Real-Life Private Detective Story: Finding 4 Bullet Slugs in the Middle of Nowhere

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

Every year as we approach the holidays, I remember one of the more difficult, challenging and ultimately rewarding cases my husband and I once worked. We helped a man who was 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. On Thanksgiving, when my husband visited him in jail where he'd been sitting since October, the man wept as he'd never been away from his family on a holiday. 

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.

 

Five Tips for Writing Rural Surveillances

When many people think of a private investigator, they think surveillance. Typical images that come to mind are the PI in his vehicle following a subject’s car through traffic or a PI parked somewhere, watching the subject’s residence or work. If a writer is crafting a city surveillance, she’ll take into consideration such things as the flow of traffic, how closely the PI follows the subject’s vehicle, and possible side streets the PI might take.

But what if your story is set in the country? Or your big-city investigator must travel to a rural area to conduct a surveillance? Here are five tips for crafting a rural surveillance scene:

Tip #1: Know the area: In our part of the country, we have some impressive, wide-open stretches of country outside of “the big cities.” Whenever we were going into a rural area, we would first check online maps (for example, MapQuest and Google Earth). Have your fictional PI do the same. We’ve scheduled rural surveillances in areas that are so remote, they don’t even show up in online maps. In such cases, we have contacted the sheriff’s office for that region and requested help with directions and maps.

Also, it's smart for the PI to give local law enforcement a heads up about the surveillance so the sheriff/LEO (law enforcement officer) can watch out for the investigator's safety. What if a PI had vehicle trouble and was stuck in the middle of nowhere...and not a soul knows his/her whereabout. Not saying the PI needs to spill everything about the surveillance to the sheriff/LEO, or even who the PI is surveilling, just the area the PI plans to be in/near.

I once conducted a surveillance in the middle of a national forest. I know, how crazy is that? But my client paid me well to check if his wife was camping out with her paramour. Before I commenced the surveillance, I dropped by the sheriff's office and discussed the area I was surveilling and my planned route. The sheriff clued me in on some areas to avoid, and informed me that my cell phone transmission would be iffy to non-existent at times. We agreed I'd check in periodically when I had cell-phone connectivity, as well as check in with his office at the end of the day on my way out of the national forest. 

On the other hand, if you’re looking to crank up the tension in your story, have your PI get stuck in desolate region with no Internet accessibility!

Tip #2: Use an appropriate vehicle. Maybe your fictional PI scoots around the city in a lime-green VW, but that dog won’t hunt in the country. In a small town, everybody knows everybody else, including what vehicle they drive. A PI will drive a vehicle that blends in, is nondescript and can handle the terrain. Also, avoid using vehicles with identifiers such as decals, vanity plates and bumper stickers.

Or maybe you want to write a humorous scene where the town folk all know the shiny van with the “Don't make me go medieval on you” bumper sticker is that city-slicker PI who’s working undercover.

Tip #3: Why is the PI parked there? 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 keeps props ready, such as binoculars and a bird guide (so she/he can't pretend they're a bird watcher), car-repair tools (pretending he/she's fixing their car) and so on. An acquaintance of mine, whose husband is an FBI special agent, said the bird-watching story is cliche and most country folks would find the story laughable.

Maybe your private eye uses the bird watcher cover story and blows his cover, which could be an entertaining scene. Or perhaps your sleuth is an accomplished bird watcher and can pull off that pretext without a problem.

Tip #4: Look the part: Just as a PI wears clothes appropriate to a city location, he/she will wear clothes that blend in to that part of the country and season. Whenever we did a winter rural surveillance in Colorado, we wore jeans, t-shirts, boots and jackets.

Tip #5: Choose useful equipment: As I mentioned in Tip #1, your PI might encounter a situation where he/she has no WiFi service or satellite signals. That could create a dicey situation for your character. However, maybe he/she has an add-on communication device to a smartphone that uses long-range radio waves to connect by text with others. One such device is goTenna.

