Private Investigators and Crime Scene Investigations, Part I

Four years ago, my husband and I taught a series of classes for Kiss of Death, the mystery-suspense arm of the Romance Writers of America. We focused our workshop on private investigations, a field we know well after having being co-owners of a private investigations agency for years.

This post is part I of the class on crime scenes (with some information updated). A point we make throughout the class is that PIs mostly investigate crime scenes after law enforcement/others have finished their investigations and re-opened the crime scene back to everyday use.

You'd be surprised how much evidence can still be mined days or weeks later at a crime scene—for example, this last weekend we visited a former law enforcement crime scene and took photos of a strategically placed surveillance camera, not documented in the D.A.s discovery, that provided key evidence in a legal case. Years ago, we investigated a crime scene, 800-plus acres of ranch land, that the sheriff's office had investigated and returned to everyday use two months earlier. Our goal (as had been the sheriff's office) was to find 4 bullet slugs from a shooting, whose placement could prove a man's innocence. The next class discusses this case in more detail.

Let's kick things with the question...

Why Do Crime Scenes Matter?

In some crimes there are no witnesses and in the absence of self-incriminating statements by a suspect, the only means of obtaining a conviction may be through physical evidence (such as evidence with viable DNA, a blood sample or a fingerprint). In any crime, sharing knowledge of physical evidence with suspects may loosen tongues and stimulate confessions. DNA, fingerprints or serologic evidence are tough to debate and bring many criminals to a place where their lips move easily.

Note: A comment regarding an investigator sharing knowledge of physical evidence with a suspect. Interestingly enough, private investigators work under a burden created by ethical constraints that police detectives do not labor under. While courts have consistently held that police may lie to a suspect to stimulate a confession without tainting that confession (we once saw this in an episode of the TV series The Closer), very few private investigators can credibly present statements obtained by deceptive means. By “very few” we mean in the few instances where the PI has investigated an individual who’s extremely unsavory or has committed a particularly heinous act, jurors are more likely to trust that PI’s statements, even if the PI lied to obtain them. This is great fodder for a story.

In a crime scene, the area searched and the evidence sought will depend on the crime under investigation. In crimes of violence, the crime scene tells the detective what happened but the detective has to be able to read the signs left by the evidence (signatures of crime include fingerprints, blood stains, bullets, bullet holes, tool marks, fibers, hairs, glass fragments, fingernail scrapings, DNA samples, as well as items added, overturned, removed or displaced).

Bullet casings are one signature of a crime

Bullet casings are one signature of a crime

Keep in mind that the suspect is also part of the crime scene. What does she leave at the crime scene and what does she take away from the scene? Such evidence helps to prove that she was there. If the police take her back to the crime scene after her arrest, the evidence of her presence at the scene, when presented in testimony in the courtroom, may serve only to prove that the police took her there. This may cause your fictional PI to think twice before taking a possible suspect to a crime scene.

It's important to make the distinction between what crime scene investigators for the police consider a crime scene and what the rest of us, including PIs, consider a crime scene. In the latter instance, a crime scene is really just the place where a crime happened, which has returned to everyday use. However, what police and crime scene investigators consider a crime scene is that area where, such as the space inside the yellow tape, careful protocols for evidence recording and extracting are followed.

Processing a Crime Scene

Let’s cover some important concepts about how the police process a crime scene. Your fictional PI might be called on to critique how a crime scene was processed in the course of his investigation, or he might be called on to process his own. 

The steps any investigator should follow, including law enforcement, are the following:

  1. Check condition of victim and arrange medical treatment if necessary.
  2. Secure and protect the crime scene (keep in mind the possibility of a multiple series of crime scenes).
  3. Is further search legal? If not, need consent. If a law enforcement officer, obtain a search warrant, especially if a major felony.
  4. Search, sketch and document. Precise measurements of the crime scene should include an accurate sketch containing a key, a scale and a legend noting the day, time, location and conditions (weather, lighting). Compass directions should be noted on the sketch. Remember that a measuring tape provides a wonderful standard of comparison especially when photographs or video are employed.
  5. Document the crime scene and its physical evidence. In law enforcement, a videographer typically accompanies an assigned officer on the initial walk-through. Overall as well as specific photographs are taken of the crime scene.  Close-up photographs should be taken of important items of evidence (for example, footwear impressions).
  6. Handle the evidence so as to not contaminate it.
  7. Collect, mark and catalogue evidence.
  8. Preserve the evidence in a central, organized location.

