Private Investigator

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Ben Smith

Private Investigator

A lot of law enforcement don’t trust private investigators. I was advised, when I was a deputy sheriff, not to go into private investigation, that it was a waste of time. They didn’t give me a good reason, but they are always suspicious of private investigators. Even if I’m out working now, and a police car comes up and I identify myself, and they will normally ask ‘what are you doing here?’ I’m not always allowed to say what I’m doing here, because they’re wondering, are you watching us? I’ve had them to laugh about it later. They tell me that. There’s a little bit of “maybe I’ve done something a little bit shady,” and a PI might be here to take some pictures and verify something I’m doing.

Working with Court Appointed Attorneys

I have found in the cases where the state appoints an attorney, they will also approve funds for a PI and that attorney can request a PI to be sure that the person gets a trial that doesn’t come back on them.

They normally say “this is the investigator I want you to approve funds for.” Not all attorneys use private investigators. I wish that they did. What I found is, what I guess gets me excited is, from being on the Sheriff’s side at one time also, is that a little bit more foot work, a little bit different slant on the thing, I turn up things that the police department doesn’t always turn up.

There's lots of times that police can go in and talk to witnesses and they are scared to death and won't talk to them. We'll talk to them and say "I'm here to find out some information, because I want the picture in the courtroom to be painted, we're not to decide if the person is guilty or not guilty, we want the picture to be painted in such a way that the best decision can be made regarding this person." And I've had this happen a number of times, where people sit down and talk to me and give me more information, and give me leads that lead me to something else that helped the case.

Types of cases he’s investigated for the defense:

Sexual assault cases, indecent liberties with a minor, rape cases, among others. All of these cases involving putting the pieces together, finding witnesses that the police department can't find or don't know where they are. I piece the story together, putting in the missing pieces, that's the most exciting part of private investigating, as far as I'm concerned. It gets the adrenaline running, too.

What is the first thing a Private Investigator does on a criminal case?

Every case is going to be different. First, get that file, and go through that file and see what the police have. Do the discovery work, get the information together and then let's get it in the computer and let's see what happened at certain times. [Time Liner] was actually a program that was started for students to do the history time lines for a college class. It's a handy thing to have. It really is. Because then I start putting where people lived and do a file on every player. So we know where they live and how to get in touch with them. And even a sketch. I always like to know as much as I can about the person before I go to talk to them. Whether they're hostile, what have they been involved in? Pull up their criminal records; see what they've been involved in before they got to this point.

Law enforcement has a lot more tools to work with than we do. They can pick up the phone and get something quickly. Where PI can't do that. You’re going to have to work for it. You can't just say I need this check, I need this done, I need this guy's bank account, I need this to see what's going on. You have to be more creative.

Criminal records on-line

With some pay sites, you can pull up the counties, or all states on a person. What you'll find is that some of these characters live all over the state, four or five different counties. In every county, the reason they left that county is because they’ve got a record for something.

Finding information in trash

Trash has to be set out before you can grab it. There may be some issue, where you can't go up to their carport and get it out of the trash can. Once they roll it out on to the street to be disposed of, my understanding is there aren't legal issues involved.

You're going to find bills, who they owe. You're going to find collection agencies writing them. You're going to find bank records, where they've got their checking account. You're going to find discarded bank books sometimes, to show what they've written, copies, what they've written checks for. You find receipts where they shop. Receipts where they eat a lot. So you can find which restaurants they frequent. If you go out and lose them, and you know that they like to eat at Steak and Ale, check it, if you're close to it. If they're meeting somebody, if it's the time of the day they go to meet someone and go out to eat, go for it.

What kind of medicine are they taking? What kind of prescriptions? What doctors do they see? You can also find out how many people are living in the house. You can sort of get some idea. You got children's stuff there. You got Mom and Dad's stuff there. You can know what they're smoking or not smoking. What they're drinking or not drinking. You know if they eat out all the time, or buying fast food all the time, or if they ever cook a meal. All that from trash.

If they get letters from relatives. You can find out a lot about them from old letters. If they're involved in something that they don't want anybody to know about, they'll wad it up and throw it in the trash. The other thing that you can get, which is really great, is old phone bills, they throw away. You can get pieces of paper with phone number on it, which can be very vital to what you're working on. Then you can do a reverse phone thing, and find out who that phone number belongs to. The printed directories aren't always up to date. You can do a reverse phone check on-line. You can take just a phone number and find the person, find their neighbors. One time I was looking for a fellow and he was dodging, didn't want to be served. We called his neighbors and asked where he was. They said he's moved. I said where did he move to? Do you know? They said, “who wants to know?” “I’ve known him for a long time, and owe him fifty dollars and wanted to find him and pay it.” “Oh, well, he lives over at so and so now. You can find him over there.” We went right to him and got him.

You can find if he's got a post office box from the trash. Is he getting all of his mail at home? Does he have bank accounts his wife doesn't know about? They may not put their old checks in the trash, but they will put their deposit slips and stuff in there. Stuff that would lead you to the account. I don't throw out anything. I burn up everything.

Most people think it's going in the trash, it's in the dumpster, who knows, who cares. Who is ever going to look? Everything that goes on in the house will come out in the trash.


One of the hardest things that we do is moving surveillance, in traffic, in town, it's almost impossible. If you know where they're going, that's what I like, just go and wait on them.

They'll run a light and you're stuck. You get one light behind them and it's over. To keep up with somebody that's going 45 mph, sometimes you have to go 55 or 60 mph, which we're not going to do. We're not going to risk our driver's license. What I do is use three people. We'll have one behind, one in front. We get one, some of the people we get are heavy-footed; they want to go fast, get there. We just put one of us in front of him and slow him. Let everybody else just catch up. Again, you try to learn people's habits. People have habits, just like deer. If I know where the deer is drinking water, I know where to wait for him. If we know where he's going, we can have somebody waiting there. We can pull the other cars off, before he sees them. To do it with one car is impossible. If you take two or three, it can work out. We can work it and have fun with it.

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