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

The rancher lived on 800+ acres in the middle of nowhere

Every Thanksgiving, I remember my husband (and PI partner) visiting a rancher in jail where he'd been sitting since October on two charges of attempted murder. My husband 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 weeks, 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, although I often doubted we could. To prove the rancher’s innocence, we needed to find 4 bullet slugs on 800 acres of ranch land. Would’ve been easier to find a needle in a haystack.

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. Rancher claimed the opposite—they had threatened his life. He could either die or fight back. He fired warning shots, 4 of 'em in rapid succession, to scare them off his 800+-acre ranch.

Problem with being in the middle of nowhere is that there were no witnesses, except the two people who claimed they were victims. Oh, and a dog named Gus.

You Two Are My Hail Mary Pass

Our attorney-client said, “You two are my Hail Mary Pass in this case. Try to find those slugs.” The sheriff's office had done a cursory check for the slugs, didn't find them, and 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. Our goal: Checking for slugs that were 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 analyzed that the bullets had traveled approximately a half-mile, and the slugs were probably a half-inch to an inch below the sandy, dense soil of that region.

There were buffalo on the ranch…did I mention 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 needed 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. We kicked off our search, hunched over our metal detectors, slowly moving them, inch by inch, over the cold dirt.

Our Metal Detectors Started 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…or a rusted bed spring...and onetime, an antiquated hammer. Heading back home that first day, the rancher's mother, who was taking care of her grandchildren while her son 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.

A Monster of a Dog Named Gus

A 135-pound Rottweiler joined the search

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. As luck would have it, Gus decided he liked me.

But after seeing that Gus's best pal 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, "At what point do we admit this is an impossible task?”

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. I had to keep looking…

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, was kinda the truth.

The First Slug

Then we found the second slug...

Second slug

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

A Joyful Christmas Eve

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.

 

Private Investigators And Crime Scene Investigations, Part II

Updated April 10, 2018

Welcome to the second part of "Private Investigations and Crime Scene Investigations," based on a series of classes my husband and I taught for Kiss of Death, the mystery-suspense arm of the Romance Writers of America. It's also timely as this past week we returned to investigate a crime scene for an attempted homicide charge that involved multiple vehicles. The incident occurred several months ago, yet we found physical evidence (pieces of broken parts that matched the vehicles involved) in an area not mentioned in the police report. 

As explained in the first class, PIs typically investigate crime scenes after law enforcement/others have finished their investigations and re-opened the area, returning it to everyday use.

Now, let's kick off class II with the question...

After Police Have Completed a Crime Scene Investigation, What Might a PI Do?

A PI might be called on to visit, photograph and document a crime scene after the police have processed the crime scene. During this visit, the PI might look for evidence not found/collected by the police in their work-up. Your fictional PI could easily be at the scene to look for “things not done” by the police, which is a fruitful area for defense lawyers in criminal cases to exploit when critiquing the government’s case in trial.

 Tire marks (image in public domain, attribution Robert Kroft)

Tire marks (image in public domain, attribution Robert Kroft)

In one of our experiences, we re-visited the scene of an attempted vehicular assault at least a month after it occurred (btw, this is a different case from the one mentioned above). What evidence did we gather weeks after the event? For starters, the tire marks were still clearly seen on the pavement -- we photographed these marks for the attorney. We also measured the area where a complex set of vehicular maneuvers were alleged to have occurred. Additionally, we videotaped the pattern of vehicular travel at the exact speeds alleged by the police.

When Police Don’t Want to Process a Crime Scene, What Might a PI Be Asked to Do?

There are many instances where the police don’t perform testing or otherwise process an entire crime scene because to do so doesn’t help their side of the case. To be fair, the police may feel that they’ve gathered enough evidence (by perhaps taking witness statements).

In such scenarios, criminal defendants often complain because the police didn’t perform a certain test or search an area. It is an old axiom of criminal law that the police have no duty to gather evidence helpful to an accused. This often results in criminal defense attorneys retaining a PI to perform crime scene testing so as to gather the evidence omitted by the police.

Following up with an example, our agency was once retained to find slugs from bullets fired as warning shots in the general direction of, but not directly at, a couple who claimed they were the victims of attempted first-degree murder (which requires a substantial step toward a deliberate and premeditated homicidal act). If found guilty, our client faced a possible 48-year prison sentence.

According to the accused (our client), the bullets would be located on a portion of his 886-acre ranch where it would have been impossible for him to aim at the “victims” and have the slugs land. As the sheriff's office had done a cursory, on-foot search of the ranch land for these four .357 slugs, we decided to do a more in-depth search, using metal detectors. By the way, the sheriff’s office did not own a metal detector.

Meanwhile, our client was being held in a local jail in lieu of $300,000 bail.

