David Corbett worked 15 years as a San Francisco based PI with the firm Palladino & Sutherland, a profession that has infused his many great novels. His writing is tight, gritty, and page-turning and has led to Anthony, Barry, and Macavity nominations. It is with great pleasure that I welcome him to The Writer’s Forensics Blog.
DPL: You were a PI for many years. What types of cases does a PI typically become involved with?
DC: There are several types of PIs. Some work internal security for corporations, dealing with fraud, computer security, embezzlement and “shrinkage,” i.e., employee theft, as well as obtaining evidence and interviewing witnesses in lawsuits in which the corporation is a party. There are PIs who work for insurance companies, again obtaining evidence and interviewing witnesses, now in claim situations, verifying the insured’s statements and investigating possible third-party liability. Then there are general litigation PIs, which is what I was. They obtain evidence and interview witnesses in civil and criminal litigations, everything from slip-and-fall cases to divorces (with No Fault, you’re usually looking for hidden assets) to ponzi schemes and murders.
DPL: What’s the most interesting or unusual case you’ve ever worked?
DC: The most fun was a series of cases stemming from federal prosecution of a group of San Diego navy brats who grew into the most sophisticated marijuana smuggling operation on the west coast. They were called the Coronado Company—that’s where they all grew up and went to high school together, the naval station just outside San Diego. These guys were wild but not evil, and my work on these cases greatly informed my first novel, The Devil’s Redhead.
The People’s Temple trial was the most tragic and demanding case I worked on. The survivors were often broken people, hanging on through sheer grit. Some had returned to the street, or prison. For those who had gotten their lives together, at least somewhat, being exposed as a former Temple member could be very threatening. Many feared losing their jobs, or suffering some other form of stigma. There were two trials—the first ended in a mistrial, hung jury—and the defendant was convicted the second time around. The appeal counsel, who was a second-echelon lawyer in defense circles, decided this was his chance to climb into the first tier, and he chose to do it by impugning trial counsel and the rest of the defense team—including me. In particular, he attacked the defense’s refusal to pursue a psychiatric defense. If he’d only bothered to ask, he would have learned that the reason the defense didn’t pursue this tack was because the defendant had confessed to one of the therapists who interviewed him. A psychiatric defense would make that confession relevant and admissible. Worse, by claiming inadequate representation of counsel, he opened the defense’s entire investigation to the prosecution. The defendant was looking at maybe two years until the AUSA got his hands on those interview notes. Then he realized the full extent of the defendant’s culpability, sought a much harsher sentence, and won. The client was miserably represented by this lawyer, and the appeals judge stated in a published ruling that not only had the defendant received adequate representation of counsel, from what he’d seen, the defendant received exemplary representation. We were vindicated, but it was a long, hard slog.
Oddly, though, the one case that took the biggest toll on me involved transporting a transvestite junkie from San Francisco to rehab in Beaumont, Texas. He’d gone through two million dollars in eighteen months and his mother had decided to cut off the money unless he cleaned up. But heroin is like an anti-truth serum—it turns a lot of people into pathological liars and scammers. This guy was. He and his lover figured the rehab was just the price they had to pay to get the money spigot turned back on. But everybody around this guy was using him for money or drugs or both. The problem was, he was utterly unpredictable, and from one minute to the next I never knew what he was going to do. We flew first class to Texas because ti was the easiest way for me to control the guy, and after looking around at every in the section, he announces at the top of his lungs, “Gee, if it weren’t for me, you’d be the weirdest looking guy in first class!” I plied him with alcohol after that. After landing, he threw one ungodly fit at the airport, demanding we turn back around. I talked him out of that. Then he pitched another screaming snit in a restaurant that required some real finesse work. I was never so glad to say goodbye to somebody in my life.
DPL: Any dangerous or dicey situations?
DC: Just once, actually. I had to interview and subpoena a guy who’d been a driver for a San Francisco cocaine ring. He drove the coke from Miami to the west coast—this was when Colombia brought everything in through Florida. The ironic thing? He was now a doctor. I finally tracked him down to this clinic he half-owned in Hannibal, Missouri. The guy evaded me all weekend, and little by little I just kept increasing the pressure, talking to friends, business associates, his family, telling them I was working on an inquiry on the west coast—I provided no details, “for the sake of his privacy”—but it would be best if he spoke with me. That got everybody’s attention. Then, on a personal note, I learned my brother had been diagnosed with AIDS. Come Monday morning, I was royally pissed—my brother was dying and this twerp had managed to avoid me for four days. I knew the layout of his parking lot and knew the car he’d likely drive. I hunkered down in my car with a camera and a tape recorder—so he couldn’t claim I tried to threaten him, or if he ran, I could photograph his skeedaddle. The guy showed up, drove to the back of his office, where he was basically trapped, due to the layout. He was getting out of his car when he saw me come around the corner. He jumped back behind the wheel and, realizing I had his exit blocked, gunned the car and came straight for me. Like I said, I was pissed, which translates into an almost careless stupidity at times. Like this instance. I just stood there, daring him to hit me. At the last second, the Hippocratic Oath kicked in, I guess, and he hit the break. I leaned over the hood of his car, tucked the subpoena under his windshield wiper, then stepped out of his way. The only sound on my tape recording was of him revving his engine, trying to scare me when I was leaning over the hood. I still offered to withdraw the subpoena if the guy would talk to me, but he thought if he played dumb, we’d leave him alone. Idiot.