Other equipment for rural surveillances includes cameras with increased optical zoom, and video equipment that is functional, portable and low profile. These might be apps on your sleuth's smartphone, fyi.


Who Would I Most Dislike to Be On a Spaceship With?

Ali Kahn, the editor of the Australian online magazine Festivale, interviewed me for its "Usual Questions" series, a column that started in 1999 when Kahn kicked off these Q&As at a conference with authors such as Lawrence Block, Janet Evanovich and others.

One fun question is who would the writer most dislike to be on a spaceship with? Oh, I definitely had an answer for that.

Below is an excerpt from the interview...

Shaun Kaufman and Colleen Collins

Colleen Collins Answers the Usual Questions

Colleen Collins and Shaun Kaufman co-write the blog Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes, which has been recognized by Ellery Queen magazine as being one of the top three true-crime blogs. Guns, Gams and Gumshoes has also twice been tapped by the American Library Association's Booklist site as being a "Web Crush of the Week" during its annual Mystery Month (2012 and 2014).

Has your interaction with fans, for example, at conventions, affected your work?

More that our interaction with clients for Shaun's law practice, or clients for our former private investigations agency, have affected this book. In A Lawyer's Primer For Writers, we include some case studies with these clients, although we have changed their names.

Is there any particular incident (a letter, a meeting, a comment) that stands out?

Many, actually! In the book, we have a chapter on private investigators, and there's a section where I discuss why I no longer serve legal papers after 1 - a person sic'd a pit bull on my husband and 2 - a woman tried to hit me with a frying pan. Those are a few of the true stories in the book.

Do you have a favourite author or book (or writer or film or series) that has influenced you or that you return to?

A Lawyer's Primer For Writers is, of course, a nonfiction book, so I'll switch hats and mention several fiction writers who have influenced my fiction writing (I've published over two dozen novels since 1997). Some favorite crime fiction authors: Robert Crais, Walter Mosley, Ken Bruen, Ann Holt, George Pelecanos, Michael Wiley. And a shout-out to Australian romance writer Sarah Mayberry.

Who is the person you would most like to be trapped in a lift with? or a spaceship?

My husband. He's funny, smart and not bad on the eyes :)

Who is the person you would most DISlike to be trapped in a lift with? Or a spaceship?

My former agent.

What would you pack for space? (Is there a food, beverage, book, teddy bear, etc that you couldn't do without?)

My iPad that's filled with dozens of ebooks.

What is the most important thing you would like to get/achieve from your work?

A sense of accomplishment. Oh, and money.

To read the full interview, click here.

Six Research Tips for Writing a Private Detective Character

Online resources, books & conferences can aid a writer's understanding of real-life P.I.s

Online resources, books & conferences can aid a writer's understanding of real-life P.I.s

In my recent private-eye romance novel, Hearts in Vegas (July 2014), the hero is a P.I. Because I am also a private investigator in real life, I didn’t have to research his career all that much. But even if I weren't a P.I. there are ways I could have learned some basic techniques and tools of the trade to help me write a private eye or sleuth character. In this article, I’ll offer six such tips.

Six Research Tips

Tip #1: Read books on investigations. There are hundreds of books on topics, from background investigations to identity theft to personal injury investigations. One resource for investigative books is PIstore.com.  My husband and I, when we ran a private investigations agency for a decade, also wrote a nonfiction book for writers, How to Write a Dick: A Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real-Life Sleuths, which includes presentations we gave at writers' conferences, Q&As with writers, a gumshoe glossary and much more.

Tip #2: Review online magazines. There are free, online magazines that outline investigative techniques, resources and tools, such as Pursuit Magazine (my personal favorite)Fraud Magazine and Evidence Technology Magazine.

