A Thanksgiving Jail Visit, An Innocent Man, And Digging for Evidence on 800 Acres

This rancher lived out in the country on 800 acres of land

Every Thanksgiving, I remember my husband (Shaun) visiting a rancher in jail where he'd been sitting since October on two charges of attempted murder (we later found evidence that proved his innocence). Shaun sat with the rancher, who wept as he'd never been away from his family on a holiday. 

I can't even imagine how that rancher felt sitting in jail all those months, facing a possible 48-year prison sentence if he were to be found guilty of attempted murder. A man who had never even had a speeding ticket in his entire life.  

That case was one of the most difficult, challenging and ultimately rewarding cases my husband and I ever worked as private investigators.  

Below is the story, which I also wrote about in How to Write a Dick: A Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real-Life Sleuths. We worked hard to solve this case, which for days I doubted we could ever solve. 

We Got the Call one Freezing Winter Morning...

From an attorney-client who specializes in high-profile criminal cases. A rancher was in jail on first-degree attempted murder charges. Two people claimed he'd shot at them, tried to kill them. He claimed the reverse -- they were threatening him, he thought his life was in danger, he fired warning shots -- four of 'em -- to scare them off his 800+-acre ranch.

No witnesses, except the two people who claimed they were victims. Oh, and a dog named Gus.

Could we, asked the attorney, find those four bullet slugs? The sheriff's office had done a cursory check for the slugs, didn't find them, had closed the case. The rancher, who'd never had so much as a speeding ticket, was now facing two counts of attempted first-degree murder (a mandatory/minimum sentence of 24 years each) and a $300,000 bail.

Could We Find 4 Bullet Slugs on 800 Acres of Ranch Land?

With metal detectors, possibly. Especially after we learned the sheriff's office hadn't attempted to use metal detectors -- in fact, they didn't even own one. We rented several metal detectors, did a quick study with a former crime scene analyst who educated us on how to use and calibrate the instruments (we wanted to check for slugs that were probably slightly below the surface, not buried deep into the earth).

Next, we visited a gun expert and discussed the type of gun the rancher had used, the bullets, and their calculated trajectory. With his help, we figured the bullets had traveled approximately a half-mile, and that the slugs were probably a half-inch to an inch below the sandy, dense soil of that region.

Then we headed to the ranch...that had buffalo...did I mention that I'm a city girl?

Setting Up the Crime Scene

The last thing we wanted to do was to inadvertently search the same area the other had already searched -- the work was going to be tedious and meticulous, and we need to handle the task as efficiently as possible. Therefore, after selecting a likely area (based on where the rancher had said he'd pointed his gun), a half-mile away from where the incident took place, we set up grids wherein each of us would be carefully working the ground with his/her metal detector. Then, hunched over, carefully moving our detectors over the surface of the earth, we inched our way through our respective areas.

Our metal detectors kept pinging! At first we were thrilled, excitedly yelling to each other, pointing at the spot the detector indicated! Then we'd search for the slug -- and find a rusted nail...next time, a rusted bed spring...next time, an antiquated hammer. Heading back home that first day, the rancher's mother (who was taking care of the household while he was in jail) informed us that part of the ranch had been, decades back, a junkyard dump.

Wonderful. We were going to get a lot of false positives before this search was over.

Did I Mention One of Us Is Afraid of Dogs?

Gus, a 135-pound Rottweiler, took a liking to the one afraid of dogs, yours truly

Gus, a 135-pound Rottweiler, took a liking to the one afraid of dogs, yours truly

That first day had another built-in challenge for one of us (me): a monster of a dog named Gus. The rancher's mother said she thought he was 135 pounds, give or take. I'd say give. Lots of give. He was the biggest, baddest-looking muscled hunk of Rottweiler I'd ever seen in my life. And of course, since I'm the one in this PI team who's afraid of dogs, Gus decided he liked me.