When Police Aren’t Available: What Might a PI Do?

 A PI investigating a major crime scene risks being charged with obstruction of justice and/or tampering with evidence  .

 A PI investigating a major crime scene risks being charged with obstruction of justice and/or tampering with evidence.

If a private investigator was called on to process a crime scene for evidence of any nature, he/she would follow the same above steps. However, it cannot be stressed enough that a PI would call on police to handle a major crime scene, like a murder or arson. To handle, test and collect evidence could easily result in charges of obstruction of justice and/or tampering with evidence. For that reason, any PI who wanted to avoid jail would call 911, and would scrupulously avoid touching anything at the scene of a crime other than to assess a victim’s medical condition. On the other hand, having a sleuth character charged with several crimes after exploring a major crime scene would certainly bump up the story tension!

There are times when a PI does handle evidence, and the best protocol is to collect the evidence with gloves, place it in a plastic/paper bag, seal that bag with tape and initial the bag with the PI’s initials and the date it was collected. Your fictional PI may collect evidence for admission in court when that evidence was not collected by the police (or the opposing side in a civil case) and the evidence supports his client’s case.

For example, several years back Colleen and a group of PIs from other states worked together to trap a seller selling fraudulent products via an online marketplace. The evidence collected were the products being sold (and, in a sense, the online marketplace where this buyer sold his fraudulent products was the crime scene). After Colleen purchased the products (using another identity to not tip off the seller), she’d place the products in a plastic bag, initial the bag with her name, product name and date, then seal the bag and mail it to the attorney handling the case. These products were used as evidence in a court case against the seller.

This wraps up Part I.

Link to the next class: "Private Investigators and Crime Scene Investigations, Part II."

Happy writing! Colleen

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

Female Private Eyes in Literature

Introduction

A few months back, the editor of the online magazine Festivale asked if I'd like to write an article about female private investigators in fiction, going back to such early women detectives as Miss Felicity Lemon, the efficient secretary for Mr. Parker Pyne in Agatha Christie's set of short stories Parker Pyne Investigates (1934). This kind of article is "my thing." Besides being a female PI, I've written female private detectives in novels and three nonfiction books on private investigations, as well as judged novels and short stories for the Private Eye Writers of America.

Below is an excerpt with a link to the full article. Enjoy!

Female Private Eyes in Fiction:

From Lady Detectives to Hard-Boiled Dames

© 2014 Colleen Collins, All Rights Reserved

“I thought it was time for a tough, smart, likeable female private investigator, and that’s how V.I. came to life.” ~ Author Sara Paretsky about her PI character V.I. Warshawski

Ask people to name one of the first fictional female private eyes, and they might mention Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone or Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, both of whom hit the fiction scene in the early 1980s. Actually, the first female private detective appeared in a story over a hundred years earlier.

Before we step back in time, let’s first define a private eye, AKA private investigator (PI) or private detective.

Private Versus Public Detectives

The private eye genre features a private investigator, or PI, protagonist who is a citizen paid to investigate a crime (however, there are times in stories where private eyes work a case for free—for example, the PI feels compelled to solve a good friend’s murder).  Private investigators are not government employees who work in the public sector, such as police detectives, coroner’s office investigators and federal special agents. However, it is not uncommon, in both real life and stories, that retired government investigators start second careers as PIs.

A few examples of private investigators: Those who work in solo practices or as employees for a PI agency, reporters, insurance company investigators, and even lawyers in private practice. 

Amateur sleuths, however, are not classified as private eye genre as they are not paid for their professional investigative services.

This article categorizes female private detectives into different stylistic eras: Victorian, the Golden Age of Detectives, Hard-Boiled and Contemporary. 

Victorian Era Lady Detectives

Possible drawing of the first real-life female PI, Kate Warne, whose history is similar to the fictional Miss Loveday Brooke

Possible drawing of the first real-life female PI, Kate Warne, whose history is similar to the fictional Miss Loveday Brooke

The Victorians loved crime fiction, which typically reflected their world of dynamic men in society and passive women who stayed at home. However, a few authors challenged those roles in detective fiction.

Many view Mrs. Paschal as the first female private detective in literature. In 1864, Paschal appeared in The Revelations of a Lady Detective, written by W. S. Hayward, a British male writer. Although Mrs. Paschal occasionally worked with the police force, she also conducted private investigations for payment.