Tip #3: Research investigation websites and blogs. Numerous private detectives write about investigative practices and case studies on their websites and blogs. For example, my private investigator-attorney husband and I co-author Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes, which has articles geared to writers as well as researchers and investigators. Other PI blogs include PI BuzzPrivate Eye ConfidentialPI Stories and Diligentia Group.  Also, check out The Art of Manliness site interview with a P.I. as part of its ongoing series "So You Want My Job" -- read it here: "So You Want My Job: Private Investigator"


Tip #4: Attend a PI conference. Some professional PI organizations sponsor conferences that are open to the public. Here you can network with other PIs, attend seminars, visit vendor booths that sell surveillance and other types of investigative equipment as well as manuals (I still use a telephone-book-thick manual on investigating personal injury cases that cost me $125.00 and is worth every penny -- other manuals are typically much less). PI Magazine lists upcoming conferences on its online site.

Tip #5: Register for a PI course. There are numerous online classes and local workshops geared to those interested in becoming private investigators. These classes are typically open to the public and cover such topics as basic investigative tools and techniques, how to research public records, and the legalities of the profession. For example, Colorado private investigator Rick Johnson teaches a classroom course at The Private Investigators Academy of the Rockies. Topics include interview techniques, process services, as well as field exercises in surveillance. Veteran private investigator L. Scott Harrell, founder of CompassPoint Investigations in Florida, offers online courses for new private investigators at BeAPrivateEye.com. Contact your state professional private investigator association for additional recommendations to courses that offer training in private investigations (PI Magazine lists all organizations by state.)

Tip #6: Take a PI to Lunch. Many private investigators would be happy to answer a few questions about your private eye character or story over the phone, but if you’d like a longer question-and-answer session, consider inviting a P.I. to lunch. In the past, I've sometimes invited an expert, such as a fire fighter or a bailbonds person, to lunch to pick his/her brain on a specialization I needed for a story. It’s a pleasant way to conduct an interview, it gives you an hour or more to ask questions, plus who doesn’t like a free lunch? If you need a referral to a local PI, contact your local state professional private investigator association.

September 15-16: 24 Hour Movie Marathon Tribute to Lauren Bacall

TCM's movie tribute to Lauren Bacall includes the 4 films she made with Humphrey Bogart

TCM's movie tribute to Lauren Bacall includes the 4 films she made with Humphrey Bogart

I plan to have my book proposal into my editor by next Monday, September 15, because I want to settle in after that to watch the inimitable Lauren Bacall in a back-to-back showing of her movies on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). It starts at 8 p.m. with an interview with Bacall, followed by 12 of her films, including the 4 she made with Bogie.

Below is the movie schedule, following by a link to TCM's bio of Lauren Bacall.

Monday, Sept. 15

8 p.m. - Private Screenings: Lauren Bacall (2005) 
9 p.m. - To Have and Have Not (1944) 
11 p.m. - The Big Sleep (1946) 
1 a.m. - How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) 
2:45 a.m. - Private Screenings: Lauren Bacall (2005) 
3:45 a.m. - Harper (1966) 

Tuesday, Sept. 16
6 a.m. - Bright Leaf (1950) 
8 a.m. - Young Man with a Horn (1950) 
10 a.m. - Dark Passage (1947) 
Noon - Key Largo (1948) 
2 p.m. - Blood Alley (1955) 
4 p.m. - Sex and the Single Girl (1964) 
6 p.m. - Designing Woman (1953) 

Bacall Biography

TCM has also posted a wonderful bio of Bacall that covers her birth in New York on September 16, 1924, to her being discovered by director Howard Hawks's wife, Slim Keith, who suggested to her husband that he screen test the young, unknown model for his upcoming film To Have and To Have Not. The bio wraps up with a brief overview of the avant-garde movies Bacall made in her 80s.

Bio of Lauren Bacall on TCM (below movie schedule)

 

 

Win a Bundle of Romantic-Mystery Books!

This week I'm the "Author Spotlight" at Book Bench for Romance Lovers on Facebook. Drop by and comment or "Like" my post to be entered to win all 3 books in my private-eye romance series!

