I have a confession to make. Beginning when I was a little girl, I had a desperate desire to be a private investigator. I loved the idea of hiding behind bushes, magnifying glass in hand, or following people wearing a snazzy trench coat. Charlie’s Angels was a hit television show when I was growing up, and I idolized Sabrina, the character played by Kate Jackson. The Angels were so glamorous, and they always got the bad guy in the end. What wasn’t to like?
However, the older I got, and the more life took its own course, the less I thought about my dream. But age has a way of pushing the proverbial bucket list to the forefront of your mind. So when I was thirty-five, I studied to become a licensed private investigator. I took and passed the state licensure exam. Then I worked part-time for a year with an established agency (I kept my day job, thank goodness!). I even went so far as to trade in my totally cool PT Cruiser for a van to use for surveillance. But, as it turned out, although I had a ton of fun, it wasn’t as glamorous as I thought it would be, and I retired my binoculars and surveillance van with relief.
I’ve never written about this, and most of my friends don’t even know about this part of my life. So I thought it would be fun to share some snippets from my past as a private eye. It’s a walk down a memory lane I haven’t taken for a while. Glad you’re here to take this stroll with me!
How to Conduct Surveillance When There’s Not a Good Place to Park Your Vehicle
A client hired us to keep an eye on her ex-husband. It was a custody case, and the ex was not supposed to have women staying overnight when the kids were with him. This was one of the few times I conducted overnight surveillance. I felt comfortable parking my van in the eight-spot parking area on the cul-de-sac, but only once. I remember it was so cold that night that I was bundled up in so many layers that I felt like the Michelin Man. (You can’t turn your car on during surveillance to run the heater.) But, like I said, I couldn’t park there more than once because I would have been conspicuous. So the next day I enlisted my husband to help me. I purchased orange safety vests, grabbed a few garbage bags and work gloves, and headed for the subject’s home. There was a long and high incline outside of his home, with a great vantage point for me to watch the comings and goings. For the next few hours, my husband and I pretended to pick up trash along the side of the road and up the grassy incline, and all the while I was able to keep an eye on the house. And no one noticed that for every piece of trash we picked up, we dumped out two more.
How to Stay Awake on Overnight Surveillance
First things first. DON'T eat sugar. You may think that you can ride the wave of the sugar high, and that it will keep you going. But you'd be wrong. You'll ride high, then crash and burn. Caffeine of course is a must, as is taking a nap during the day. Bring along something quiet that you can do to keep yourself occupied. That is tricky in a dark van. I listened to music and audiobooks with earbuds on my iPod. Once I imagined winning hundreds of millions of dollars in the lottery, planned how I would spend it, who I would give money to, and how I would decorate my mansion. That killed about an hour, and it was fun.
How to Hide Yourself in a Surveillance Vehicle
Of course you have to have tinted windows, at least in the back, and you can situate yourself there. Another trick is to raise the head rests on the back of the seats to their highest level, then drape towels and a swim suit over the back of the head rests, creating a good foot more of cover. It just looks like you’re an intense swimmer drying out your gear. Also, wear black. And make sure all your interior lights are disabled.
How to Follow Someone When You Don’t Know Where They Are
I was with my mentor who needed to serve some papers. We sat on the subject's house for a long time and he never came home. We had a general idea of places he went . . .haunts, store preferences, etc. So we just drove around to some of these places until we spotted his car. We waited for him to come out of a store and followed him home. When he got out of the car my mentor happily served him papers. Yes, we got lucky. But if you take the time to know your subject's patterns, preferences and schedule, you'll be able to pull it off with something other than luck.
I never had to wear disguises. I did borrow a friend’s dog one afternoon and walked (and walked and walked and walked) around a neighborhood, watching the comings and goings of a certain house.
When Nature Calls
If you're a woman stuck in a van doing surveillance, and nature calls, what do you do? Easy, just bring along a compact camping toilet. It will be gross when you have to empty it (like a Victorian maid emptying a chamber pot.) But, what are the alternatives? Wearing an adult diaper? Yeah, no way. One private investigator I knew said she peed in a zip lock bag. Ummmm. No thank you.
If you are conducting surveillance near someone's property and are say, hiding in the woods (public property) behind their house, bring along snacks that don’t make noise. There is nothing worse than ripping into a bag of potato chips and munching away when the subject is sitting on their patio. A good tip: take your snacks out of the original packaging and put them in zip lock bags. BTW, it also doesn’t hurt if your husband is a hunter and you can borrow his ghillie suit. Not sure what that is? Google it. You’ll love it!
I only did this once and it scared me silly. But I got the job done because I came up with a good story. And that's the key. You need a good line to get people to acknowledge their identity. After hours in a surveillance van, I saw the subject arrive at the location I was watching. I turned on my ignition and peeled out of my parking spot and screeched up to the curb just as he was getting out of his car. I jumped out and said something along the lines of:
'I'm having trouble with my car and need help."
To which he replied in the affirmative that he would help me.
Then I said, "You look familiar, are you such and such name?"
And he said, no that he was actually this and that name.
Bingo! And I got to say those three little words that no one wants to hear:
"You've been served."
And then I hurried back to my van and drove away as fast as I could. I was shaking all over and breathing hard. It was then that I began to realize that I didn’t have the mettle to do this job.
Pumping People for Information
I worked one divorce case where an ex-wife was not supposed to work if she wanted to keep her alimony. It was my job to wheedle the pertinent information out of her and pass it on to the client, who was her ex-husband.
So how do you get information out of a stranger?
Well first, you have to pretend to be someone you're not. Second, at least for me, it's good to do it over the phone because you can mask your nervousness and falsehoods better if you aren't face to face. And third, well, you have to lie and lie and lie until your eyeballs melt. Which is exactly what I did. I pretended that we had a mutual acquaintance (who by the way, didn’t exist), who had suggested I talk with her about certain organizations she belonged to, since I was “new in town.” People love to talk about themselves. Well, at least this woman did. And when she mentioned her part-time job . . . well, my work was done.
Finding Lost Souls
A few extended family members asked me to find long-lost friends or relatives. This is actually easier than you might think. Obituaries are the key. Google the name of the person you are looking for and quite often their name will show up in an obituary as a “survived by,” along with their hometown. It’s all downhill after that. A little bit of clicking around whitepages.com and similar sites and you’ll track down the person no problem.
I only had to testify once, and I was a nervous wreck. It didn’t help that while I was waiting outside the courtroom the subject’s (i.e. the cheating husband’s) mother berated me with insults and asked me things along the lines of “how do you live with yourself?” and “how do you sleep at night?” When it was my turn to testify, I sat in the witness box and was sworn in by a deputy. The prosecutor and defense attorney took turns asking me questions. I was so nervous I had to consult my notes and stammered my answers. At one point the judge told me that I needed to “move it along.” My face flushed, and I stammered even more.
As you can imagine, that was my last job as a PI. I did recertify after that first year, but never worked again. That particular Bucket List item was complete. And I was on to the next big thing!
What items have you checked off your Bucket List? Leave a comment below!