the area.

“It comes down to human intelligence,” Elrod said. “A computer can’t see and hear things or tell you the nature of an interaction.”