Click This Link: Book Bench for Romance Lovers

A winner will be randomly selected this Saturday, August 30, and can choose whether to receive the print or ebook versions of the following books:

The Next Right Thing 

"Colorful, skillful description and lively, fully fleshed-out characters contribute to this great read." ~RT Book Reviews


"I absolutely had to read THE NEXT RIGHT THING in one sitting...an exciting page turner you don't want to miss!" ~Kay Quintin, Fresh Fiction



Sleepless in Las Vegas


"This book completely took me by surprise.  I went into it thinking oh easy romantic read. What I got was a freaking suspenseful heartfelt passionate thrill!" ~Nichole's Sizzling Page Reviews

 

Hearts in Vegas

"This book is very hard to put down with a fabulous setting and action by the bucket loads!" -Chicks That Read

"I fell in love with the P.I. world in The Next Right Thing & Sleepless in Las Vegas and Hearts in Vegas is the perfect book to end my current obsession!" By the Book Reviews

 

A LAWYER'S PRIMER FOR WRITERS: Types of Lawyers - Criminal Law

A LAWYER'S PRIMER FOR WRITERS: FROM CRIMES TO COURTROOMS - Written by a defense lawyer with 30 years experience in the criminal justice system and a bestselling author/P.I. Not only for writers, the book is also for fans of legal film/books, researchers & those curious about the world of legal eagles.

Put together with the user in mind, this intelligently organized handbook for practicing writers will make you sound like a practicing lawyer.
— Warwick Downing, former DA in Colorado and author of The Widow of Dartmoor, a sequel to Hound of the Baskervilles

 

 

 

 

 

Book Excerpts

Below are several excerpts from A Lawyer's Primer, the first is an overview of criminal defense attorneys from the chapter "Types of Lawyers." Below that are two additional book excerpt links, one on judges (including some real-life "quirky judge" stories; the other is a review (with an eye on what a writer can learn) from the legal film To Kill a Mockingbird - Enjoy!

"Types of Lawyers: Criminal Law"

Under the US Constitution, everyone accused of a crime has the right to a lawyer’s defense. A criminal defense lawyer (also referred to as criminal lawyer and defense lawyer) might work for a law firm or be in private practice.  A defense lawyer might also work for a public defenders’ office (to clarify, public defenders are always criminal defense lawyers). Generally speaking, they will make several attempts to settle a case outside of court, but if they can’t, they will represent their clients at trial. Defense lawyers typically work multiple cases concurrently, each at a different stage in the criminal justice system process. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers provides more information about defense attorneys.

Criminal defense lawyers often specialize in practice areas, such as white-collar crime and DUIs

Criminal defense lawyers often specialize in practice areas, such as white-collar crime and DUIs

Some defense attorneys specialize in particular areas of crimes, such as driving under the influence (DUI), domestic violence, sex assault and white-collar crime. We’ve included nearly two dozen articles in the latter half of this book, many about crimes. If you’re writing a defense lawyer character, check out these articles for story ideas.

Type of lawyer in this field: Lawyers practicing criminal defense are well-versed in constitutional rights, with some lawyers being as passionate about people’s rights as civil rights lawyers. Because a criminal lawyer often spends a lot of time gathering evidence, from police reports to witness testimonies, a defense lawyer often relies on other resources, from paralegals to private investigators, for assistance. According to a psychological evaluation report by OvationXL, who interviewed a hundred top law firms on their analysis of young lawyers’ traits, 59 percent believed criminal defense lawyers to be good communicators.

Defense lawyers are constantly juggling the demands and timetables of the criminal court system, which can be frustrating and tiring. When the authors of this book co-owned a private investigations agency that dealt primarily with criminal defense attorneys, we had defense lawyer-clients whose emotions ran the gamut from funny to exhausted to bitter. 

A criminal defense attorney could be a rich character study for your story.

Additional Excerpts

Click on one of the below links to read the excerpt:

Players in the Courtroom: Judges

Recommended Legal Films: To Kill a Mockingbird

 

Source: http://www.amazon.com/Lawyers-Primer-Write...