Dealing with a Cyberstalker

Cyberstalkers are internet bullies who hide behind bogus identities.

Cyberstalkers are internet bullies who hide behind bogus identities.

Updated August 26, 2019

A few years ago, a defamatory “book review” showed up on Amazon—the term book review is in quotes because in no way was it a review of a book. Instead, it was a malicious character attack written by someone hiding behind a bogus ID. Unfortunately, I’m not the only author to have dealt with such non-book-related reviews written by people with personal agendas.

Amazon and Vengeful Reviews

By vengeful, I mean reviews that contain no analysis of the book, only mean-spirited, spiteful content directed at the author.

Letter Template

Below is part of the letter I wrote to abuse@amazonaws.com. I have replaced real names and titles so this letter is basically a template.

Dear Amazon:

An abusive comment written by “[bogus ID]” remains in a book review for [book title] [link to book review]:

[screen shot of review here]

This review does not meet Amazon’s review submission guidelines because:

  • It contains no information about the book itself

  • Content is spiteful

  • Content directs readers to go to other sites that are not associated with the book or Amazon

  • Content only contains malicious attacks on the author

For the above reasons, I request you to please delete this review.

Sincerely, [name]

The above bulleted list specifically addresses content Amazon deems unacceptable in reviews. To read more about Amazon’s review guidelines, click here.

More Evidence About The Cyberstalker

Internet searches revealed that this person had cyberstalked before. Multiple times.

Additionally, I did some Internet research on this “reviewer” (thanks to a writer-friend’s lead) and found a connection that revealed his real name. From there, I conducted background research and found a police report where this individual had been reported for cyberstalking several years earlier. The woman who had filed the police report stated that the man had repeatedly bragged to her about his ability to destroy people on the internet. When he got angry at her for not wanting to date him, he hinted that he would destroy her reputation, too, via the internet.

Too Frightened to Go to the Police

His threat frightened the woman—so much so, she was afraid to go to the police because they would likely contact the man to ask that he leave her alone (which they did), and that the man would retaliate by making good his threat to destroy her reputation. Fortunately, someone convinced her that going to the police, as well as filing for a restraining order, would protect her (which ended up being true on both counts).

Here's another article where a woman was able to stop her cyberstalker by going to the police, as well as to court for a restraining order: Amazon stalker sent anonymous deliveries of illicit novels to victim, court hears

All of that data about the cyberstalker was in the police report that I forwarded to Amazon, who immediately took down the cyberstalker's malicious reviews.

I was fortunate to find that police report (which is public record), but it’s not always the case that such compelling data is discovered. But even without it, I believe Amazon would have taken down the review as it violated Amazon's review policies.

By the way, if you have received similar vengeful reviews, keep in mind that it may take Amazon several weeks, even a month, to follow up on your takedown request. While you are waiting for Amazon’s response, resist the urge to click on the bad review link, and ask friends and family not to click it, either. Simply put, clicking = interest and interest = higher ranking. You don’t want that vengeful “review” getting more attention.

Others Have Been Stalked on Amazon

Sometimes in a big way. Several years ago a Michael Jackson fan group bombarded a book on Amazon (which they felt was derogatory about MJ) with hundreds of one-star reviews.

Although some say that Amazon suggests responding to a stalker’s comment (KDP Thread: Dealing with a Stalker), I advise against it (see “Tips for Handling a Cyberstalker” below).

Wish I could say this cyberstalking episode was a one-time event, but it wasn't. 

A Book Blog Tour Stalker

This happened a number of years ago for a book I co-authored. The cyberstalker didn't know me, but was obsessed with my co-author. Besides this stalker posting bogus, malicious reviews, he began trolling our book blog tour and posting derogatory comments at each site. Yes, we had our own tag-a-long book-blog stalker. He hadn’t even read the book, how rude.

Working with Blog Hosts

We contacted our blog hosts ahead of time, briefly explained that we had our very own personal stalker and suggested the host monitor all comments and delete his offensive rants. Oh, and to please forward us the stalker’s IP address. Gee, imagine our surprise (not) to see that all of the derogatory comments originated from the same IP address.

Blog Host Put a Stop to It

Our cyberstalker disappeared—POOF!—like smoke

Our cyberstalker disappeared—POOF!—like smoke

One of our hosts (decorated ex-military, unafraid to tangle with anyone) posted one of the stalker’s rants, and publicly censured the stalker for acting like a cowardly baby hiding behind his mommy’s skirts. Yes, those were his exact words. Must have hurt the stalker’s feelings because after that his public shenanigans stopped cold. He just…disappeared. Poof! Like smoke.

