THE REAL WORLD OF THE PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR
©2022 By Nils Grevillius
Operating in the shadows, Counterintelligence is constantly on a war footing, conducting operations even in peacetime.
The training was arduous and challenging, with the work very interesting. It was in this capacity that I served a third tour of Korea, and performed work elsewhere. The people I worked with in US Army Counterintelligence were intellectual, analytical, thorough and considered the posting as not short of holy. Within the US Army, for a mere careerist, it was a backwater, where none were expected to have great promotions, where often particular ‘cases’ went on for decades. Many of the officers and civilians to whom I reported were women. One stands out in my memory as a thoroughgoing professional. For the secrecy of that branch, I’ll not further characterize her work, nor shall I name her.
After seven years of active military service, any goal was unclear to me, and I fell into the bottle as if it was an open sewer main. Unsure what next I’d do, I harbored the idea that I’d enlist in the French Military and lose myself in that.
There was something awry with me that I couldn’t quite see. For all my abilities and skills, ordinary life was erosive and degrading. Falling in love felt like the onset of a fatal disease.
I could cross borders, obtain a fake passport, make a bomb from ordinary things, scale a building, pick locks, install a wire or listening devices, operate any vehicle or weapon, learn a language in a few weeks, navigate by compass and pace count, send and receive Morse Code, encrypt and decrypt secret communications, operate a MINOX or Robot Star Camera, adjust mortar and artillery fire, operate as an unsupported clandestine in a foreign culture, evaluate a man’s perception of truth without a polygraph, but I couldn’t balance my checkbook, have household utilities connected or keep a relationship stable enough for a girlfriend to hold my hand when my father died.
At almost seventeen, I took the entry test for the Army, called the ASVAB, and managed to pass it. My mother wasn’t keen on much of this, and it harkened back to a conversation she and I had when I was in grade school. She had asked, rhetorically, what I planned to do with myself when an adult. The school had mailed her a report card enumerating my serial disinterest.
“I’d like to have a life like a Steve McQueen Film.” Was my answer. My mother had been a prep-school girl, All Canada/American Basketball and LaCrosse Player and was by then on her way to being a respected Criminal Lawyer. Her father, uncle, brother and cousins had all attended Dartmouth, and this is what she expected of me.
“You’re an idiot. No one has a life like that…not even Steve McQueen.” Was my mother’s summation of my ambition. There was a time when an Ivy League education might unlock a lot of doors for a young person. A plurality of those at the tables of power and influence arose of the Ivy League. A few of them can even see themselves in a mirror.
In 1990, in a fit of pique, I gave up tobacco. The state had increased taxes upon the stuff, and I knew it’d eventually beat me to the job of killing me, so I quit.
Alcohol I quit in a fit of clarity: I was no longer willing to bear the burden of it, and it was keeping me from going forward. In no way do I miss it.
It was at this time, that I decided the time had come for me to establish myself…as a lawyer. It seemed like a capital idea for the moment, and I only had a decade of schooling ahead of me to accomplish it.
There were other lawyers in my family, all of them miserable, with my mother often reminding me that I was the least accomplished male in either lineage of my family.
In order to support myself, I’d need a job that could be done as time allowed, as law school, even a casual, easy one, is rather time consuming, and taxing on the human soul.
Getting a broken jaw worked on, I saw an advertisement for a trade school which trained and placed salvage divers. It appeared to pay well, and was suitably seasonable. In a case recent to my evaluation of Diving School, I’d recovered the body of an industrial diver in Cyprus, and I knew it to be a tightknit bunch of mecs.
Working as a hard hat diver, I could earn make enough to pay for a baccalaureate, then juris doctor, with money to spare. In the middle of this, the Aerospace Recession hit, with lots of defense contractors, and pipeline constructors laying industrial divers off. Prospects looked grim.
Instead, I decided I’d take the plunge, get my Detective’s License, and run a bare-bones investigation service, to get through school. There was flexibility for time and money.
Following through, I went about pursuit of my college education. And found myself in immediate work with law firms. Lawyers, it seemed, who did not get on well with the remainder of the Bar.
The work on those first few months was not so different from that I presently am enmeshed in: litigation support, interviews of reluctant, hostile and hard to locate witnesses, background investigations, locating missing persons, difficult service of process, creditor’s rights investigations, conflicts of interest, homicide, identifying UNSUB making threats anonymously.
