4/14/07 Considering a Private Investigator, Part I
Part 1 of 2
This short series is written by Steve Bronnum, the publisher and co-host (along with Kelly Jolkowski of Project Jason) of the Missing People Podcast and the website missingpeoplepodcast.com.
Steve first became involved with law enforcement and investigations as an Explorer with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department in 1977. Thereafter, he served with an air traffic control unit and later as an Intelligence Analyst with the USMCR, leaving honorably in 1987. In 1982, Steve began his professional investigative career with an Orange County, California private investigative agency who conducted investigations specific to missing and parentally abducted children. Thereafter he joined another Southern California investigative agency where he handled a wide variety of investigations until 1985. At that time, he became a partner and Qualified Manager of Horne and Bronnum Investigators.
In 1986, he established his own agency, which he incorporated during the following year and became the President of Bronnum and Associates, Inc. an investigative agency. Bronnum and Associates, Inc. provided investigative services to many fortune 500 companies nationally, as well as many local city governments throughout Southern California. Additionally, Bronnum and Associates, Inc. provided Pro Bono investigative services to assist in locating missing children and adults. Steve conducted and/or supervised thousands of investigations and testified in court extensively. He trained and supervised numerous investigators and published an industry newsletter called the Investigative Review. Steve was a licensed investigator and qualified manager in both California and Washington State and was also a licensed insurance claims examiner in Texas.
Recently, we asked Steve what he thought about private investigators and their place working with the families of the missing. We asked this question because many families experience frustration in the investigative process, and feel that they may need to turn to other resources. If they are able to pursue this, we want them to be armed with the neccesary information in order to make a good decision, not just in hiring a PI, but in who they hire.
Where do I start?
My heart grows heavy and my anxiety grows even as I contemplate this extremely difficult situation. So, if it bothers me this much I can only imagine what you are going through if you are a loved one of a missing person.
Your loved one is missing. Law enforcement has done whatever they have done, but your family member is still missing. Searches have been conducted, flyers put out, information put on the web, vigils held, everything you can think of, but still nothing.
Law enforcement doesn’t seem to have anywhere to go.
You consider hiring a private investigator. Maybe somehow they can help. Maybe they can find things out that law enforcement either hasn’t found or won’t talk about.
What do you really expect from a private investigator? Among the many steps in making a determination about utilizing a private investigator is to determine exactly what your expectations are. This is easy. You want your missing loved one found. Could it be that simple? Let’s talk about some of the dynamics of conducting a missing person’s investigation from an investigators point of view.
First, invariably an investigator has been brought in to the case long after the investigative avenues of first resort have been pursued. Frequently, law enforcement has reached a place where they appears unable to proceed, lots of information (including direct evidence, witnesses, etc.) have all been worked and secured by law enforcement. At best, a private investigator is coming into a situation where a lot of people have already been doing a lot of hurting, talking, thinking, hoping, and guessing.
Second, unless an investigator is intimately familiar with the law enforcement working with the case AND that agency is willing to provide him or her with their case files, investigative notes, and interview transcripts (not to mention a listing of all the evidence obtained to date)…..there is little chance that an investigator is going to be able to marshal anywhere close to as much information as even a “lethargic” law enforcement investigation will have already obtained and evaluated.
Third, if there was anyone out there who had information they wished to volunteer, then you would already have it and you wouldn’t need a private investigator. There are many, many excellent private investigators throughout the country with a multitude of backgrounds ranging from former FBI and Secret Service agents through all levels of federal, state and local police and of course the military. Still other investigators have no law enforcement or military experience but have been involved in various forms of insurance investigations, etc. As with any large body of people, there are always the more questionable individuals.
Let’s talk a little about why an investigator would want to work a missing persons’ case. I’ll give you a slightly jaded list of my thoughts with the most likely reasons starting at the top.
Notoriety: Getting themselves a reputation, maybe a shot at a newspaper article or to be interviewed on a radio or better yet, television show. As a quick perusal of the internet will show many such “investigators” get interviewed whether they are successful or not.
Money: In any given state there can be licensed investigators by the tens of thousands or in larger states hundreds of thousands. Routinely only a small percentage (it could be as low as in 1% or 2%) of those individuals actually make a regular living providing professional investigative services. And the majority of those are working in the insurance field. So, for most “PI’s” getting any amount of money is a good thing. But they aren’t the investigators who are actually working professionals. Would you want to give your hard earned money to someone who says they are an investigator, who may in fact have a license, but isn’t able to make a living providing professional investigative services?