Ignoring The Stalker

We didn’t know that particular host would publicly censure the stalker—in fact, if we had been told ahead of time that he was going to publicly call out and embarrass the stalker, we would have requested there be no public exchange because that’s what cyberstalkers want: publicity without responsibility. Fortunately, this particular public exchange worked in our favor, but for many others, it doesn’t.

We don’t specialize in stalking cases, but we have been contacted by writers and others who are being stalked, and we always suggest they ignore the stalker and document all activity in case the person wishes to later involve the police or hire an attorney.

What Is Stalking?

Classically, it is a repeated pattern of unwanted, offensive contact intended to harass or frighten the subject. The Internet, unfortunately, provides opportunities for stalkers to anonymously intimidate their victims.

Tips for Handling a Cyberstalker

Here are some tips for handling a cyberstalker.

1. Save all correspondence, including header information in emails and other forms of electronic correspondence.

2. If you are 18 or under, let your parent (or an adult you trust) know about the cyberstalking.

3. Respond in writing with a cease & desist request. Then do not engage further with the cyberstalker. Clearly state that the contact is unwanted and that the cyberstalker should immediately stop all forms of communication. Check the filtering options on your email (and other communication services, such as social media) and apply the filtering options to halt the cyberstalker’s messages from reaching you.

4. Contact your Internet Service Provider (ISP) and file a complaint. If you’ve learned the cyberstalker’s ISP, also file a complaint with their ISP, too. ISPs have policies in place to handle cyberstalking, such as eliminating incoming messages from the cyberstalker, if known.

5. If the cyberstalking continues, contact your local law enforcement or local prosecutor’s office to see what charges (if any) can be filed. Save these communications as well, including any police reports.

6. Consider changing your email address, phone numbers, ISP, and other contact information the cyberstalker is using. Also considering using encryption software.

Resources on Cyberstalking & Internet Safety

SafetyDetectives: Parents’ Guide for Safe YouTube and Internet Streaming for Kids

HaltAbuse.org: Working to Halt Online Abuse

Get Safe Online: An article on cyberstalking and ways to protect yourself

FBI: Internet Crime Complaint Center

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

World Book Day: Humphrey Bogart, Movie Icon and Avid Reader

Bogie and Books

Humphrey Bogart’s fame rests on his tough-guy roles in movies where he played gangsters and private eyes for hire, but in reality he grew up amid wealth and privilege (his family was in the New York social register). Although he was a poor student, and eventually expelled from the prestigious Phillips Academy (some sources claim his expulsion was from Yale), he had a lifelong love of reading, and could quote Plato, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Shakespeare.

My father mainly liked writers. His friends were writers.
— Stephen Bogart

Some of his best friends were screenwriters, such as Nunnally Johnson and John Huston. Huston, well known for his directing, as well as occasional acting roles, also wrote over 20 screenplays, including what is touted as the foremost adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon.

Interestingly enough, before a young Bogart fell into acting, he’d tried writing screenplays but it didn’t work out.

Links of Interest

Real Men Don’t Read? In a Lonely Place and the Self-Loathing Screenwriter. In Nicholas Ray’s classic film noir, Bogie plays a writer with an aversion to opening a book. By Brad Stevens, Sight&Sound, international film magazine

Tough Without a Gun: The Extraordinary Life of Humphrey Bogart by Stefan Kanfer Book review by Philip French, The Guardian

All Rights Reserved, Colleen Collins. Do not copy or distribute any textual content without written approval from the author. Humphrey Bogart portrait is in the public domain, video of Bogart reading The Big Sleep courtesy of Warner Archives.


"A must-have for any writer serious about crafting authentic private eyes. Collins knows her stuff."

~Lori Wilde, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author

National Library Week: Photos of US Libraries by Carol Highsmith

Renowned photographer Carol Highsmith donated her entire collection of photographs (approximately 150,000, and that number is still growing) to the Library of Congress. One subset of this collection are her extraordinary photographs of libraries across the US.

Ms. Highsmith has gifted these photos, copyright-free, to the American people. An index of these libraries is below the slideshow.