In short order I was fully engaged. To maximize my abilities and connections, I attended Rio Hondo Police Academy, and obtained Peace Officers Certificate, this in addition to my training in Counterintelligence which was on the Federal Level.
In that era, immediately before the rise of the Worldwide Web, data was had from outfits like Merlin Information, Prentice Hall, TRW and a DMV Account, this last with some caveats.
In 1989, an actress named Rebecca Shaeffer was murdered by a stalker, a man who had obtained her address by engaging a man ostensibly in my line, who used DMV records to identify her address for the killer.
Within this profession, men and women like myself, owe the public a duty of care. Even the people I investigate are owed that duty. The Shaeffer Murder cast ripples through the pond.
The next event which colored the business climate, as well as the culture of Metropolitan Los Angeles, was the Rodney King Riot.
During those riots, I spent three straight days and nights protecting property in the Los Angeles Garment District. Huge damage was done to the business community, needlessly, by rioters urged on by political and media voices.
City government did the bare minimum while citizens were murdered, robbed, assaulted, looted, their property burned. The Los Angeles Weekly was gleeful in its coverage of the mayhem, with innocent people bearing the brunt of rage emanating from criminal elements in the Black and Latino Communities, coupled to the malpractice of Los Angeles City Government.
The message was very clear to business and property owners: In the event of an insurrection, your rights and ownership mean nothing compared to our need to appease the criminal class in the city of our creation.
This was a very busy time for me. I attended a few semesters of college, but was losing interest. I applied for, and took the LSAT, an aptitude test for Law School.
The typical strategy in taking this examination is to enroll in a course that teaches an applicant how to dope the test. This is vitally important, as law schools are selective, wanting exemplary undergraduate grades and a high LSAT Score.
Further, the LSAT Score is averaged, should an applicant take it more than once. I looked over the study guide handed out by the State Bar, and decided to take the LSAT cold, with no preparation other than a good night of sleep and some black coffee.
My competition were recent undergrads, all enrolled in the preparatory courses, with long years of good study habits, and less a history of bashing themselves with booze, getting hit over the head, shot, things like that. My reasoning included the certainty that I’d never been a great student, and if I lacked the ability to gut law school, I shouldn’t waste my time.
For comparison, I’d scored very well in The Foreign Service Examinations, finishing in the top 1%, lacking only a college degree to further damage American Standing abroad.
The results of the LSAT were that I scored higher than 86% of the people I took it with, which was an adequate score. Adequate meant I’d have to enjoy perfect grades in my baccalaureate in order to gain admission to a decent law school.
That night, surveilling a rape suspect around Orange County, I made the decision to withdraw from college, my degrees forgotten.
For all my life it seemed I was the dandelion in the lawn, the round peg hammering itself through a triangular hole, odd man out. In the Pinkerton Service, Counterintelligence, the Infantry, it had always been thus.
I’d be better off, and more useful to my growing clientele, if I educated myself, in what it is that is necessary to protect institutions, trusts, companies, agencies, families.
There were hokey trade schools, not worth mentioning, which purported to educate people as ‘private investigators.’ Within the profession they always were, and are, a sad joke.
In my youth, I’d been befriended by an artist, a painter to be precise, named Joseph Eugene Ferris. He was twenty years my senior, and had all the professional art education a beatnik painter could want, this from Otis Art Institute.
He lived in a garret at the YMCA, and read voraciously, thriving on $8000 annually, and a bus pass. As my father was already planted, and my mother infuriated, I asked Ferris what he thought my course of study might include.
Within days, he had brought me Suetonius, Gregory Bishop of Tours, Livy, Tacitus, Herodotus, several in the Story of Civilization Series by the Durants, all fourteen volumes of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Nicholas and Alexandra, In Cold Blood…and others.
In 9th Grade I’d read Joseph Wambaugh’s The Onion Field, which is a text on the toll borne under the best of circumstances by Police Officers within our society. It is also a primer on prison life and our American Criminal Class. At the age of 31, I read Wambaugh anew. His work is raw, frank and startling to the uninitiated.
