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Watching the Detectives

Doug Cole
Photo by Robert Scheer

For Your (Private) Eyes Only: Private investigator Doug Cole conducts one of his phone interviews in an attempt to get to the bottom of things.

Pop-culture images of private eyes and nuts-and-bolts reality rarely cross paths

By James Rocchi

PRIVATE DICK. SHAMUS. GUMSHOE. Continental Op. Just hearing those words lights up the mind with the blue flicker of an early TV tube, a black-and-white reel of old celluloid or gaudy color cover images straight from 1950s dime-store novels. Private investigators, or PIs, are among pop culture's purest sources of iconography, running deep like a murky Hudson River red with blood.

Stakeouts. Tails. Trenchcoats. Seedy offices. Saxophones. Rain. Fistfights. Hard-boiled dialogue. Mysterious redheads. Whiskey in the filing cabinet drawer marked "S" (for Scotch). It's all part of the mystique.

Fiction is one thing, fact another. Ask Santa Cruz PI Doug Cole, on the job since 1975, to describe what he does. He nods toward your tape recorder and says, "It's very similar to what you are doing. Interviewing people, asking questions, getting people to talk about things that probably aren't in their best interests to talk about a lot of times. Trying to find contradictions in their stories, impeachable statements for trial. Taking photographs, doing diagrams of scenes, locating witnesses. Walking and talking and knocking on doors."

Just getting the facts. No Ferraris in Hawaii, no help from Rick and AJ.

Cole has the air of a really good guidance counselor, all grace and thought, but he's got a state license that serves as a ticket to a world very different from that of the average Joe.

According to the legal definition, a licensed PI can undertake a variety of legally sanctioned tasks, from loss protection to database searches to background checks. The best way to find out the broad range of what private investigators do is ask a few of them what they won't do. "I don't do executive protection or bodyguard work," says Cole. "We're a pretty general practice other than that." Elizabeth Schick, straightforward and quick with a smile, has worked with Cole for the past 6 1/2 years. "I don't do computer searches," she says. "I don't look for your birth parents if you were adopted, or your long-lost siblings. I don't even follow cars. I hate doing it--I'm pitiful at it."

And Diane Cohan--silver-haired, folksy, licensed since 1981--says, "I don't chase husbands, I don't follow people."

Plenty of No-No's

A PI LICENSE, administered by the state Bureau of Consumer Affairs, isn't a license to break the law. No rough stuff, no Black Bag break-ins. PIs may not represent themselves as connected to the government, submit false information, show a badge or enter a private building without permission. And the laws state they can't get paid on a "bonus, bounty or quota system."

There are many other no-no's, and if a private dick is caught doing any of those things, it's adios, license. If it is revoked, an investigator can only get it back through a lengthy appeal process.

Getting a license is no easy task to begin with. It requires passing an exam, clearing a background check with fingerprints, and racking up 6,000 hours on the payroll of a credentialed agency in a three-year period--a tough road to travel for a piece of paper with your picture and a number.

"When I got my license, you had to have 3,000 hours of employability," says Cohan. "Now, you have to have 6,000 hours. This is, I believe, a direct result of retired peace officers who felt that there were too many people such as myself getting in the business, so they lobbied, and [the state Legislature] jacked up the hours."

"It really is a lot easier for law-enforcement people to get their license, as opposed to people trying to enter the field the other way," says Cole, noting that he receives three to four calls each week from people interested in the profession. "I'll sit down and talk with anybody, but I want to make sure they at least take the time to have a résumé mailed to me, and that takes care of about 85 to 90 percent of them. Usually, they call right after Perry Mason is over or Rockford Files just ended, and they decided to pick up the phone book and they call you. They go, 'I'm really good. ... Everybody talks to me. I know that the PG&E guy is divorced, I'd be really good at this, do you need anybody, how do you get a license, will you train me?' "

Cole and Cohan got their start working for the county, in probation and other areas. Schick was a teacher and professional translator (she still does the latter). None are ex-cops.

Elizabeth Schick
Me, Myself and Eye: Elizabeth Schick says she'll keep doing her job, which is something new every day, as long as she enjoys it.

Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll

ONCE YOU DO GET the photo ID and papers from the state, a universe of government bureaucracy and human error await. Schick says she's cut a sideline for herself. "I'm a part-timer," she says, "but over the years, I've developed a specialty: sex and drugs and rock & roll--sex defense, out-of-hand parties, cocaine sales and--I guess--murder, criminal defense in murder trials."

As Schick explains it, her role is a well-defined one. "A crime occurs, and an attorney will call me and give me a police report," she says. "I start off working with the police report, and I go talk to the victims. I generally gather all the information that attorneys don't have the time to get."

Schick says she spends a lot of time verifying stories and alibis. Many criminals fall back on the "SODDI" defense--Some Other Dude Did It. "I had a case where some people were having a party, and some guys just walked in and just crashed the party and started beating up on the guests and broke all the windows. Our client was accused, so I had to talk to all the victims and find out what happened, who did it, was it our client--who was taking care of his sick grandmother and wasn't there," she finishes flippantly. Most of the time, it doesn't wash.

Schick says that people very rarely have perfect alibis. The best is being incarcerated when the crime in question is committed. "I've had a couple of cases where the police actually charged a person with a crime, and they were in jail [during the incident]," she says.