Using our client’s characterization of the trajectory of the bullets and factoring in the nature of the load, we were able to map out a possible area approximately a half-mile from where the incident occurred. Braving cold winds, an unusually large amount of scrap metal in the ground (which kept setting off the metal detectors), and burrs that came up through the soles of our shoes, we burned approximately 24 man hours before locating the four slugs.

 The first slug we found

The first slug we found

When we found that first slug, we whooped and hollered like a couple of miners who'd just hit gold. Our client's mother, who was staying at the ranch to watch over her grandkids, heard our yells and came running across the fields to us, crying as she knew our happy yells could only mean one thing: We had found the evidence that proved her son was innocent.

After the slugs were found, we carefully photographed the site. The slugs were then shipped in evidence bags to the police, where ballistic experts matched the slugs to the firearm seized from our client on the night he was arrested.

In this example, because of the evidence obtained by PIs (several months after law enforcement had finished processing the crime scene) the D.A. reduced the charges and our client was released (on Christmas Eve, after spending over three months in jail). You can imagine how meaningful that Christmas was for his family.

Postscript: A few months later, the rancher called, said he'd like to do something special for us. He visited our home and checked our roof, water heater and fence, looking for something to repair. There wasn't anything that needing fixing, but the visit was a heartwarming reunion. Soon after, he sold his ranch and moved back to his hometown in another state so he and his kids could be near the rest of their family.

This wraps up class 2.

In the next class we cover the basics of homicide investigations, from key tasks covered by law enforcement, to an overview on estimating time of death, to how a PI might be called upon to aid in a homicide investigation. We also describe a case when a criminal defense lawyer retained us to investigate a former homicide scene, and what we learned.

All rights reserved by Colleen Collins. Any use of this content requires specific, written authority.

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

I recently wrote a series of romantic-mysteries—The Next Right Thing, Sleepless in Las Vegas, and Hearts in Vegaswhich featured private eye heroes and heroines. Because I am also a private investigator in real life, I didn’t have to research their investigative careers 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 realistic private eye or sleuth character.

Six Research Tips For Learning about PIs
(New Resources & Links Added March 2017)

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. The newest addition to this list will be released in June 2017: Private Eye Confidential by California PI Mike Spencer. Check out Mike's blog to learn more about the book and buy links when it's available.

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 Magazineand 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 Confidential, 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. Contact your state professional private investigator association for additional recommendations to courses that offer training in private investigations (PI Magazine lists all U.S. 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 that 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.

All rights reserved by Colleen Collins. Any use of the content requires specific, written authority. All images in this article are either licensed by the author, who does not have the authority to forward to others, or they are copyrighted by the author.

Book Giveaway! HOW DO PRIVATE EYES DO THAT?

  Curious how real-life PIs dig for dirt, chase cheaters, roll on surveillance? Here's your chance to learn that and more!    I'm giving away 15 copies of HOW DO PRIVATE EYES DO THAT? To enter for a chance to win, click on the below link. Contest ends August 23, 2016. Good luck!     https://giveaway.amazon.com/p/f7362a34c546de01

Curious how real-life PIs dig for dirt, chase cheaters, roll on surveillance? Here's your chance to learn that and more!

I'm giving away 15 copies of HOW DO PRIVATE EYES DO THAT? To enter for a chance to win, click on the below link. Contest ends August 23, 2016. Good luck!

https://giveaway.amazon.com/p/f7362a34c546de01

A must-have for any writer serious about crafting authentic private eyes. Collins knows her stuff.
— Lori Wilde, New York Times & USA Today bestselling author

Free Private Investigation Articles: Copyright-Free Image Sites to Investigating Crime Scenes

At my "sister site" Guns, Gams & Gumshoes, we (being my former PI-partner & current criminal lawyer husband & yours truly) have been blogging about private investigations since 2009. At the end of each year, we tally up readers' top 10 favorite articles. For 2015, the articles ranged from conducting trash hits to the history of private eyes to investigating crime scenes. Handy information for crime fiction writers, fans of legal films and books, armchair legal eagles, and those curious about the world of real-life PIs.

 The Thin Man movie trailer with William Powell & Myrna Loy (image is in public domain)

The Thin Man movie trailer with William Powell & Myrna Loy (image is in public domain)

  James Garner (R) as Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files (image is in public domain)

James Garner (R) as Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files (image is in public domain)

 Figure Behind Crime Scene Tape (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

Figure Behind Crime Scene Tape (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

2. How to Conduct a Trash Hit: A Private Investigator's Dumpster Secrets

1. Investigating Crime Scenes: Police vs. Private Investigators

Have a great week, Colleen

All rights reserved by Colleen Collins. Any use of the content requires specific, written authority. Please do not copy or distribute any images noted as copyrighted or licensed. However, any images noted as being in the public domain are yours to freely use.

#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.