Frauds: In many states anyone can call themselves an investigator, a security or recovery specialist or a bounty hunter, and there is little or no regulation of such individuals. In many states there are actual licenses required, but they may require little more than a payment to the state. In the three states with which I am most familiar California, Texas, and Washington State, all require specific periods of experience working for a licensed investigator who is a “Qualified Manager” (California State). That is a person who has the necessary training, experience and has passed the testing required for that level of license. In California the requirements were not less than 2000 hours of documented investigative work, per year, for a period of not less than 3 years. After the necessary experience is documented, then a real test of actual investigative and legal knowledge and skills is required. Better still, many who take the test do not pass. So, this does give you some hope that a licensed investigator at least understands the investigative basics required to pass the test. That doesn’t mean, however, that he or she has any knowledge, training, skill, or aptitude in locating missing people. I was tested and passed the private investigator tests for both California and Texas, and to the best of my recollection there wasn’t a single question about missing people. Sadly, I fear most people who say they are experienced and trained in the location of missing people are simply not telling the truth.
Just before you think I have totally jumped of the train…hang on a minute.
They Care: There was a time when I and a number of investigators whom I trained, volunteered our time, equipment, and expertise to conduct missing persons investigation. We did not do this often and we focused on missing children who were parentally abducted. Our services were provided only to the parent who held legal custody and only then if the parent who had taken the children or children had a felony kidnapping warrant issued for their arrest. These cases were very expensive to conduct. Still they were dramatically more easily pursued than the case of a missing child or adult under suspicious circumstances. For example, we almost always had family members on the non-custodial side who knew where the offending parent might be or had some form of contact with them. This is just one example of many potential vines of information which can be followed to support the successful return of the child or children in a parental abduction case. Most often in a missing adult or child (outside of a custodial dispute issue) you have a lot less information to work with.
There is another category of investigators who might legitimately be interested in providing real investigative support to your family. They are those who have retired from law enforcement and are able to volunteer their time. Although, this can be problematic in some situations…unless an investigator can really invest the time, travel, and effort required to really get into an investigation, then it’s hard to expect real results.
Unfortunately, in many situations where you are working with volunteer investigators, even if they are the best at what they do and do everything they can, the odds were against them from the start. All too often this leaves the family bitterly disappointed and angry with a person who was, after all, volunteering their time and efforts. In the case of area searches and search and rescue activities, getting flyers out and spreading the word, volunteers are wonderful. When it comes to actually using a private investigator, you need a committed professional who committed for the long run. May you have the best of luck and find someone who really can provide the kind of investigative services you deserve.
Okay, so you have decided that you really want a private investigator on the case, no matter what. Who are you going to call?
“Talent is everything….training and experience are good too!”
You can start with the internet or the yellow pages, maybe get a referral from a retired police officer who you know has an investigative license, or the very worst possibility, you decide to go with someone who has contacted you and offered to help because they have heard about you in the media. If that happens, make sure you have your maximum sham detectors working.
Let’s talk. A retired anyone is already retired, make sure that you are both clear on exactly what they will be doing and when they will be doing it. Another point to consider is this, is that you could be the best police officer in the world and not have a clue about locating missing people. Depending on which words you use to search on the internet you could get millions of hits. The last time I checked, over 15 years ago, there were over 200,000 licensed private investigators just in the state of California, even assuming 20% of them are really, really good locators of the missing you’re still left with a lot of interviewing. Remember, even if someone does have the right background, training, plus the aptitude for locating missing people, and they are independently wealthy AND committed to put in the energy and long term interest in the case, the odds are overwhelmingly against them. Why? As we alluded to earlier, few private investigators have more training and assets than the police detectives who have already been working the case. There are a lot more reasons why the odds are against a private investigator locating your missing loved one, but we will need to talk about those issues at another time.
Does this mean that you shouldn’t try? No, we as a community, I as a former licensed investigator, Kelly as the President of Project Jason, you as a family with a missing loved one, must come together with real solutions to this very tragic reality.
I am absolutely sure there are some wonderfully talented investigators out there who have exactly the right skills and experience to do the job. Hopefully if they are not already employed with various law enforcement agencies throughout the country, you will be able to find one who can help you and your family to locate your missing loved one.
Part II of the series will cover the steps to take if you have decided to use a private investigator. Project Jason would like to thank Steve for generously sharing his time and expertise in this area. Be sure to go to the Missing People Podcast site and listen to the compelling stories of the missing.