As for Cole, his workload is two-thirds civil work--aiding lawyers who defend insurers in personal injury cases and work related to worker's compensation. The remainder is criminal defense work, in which he spends most of his time gathering information, or "doing the intelligent grovel," as Cole cynically likes to put it.

But one can't find criminal defense work just anywhere. "Face it," says Cole. "If there's not crime or despair, you can't make a living. I moved to Maine in '83 to teach school and tried to find work as a PI there, and there just isn't enough crime in Maine."

And in California it's a growth industry? "Yeah," he replies.

'I Have to Know'

EACH PI HAS a personal take on the issues surrounding his or her job. Asked about the task of tracking delinquent husbands, Cohan, a trained therapist, explains what she tells inquiring callers. "When I talk to a confused and unhappy woman who wants her husband followed," Cohan says, "I tell her, 'You'll find plenty of people who will do that, but let's take a moment to talk about what you really want out of this, because I'm very expensive, and I think it makes more sense for you to spend money on somebody who's really going to get you where you need to go.'

"And sometimes people are really grateful for that," she adds, "because I'm such a pushy noodge, and other times people are really pissed off and they say, 'Well, that's not what I want,' and they hang up, and I know that they're in a lot of trouble."

Cohan points out to these callers that evidence of philandering is no longer required under California divorce law.

"I tell them to save their money," says Cole of the same callers. "Take the kids to Disneyland."

What do they tell him? Cole smiles sadly. "'I have to know,' they say. People say that all the time; 'I need to know.'"

Cohan covers too many areas to count, but says her favorite activity is stalking the stalkers. "I've worked a number of cases and I really love it," she says. "Sometimes all I have to do is just muscle them a little bit, approach them and serve them with a restraining order--tell them that it's hit the fan and they better knock it off, or there will be some repercussions."

It's not just simply safe desk work and paper-shuffling, nor does it lack a moral dimension. Early on, Cohan got herself in deep water a few times. "I thought I had some magic shield around me, and I ran into a couple of tough situations--that hasn't happened to me for a long time. I don't know if it's maturity, or people usually don't mess with me."

Cole, when asked if he's ever been in harm's way, is succinct. "No. Never. A lot of people don't want to talk to you, which is fine. They'll slam the door in your face, but as far as physical confrontation? No. It's worse when somebody asks, 'How can you do what you do? How can you defend somebody like that?' That takes its toll."

Schick's answered that question for herself: "In this country, with our system of laws, you are innocent until proven guilty. Secondly, even if a person is guilty and it's in the best interests of the courts to settle a case without having a trial--for me, the most satisfying jobs I've ever done have been ones where the trial was avoided, and a plea bargain was accepted, and not having that trial saved the residents of the county between $100,000 and $150,000. "

Don't Mess With Me

DESPITE THIS STATE'S crime level, it's hardly raining money for PIs. In Santa Cruz, Cole says, it's a small and competitive market, and any edge can help. Schick uncovers what she calls her secret weapon. "When you meet me, you would never guess that I speak Spanish," she says. "It's actually my native language, and I suppose that is my greatest asset, especially in Watsonville. People just can't believe that I can speak barrio Spanish. I can talk with field workers and kids. Sometimes they just talk to me to keep me going, and that has gotten me a lot of information."

Cohan also says being a woman can be a tremendous advantage, "if you know what you're doing." It's unexpected, against type, counter to the image people have. She explains how her silver hair and experience help her a bit. "People don't mess with me," she says. "It'd be like kicking your mother."

Schick can recount some scary situations. "You go to just some of the most disgusting places. I went to do an interview somewhere in San Jose, and the only light in the entire house was the TV. There was no other light in the house. I go to places where all the furniture is either broken or covered in food. I've been interviewing people where cockroaches run across my notepad. I do get to meet a lot of people," she continues. "They're not necessarily people I would hang out with after work, but it's definitely interesting party talk."

Cohan says her master's degree in counseling has helped her. "Even the sickest son of a bitch," she says, "if you go to them and try to talk to them like a human, and you try to honor some of where their sickness is coming from--and don't jack them up, escalate things--you're probably going to come away pretty much safe."

Still, people's preconceived notions about PIs cast a tall shadow. "I still have trouble telling people that's what I do after 20 years," says Cole. "I'll tell them I do investigation for attorneys, as opposed to 'I'm a private investigator.' It conjures up a fairly comical image to me."

Cohan gives the best explanation of how a private investigator's work can have an important place in the big picture. "Information is a very powerful commodity," she says. "A private investigator can very often be the person who finds the one piece of information, the one witness, the one statement, the one fact, around which a million-dollar case revolves."

Does Cole like being a PI? "Either that, or I can't find an honest way to make a living. You do something long enough, and it's hard to change jobs in mid-life. It's a frightening thought, thinking about doing drunk-driving investigations when you're 60 years old, but the thought has come across."

Schick says she'll continue being an investigator until it stops being fun. "Every day of my life is different," she says. "It's kind of like doing puzzles. It's not really a hunt or a chase, but it's fun."

For the moment, at least, all three investigators seem to love their jobs, although the profession is different than what gets shown on celluloid.

Schick describes what, for her, is the biggest difference between myth and reality: "I think investigators in mystery novels have a tendency to do all these things, and you have to have a gimmick, you have to have a twist in the plot that solves your case or at least brings it to a reasonable conclusion," she says. "In real life, things don't wrap up in a little box with a bow on the top. They don't disappear--they just keep popping like a bad penny."

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From the November 14-20, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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