(Click on photo to slide to the next one—some computers might require a double-click to move to next photo)

  • Interior of the William H. Welch Medical Library Baltimore MD (photo with long rectangular table, glass cabinets filled with books on either side)

  • The John Work Garrett Library, part of the Johns Hopkins Sheridan Libraries. Baltimore, MD (red-upholstered chairs and couch, fireplace in room)

  • Welwood Murray Memorial Library: Once the main branch of the Palm Springs, California, public library system, the 1940 Welwood Murray building became a private, non-profit library run by volunteers

  • Library on the Go and Read Rover, part of the mobile library service for the Public Library System in Baltimore County, MD

  • The Carnegie Public Library in Bryan, the oldest existing Carnegie Library in Texas

  • George Peabody Library, formerly the Library of the Peabody Institute of the City of Baltimore (interior of library, looking at several floors of walkways and books)

  • San Francisco Library, San Francisco, California (woman sitting outside, looking at library building)

  • Stained glass details at the William H. Welch Medical Library, the library of the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland

  • The Muncie Public Library building in Muncie, Indiana

To see more of Ms. Highsmith’s collection of libraries and other U.S. locales, click Highsmith (Carol M.) Archive, Library of Congress.

Have a great week, Colleen 

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.

 

Do Ghost Hunters Really Find Ghosts?

It’s that time of year when leaves turn golden, the air gets nippy, and ghosts and goblins make their Halloween appearances. For the last month, several older hotels here in Colorado have been hosting ghost-hunting parties and spooky tours. Silly fun...or are these hotels truly haunted?

I Think My House Is Haunted, Can You Help Me?

Over the years a few people have called our agency, asking if we could investigate ghosts they believe are haunting their homes. We’ll decline, explaining that we are not paranormal investigators, and we try to steer them to paranormal investigation sources that sincerely want to help people and not take advantage of their fears.

What Is a Paranormal Investigator?

ghost image on staircase Wikipedia pubdomain.jpg

Most paranormal investigators are people who are certified in parapsychology or who have studied paranormal investigations. Their goal is to help people in need, and often paranormal investigators do not accept money for their services (although they may accept donations for travel, lodging and expenses). Some paranormal investigators make money through writing books, conducting “ghost tours,” giving workshops, or even starring in TV reality shows about ghost hunters.

Tips for Hiring a Paranormal Investigator

We used to recommend people contact the National and International ParaHaunt Paranormal Family Network that gave referrals to paranormal investigators throughout the U.S.and the world, but it appears the organization no longer exists.  

However, you can check the background of the paranormal organization or investigator before you retain their services. Contact the Better Business Bureau, research the organization/person on the Internet for news stories and client referrals, review their website and contact any former clients for recommendations, or hire a private investigator to double-check the paranormal investigator’s background (especially if you’re inviting this person into your home).

Photograph of floating spirit & spirit "orb" by William Hope, early 1900s

Photograph of floating spirit & spirit "orb" by William Hope, early 1900s

Ghost Hunting at Three Colorado Haunted Hotels

More than once I have visited the Stanley Hotel and taken its Ghost Tour. The “Stanley” is known for its Room #217, where Stephen King first began writing The Shining, later made into a movie starring Jack Nicholson.

My Digital Photos Caught “Orbs”

I took photos during these ghost tours with my digital camera, and others in the group (including the tour guide) would tell me I had captured orbs, which supposedly indicated the presence of spirits. The Paranormal Encyclopedia says that “both skeptics, and many ghost hunters, agree that photographic orbs are most often, if not always, caused by natural elements such as dust, pollen, or water vapor.” I don’t know what caused the orbs, but if I’d seen, oh, a spectral figure hovering in the photo…well, then I’d believe I’d captured evidence of a ghost.

Claims of Ghosts, But When I Visited…

I’ve visited other reported haunted hotels and buildings around Denver, Colorado, starting with the “Brown.”

Brown Palace Hotel, Denver Colorado, 1898

Brown Palace Hotel, Denver Colorado, 1898

The Brown Palace Hotel

I’ve taken the ghost tour three times at the Brown Palace Hotel, built in 1892. Each time, the guide told us fantastic stories about ghosts and ghouls who haunt the hotel, from a long-dead string quartet that still practices their music to a ghost-like train conductor who walks through walls. I would have loved to have seen or heard one of these apparitions, but I never did. Neither did anyone else on those tours.

Although one of the tour guides swore that late one night she saw a “black mass” of vapor swirl up to the ceiling and disappear. Hmmm. 

House of Mirrors

Seven or so years ago, I was writing a novel that featured a ghost character who'd lived during the late nineteenth-century silver-boom days of Colorado. During this era, there was a famous madam, Mattie Silks, whom people claim still haunts her old living quarters in Denver (which was called the House of Mirrors).

