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.

 

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.

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

(Image licensed by Colleen Collins)

(Image licensed by Colleen Collins)

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

COPYRIGHTS

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

LINKS TO CLASSES 1 - 4

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping a Surveillance Log

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rural Surveillance

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

Know the area

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

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

Use an appropriate vehicle

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

Why is the PI parked there?

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

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

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

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

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

Look the part

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

Choose useful equipment

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

Surveillance, the Glamorous Life (Not)

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

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

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


 

 

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

 

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

(image licensed by Colleen Collins)

(image licensed by Colleen Collins)

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

Copyrights

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

Links to Classes 1 - 3

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

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

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

In class 3, we briefly described the difference between mobile and stationary surveillances. For class 4, we'll start off with a more detailed discussion of mobile, or rolling, surveillances.

Mobile Surveillance

There are various types of mobile surveillance, which is a surveillance that is, literally, mobile, AKA a "rolling" surveillance. Mobile surveillances might be on foot, riding a bicycle or skateboard, in a boat, but typically mobile surveillances occur in a car, van, pick-up truck, and so on. 

This type of surveillance might be used when:

  • The PI is following a target to an unknown destination.
  • When there’s nowhere for the PI to sit and wait.
  • If the subject may be alert to a stationary surveillance.

Next, we'll look at different vehicle/PI configurations.

One Vehicle/One Investigator

When on a mobile surveillance, a PI keeps certain items handy, such as a camera, binoculars, change of attire (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

When on a mobile surveillance, a PI keeps certain items handy, such as a camera, binoculars, change of attire (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

There are investigators who swear that a one-person mobile surveillance is a recipe for failure (one PI gives it a 5% success rate). From our own experience, we can vouch that a one-person mobile surveillance is tough. You’re watching traffic and pedestrians and intersections and traffic lights and regulatory traffic signs...all while your subject is weaving and gunning it through rush-hour traffic and…

You just lost him.

We inform prospective clients that the success rate of a two-person surveillance significantly increases the chances of success, but some people aren’t keen to pay two investigators for a surveillance job. In our business, we work to be fair with our billing as a compensation (if both of us are working a surveillance and we haven’t seen the target in 4 hours, we might bill for only one investigator, for example).

Nevertheless, there are circumstances where one of us ends up doing a solo mobile surveillance, sometimes by accident. Such as in the following case.

Following a Felon Through 3 Counties

A few years ago, an attorney hired us to serve legal papers to a felon. One of those jobs that had to be done that day. Fortunately, the lawyer knew the guy would be driving out of a gated area around noon. Obviously we couldn't walk up to his moving car and try to serve papers, so we prepared for a two-vehicle surveillance, planning to follow him to his destination where we'd serve the papers.

We conducted a quick pre-surveillance

We did a check of the area with Google Maps, then we drove ahead of time to the area to check for any traffic detours, blocked roads, and so forth. Previously, we had tried to dredge up information about where he lived in several proprietary databases, but it was as if he were a ghost -- only some outdated addresses displayed. Considering he had a serious rap sheet, he might have taken extra precautions to hide where he lived, such as renting out a room in someone's house, or perhaps he had moved in with a girlfriend, or who knew? 

We waited for Mr. Felon

My husband and I waited in our separate cars for Mr. Felon to exit the gated area (the lawyer had provided a physical description of the guy and what kind of car he'd probably be driving). One of our cell phones was out of commission, so my husband and I were communicating via walkie talkies. For those who might be unfamiliar with walkie talkies, they're two-way radios that communicate via a single, shared frequency band. Today, walkie talkies have cool features like headsets, ranges up to 50 miles, hands-free operation and more. Not so with our clunker walkie talkies. They were cumbersome to use, hissed loudly when we connected, had a 8-mile range, and we had to press a button to talk (not easy when you're driving at the same time). As the attorney called us at the last minute with this it's got to be done now case, we were stuck with our old walkie talkies.