But after seeing that Gus's best pal out there on that vast, seemingly endless ranch, was a little barn cat...I realized his big and bad was dog-skin deep. Gus had the heart of Thumper the Rabbit. He also was the only witness to the incident...and he seemed intent on helping us -- staying nearby, sniffing the ground -- as we searched and searched, hour after hour, day after day.

Did I Ever Want to Give Up? Yes.

I'd be lying if I said no. There were times out there on the high plains with the brittle-cold winter winds pummeling us, burs working their way up through the soles of our shoes, our bodies aching from hours of being bent over...that I'd look out at hundreds of acres of barren land and think, "No way we're going to find those slugs. It'd be easier to find a needle in the barn haystack."

Then I'd think about that rancher sitting alone in the jail on Thanksgiving, the first time he'd been without his family on a holiday, for a crime I didn't believe he'd committed. Had to keep searching...

We Found the First Slug

The moment we found that first slug -- I'll never forget it. There it was, a half-inch below the soil, in the region we'd expected to find it. We whooped and hollered like a couple of down-on-their-luck miners who'd just struck gold! Which, when you think of it, we kinda were.

                                                                                                 First slug

                                                                                                 First slug

Then we found the second slug...

                                                                                               Second slug

                                                                                               Second slug

And then we found the third...and the fourth. Their placement proved the rancher had fired in self-defense.

On Christmas Eve, the D.A. reduced the charges, and the rancher was released on a reduced bail. He might have missed Thanksgiving with his family, but he was home for Christmas.

Gus was very happy about that.


Nov 10 - 17: Sale! 10,000 Kindle Books at $1.99 Each - Romance, Mystery and More...

10,000 Harlequin Kindle book are on sale for $1.99 through November 17, including 2 of my romantic-mystery-private-eye stories (Sleepless in Las Vegas and Hearts in Vegas).

Sleepless in Las Vegas won the 2014 Award of Merit, Virginia Romance Writers




DOUBLE INDEMNITY: Making an Audience Love a Killer

Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson and Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (Image is in public domain)

Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson and Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (Image is in public domain)

Noir at Its Darkest and Finest

Some view Double Indemnity (1944), the dark, suspenseful adaptation of the James M. Cain story, as one of the best, if not perfect, noir film. A June 1944 film review in Time magazine called it the "nattiest, nastiest, most satisfying melodrama."

Chandler and Wilder: A Tumultuous Writing Team

Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler wrote the screenplay over approximately 12 weeks, a volatile writing partnership that Wilder thought drove Chandler back to drinking. However, Wilder believed their discord enhanced their collaboration. "If two people think alike," he said, "it's like two men pulling at one end of a rope. If you are going to collaborate, you need an opponent to bounce things off."

Billy Wilder also wrote and directed other film classics such as NinotchkaThe Lost WeekendSunset BoulevardSome Like It Hot, The Apartment, Sabrina and The Seven Year Itch.   

Stanwyck and MacMurray Turned Down the Roles

Barbara Stanwyck, at the time the highest paid actress in Hollywood as well as the highest paid woman in America, at first turned down the role of the psychopathic killer Phyllis Dietrichson. In a later interview, she said after reading the script: "I went to his office, and I said to him, I love the script and I love you, but I’m a little afraid, after all these years of playing heroines to play the part of an out–and–out cold–blooded killer." Wilder responded, "Are you an actress or a mouse?" She answered that she hoped she were an actress. He said, "Then take the part." Years later she said she had been grateful ever since for taking the role.

Numerous actors turned down the role of Walter Neff, the bored insurance salesman tempted to commit murder: Alan Ladd, Gregory Peck, Spencer Tracy, James Cagney and others. Eventually Wilder realized he needed an actor who could play a cynic and a nice guy. In 1943 Fred MacMurray was the highest paid actor in Hollywood, known for playing easy-going, happy-go-lucky characters. When Wilder asked him to play Neff, MacMurray said, "You're making the biggest mistake of your life!" Later MacMurray said, "I never dreamed it would be the best picture I ever made."

