Method to the Mysteries of a Secretive Business

Denver Private Investigators Academy Discourages
Cultural, Literary Illusions about a Secretive Business.
But motivated students discover a ‘method’ to the mysteries

By Dan Luzadder

January 2011

Ask most anyone to define “private detective,” and the first thing you hear is likely a description of a classic Dashiell Hammett hero: the hard-boiled, romantic, uncompromising, private eye of popular fiction and film noir – who solves the unsolvable, tracks the clever killer, exposes conspiracy and rights wrongs.

Or, at least locates missing millions.

But the world of working private eyes - at least those who ply their trade on the metropolitan streets of Denver and other Colorado communities - is one with a story far less romantic and fairly far removed from Hammet’s Sam Spade, or Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe.

Or even from the drama-prone TV sleuths of CSI.

Though Denver and environs may have a few spies, corporate espionage practitioners and mysterious undercover ops lurking in its alleyways – most private investigators are chasing the assets of deadbeat debtors, serving process for legal documents, gathering data for attorneys in civil or criminal cases, doing family law surveillance, or challenging workman’s comp claims.

And, as students quickly learn at the Private Investigators Academy of the Rockies (PIAR), launching a successful private eye business is about as tough as solving a crime – maybe tougher.

“It’s not a business for the faint of heart,” says Rick Johnson, who built one of the state’s most high-profile investigation agencies, Rick Johnson & Associates. He also founded and runs the Academy.

Johnson, or most any of the graduates of his twice-yearly classes, can likely tell you that one thing that does not survive the six-sessions of three hour classes, and the lengthy homework assignments, is the illusion of glamour. (Though never say never, right?)

Instead, that illusion masks the common denominator for private investigations: it’s all about old-fashioned hard work, shoe-leather resourcefulness, finding the right people to answer the right questions, and burning a lot of midnight oil filling out those detailed reports and client billings.

And despite the advances of the information age, few real cases, Johnson pointedly tells his class, “are ever cracked on the Internet.”

“People today think you can sit down in front of a computer and do a Google search, and you’re an investigator,” he says. “You can buy a few data-base programs and you can track down information. But that’s not what being a P.I. is all about. And if you don’t understand what it’s about, you probably shouldn’t be holding yourself out as a private investigator.”

More important to the real world of the P.I., he says, may be the resourcefulness to pack food in a bag, bring plenty of water, your camera, flashlight, notebook, a working pen, and a big thermos of coffee for that overnight surveillance in your car on a frigid night.

Oh – “and don’t forget a wide-mouth jar with a screw-tight lid – since you’re likely to be in the car for hours at a time doing surveillance – and you can’t leave,” he says. “If you know what I mean. Plan ahead.”

The idea of novice investigators needing such fundamental instruction in the business of private investigations raises a question – one addressed in the class - that may also get a hearing later this year in committee rooms of the Colorado General Assembly.

A bill is expected to surface that will address the issue of licensing Colorado private investigators – as they are in 43 other states. The case of a Weld County private investigator who was arrested last year for stalking, after placing a GPS locator on a subject’s car, could provide some traction for licensing advocates, observers note.

But licensing is a two-edged sword, Johnson tells students.

It could restrict the entry of young, innovative and creative investigators. Of course, if there is a lesson in this, Johnson himself is licensed - in another state.

v v v

It is a Wednesday night near Halloween as students at the Academy gather at the Denver Athletic Club for their first class. They busy themselves before class doing what all students do at the start of a session: socializing before the instructor takes over – getting acquainted, asking questions of each other.

They hail from different callings – some with some investigative side to it; some with no experience in this trade whatsoever, and some who just want to try something new. One is a former FBI agent who traveled from the East Coast to take the class. Another is a combat medic and SWAT instructor; another works for a probate court, and there are housewives, secretaries and one former news reporter.

Johnson arrives dressed in a conservative suit and tie – the details of which he will later ask class members to recall while he steps out of the room. Their first lesson – that detection is founded in observation – is handled easily by only a few.