I followed him for miles down a lonely stretch of country road, wondering if he'd caught on that I was following him (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

I followed him for miles down a lonely stretch of country road, wondering if he'd caught on that I was following him (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

We saw the car the lawyer had described exit the gated area, and the guy behind the wheel also matched the description. We began following Mr. Felon in our separate cars, one of us in front of our subject, the other following our subject. Some PIs call this style of rolling surveillance "leapfrog" as the PIs will swap places throughout the rolling surveillance, one taking over the lead, the other falling back and following. This way, a subject doesn't always see the same car following. I write more about leapfrogging later on.

Unfortunately, leap-frogging failed because...

We lost each other

When Mr. Felon turned on a side street, I followed, but my husband got caught in a rush-hour traffic jam.  Soon after, I was outside of the 8-mile range of our walkie talkies.

I'll skip over the next few hours and just say that through some miracle, I successfully conducted a one-person mobile surveillance through three counties, all the while tracking the felon, and ultimately tagging his final destination. To be honest, I started to sweat when Mr. Felon drove into the countryside where it was only the two of us on a single, long strip of road. I stayed far behind him, but still, we were the only vehicles on that road for at least 15 miles. Finally he turned down a short dirt road to an old home. I drove past, parked farther down the road and checked out his stopping point with my binoculars. Looked like a Sons of Anarchy barbecue. Lots of parked motorcycles, people laughing & drinking beer, smoke rising from several grills, women on the porch chatting. 

Looked safe. I drove to the house, parked and got out of the car (the papers were out of sight in a pocket). I walked up to Mr. Felon who was standing with a few of his buddies, who turned and looked at me as I approached. I said Mr. Felon's name, and he answered, "Yeah, that's me." I served him the papers, the he asked, “How’d you find me?”

I'll never forget that. The only reason he didn't notice my following him across three counties has to be that he's...well, not very observant. This is the kind of rolling surveillance one sees all the time in movies--the PI successfully following someone for hours--but in reality, it's a rare occurrence.

One Vehicle/One Investigator

Now let’s cover some tips for your fictional PI conducting a one-vehicle, one-investigator mobile surveillance:

  • Have her stay in the right lane most of the time. If that’s not possible, use the center lane (that way, your PI can respond to either a right turn or left turn at the last moment).
  • If it's a night surveillance have him disable the dome light. As mentioned in a previous class, some PIs put black tape over any miscellaneous interior lights as well (digital clocks, etc.).
  • While following, have your PI try to keep one car between him and the vehicle he’s following.
  • Rather than stop directly behind the subject at a red light, see if there is a parking lot to pull into until the light changes.

If your fictional PI is conducting the surveillance with an associate, think about using two characters in the vehicle (one to drive & one to watch the subject—the observer can then be used for foot surveillance if necessary). My husband and I once did this in a crowded downtown area. Traffic was at a stand-still, so I got out of the car and walked around, keeping an eye on the subject and staying in contact with my husband via cell phone.

Two Vehicles/Two Investigators

Here’s some tips for your fictional PI and an associate conducting a two-vehicle, two-investigator mobile surveillance:

  • If your fictional PI has a good idea where the subject is going, he might travel in front of the target’s vehicle (be the lead) while his associate travels behind the target’s vehicle.
  • Using radios, the lead unit stays fairly close to the subject (no more than three or four cars in front). If the trailing unit sees the subject signal for a turn, he can radio the lead unit in time for it to make the same turn ahead of the subject.
  • Play leapfrog: If the trailing unit gets cut off by a missed light or some other obstacle, he can radio the lead unit to drop back and behind the subject. The cut-off unit can then, by following the instructions radioed by the still in-contact unit, cut through side routes and place himself in front of the subject a few blocks down the road. Similarly, the lead and trailing units swap places while following the subject. First, the lead unit drops back behind the subject and just in front of the trailing unit.The trailing unit then speeds up and places himself in front of the subject.  

This ends class 4. Next class, we'll discuss surveillance logs, rural surveillances and health issues on lengthy surveillances.