Mattie Silks, Denver madam, 1845-1929

Mattie Silks, Denver madam, 1845-1929

One spring afternoon, I visited the House of Mirrors, which had morphed into a bar/restaurant. The business was closed, but a friendly bartender let me in to walk around and look at spots where the madam’s ghost had been seen and heard (several people claimed to have even heard her whispering on a certain staircase). Did I see or hear any ghostly goings-on?

No, but the bartender had…

He claimed there had been plenty of spooky goings-on in the old building. He said late at night, when he's alone cleaning up, sometimes the elevator will suddenly start working, its doors opening…and no one is inside. And then there was the night when an entire shelf, along with bottles and glasses, suddenly crashed to the floor.

And another time he heard whispering and giggling on the stairs. He checked out the staircase, but no one was there.

I got goosebumps listening to his stories. He invited me to come back after the place closes one night, and to bring my co-investigator, and we were welcome to document any unexplained noises, sounds, etc.

Y’know, I think I’ll leave that one to a certified paranormal investigator…

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

Writing Lessons from the 1949 Film Adam's Rib, Starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy

In A Lawyer's Primer for Writers: From Crimes to Courtrooms, we cover the in's and out's of trials, lawyers, courtrooms and a whole lot more, including a section dedicated to ten of our favorite legal films, and what they can teach writers.

Below is an excerpt about the classic film Adam's Rib that featured Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn as married lawyers who face off as opposing lawyers in a murder trial.

Book Excerpt

Top Ten Legal Films: Adam's Rib

Adam's Rib (1949): Starring: Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn; directed by George Cukor. A courtroom comedy, with a dose of drama, featuring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as husband and wife attorneys who are on opposite ends of a criminal prosecution: Hepburn is defending a woman who shot her husband; Tracy is the prosecutor.

Note: It’s highly questionable that a district attorney’s office would allow one of its prosecutors to try a case if his wife was the defense attorney. More likely, the DA’s office would cite a conflict of interest and have another prosecutor try the case. Nevertheless, Hepburn’s and Tracy’s opposing counsel roles provide wonderful story conflict. 

Oh, what are you gonna do, object before I ask the question?
— Tracy confronting Hepburn in the courtroom

Adam’s Rib, interestingly enough, was based on the real-life story of actor Raymond Massey and his wife Adrianne Allen's divorce. They had hired married lawyers William and Dorothy Whitney, who, after the divorce was finalized, divorced each other and married their clients! Keep in mind that William and Dorothy Whitney were divorce attorneys in private practice— unlike the setup in Adam’s Rib where the husband represented the government, and the wife was in private practice. 

To prepare for the role, Katharine Hepburn and the director, George Cukor, spent time in different Los Angeles courtrooms to pick up details to help make the acting and story authentic. 

Judge's bench Jury box, Howard M. Metzenbaum U.S. Courthouse, Cleveland, Ohio by Carol Highsmith USE THIS.jpg

Tip for Writers: In general, court hearings are open, which means the public may attend. This is an excellent way to learn about the court system, and watch lawyers, judges, witnesses and others in the course of a trial. At times, the court might close a court proceeding to the public if the judge wishes to protect someone’s dignity, such as a child’s or a distressed witness’s. 

Historical Perspective on Adam’s Rib

In 1940, 9 years before Adam’s Rib was filmed, the United States Census identified only 4,447 female attorneys in the US, or 2.4 percent of all lawyers in the country.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the US entering WWII, many male lawyers enlisted in the military, which created a void in American law schools. The sudden need for students was filled by women. By 1942, women law students were 4.35 percent of all law students; by 1943, the number of women had increased to 21.9 percent. During WWII, some law firms began hiring women lawyers for the first time, such as the New York firm of Cahill Gordon in 1943, and Shearman & Sterling in 1944. 

According to the article “Adam’s Rib as an Historical Document: The Plight of Women Lawyers in the 1940s,” the number of women in law school began decreasing significantly after WWII, and many female lawyers lost their employment positions to returning American solider-lawyers who were given back their former jobs. Also, many returning serviceman obtained funding via the GI Bill for law school, and by 1947 law schools were again churning out a much higher number of male rather than female attorneys.

So by 1949 when Adam’s Rib started playing in movie theaters, female lawyers like Hepburn’s character Amanda Bonner were already vanishing in the US.

Click on image to go to book's Amazon page

Click on image to go to book's Amazon page

Article by Colleen Collins, All Rights Reserved. Do not copy, forward, or otherwise distribute without written permission by the author.

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.