DPL: What about surveillance? What types of techniques and gadgets have you used?
DC: I’ve used a jam jar to piss in while I sat there in my car—how’s that for high tech? We really didn’t do a lot of surveillance. Wasn’t necessary in the work we did, by and large. When it was, we had one guy in the firm who got off on it and he got to do it. He was a curious dude. He set up a two-way mirror in the lobby of the Mitchell Brothers porn emporium with a clock in the background so he could videotape the cops coming in to watch the show for as long as a half hour before actually closing the show down. This was when Dianne Feinstein was mayor. She had an incredible obsession with the Jim and Artie Mitchell—the only two guys in SF porn who weren’t mobbed up. Go figure. The videos made the case go away. Gee, go figure.
DPL: Books and movies portray PIs and the police as either helping each other or squabbling. Which is most common?
DC: We’re usually adversaries, but not always. In a criminal case, we typically representing the defendant, and that means our job is to test the prosecution’s evidence—for example, find out if the witness statements are truly reliable and complete. They’re never complete—”the whole truth” is a hoax, at least in court–but often that doesn’t matter. We also try to track down witnesses the prosecution has either ignored or couldn’t find themselves. The biggest job is to impugn the informant—we used to call ourselves Snitchbusters. I have to admit, in all my years of working criminal cases, I can’t recall once when I thought the informant wasn’t way more sleazy than my client, but that’s show biz.
However, there are times when we will be working the civil side to a criminal case, working for the plaintiffs (victims), or for an insurance company with an interest in the litigation.
The former situation, working for victim-plaintiffs, came up in the first Michael Jackson case. We worked for the fourteen-year-old boy and his family in the child molestation case, and we tried the best we could to help the police, but we kept finding out from the sergeant who was out liaison at LAPD that they would assemble a witness list from our reports, pass it up the chain of command, and it would inevitably come back with certain key witnesses cross off. The suspicion was that, with Johnny Cochran at the helm of Jackson’s defense, he was pulling strings with old contacts in the DA’s office or with cops he knew. We could never prove this, and it was just a suspicion. But it all became moot when Cochran, fearing his investigators has been taped trying to tamper with witnesses—they’d been instructed by Cochran to go out and find ex-employees, tell them, “Michael loves you,” and offer them their jobs back at salaries they could hardly refuse—Cochran had a high-power conclave with his client and promptly pitched almost $20 million at the kid and his family. An unwritten part of the agreement was that the boy would not testify before the grand jury. This is illegal, but who was going to prove it happened? Anyhoo, Michael slipped out of that one, as we all know.
As for the insurer situation, this happened with the Menendez brothers case. The insurance company was on the hook for a multi-million dollar payout if the brothers didn’t kill their parents. That gave them quite an incentive and a war chest LAPD could only envy. We helped locate and interview witnesses—or rather, we did these things, then passed our information along to the police.
Which brings up the crucial point: Nobody wants to give up control of an investigation. First person to the witness gets to frame the case in ways everyone else who comes later has to deal with. Sometimes you have to un-brainwash a witness who’s convinced, given what a previous investigator said, that all manner of unholy mayhem was perpetrated by your client, even if it makes no sense. An example, I had a client who made a fire claim on the basis of some collectibles that perished, essentially antique toys and manuals. These things were tossed loosely into boxes and burned to cinders in a garage fire. But the insurance investigator managed to convince witnesses that the client was claiming boxes of book had burned up, and books, packed tightly in a box, don’t burn to cinders. They’re too dense, not enough energy flow, etc. So all the firemen, by the time I got to them, were convinced my client was a lying scumbag because he claimed stuff burned up in a way that they knew, having been to the fire, couldn’t have happened. Some of them were willing to see that maybe they’d formed an incorrect impression given what the insurance investigator has said. But some of these guys were just bullheaded and there was no budging them off their biases.