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

(image licensed by Colleen Collins)

(image licensed by Colleen Collins)

Welcome back to the third article in the Surveillance 101 series. This content is based on a set of courses we taught in 2011 to a mystery writers' organization -- I have updated and added material for these posts.

Links to previous classes

To read the first two articles, click on a link:

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

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

A few notes on copyrights

  • Class content is copyrighted. If you wish to copy, quote from, distribute, etc., please write shaunkaufmanlaw=AT=gmail-dot-com
  • Images are noted as being copyrighted, licensed or in the public domain within their captions. Sorry, I don't have the authority to allow licensed images to be copied, distributed (etc.); however, any image in the public domain is copyright-free & yours for the taking.

Now let's start the class with an introduction to picking a surveillance spot.

Picking a Location

The focus of this section is on a surveillance conducted in a parked vehicle, although certain tips can certainly apply to sitting somewhere outdoors, too. Prior to the surveillance itself, a PI typically scopes out the area via Google Maps and/or an on-site pre-surveillance check (we write about pre-surveillances in post 2). In scoping out the neighborhood, a PI will pick a few primo spots to park the surveillance vehicle. I always like to have a few spots in mind -- never know when the #1 location is taken or there's people/kids congregated near it.

What Makes a Good Surveillance Spot?

Parking in front of a house for sale can work for a short-term stationary surveillance (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

Parking in front of a house for sale can work for a short-term stationary surveillance (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

  • Keep Your Distance. Although it’s important to position oneself in a location close enough to the subject’s location to monitor activities, keep as much distance between you and the subject as possible!
  • Multiple Days, Multiple Vehicles. In a lengthy, days-long surveillance, it’s wise to use more than one vehicle (we’ll sometimes rent a different vehicle from a local car rental agency, who have told us they have other PIs as clients who do the same thing).
  • Pick a Shady Spot. Vehicles are less noticeable in shady areas then in bright sunlight.
  • Select a Spot "Buried" Between Other Vehicles, if Possible: A vehicle sitting by itself is more noticeable than one in a string of parked cars.
  • Park on a Hill, if Possible: If there's a nearby "rise" in the terrain, have your fictional PI check it out as a suitable surveillance spot -- hills and higher terrains can give a bird's eye view of the area being surveilled.
  • Check for Overhead Views: When pre-selecting a surveillance spot, it's wise to check what people might see from overhead into the PI's vehicle (for example, is there a high-rise where residents can easily look down and see what's on the seats, dashboard, etc. of the surveillance vehicle?).

All of the above pre-surveillance tips can also be used in reverse -- your fictional PI, for example, might have forgotten to check for overhead views, and a snoopy building resident grabs a camera with a zoom lens and sees the name of the subject on a file in the PI's front seat.

Two additional tips

  • Park sitting "away" from the area being surveilled: A PI is less conspicuous if he/she is facing in the opposite direction of what they are surveilling (the PI then conducts the surveillance by viewing the building, etc. in the rear-view mirror, side mirrors).
  • Stay in the vehicle: It only draws attention to the PI when he sticks an arm out the window, gets out to stretch, or has a pizza delivery guy show up with a hot pizza for dinner (believe it or not, there was a case where a real-life PI did this, and he got seen by the subject, big surprise).
(image copyright 2011 Colleen Collins)

(image copyright 2011 Colleen Collins)

Equipment

Although there are all kinds of equipment and spyware a PI might use for surveillance, keep in mind the principle reason surveillance is done is to record the activity of the target. A PI’s equipment might be top-of-the-line, expensive and complicated, but the bottom line is the PI needs to watch, record, and preserve his observations so they can be attested to in a report and even in court. That said, a simple camera and a notepad can produce devastating results in surveillance. 

Types of Surveillance

Your fictional PI has done her pre-surveillance (and picked one or two advantageous spots), checked that her gear is ready, planned her clothes (plus any additional disguises), double-checked the target’s schedule. What type of surveillance will she carry out -- will she be sitting and watching, or will she be prepared to follow the subject in her vehicle? The next section highlights both approaches.