In 1894, private detective Miss Loveday Brooke appeared in a collection of stories by Catherine Louisa Pirkis, The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective. The thirtyish Brooke worked for Ebenezer Dyer, head of a private detective agency in London, after being “thrown upon the world penniless and all but friendless.” Cut off from the world she once knew, she is a competent investigator who conducts convincing impersonations, traits that are reminiscent of the first real-life woman PI in the US, Kate Warne, who talked her way into being hired as a private detective by the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in1856.

Golden Age of Detectives: Snobbery with Violence

The Golden Age of Detectives is generally acknowledged as spanning the years 1920 to 1939, although some contain it to the 1920s only. Stories from this era emphasized plot, English settings, and detectives who displayed ingenuity in solving the crimes.

During the early1920s, Hulbert Footner wrote a series of detective stories featuring Madame Rosika Storey, Private Investigator, whose tales were published in the US, United Kingdom and other countries.

In 1928, writer Patricia Wentworth introduced Miss Maud Silver as a minor character in Grey Mask. In 1937, Silver starred as a professional private detective, although she preferred to be called a private enquiry agent, in The Case Is Closed. Mystery novelist D. L. Browne, AKA Diana Killian, calls Miss Silver “a professional investigator and a stand-up woman, a true forerunner of all future female private eyes.”

Private detective Miss Felicity Lemon made her entrance in 1934 as the efficient secretary for Mr. Parker Pyne in Parker Pyne Investigates, a set of short stories by Agatha Christie. Later, Agatha Christie’s iconic private detective Hercule Poirot hires Miss Lemon to be his secretary.

Trixie Meehan, created by Thomas Theodore Flynn, worked at the Blaine Private Detective Agency with her partner Mike Harris in stories published in Detective Fiction Weekly: “The Deadly Orchid” (1933) and The Letters and the Law (1936).

If crime fiction were compared to eggs, this golden era of detectives would be soft-boiled, differentiating it from the hard-boiled private eyes that were starting to emerge in American literature.

Hard-Boiled Lady Dicks

The hard-boiled genre and its detective - AKA shamus, private dick, snoop, gumshoe - took its first steps in the 1920s and hit its stride in the 1930s up through the 1950s. These hard-drinking, wisecracking private eyes walked the mean streets in an urban jungle filled with violence and bloodshed.

Alongside iconic hardboiled private eyes like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe were their female counterparts in pulp fiction (named for the cheap "pulp" paper on which these stories were printed). A subset of these female private eyes appeared in the "screwball comedy" genre, which included elements of farce, romance and humor. Below is a sampling of these detective dames, their authors and example works:

To read the full article, click here.

Secrets of a Real-Life Female Private Eye

 Secrets of a Real-Life Female Private EyeTopics include the history of the first US female private eye, investigative tips, real-life case stories, links to other PI/cold-case/private-eye-genre blogs and sites, an overview of several popular female private eyes on TV and more.

Audiences: Fans of the private eye genre, writers, armchair detectives, and those simply curious about the real-world of PIs.

To Order: Click here or on book cover image to the left.

As an experienced private detective and a skilled storyteller, Colleen Collins is the perfect person to offer a glimpse into the lives of real female P.I.s
— Kim Green, managing editor of Pursuit Magazine: The Magazine of Professional Investigators
The stories were interesting and I’ve always wanted to read a book like this. This is also very helpful for creating a PI character and coming up with ideas for scenes, plot twists, and small side cases. It’s well written and enjoyable.
— M. Morris, Amazon reviewer

 

 

Shooting the Messenger: When Process Services Go Bad

Recently in Colorado, a man pulled a gun on a process server. Fortunately, the process server kept his cool and made a quick exit (btw, he had already left the papers with the man's wife). The process server called the sheriff's office afterward and described the incident, but did not press charges.

Process Server Attacked By Doctor

Another process server, a personal friend of ours, started a process service business after he retired from the police force. This man had been awarded medals for bravery during his long career as a law enforcement officer, but after needing to use pepper spray to fend off a physician who violently attacked him after being served legal papers, the man sold his process service business. "No job is worth dying for," he said.

Which happened to a Colorado process server a few years back. He served divorce papers to a husband, who then attacked his wife (the one seeking the divorce). The process server, a man in his forties, jumped in to protect the woman and the husband killed him. The wife survived, fortunately. 