Wilder Changed the Sweet Boy-Meets-Girl Situations

Wilder broke the mold early on with the standard, sweet boy-meets-girl situations. In the 1941 film Hold Back the Dawn, the suave French actor Charles Boyer played a refugee who marries a woman so he can enter the United States. He wrote a sweet-sour romance in The Apartment, where a young woman (Shirley MacLaine) has an ongoing tryst with an executive at her office, where a young man (Jack Lemmon) also works. He has a crush on the Shirley MacLaine character, and has no idea she's the one warming his bed with his boss. Critics called it a "dirty fairy tale," and audiences loved it.

Double Indemnity: Making an Audience Love a Killer

Billy Wilder chose a cheap wig to emphasis Barbara Stanwyck's character, Phyllis Dietrichson's, "sleazy phoniness" (Image is in public domain)

Billy Wilder chose a cheap wig to emphasis Barbara Stanwyck's character, Phyllis Dietrichson's, "sleazy phoniness" (Image is in public domain)

How did Wilder make the mysterious, deceiving, insidious Phyllis sympathetic to viewers? He added a dash of sympathy, offered deeper glimpses into her character, and cranked up the heat:

  • Phyllis is trapped, unprotected in a marriage where her emotionally-distant husband prefers the well-being of his blood-family daughter over his trophy wife.
  • She is more than a one-dimensional cold, calculating murderer. She is driven, at times charming, tarnished yet eerily beautiful and diabolically shrewd.  If she had only been cold and calculating, viewers would have been bored.
  • Phyllis and Walter have a complicated, compelling chemistry that drives the story.

A Film About Relationships

The late film critic Roger Ebert had an interesting take on Wilder's characterizations in Double Indemnity:

[Wilder] doesn't go for the obvious [character] arc. He isn't interested in the same thing the characters are interested in. He wants to know what happens to them after they do what they think is so important. He doesn't want truth, but consequences. 

Wilder showed us how a couple of psychologically shallow people betray, cheat and murder, but he fascinated us by revealing the repercussions of their acts.

He also made sure Phyllis and Walter didn't come across as one-dimensional by such techniques as:

Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, confessing into Dictaphone (Image is in public domain)

Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, confessing into Dictaphone (Image is in public domain)

  • A nasty spin on dialogue. Don't forget we have Chandler co-writing this story, and if anybody can write cynical, sharp, memorable dialogue, it's Chandler. Roger Ebert wrote: "Chandler turned up drunk, smoked a smelly pipe, didn't know anything about screenplay construction, but could put a nasty spin on dialogue."
  • High stakes conflict of emotions. This film pits the fixation of passion versus the enticement of evil.  
  • The probing of human weaknesses. Neff and Dietrichson are driven by the dark side of their weaknesses: greed, desire, even helplessness.

Other Articles About Billy Wilder and Double Indemnity

The Paris Review: "Billy Wilder, the Art of Screenwriting No. 1"

An Analysis of Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity" by Kathryn Blakeney

10 Tips from Billy Wilder on How to Write a Good ScreenPlay (Open Culture)

All rights reserved by Colleen Collins. Any use of the content (including images owned by Colleen Collins) requires specific, written authority. Please do not copy/distribute any images noted as copyrighted or licensed. Images noted as in the public domain are copyright-free and yours to steal.

    2015 Aspen Gold Readers Choice Award Winner: THE UNGRATEFUL DEAD

    This past weekend, The Ungrateful Dead: Prequel to The Zen Man (A Humorous Colorado Mystery Book #1) won the 2015 Aspen Gold Readers Choice Award in the short story category! This story was truly fun to write, making its win all the sweeter.  

    I loved The Zen Man and really had fun catching up with Rick and Laura’s first case in the prequel, The Ungrateful Dead. These novels have everything I love in a mystery: smart dialogue, a flawed hero, a little romance and a great plot. Murder at a coroner’s conference? What could be more fun!
    — Nancy Warren USA Today Bestselling Author of The Toni Diamond mysteries




    To read an excerpt, click here.

