|Art of private investigation more grit than glamour
|MEMPHIS (AP) — It is a Memphis midsummer morning, the air so thick and close that it’s as if the entire city is trapped in the devil’s attic.
Private investigator Rachael Geiser is on the streets trying to generate a little heat of her own. She’s working for a defense attorney representing a man accused of first-degree murder. She’s seeking facts and ambiguities, not yet knowing which may prove more helpful.
In another time and place — say network television in the late 1970s — she could pass for one of Charlie’s Angels. But there is no glitz in what she is doing today. She isn’t driving a sports car. She isn’t going “undercover” in a bikini poolside at a millionaire’s estate.
Rather, she is a 34-year-old wife and mother of two. She holds a master’s degree in criminal justice from the University of Memphis, has worked in behavioral health, and has been an investigator for Inquisitor Inc., a Memphis private investigator firm, since 1999.
In this time and place, the work day begins by striding up the concrete walkway of a brick tenement house. Two women, perhaps 30 years apart, sit on the stoop. A pack of Newport cigarettes lies at their side.
What passes for their front lawn is adorned with flowers. A bullet hole defaces the door of the adjacent apartment.
“I like your flowers,” Geiser says brightly as she moves closer to the women, one of whom is the mother of the girl that Geiser needs to interview.
“Thank you,” they say with small smiles and nods, the younger woman blowing a stream of smoke.
Then … an awkward silence.
“I’m here to talk about what happened,” Geiser finally says, as she introduces herself.
Reluctantly, the mother calls her daughter outside.
Geiser starts asking her pointed questions about a shooting.
The girl begins to give more detailed answers, answers that raise some ambiguities. The mother grows more nervous.
“She’s through talking,” the mother says after a few minutes, after some timer apparently has gone off in her head. “Y’all know what happens in the black community. You open your mouth and you end up dead.”
Geiser thanks the family for their time and heads back to her car.
She didn’t get as much information as she wanted, but she got what she came for — enough new information to move the investigation forward.
Later this same morning, Geiser is walking across a housing development commons area. A man shoots her several long glances. Not a concern, except he is holding a pistol in his pocket.
“That’s why I don’t carry my purse,” she whispers.
Neither does she carry a gun.
“She’s pretty enough she can get away with that,” says R.D. “Stumpy” Roleson, who spent 20 years in homicide with the Memphis Police Department and now works as a private detective. “I still act and walk like a cop.”
Roleson works for Business Information Services, which is based in Atlanta. Like Geiser, he also takes a fair number of criminal defense cases. But while he’s just what a lot of private investigation firms are looking for, Geiser is more what Inquisitor president and owner Ron Lax wants in an employee.
“We tend to bring in people with experience in psychology, sociology, criminal justice,” Lax says. “We tend to stay away from ex-police and ex-military. Police, especially ones that were in for a long time, already have a mindset.
“I’ve often said: It’s more of an art than a science.”
Turns out, it isn’t too difficult to get your “artist’s” credentials.
The state of Mississippi does not mandate a license for private investigators. Tennessee issues licenses through the Department of Commerce and Insurance. There are few requirements for obtaining a license, including being at least 21, passing criminal background and fingerprint check, not suffering “habitual drunkenness” or “narcotics addiction,” and successfully completing a written examination.
“It’s too easy,” says Charles Cope, a former Shelby County Sheriff’s deputy and Collierville police officer who owns Cope Investigative Services LLC in Collierville. “There’s very little on the test except (basic) law.”
Cope and Lax have each served terms on the state’s Private Investigation and Polygraph Commission. Cope says: “I heard about a lot of unethical things … people took money and didn’t do anything for it.”
Investigative firms are sort of like medical practices, with many camping on a specialty. Cope’s company does a lot of insurance work.
Haney and Associates in Eads, owned by former Memphis police lieutenant Keith Haney and his wife, Glenda, focuses on protecting company trademarks. Among their clients: Oakley and Gucci.
Recently, Glenda and another woman went undercover into a Memphis store — they wore boots, tight jeans and low-cut tops — and chatted up a salesman who led them to a back room full of counterfeit designer purses.
“These companies pay millions of dollars for their trademark,” Keith says. “Plus, we’ve learned a lot of funds from counterfeit goods go back to organized crime and terrorism.”
Back at a Memphis housing project, Geiser makes it clear that she is a private investigator and not a cop, not someone who can put anybody in jail.
She approaches three men sitting outside an apartment. Once she starts asking questions about who saw what and when, one of the men drifts away. The other two offer bits and pieces, tossing out a couple of street names for others who may have been involved.
She hands each of the men a card and one says, “I’m gonna call ya later on.”
Maybe she will and maybe she won’t. This much is certain:
In her world, investigations take longer than 60 minutes — minus the commercials — and the endings are not necessarily tidy.
Geiser says she has learned that the state has its story, the accused has his story, “and almost always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.”
Information from: The Commercial Appeal, http://www.commercialappeal.com
Published in The Messenger on 10.10.07