And after an anecdote or three about being a private eye – Johnson is one of Colorado’s most experienced and highest-profile private investigators, a former District Attorney investigator for several top local prosecutors – he launches into what it really takes to be successful – the business end of the proposition.

And while it may not always be exciting, the world of private detectives is not all about quiet surveillance of the unwitting subject, either. It’s principally about the realities of marketing letters, report writing, keeping track of hours, selling your experience, gathering experience, leaning on associates for help and advice, being part of a network, winning clients through successful cases, adhering to ethical practices, and keeping track of the finances. In other words, very much like most other small businesses.

And so, even if the mystique doesn’t rise to the level of fiction in the work-a-day world – which might involve anything from process serving, asset tracking, surveillance in a family law case, an accident investigation for an insurer, a worker’s comp fraud case – it may still beat a lot of other jobs.

And, of course, when it comes to the academic side, there is this:

Unlike most introductory business classes, this one has a first assignment that sends students to the streets to pick another person at random, track their every movement for at least two hours, without approaching them or being noticed, and write a detailed account of everything that happened. Photos are a plus. With that comes an analysis of how not to break Colorado’s stalking law.

“And by the way,” Johnson says, “don’t get caught.”

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Johnson’s launch into his opening fall class noted that private eye licensing – should it be adopted in Colorado – would adversely affect most of the students in his class. They consist of some 20 individuals who have come together at the Denver Athletic Club to explore this idea of private eye work, all of them looking for an informative, if not transformative, experience.

In fact, few in the class would probably meet minimum requirements for a license in most states, if it were based solely on hours of professional experience – either as a law enforcement officer, insurance investigator, or employee of a professional investigations firm.

But in these times of economic distress – with the jobless rate still running high and thousands of people looking for new careers and work opportunities – training for something different certainly has its appeal, especially for those being downsized, laid-off, or just interested in another path.

While Johnson has cranked out a fair number of new recruits to the private investigator ranks over the years, most who take his six, three-hour class sessions, either absorb the detail for use in other businesses, or use it to help them improve their comprehensive research-gathering skills.

Some come for a better perspective on the “dream job” of the private eye, like those found in detective stories.

Jill Headbloom, a student in the Fall Session, said she came to the class looking for potential life-changing opportunities and admits freely that the first thing that came to mind when she considered the world of the private eye was from the fictional world she’d read about or witnessed on the screen.

“Looking back at things that got me excited when I was younger, the whole P.I. thing,” she said. “You know, I can solve this mystery on TV before you can, the Nancy Drew books, the forensic science stuff, heightened by crime shows. It’s always something that I’ve been interested in. So this was a minimal time commitment, to see if was something I was interested in.”

The verdict:

“It’s too much work.”

 

Juan R. MADRID takes a slightly different view, but comes from a different perspective. A former Navy Seal and combat medic in the Middle East, he’s now president of Por Tu Salud, a Denver business that trains police SWAT teams and private security in emergency triage for ‘under fire’ situations. He’s also provides and consults on executive security and tactical surveillance.

But he was looking, he said, to expand his skills into private investigations that could include civil and criminal litigation support, domestic situations and family law,

“The class left me wanting to pursue private investigations further,” MADRID said. “I can’t say there were many surprises in the class, but I was really interested in the information on opportunities in family law, criminal investigations, and surveillance and counter-surveillance. I think I came through the class with a better understanding of how important it is for private investigators to know the law – and to know what the ethical and legal boundaries are for private investigations.”

If there was a surprise in the class, MADRID said, it was learning that a good investigator is likely to be one who turns away as much business as he or she accepts. That is a function in part of understanding the prospective client and what they want, what they need, and what you should legally help them find.

“Face it,” Johnson tells the class, “you’re going to have to be a good listener, and sometimes you’ll have to be a psychological counselor to some people. Sometimes you even have to say to a prospective client, look, if you’re going to get a divorce from the guy anyway, why do you want to spend $10,000 of your hard-earned money investigating his past behavior?

“Sometimes the best advice you can give people,” he says, “is not to hire you in the first place.”

– Pulitzer prize-winning freelance writer Dan Luzadder
attended the 2010 Fall session of the Academy