    #WritingTips: Five Ways to Track a Story Villain

    The family wanted to know the identity of a mysterious female visitor (Image licensed by Colleen Collins)

    The family wanted to know the identity of a mysterious female visitor (Image licensed by Colleen Collins)

    Many writers craft bad guys, or gals, in stories. In a romantic suspense story, it’s the villain. In a mainstream, maybe there’s a loathsome character that adds sinister story twists. Even in a sweet romance, there might be a vile person who darkens a few plot points. 

    What if your sleuth-character must track this villain but there’s only one clue, such as the color of hair? Besides being a writer, I’m also a private investigator who once solved a case on such a scant clue.

    Or what if the sole clue is a license plate number, and you’d love for your sleuth to not use the clichéd “I have an inside source” at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV)? Although I can legally request records from the DMV, I’ve researched license plates through free, public means that I’ll share in this article, too.

    First, let’s look at how my PI partner and I uncovered the identity of a “mysterious blonde.”

    Tip #1: Loose Lips Sink Ships…and Tattle on Neighbors, Too

    It started with a phone call by a distraught granddaughter whose elderly grandfather had recently died. Known for his frugal ways, he’d surprised her months earlier when he shared his savings account statement that showed a quarter of a million dollars. More recently, he hinted about a much younger, blonde girlfriend, but didn’t give her name. After his death, the family checked his savings account and were stunned to find a zero balance.

    As he had made no major purchases or paid any extraordinary expenses, the family was concerned about possible foul play. They hired my PI partner and I to discover the identity of this mysterious blonde.

    After searching his home, and finding no photos, letters, even a jotted-down phone number, we decided to interview his neighbors.

    A neighbor said she'd seen this mysterious blonde show up the day after he died (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

    A neighbor said she'd seen this mysterious blonde show up the day after he died (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

    After six neighbors said they had never seen a blond woman at his residence, we wondered if the girlfriend story was real. But we struck gold with the seventh neighbor, a middle-aged man who had seen a tall, thirty-something blonde visit him several times a week. Said she drove a vintage sports car that she parked on the far side of his house, out of view from most of the neighborhood. He didn’t recall the license plate number.

    We knocked on a few more doors, eventually finding another neighbor, an older woman, who said the blonde showed up the day after he died, entered his home with a key, and exited with several boxes of items. We reported these sightings to the family, who immediately changed all the locks on the house and garage.

    The elderly man hadn’t owned a car in years, and no one had seen the two of them drive off in her vintage car. Nor had they ever been seen together during daylight hours, which made us wonder if they maybe walked to one of the nearby bars or neighborhood restaurants in the evenings.

    We walked to every bar and restaurant in the vicinity, showing bartenders, managers and waiters a photo of the elderly man, asking if they had ever seen him and a younger blond woman. Finally, a bartender said he clearly remembered the two of them, and that they had drinks and dinner there at least once a week. He knew her first name, which was unique, and that she once mentioned having driven up from Castle Rock, a nearby city.

    Lucky for us she had an unusual first name because searching for a “Mary” or “Jane” would have resulted in dozens of prospects. After running her first name, age range and Castle Rock in a database, we learned she had a criminal record for – guess what? – embezzlement. We forwarded this information to the man’s family, with the suggestion they contact a probate attorney immediately.

    Tips 2 through 5 apply to license plate numbers, from readability to ways your character might discover the driver’s ID and more without resorting to the “inside friend at the DMV” stock phrase.

    Tip #2: Can Your Character Really Read that License Plate?

    I recently read a story where the sleuth miraculously read a license plate on a dark street as the car zipped past him, while he was tumbling to the ground. Hmm. Although most autos have lighted rear license plates, that might not be helpful to someone who’s off-balance and falling. Also, what if the car was coming toward him as he fell? Nineteen U.S. states do not require a plate on the front of the car, which you can check here: How Many States Require Front License Plates.

