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.
DPL: You’ve used cases you’ve worked as story elements in your books. Which cases led to which stories and how did you use them?
DC: I mentioned how the Coronado Company marijuana cases inspired The Devil’s Redhead. There was an ancillary case, involving a terrible murder of a child, that also found its way into that book.
Done for a Dime was inspired in part by a probate case my late wife and I handled. Our client was the sole daughter of her father, or so she thought. She’d been born out of wedlock but the father had always publicly acknowledged her as his child, and he took her into his home for a while when the mother was too overwhelmed with work and her other children to take care of her. Then, at the man’s funeral, some stranger walks up to the coffin and cries out, “Daddy!” Twenty minutes later, he’s saying to our client: “There’s two houses, two cars, let’s just split it down the middle.” Our client responds: “I don’t even know who you are.” Turns out the guy’s mother had filed a paternity suit back when he was born, the “father” denied paternity, then the mother dropped the suit. Unfortunately, that means it was never finally adjudicated, so it remained an open question. But the father never took him into his home or held him out to the public as his child—both required under California law to inherit if you’re an out-of-wedlock child. We won, but it was a battle.
Another aspect of that book inspired by a case my nephew worked on as an arson investigator. It turned out to be an accident, but the fire involved an entire neighborhood burning down in Baltimore in the early 1980s. A gasoline tank trunk made a delivery to some sort of industrial location, and mistook the sewer access for his gas delivery port. Don’t ask. Regardless, the gas hit the sewer lines and the fumes backed up into everyone’s houses, touched the water heater or furnace pilot lights, and one by one the houses went up. Fire crews reported to one scene, only to watch in stunned disbelief as the house across the street or down the block caught fire.
DPL: Your latest book, Blood Of Paradise, deals with El Salvador. How did you become interested in that troubled country and how did you use that in the book?
DC: I met a woman whose father had been a colonel in the military there, had left the officer corps when he became disgusted with the corruption, then got murdered by a death squad to cure him of his honesty. I’d followed our efforts there in the 1980s and wondered what had happened since then, and she invited me down to meet her friends and family and to see the sites. I started doing research after that, learned about the organized crime problem and the gang problem—no, they’re not the same, but they interconnect—and went back down to do more extensive traveling and interviews. Met some former gang members, talked to some cops and FBI agents and some community workers and business people and just plain folks. (I also had met a few executive protection specialists by then—bodyguards—and that was eye opening.) Concerning the country, I learned that there is a certain segment of society there that enjoys almost total impunity from any civil or criminal consequence for their actions. The judiciary is very corrupt, it’s all about who you know, and the upper tier social circles are very tightly wound. Plus, the police are horribly underpaid and that too leads to corruption. The organized crime unit of the national police is basically a mob unto itself. And there are water issues, related to the contamination of virtually every source of surface water in the country. That makes water a very valuable commodity, and thus a perfect target for corrupt privatization schemes. I put that in the pot, turned on the heat, stirred, and came up with a book.
DPL: What’s next?
DC: I’ve got two stories form the Akashic noir franchise circulating, one in Phoenix Noir, titled “Dead by Christmas,” and the other in Best American Mystery Stories 2009 (“Pretty Little Parasite,” which originally appeared in Las Vegas Noir last year). Both those anthologies come out in October 2009. Plus, since I seem to be a prisoner of noir, I also teamed up with Luis Alberto Urrea, a fabulous writer, for a story that will appear in the forthcoming Lone Star Noir, titled “Who Stole My Monkey?”
I also have a chapter in the latest serial thriller from Audible Books. It’s called The Copper Bracelet, is a follow-up to The Chopin Manuscript which appeared two years ago, and includes chapters from Jeff Deaver, Lee Child, David Hewson, Joe Finder, Lisa Scottoline, Jim Fusilli, Jenny Siler, Gayle Lynds, and several notable others. It can be downloaded starting October 13th in serial format (three chapters at a time, until all the chapters are out there, at which point you can download the whole book); to do so, go to: http://www.audible.com/copper (Note–link not yet active)
The next novel, Do They Know I’m Running?, comes out next March. It’s about a young Salvadoran-American musician named Roque Montalvo whose uncle, an undocumented worker at the port of Oakland, gets deported in an immigration raid. Roque teams up with his stepbrother, an Iraq war casualty, and his cousin, a deportee who’s just snuck back into the country, to bring his uncle back home. This requires dealing with the gangs and other mobsters who run the human trafficking racket in Central America and Mexico. Plus, once Roque arrives in El Salvador to pick up his uncle, he finds out he’s got two other passengers: a Palestinian-Iraqi of vague intent, and a young singer who’s been promised as a gift to the head of a Mexican cartel. It’s already garnered some nice praise, from Ken Bruen and Daniel Woodrell, and this from John Lescroat:
With lyrical yet muscular prose, an ahead-of-the-headlines plot, and utterly believable characters, David Corbett’s Do They Know I’m Running? is nothing short of superb. This is not just a thriller, but an elegant novel, full of heart, soul, music, food, cruelty, betrayal, poverty and love. The line runs through Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene, straight on to David Corbett. I’m not kidding. He’s that good.
For more, as they say, go to: www.davidcorbett.com
September 30, 2009 at 11:18 pm
Fascinating interview with one of the best writers around. As I posted on Facebook, I heard David speak a few years ago at a Sisters in Crime meeting in Fresno. His first novel, THE DEVIL’S REDHEAD, just blew me away.