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.

 

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.

Book Excerpt: SECRETS OF A REAL-LIFE FEMALE PRIVATE EYE

This book is a great source of information for those wishing to become a PI. However, authors can pick up a lot of tips to make their sleuthing characters more believable and pick up tips about the work of a PI. How it is done and why it matters, Colleen’s book has it all.
— Alice de Sturler, former human rights defender, author, owner Defrosting Cold Cases blog

“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

“SECRETS OF A REAL-LIFE FEMALE PRIVATE EYE is a great resource for anyone writing a female P.I. character, or any P.I. character. Filled with great tips and real-life examples, it helps clarify how things are really done. But it's particularly interesting how the book shows that a female P.I. can have a distinct advantage over a male P.I. in many situations, something for writers to think about.”
~Paul D. Marks, author of the 2013 Shamus winning noir-mystery, White Heat

Book Topics

Secrets of a Real-Life Female Private Eye kicks off with a history of the first female P.I. in the U.S., followed by the advantages and dangers of being a woman in this profession; various tools of the trade; investigative tips; case stories; links to P.I. blogs, online magazines and popular private-eye and crime fiction sites; excerpts from How Do Private Eyes Do That? and How to Write a Dick: A Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths; and much more.

Book Excerpt

Some Favorite Sites

Below are a few of my favorite blogs, websites and online magazines, authored by real-life P.I.s or people in associated fields.  I’ve added a few private-eye genre sites as well for those interested in reading about gumshoe writers and stories.

Defrosting Cold Cases: A blog by Alice de Sturler to explore why some homicide cases remain unsolved. Through blogging and innovative use of existing technology, she has been able to get those cases renewed media attention.  Excellent resource for articles, interviews, news and cold case investigations.

Diligentia Group: Run by private investigator Brian Willingham, CFE, who specializes in due diligence, background and legal investigations.  He writes informative articles about the art and business of private investigations. 

Handcuffed to the Ocean: One of our favorite real-life private investigators, also a fiction writer, is Steven Kerry Brown who is one of the writers for this blog. To read Steve’s blogs, click on the “Crime” category. Also check out his nonfiction book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Private Investigating.

PInow.com news: News and articles about private investigations.

PIBuzz.com: Authored by Tamara Thompson, a highly respected California private investigator known for her expertise in Internet data gathering, genealogical and adoption research, witness background development and locating people.

Professional Investigator Magazine: Owned by the P.I. team Jimmie and Rosemarie Mesis, two nationally recognized private investigators, this magazine offers articles, resources and products for professional private investigators. In both print and digital, subscribers can order only one magazine or a full subscription. Also check out their investigative products site PIGEAR and their books on investigations at PIstore.com

Pam Beason: Private investigator and writer. From her website: “My books include strong women characters, quirky sidekicks, animals, a dash of humor and big dose of suspense. I love the wilderness, so many of my stories feature wildlife and outdoor adventures.”

Private Eye digital comic book:  Artist Marcos Martin and writer Brian K. Vaughan call this a “forward-looking mystery” featuring a private detective in a futuristic world where privacy is considered a sacred right and everyone has a secret identity.  The price is pay-what-you-can, and they’re planning on publishing 10 issues total.

Pursuit Magazine: What began as an informal e-zine for professional investigators, bail bondsmen, process servers, attorneys, and other security and legal professionals has morphed this past year into “a clearinghouse of information for truth seekers of all stripes, from detectives to journalists.Check it out.

The Rap Sheet: A crime-fiction blog with news about conferences, books, events and more.

Rick Johnson & Associates: Based in Denver, Colorado, Rick Johnson is a seasoned private investigator with decades of experience in the field. He’s also the founder and president of The Private Investigators Academy of the Rockies.

Sequence inc: Tracy L Coenen, CPA and CFF, specializes in forensic accounting and writes informative articles in her blog “The Fraud Files.”

Shaun Kaufman Law: Shaun is a former Colorado private investigator and current lawyer, who has nearly 30 years experience in the justice system trying cases from jaywalking to first-degree murder.  He writes about current legal issues on his blog.