    Tip #3: Ditch the Mysterious Friend Inside the DMV

    I’ve read many stories where the sleuth has a mysterious friend inside the DMV who secretly forwards license plate registrations and other drivers’ documents. Not only is that ploy cliché, it shreds believability. In the real world, if a DMV employee is caught illegally forwarding/selling people’s personal driving information, that employee could lose his/her job and be slapped with some serious criminal charges.

    Instead, your sleuth can creatively check a license plate number via tip #4 or #5.

    Tip #4 Conduct a Reverse Number Search

    A quick reverse search on Google can mine considerable information (image is in public domain) 

    A quick reverse search on Google can mine considerable information (image is in public domain) 

    A reverse search is taking a piece of information, such as a license plate number, entering it into a search engine, and seeing what associated information pops up. Google--being the largest, most comprehensive search engine in the world--is fantastic for such reverse searches. Just type the number in the Google browser, press Return, and Google lists the websites, blogs and other online entities where that license plate number appears. Check each for what information, such as a name, is associated to that plate number.

    Once my PI partner and I solved a case by running a reverse license plate number check on Google. Turned out the numbers and letters were an amateur radio holder’s call sign, which we further researched and learned the person’s name, address, job, and more.

    #5 Run a Reverse Image Search

    Maybe your character has a photo of the vehicle that shows only part of the license plate. The sleuth can plug the photo into a reverse image search to see where else that photo might appear on the Internet—maybe it shows up in a personal blog, social medium or even a Craigslist ad that gives the seller’s name and email address!

    Google offers a comprehensive image search (go to Google.com, select “Images” in the top right corner, click the camera icon and follow the instructions). Another free reverse image search is TinEye.

    Hopefully some of these tips will help your characters track those villains!

    All rights reserved by Colleen Collins. Any use of the content (including images owned by Colleen Collins) requires specific, written authority. Please do not copy/distribute any images noted as copyrighted or licensed. Images noted as in the public domain are copyright-free and yours to steal.

    Surveillance 101, Part 5: Keeping Logs, Going Country and Fighting Tedium

    (Image licensed by Colleen Collins)

    (Image licensed by Colleen Collins)

    Welcome back to Surveillance 101, a series of classes my husband and I taught in 2011 to a mystery writers' group. I've updated course information for this blog, and added new material as well.


    All content is copyrighted, so please do not copy, distribute, and so forth. Within the captions of photos, I note if it is copyrighted, licensed or within the public domain. The only photos you are free to copy/use are those marked as public domain. 


    Surveillance 101: Staying Legal, Dressing the Part, Prepping the Vehicle

    Surveillance 101, Part 2: The Importance of Pre-Surveillance and Knowing if a Subject Has a Lawyer

    Surveillance 101, Part 3: Picking a Spot, Difference Between Mobile vs. Stationary

    Surveillance 101, Part 4: Tips and Tricks About Mobile Surveillances

    In this class, we cover surveillance logs, rural surveillances, and watching out for tedium.

    Keeping a Surveillance Log

    PIs take surveillance notes in a variety of ways, from handwriting notes to leaving voice messages

    PIs take surveillance notes in a variety of ways, from handwriting notes to leaving voice messages

    We like to keep a surveillance notebook handy in our vehicle. It’s easier in the long run, we’ve found, to jot down pertinent notes rather than dictate information into a recorder because later, as we’re writing the report, playing and replaying a recording can become time-consuming versus simply reviewing handwritten notes. Yes, even in this electronic age some old-fashioned means work best.