The Onion Field is a literature event, way beyond True Crime. It is the story of two experienced, trained LAPD Detectives, operating in the Hollywood Felony Squad. Ian Campbell and Carl Hettinger made and in contact with a pair of stick-up men, Gregory Powell and Jimmy Smith, who got the drop on them, were disarmed, kidnapped, driven over the mountains to the vicinity of Bakersfield. Upon arrival in a moonlit onion field, Detective Campbell was executed, as Hettinger fled with his life into the unending darkness. In describing what occurred in the ensuring investigation, and manifold prosecutions of Powell and Smith, Wambaugh illustrates the burden born by Detective Hettinger, by the families of these men, and the officers with which they served.
As a teenager, I then knew to never give up in a fight, to never surrender my weapon. Anyone trying to disarm me afield is doing so to kill me. Wambaugh instructed me in this at fourteen, and I’ve not forgotten The Onion Field.
Adrift after the Army, I interviewed for a job at a detective agency, National Loss Prevention Associates, in the Scandia Building, in Pasadena, California. I’d seen a classified employment advertisement, expressing a need for an Industrial Undercover Operative, and phoned their number.
The man who interviewed me was George Schweitzer, at least ten years my senior…charismatic and affable. He took in my resume, had me fill out an application and sat me down.
“Do you speak Spanish?” His first question. I speak a bit of Spanish now, but not so much then.
As he looked my application and resume over, I sat before him in coat and tie, as if I was still in Counterintelligence, as if I might have something to represent. The office was stuffy…cooled with fans and I responded “No. But I do speak some Korean, German and Russian.”
Schweitzer was amused, and directed me into the office of his older partner, a retired Deputy Sheriff and Detective. He was portly, balding, and a bit moist for the heat. He was dressed in polyester slacks and a Guayabera Shirt.
“You don’t got no chance in a business like this. Whaddaya tryin’ a do? You don’t speak Spanish. We tryin’ a place a Mex in the loading dock at a shippin’ outfit, catch the guys stealing cargo. I wouldn’t waste my time if’n I was you. You gotta have experience an’ skills, see?”
And out I went, into the afternoon heat. Standing in the shadow cast by the building, I lit a smoke, looked north, looked south, and said to myself “That wasn’t so good.”
In the short term, they were looking for a specific type to fill a role, almost like an actor, but who could infiltrate a theft ring, identify the players, and help them make a Grand Theft; Receiving Stolen Property; Embezzlement; and Conspiracy Case.
In the long term? What Schweitzer and his partner meant was that I had no connections to municipal or county law enforcement. This seemed to those men a requirement for success as a Private Detective. In other words, they could rely upon someone in their old police agency to look up Wants and Warrants, a Driving Record, Booking Photos. That is how the business was then done, to most extents. As of this writing, an officer accessing this data is a proscribed offense, with cops losing their jobs for the act.
Now, when a cop needs a license plate run, or a man identified, outside the context of a police investigation, the police call me.
Later, the Pinkerton Service had called me in to interview me for a specific project, for a public agency. I handed in my resume, filled out an application, and was ushered into the office of the retired LAPD Detective. His name was Russ Mancini, and he was iron-haired, and perfunctory. The female boss and he looked my papers over, and gave me the interview. There was nothing conclusive to it, come the end. I was instructed “We may be in touch. Do not abrogate the agreement you signed, as we shall likely hear of it.” This last from Tina.
A week later, Tina called me and shared that the boss did not think I was right for the assignment. Tina then stated “We may have something for you in the near term, though. Do you have a narrative of anything you’ve worked on that I could show as an example of your work?”
I did, and using the secret methods of communication insisted upon by the Pinkerton Service, I sent it to their Wilshire Office, to Tina’s Attention. This was long before the internet was commonly used outside of academic and defense organizations. The Pinkerton Service used a means of analog secrecy in communications, which was simple. I’ll not describe or characterize it further, as it would be a needless exposition which could cost an operative’s life.
As a Pinkerton Agent, I commenced to establishing a network of informants, of resources and of data, I am using decades later. This is best business practice in my profession.
One day, I was called in to the office by Russ Mancini, to organize a report from notes and logs in a complex investigation. The Admin Staff member I was working with accidentally handed me the Administrative File. When I opened that file, I observed that The Pinkerton Service was billing my time to a corporate client at a rate more than ten times my hourly pay.
I knew better than to resent it. This is how business works: the medium pay goes to managers, big pay to executives, and dividends, to stockholders. But, it did make me realize that I could be billing corporate clients at an identical rate, or even more.