Spencer Elrod Services, Inc. Mike Spencer, one of the principals of the Spencer Elrod Services agency based in Walnut Creek, California, is @SpencerPI on Twitter.  How can anyone resist a P.I. named Spencer?  Although Robert Parker would’ve preferred it spelled with an “s”

StillTheySpeak.com: Virginia Braden, a licensed private investigator based in northern Kentucky, investigates violent crimes and works tirelessly to speak on behalf of victims and to bring their families answers.

The Cold Case Squad: NYPD veteran detective Joe Giacalone’s blog with articles about cold cases, investigations and other related topics. Giacalone is the author of The Criminal Investigative Function: A Guide for New Investigators.

Thrilling Detective website: Kevin Burton Smith if the founder and editor of the most comprehensive website dedicated to the private eye genre on the Internet.

 

Click on banner to go to book page on Amazon

Click on banner to go to book page on Amazon

Calling All Armchair Detectives: Sleuth Tips and Techniques at Your Fingertips

 Like trying to sleuth along with TV-private eye Ray Donovan?

Wish you had a reference book to find some nifty technique for that private-eye character your're writing?

Want to locate your great-aunt's son by her first marriage?

This book's for you, pal. 

How to Write a Dick discusses everything from the different types of investigative specializations (yes, there really are pet detectives) to homicide investigations to how new PIs kick-start their businesses to real-life case studies.  And a lot more.

No Kindle?  No Problem

Amazon provides free apps for easy downloading to read on your browser, PC or Mac computers, as well as on a variety of mobile devices. 

Book Reviews

“If you want authenticity in creating a fictional private investigator for your stories, then this is a must-have reference book. Its authors, Colleen and Shaun, are living breathing PIs with years of actual experience in the PI game.”
~ R.T. Lawton, 25 years on the street as a federal special agent and author of 4 series in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine

Expressionism female detec JPG.jpg

"This is a book that's going to go on my keeper shelf. Informative, helpful and easy to read. I'm so glad I heard about it!"
~HJF

"I was surprised how much I learned and how much fun this book is. It's a 'what's going on in the field' that's like a pre-write fact checker...It can stand alone as an insider's guide to the world - the real world - of the private detective." 
~David Y.B. Kaufmann

"If [this book] had been around when I was fiction editor for THE THRILLING DETECTIVE WEB SITE, my job would have been much easier."
~Gerald So, editor, writer, book reviewer, moderator DetecToday

Book Excerpts

To read an excerpt, click on its link:

  Did you know many current-day PIs use smartphone flashlight apps instead of  clunky flashlights?   

 Did you know many current-day PIs use smartphone flashlight apps instead of  clunky flashlights?  

Shaun Kaufman and Colleen Collins

Shaun Kaufman and Colleen Collins

Besides working as private investigators for nearly a decade...

Shaun Kaufman is also a trial attorney specializing in personal injury, criminal defense and business litigation.  He has also trained private investigators during his nearly 30 years working in the criminal justice system.

Colleen Collins is also a multi-published novelist (several dozen novels -- her most recent novel, The Next Right Thing, features a private eye protagonist).  She has also written several nonfiction books on private investigations (How Do Private Eyes Do That? and Secrets of a Real-Life Female Private Eye).

Starting back around 2005, writers began contacting Shaun and Colleen with questions about sleuths, PIs, cops and legal eagles. Fielding those questions led to their teaching online classes to writers and presenting workshops at regional and national writers’ conferences (Left Coast Crime, Rocky Mountain Mystery Writers of AmericaRomance Writers of America, others). They have also written articles about private investigations for magazines, newsletters and online sites such as PI MagazinePursuit MagazinePINow.com, Romance Writers Report, NINK (for Novelists, Inc.), Reflections in a Private Eye, and others.

How to Write a Dick covers PI training, specialized areas of investigations, resources and techniques, technological tools, real-life case studies, a Gumshoe Glossary and more.

How to Write a Dick covers PI training, specialized areas of investigations, resources and techniques, technological tools, real-life case studies, a Gumshoe Glossary and more.

Teaching courses and writing articles for writers led to the Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes blog, which in turn led to their writing How to Write a Dick: A Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real-Life Sleuths

To order, click here.

"This is an amazing book and I'm very happy that I got it. The authors cover so much ground about a PI's life and work, I'd find it hard to get a more thorough overview. Since this book is geared towards writers, I think the authors provided just the right amount of detail regarding specific PI work."
~Allie R. 

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.