    Some PIs use sheets with tables, some make notes in their smartphones, or once in the dark when Shaun couldn’t see his hand in front of his face, much less what he was scribbling on a notepad, he called home and left short surveillance-status messages on our office voice messaging (which he later listened to as he wrote up the report). Whatever medium a PI uses, here’s a sampling of data she'll document during a surveillance:

    • Time, weather, location at start of surveillance
    • Time of any action by the subject (and what he/she might be wearing, their behavior, etc.)
    • Record of subject’s actions
    • Addresses where subject goes
    • Description of people meeting with the subject (includes vehicles & license plates).
    It's critical to plan ahead for a rural surveillance (image is in the public domain)

    It's critical to plan ahead for a rural surveillance (image is in the public domain)

    Rural Surveillance

    Below are some tips if your fictional PI conducts a surveillance in the country:

    Know the area

    Here in Colorado, we have some big stretches of country outside “the big cities.” When we’re going into a rural area, we’ll check online maps (for example, MapQuest, Google Earth) -- have your fictional PI do the same. 

    On the other hand, if you’re looking for more conflict in your story, have him circling around and attracting unwanted attention in that small town!

    Use an appropriate vehicle

    Maybe your fictional PI scoots around town in a lime-green VW, but that dog won’t hunt in the country. In a small town, everybody knows everybody else, including what car they drive. A PI will drive a vehicle that blends in, is nondescript, and can handle the terrain. This ties in with information in the previous class about surveillance vehicles (a pick-up truck makes more sense in the country, for example). Another tip: A sparkling, shiny-clean vehicle can also stand out -- vehicles get dusty and dirty driving around the country.

    Why is the PI parked there?

    When conducting a rural surveillance, a PI doesn't want to stand out as a city slicker trying to look country (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

    When conducting a rural surveillance, a PI doesn't want to stand out as a city slicker trying to look country (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

    A PI can be parked on a country public road and document whatever he sees “in plain view” — but he’d better have a good reason for being there if someone asks. Most PIs keep props ready, such as binoculars and a bird guide (pretending she’s a bird watcher), car-repair tools (pretending he’s fixing his car), and so on.

    A side note here about bird watching. A writer friend, whose husband is an FBI agent, laughed at the idea of a PI pretending to be a birdwatcher. "My husband says that cover is ridiculously cliche, and clues the locals in that you're really a snoop." Which presents some fun ideas for a story:

    • The PI, who never heard bird watching is an obvious cover, puts great effort into faking watching birds (wearing the clothes, reading books about birds, invests in special binoculars) and gets instantly burned (meaning "outed" as really being a private detective). 
    • The PI blows off her PI-buddy's warning about never using the old-as-the-hills birdwatching cover, and pulls off a masterful surveillance using the guise, irking her pal no end.
    • A PI goes out of his way to create a unique cover only to get burned by a local who says his guise was pretty obvious...shoulda tried birdwatching as that would've fooled people.

    Look the part

    Just as a PI wears clothes appropriate to a city location, he’ll wear clothes that blend in to that part of the country/season. When we did a rural surveillance in Colorado, we wore jeans, t-shirts, boots (it was winter), jackets.  

    Choose useful equipment

    It’s always iffy if a cell phone will have adequate transmission in remote areas (which can add a twist to your story), but other equipment can be selected for rural surveillance (cameras with increased optical zoom, video equipment that is functional, portable, and low profile). 

    Surveillance, the Glamorous Life (Not)

    We’ve discussed a PI’s clothing, supplies, logistics, vehicles, and techniques, but there’s another aspect to surveillance: the tedium factor.  As one PI put it, surveillance is “95 percent boredom and 5 percent panic and fear.” During those long stretches where nothing is happening (the 95 percent boredom part), some real-life PIs get into trouble thinking they can wile away the time by watching DVDs, reading books, or other distracting entertainment. All it takes is a few seconds for a subject to appear…and disappear. A PI focused on anything other than the subject can easily, within those few seconds, lose him/her. 

    On the other hand, you can make this a funny bit in your story that every time your fictional PI decides it’s okay to pick up that novel while on surveillance, he misses the subject again!

    Next class, we'll cover PIs' health concerns during surveillances, and the good, bad and illegal of GPS tracking.



    Coming Soon: How Do Private Eyes Do That? Second Edition.