How would I get clients? I was in my twenties, had little business education, despite whatever tactical skill and tradecraft I’d mastered.
Los Angeles, as a Metropolitan area, attracts quite a bit of thievery, of every description: men who steal from their employers, or those who steal from…employees. There are guys who steal honestly, backing a truck up in someone’s driveway, and loading every bit of their victim’s property aboard, and driving off with it.
There are women and men who establish incorporated, chartered enterprises, and steal using a smile, a handshake, a sharp pen, and a bend or two in the law. Such people brought the United States to its economic knees in 2008. Their political allies then legalized the theft, after the fact, and papered it over with a whole new set of economic, banking, accounting and real estate laws. What was the effect? Maybe it was just painting a bright new color of ring around each smokestack of the RMS Titanic, so it might look fresh and all better, on its way to the bottom.
We have thieves of every stripe and style, men that steal with both hands. Can the police keep up? They cannot, and in many cases, the politicos elected by their victims, do all in their power to thwart effective law enforcement. But that’s a philosophical discussion, and I’m hardly Socrates.
I was once asked by the Inventory Manager of a Warehouse Company, to interview their Controller, meaning the person in charge of disbursing payments to vendors, overseeing Accounts Payable. The company had offices and operations in several counties of California, was very successful and established, with their Corporate HQ in Los Angeles.
There were more than five hundred employees, and the Inventory Manager had been tasked by a VP, to oversee investigation of money going out. In reviewing payments to vendors, it appeared that the Controller had issued payments to purported vendors of his own creation, as well as slipping his own mobile phone bill and credit card bill in, to be discreetly paid from company accounts. These, among other thefts.
For this case, I was working with one of the greats, Detective 3 Robert Souza, retired from Robbery Homicide Division, LAPD. He was a solid, experienced hand, as he was detail oriented, and knew psychopathy inside and out. Neither he, nor I, was especially a Financial Crimes man, but as the framework of the crime was already known, our job was to elicit, in a friendly interview, a few admissions, and potentially a confession from the Controller.
Being interviewed by Private Detectives is easy, right? Nothing to it. If a suspected embezzler doesn’t wish to sit for a friendly interview, it makes him look a thief. Same if he demands a lawyer, something he has no right to in that context. He might comfort himself with the certainty that it’s just Private Detectives…not the FBI, or the District Attorney getting up him.
At the plant there was a windowless conference room, with a table, and chairs, and a water cooler. It was the perfect setting for employee interviews. To warm the case up, I had already seated three other employees, one at a time, and asked them a laundry list of questions, some of which I already had answers to, but never accusing anyone of embezzlement. From the questions I was asking, none could’ve sussed out the depth of the crimes, nor what had already been ascertained about their structure.
I’d already done background on the Controller, a CPA in his early fifties, who was divorced for a third time, with a tax lien and two priors for Drunk Driving. Souza took it in and said “This guy will be as nervous as a virgin at the prison rodeo.”
We agreed to start with easy questions, and then build him into a corner, with one of us…me, turning it confrontational. This was quite purposeful, as Souza was large, avuncular and bearded…like a big, friendly Kodiak Bear. The Controller could get warmth, and emotional sustenance from Souza, while I bore down on him.
This style of interrogation is called Good Cop/Bad Cop by your mother, your High School Dean, whatever. Detectives call it ‘Mutt & Jeff,’ named for a forgotten cartoon strip.
Our Controller was shown in by the Inventory Manager, and I bade him to sit. Before he did so, the Controller, whom I’ll call Tim, insisted on shaking our hands. His hand was slick with perspiration, and as flaccid as Mitt Romney. Souza and I traded looks.
Tim was between five feet and five inches and five feet and seven inches tall. It was impossible to tell, as he was wearing platform shoes. To add some more height, Tim had on a toupee, teased up into a pompadour worthy of John Travolta. How did I make it as a toupee? It was of an entirely different color and consistency than his own hair. A bead of sweat was running down Tim’s temple already.
I clicked on the tape recorder…a large, black one, and started “Nils Grevillius, on the record this date, assisted by Robert Souza, we are interviewing Tim…”
“Uh…I didn’t agree to THAT. Can you please, uh, turn it off?” Tim licked his lips, and I switched the machine off.
“It’s a formality…to protect you, Tim. Each of the other interviews was recorded and I was about to ask your agreement…” I smiled and explained.