Stationary Surveillance

This is just what it sounds like. Stationary. Typically, sitting in a vehicle. Or, for example, if the target is trysting in a hotel, the PI may sit for hours in that hotel lobby. Some PIs call this “fixed” surveillance as in being fixed in one spot. Sitting for hours on end can be tedious and brain-numbing, so it requires a lot of patience, determination and focus. Especially focus. A PI can’t afford to let his attention wander because he might miss those critical few minutes when the target makes an appearance.

Colleen once sat for several hours, waiting for a subject to appear. At one point, she leaned over into the back seat to pick up a notebook, and when she straightened, the subject had parked his car and was almost inside the front door of his home! All those hours of waiting and one, seven-second reach into the backseat meant she'd lost an opportunity to take a photo. She sat and waited another hour for the target to exit his home, and luckily, got the necessary photos then.

Mobile Surveillance

There are various types of mobile surveillance, which is a surveillance that is, literally, mobile (might be on foot or on a bicycle, but typically while in a car, van or other vehicle). Some PIs call this “rolling surveillance.” This type of surveillance might be used when:

  • The PI is following a target to an unknown destination.
  • When there’s nowhere for the PI to sit and wait.
  • If the subject may be alert to surveillance!

This ends class 3. In our next class, we’ll discuss mobile surveillance with one vehicle/one investigator and two vehicles/two investigators. 

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

(Image licensed by Colleen Collins)

(Image licensed by Colleen Collins)

Welcome back! This is part 2 of Surveillance 101, a course we taught  to a professional writers' organization in 2011. I have updated the content for this blog. Link to part 1: Surveillance 101: Staying Legal, Dressing the Part, Prepping the Vehicle.

Please keep in mind that this class content is copyrighted -- if you want to copy, quote from, distribute, etc., please send an email to shaunkaufmanlaw--AT--gmail-dot-com. Also, I have noted if an image is copyrighted, licensed or in the public domain. I do not have the legal authority to release licensed images to others, so please do not copy, etc. Public domain images are copyright-free, so help yourselves.

What Is a Pre-Surveillance?

Unlike what is often seen in the movies, a PI doesn't just drive to some unknown address to conduct a surveillance on the fly with a vague idea of who the subject is. An experienced PI will have studied the area ahead of time, called a pre-surveillance, as well as the subject.

Researching the subject includes learning his/her:

•    Description (we always ask for any good photos as well)

•    Habits

•    Hang-outs (does the target hang out at a favorite happy-hours bar? Go to a gym? )

•    Neighborhood

Studying the site of the surveillance includes identifying:

•    Possible routes the target might take.

•    Alternative action plans should things go awry.

•    Exits and entrances to buildings, parking structures, other locations the subject might enter (or work in, etc.).

•    A cover story, or a pretext, as to why you’re there just in case a nosy neighbor or someone asks (and trust us, if your fictional PI is sitting for hours in a residential neighborhood, chances are some watchdog neighbor will invariably ask).

Often, useful information can be learned via Google Maps, such as the layout of the streets, entrances/exits to gated communities, and so forth. But as great as Google Maps can be, it can't always show entrances and exits to buildings, for example, or possible surveillance spots in a densely wooded countryside. In the past, I've also conducted surveillances so far out in the country, Google didn't even have maps for the area!

Conducting a Pre-Surveillance in the Mountains

A surveillance on a residence in the mountains can be tricky because a PI can easily stand out (image in public domain)

A surveillance on a residence in the mountains can be tricky because a PI can easily stand out (image in public domain)

We once conducted a lengthy pre-surveillance on a home in the mountains. Our client wanted us to check if her husband was bringing home any women while she was out of the country. She and her husband lived in a lovely mountain home that sat on several acres densely forested with trees. Google Maps helped us with main roads into the mountains, but we needed to conduct our pre-surveillance the old-fashioned way: Visiting the area in person.