Chased by a Woman Wielding a Frying Pan

Sometimes people take out their anger on a server, who's simply a messenger serving papers

Sometimes people take out their anger on a server, who's simply a messenger serving papers

In the 10+ years my husband and I ran a private investigations business, I never liked serving legal or business papers. I didn't like not knowing if things might so south quickly, which happened more than a few times. Never had a gun pulled on me, but I did have a woman, high on cocaine and booze, chase me with a frying pan while screaming colorful things she planned to do with it on me. I kept walking, fast, toward my car, where my husband sat in the driver's seat, staring at me wide-eyed through the window.  I yelled, "Start the car," praying he'd hadn't locked the doors as I needed to get inside that car quickly!

I had done that process service as a favor to my husband, who had returned to being a criminal defense lawyer. He couldn't serve the divorce papers to the woman because he was representing the husband in the divorce, so his live-in PI (yours truly) served the papers.

As we drove off, the woman screaming and running after the car, my husband said to me, "You're amazing." I thanked him for the compliment, but said that was the last time I was ever serving legal papers.

So much for making grandiose statements. I just served legal papers to someone last week. Fortunately, things went smoothly.

Tips for Writers: Pineapple Express

When we were the cover story about being PIs, we took the reporter along to observe a real process service

When we were the cover story about being PIs, we took the reporter along to observe a real process service

Remember the movie Pineapple Express and the stoned process servers? I loved that movie, but only if a writer is crafting a funny, farcical story could he/she depict a stoner dude running a successful process service business because it is imperative that a server be focused and clear-headed for several reasons:

  • People sometimes are actively avoiding service, so a process server needs to be able to quickly interpret signals. For example, a person avoiding a process service might answer the door and lie that they are not that person, or even that the person no longer lives there. A sharp process server has done his/her homework and will know, among other details, the physical description of the person they are serving. I once served papers to a man who denied he was the person I was asking for. I knew I had the right guy because I had seen a photo of him, but at that moment his little girl said, "Daddy, that lady got your name right! That's you!" 
  • Sometimes a business, even a government agency, tries to pull a fast one on a process server. At a state government agency, I served legal papers to one of the office managers who claimed it was illegal for me to serve her, and that I needed to "make an appointment" to serve one of their attorneys. Sorry, no. It was legal for me to serve the office manager, which I did. One of the stoner servers from Pineapple Express would likely have found this scenario to be very un-groovy and confusing. But then, if a writer is crafting a humorous story, that could be a funny scene.

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.


A Private Eye Tool: The Smartphone

In the Not-So-Long-Ago Days...

I used to lug around all kinds of equipment for my investigations, such as digital and video cameras, cell phone, notebooks, pens, digital recorders, flashlight, magnifying glass, measuring tape and more. However, my smartphone now contains a lot of these tools as apps. Yes, even the measuring tape! I also have apps to do language translations, capture video if motion is detected, capture public data about homes, and much more.

Keeping Devices Charged

Back when I lugged around a bag or two of equipment, I had to always ensure some devices had been charged sufficiently so they'd have enough "juice" when I was out in the field. Just my luck if I hadn't taken the time to charge my cell phone or the video camera or any other item!

Winging It

When a digital camera, for example, ran out of power, I'd have to wing it. If I had a video camera with me, I'd use its photo feature to take still shots. But I avoided using the camera on my cell phone because the quality was so shoddy, and I didn't want to insert amateurish, cheap-looking photos into an investigative report. Good news is that today's smartphones take clear, usable photos and video.

These days I need to always keep the smartphone charged. Fortunately, we have battery chargers in both of our vehicles to help with this.

Smartphone Apps for Investigators

To read more about smartphone apps for PIs, click on the below article links. Some I wrote for my "sister" site Guns, Gams and Gumshoes; others are written by other P.I.s on their sites (in no particular order):

12 Essential Smartphone Apps Worth Investigating (Pursuit Magazine)

Must-Have iPhone Apps for the Private Investigator #3 (P.I. Advice)

Must-Have iPhone Apps for the Private Investigator part 2 (P.I. Advice)

Must-Have iPhone Apps for the Private Investigator part 1 (P.I. Advice)

iPhone Apps for Private Investigators (Guns, Gams and Gumshoes)

More iPhone Apps for Private Investigators (Guns, Gams and Gumshoes)

 

I still carry a pen and pad for taking notes, but I also take notes by typing them into my smartphone, which I can then email to myself/client.

I still carry a pen and pad for taking notes, but I also take notes by typing them into my smartphone, which I can then email to myself/client.