“Well…” Tim grabbed his collar, to loosen it.
“Unless, maybe you got shit to hide from us, Tim. You don’t have to sit for an interview.” Souza smiled at him, closing his own notebook.
“Uh. I don’t have to do this?” He asked, searching us visually for a clue.
“That’s right…” Souza stood, and looked out the window that didn’t exist, his back to Tim, then turning around to add “You don’t need a job, right? You’re a CPA…can get a job just about anywhere.” Souza sat again and Tim motioned for me to turn the machine on.
“I got nothing to hide, just I’m the controller. I work hard around here keep this place going. Just wasn’t sure what all this is about…” He nervously explained.
Souza smiled affably, and said “These interviews are easy, Tim. A truthful man doesn’t have to remember much.”
“How long have you been with the company? Where did you take your professional education? Do you have a CPA License? How about in other states? Who reports to you in the company structure? Can anyone beside yourself sign company checks? What are the procedures for this?” Were the questions I was asking. These establish rapport, potentially, and get the Subject in the mode of answering questions.
Within this, I am listening to how he communicates, and asking a few questions I already have correct answers to, looking for variations, for distortion, for an expression of ignorance to a line he should know.
Now, years later, I cannot recall if it happened after the third question, or the thirteenth question, but Souza interrupted to state and ask the Subject “You know, Tim, that’s a nice hairpiece, man.”
“Oh…thanks…” The Controller answered, shifting in his chair. His eyes were getting bigger behind his glasses.
I asked another question, and Souza interjected again “You must’ve paid a lot of money for a toupee like that, Tim. At least fifty, sixty dollars.” I was looking at The Controller and Souza was studying Tim’s hair, which now glistened with perspiration.
Eyes flashing, the Subject barked “Is this interview about my hair, or company procedures?” Empurpled, he erupted.
“Oh, yeah…sorry…” Souza went back to his notepad, and I proceeded.
“Did you authorize payment of a credit card bill for a Visa Account drawn on….” I didn’t get to finish my question.
“You know, Tim…I could hardly tell that was a toupee when you came in here…” Souza was continued.
“I don’t have to put up with this shit!” The Subject croaked, close to tears.
“You do if you want to keep your job.” Souza smiled.
I then went back to the line of questioning “Why did your Visa Bill get included with the company bill?” I showed him a copy of the bill.
“I just don’t know…” He gulped.
“Ok, now…Tim, I told you not to lie. Let’s start over here, with you only lying to us about the shit where we don’t know you’re lying?” Souza was now unfriendly and menacing in his line of intervention, as well as body language and the context of badgering the smaller man over his ill-fit wig.
Within forty minutes, The Controller gave a tearful confession, with the tape recorder going. To back it up, I had him initial several documents, and render a written confession as to how, when and how much money he could recall having stolen using his position as The Controller to do so.
One of the questions I asked, and Souza followed up on was “Tim, who else in the company is stealing?”
“Is anyone aware of how you’ve done this, and helped you?” We suspected a clerical employee, whom The Controller had ‘lent’ a sum of money, something we knew from having vetted each of the accounting unit employees.
I obtained a second confession, wherein Tim the Controller implicated his lover, whom he had lent the money, hissing that she had extorted money from him in exchange for her silence. Money that wasn’t his to ‘lend.’
His confession looked rather at odds with the statement we had taken from her, earlier in the week. After we’d walked Tim over to the office of Corporate Counsel, to be sat upon by another colleague, lest he warn the woman what was coming, we invited her back for a clarifying interview.
Her second interview started out friendly, again, just to relax her enough to speak with us. Sheila, we shall call her, was fifteen years younger than Tim, quite attractive and married. Married to a Sales Manager for the company.
After she was seated, the machine on, and pleasantries disposed of, Souza started “We think you were less than honest with us the other day, and this is your chance to keep your job, Sheila. Tell us what you left out of your prior statement.”
And when she was done, Sheila implicated her husband in a larger, more damaging, kick-back and embezzlement scheme, that involved a vendor, another salesman and a competitor.
All this resulted in jail time for Tim, for Sheila, for Sheila’s husband, and a partial recovery of money stolen from the company which had engaged us. I wish every such case worked out this way. When we took signed, recorded confessions to the police agency having jurisdiction, arrests followed quickly.
Nothing to it. It’s easy…just like TV.
©2022 by Nils Grevillius