We Looked for a Remote Spot to Park

Our canine investigator Aretha (image copyrighted)

Our canine investigator Aretha (image copyrighted)

Our pre-surveillance goal was to find a remote spot where we could park and watch the house from a safe distance, using the zoom on our cameras when we needed to take footage. We brought along with us photos (subject's home, husband & his car), and other descriptions of neighbors/landmarks/vehicles our client provided.

The primary residence we were to surveil was nestled in a wooded area, so part of our pre-surveillance was to drive every road possible around that residence, including roads to neighboring residences, to see if there were any public spots that offered a clear view of the house. After an hour or more of driving and checking roads, we didn't find any such spots.

Next, We Conducted a Foot Surveillance

Not finding a convenient spot to park for our upcoming surveillance, we decided to conduct a foot surveillance down a public road that ran next to the property.

We parked our vehicle out of sight from the residence, then walked our dog (AKA canine investigator Aretha) back up the road—as we passed the subject's home, we did a visual check of the property, where cars parked, etc. We also saw where one of the residences on this block was holding a yard sale, which provided us with a convenient pretext (if someone asked why we were hanging around that particular road, we could say we were looking for the yard sale). We also discussed other pretexts we might use during the actual surveillance (that we’re looking for homes for sale, that we’re lost, that we’re meeting a friend who told us to park on this road and he’d meet us there, etc.).

We drove the same routes as the subject from the mountains into town (image is in public domain)

We drove the same routes as the subject from the mountains into town (image is in public domain)

Last, We Drove Routes the Subject Would Be Using

The wife had also provided routes her husband regularly drove -- to an office he rarely visited as he mostly worked out of his home office, and also to a workout club, including the days and times he typically exercised. She said he'd been talking about a woman he'd recently met at the club, and the wife wondered if he might leave the club with her. We did a background check on this woman and learned what car was registered in her name, her age, and other identifying information.

We did a pre-surveillance check of the parking lot of this exercise club to find a good surveillance spot -- and we got lucky! There was a shady spot on a ridge nearby where we had a clear view of the front doors of the club as well as every single car in that lot. While parking on the ridge, we saw the woman's vehicle parked in the lot, which we took a photo of for our records. 

This pre-surveillance took 3 hours of checking locales, plus several hours commuting. By the time we returned to our office, we felt well prepared for our upcoming surveillance.

You can also use the reverse of this in your story -- what if your PI is thrown into an emergency, spur-of-the-moment surveillance and has no idea where the exits to a building are? Or maybe the client was flustered (this happens!) and provided the wrong address.  Such problems can provide tension or even comedic relief.

Next, let’s talk about the importance of knowing if a subject -- the person whom a PI is hired to surveil/interview -- is represented by an attorney.

Has the Subject Retained Counsel?

Before conducting an interview or surveillance, a PI  must  know if the subject has a lawyer (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

Before conducting an interview or surveillance, a PI must know if the subject has a lawyer (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

The legal system has gone to great lengths to protect and enhance the institution and confidentiality of the lawyer-client relationship.  Therefore, if a PI (hired by an attorney) has contact with the subject of a surveillance (or other investigation), and that subject is represented by their own attorney, the PI’s employer-attorney could lose his license to practice law. The legal idea behind this is simply that the boss (the attorney) is ultimately responsible for the employee's (PI’s) actions. In states where PIs are licensed, it may indeed be the case that both the attorney and the PI would be punished for intruding on another attorney-client relationship.

So before beginning a surveillance, a PI working for an attorney always finds out if the subject is represented by their own attorney or not.  How? In our experience, client-attorneys usually know and have informed us. But if a PI is, for example, ready to conduct an interview and doesn't know? He can simply ask the subject. For a twist in your story, a savvy subject might lie to a PI and claim he/she is represented by an attorney (the savvy subject knows the PI can’t talk to him/her, and the PI is therefore forced to go away).


This ends class 2. The next class covers picking a surveillance spot, and the difference between mobile and stationary surveillances.

New Release June 2016: How Do Private Eyes Do That? (Second Edition) 

"A must-have for any writer serious about crafting authentic private eyes. Collins knows her stuff." ~Lori Wilde, New York Times Bestselling Author