Gumshoe. Private Eye. Shamus or Sherlock. You get the idea.
You get the idea. The veiled, sometimes sordid, world of private investigators feeds the public’s imagination, conjuring up images of back alleys, late-night stakeouts, cheating spouses and scandal. The popularity of television shows like “CSI” and “Criminal Minds” only add to our fascination with professional sleuths.
These dramatic portrayals aren’t too far from reality, according to two veteran Pikes Peak region “PIs.” Twenty-year Los Angeles police officer Tom Hoff and Colorado Springs Police Department officer Mike Williams, both now retired from law enforcement, agreed to weigh in on the life of private investigators and to share some of their most colorful, often jaw-dropping cases.
The two colleagues occasionally work together as each specializes in a separate aspect of the industry.
“You have no idea. There are so many stories – many of which are just too sexual or weird to talk about,” Williams says, laughing. After 18 years of client-related travel, overnight surveillance and calls from desperate clients, he still enjoys his work.
“Every day is different, and each case is more interesting than the last,” he admits.
Hoff, on the other hand, specializes in polygraph testing.
Since moving to Colorado Springs in the 1990s, he has found a specialty frequently used by police departments, attorneys, private individuals, job applicants and employers. In rare instances like competitive, high-dollar prize fishing contests or natural bodybuilding competitions where illegal anabolic steroid use is suspected, he precedes a polygraph test with background investigation. To date, he has administered well over 10,000 exams.
About 60 percent of my business is civil and 40 percent tied to criminal cases,” he says. “In Colorado, polygraph results are not admissible in court, but they’re almost always used by law enforcement and attorneys in preparation for trial. The results often help identify suspects.
But the polygraph, which has been around for 50 years or so, is not the only tool available to today’s private investigators, especially in view of today’s technology.
“There’s a great recording device that fits into a pen. And I’ve used pinhole cameras for video surveillance during a hotel sting or in an office building during a meeting,” Williams says, noting that most PI equipment can be purchased for between $100 and $1,000. And size matters: Wire taps or “bugging” devices range in size from a dime to a quarter.
All have been used by law enforcement and meet federal legal requirements. Williams and Hoff both follow strict ethical guidelines, learned during their law enforcement careers.
Some clients, however, push the limits.
Hoff, for example, was contacted by a female client – a wife and mother – because her husband thought she was cheating.
“She wanted to take a polygraph (test) to prove that she wasn’t seeing anyone. I asked her why she wanted the test. She said ‘Because I can’t pass it.’” And then she offered several “incentives” to get my cooperation. I told her I couldn’t help her – to call someone else,” Hoff says.
Williams’ experience spans both coasts. He is often retained to follow suspects by spouses or family members. He’s also been asked by distressed families of suicide victims to investigate whether death was self-inflicted, or by adopted children to find a biological parent. Like Hoff, his caseload often includes sexual affairs or addiction.
“There was one case where an older guy who had married a younger ‘trophy’ wife was worried that she was running around. When she decided to fly to Seattle by herself, I bought an airline ticket and followed her,” he recounts.
“Turns out she did go to a hotel where she met – and spent several days in the hotel room - with another woman.”
Most surprising: the husband’s reaction.
“When I told him what I’d discovered, he said it was good news, he was relieved.”
Hoff and Williams handle mostly general and corporate investigative work. Clients they’ve worked for include Hollywood celebrities and small business owners concerned about employee theft. They’ve also done background checks for large corporations, states and municipalities or investigated job applicants, divorcing spouses and more.
In the State of Colorado, licensing is voluntary. Both believe, however, that the best private investigators are trained by law enforcement. They’re best prepared for the unexpected; they’re trained to handle weapons and remain cool in threatening situations.
“We’re both licensed for concealed (weapons) carry; you have to be very aware of your surroundings or you can get hurt,” Williams adds, noting that even court-ordered process servers can encounter angry recipients who suddenly “go ballistic.”
“It’s a dangerous business if you don’t know what you’re doing,” Hoff adds.
What keeps them motivated? Williams says it’s the peace of mind they provide their clients.
He recalls a wealthy Southern Colorado rancher, for example, who had fallen “in lust” with a woman and married her. But after a short time, he began to doubt her fidelity and contacted Williams.
After several weeks of following the suspected two-timing wife, it became obvious that she had a serious boyfriend whose home she regularly visited.
When the woman arranged for her husband to go to a Denny’s restaurant at 2:35 a.m. one night, Williams, who had been alerted by the rancher, stationed himself in a booth and waited. He quickly observed the boyfriend at a nearby table.
“It turned out that either the wife or the rancher were going to be kidnapped by the boyfriend so that he could demand a ransom,” Williams recalls. Fortunately law enforcement was alerted, and the rancher divorced his cheating wife.
Likewise, Hoff was able to help a senior US Air Force Academy cadet prove his innocence after his roommate had been accused of cheating.
“Academy officials presumed that if his roommate was guilty, he was too. He called to request a polygraph exam and passed. I testified at a hearing and they kept him,” Hoff says, adding that weeks later the cadet sent him a letter of thanks and an invitation to his graduation.
If there’s a misconception about private investigators, it’s that they solve cases overnight.
“TV portrays them that way. Truth is, it may take weeks, months or more,” Williams says.
Both expect to stay busy, no matter how the national economy performs. During the recent recession Hoff says he did more polygraphs than ever.
“So many retailers saw a real rise in employee theft. In addition I saw a lot of sexual addiction cases. I even got alot of calls from church staffs, including the church I go to.”