The Cult of (PI) Personality

I just returned from Monterey from a panel of private investigators at the Left Coast Crime conference, a shindig for mystery and crime writers. I rubbed elbows with accomplished writers. It was intimidating and inspiring.

I think often about aspects of my job, pondering common traits among peers. I wandered the hospitality suite looking at auction bid items. I snapped the pic of some Magnum DVDs, a show I never watched. Yet for not seeing the show, I sure recognize the name, the mustache, the Hawaiian shirts, iconic Detroit Tigers cap and the red sports car. Good investigators have what Magnum P.I. does — presence and personality. The investigators turned authors on the panel reinforced that personality plays a big role in our work.

On the panel we discussed daily private eye work and some ethical issues. Though I have a non-fiction book coming out this year, the moderator and the other three guests were accomplished novelists and writers. All panelists agreed that the investigator’s stock in trade is getting witnesses to trust them and to talk. Most of us don’t carry guns and have no real authority. Essentially, private investigators are salesmen and sales ladies pitching people on involvement in legal and other situations, often times against their best interests.

Moderator Stephen Buehler loosened us with free association topics: ever wear a trench coat, use a magnifying glass on the job, wear a disguise, etc. From there the talk went in many directions. Pam Beason, from Washington state, spoke about the advantages of being a female private eye because people relate to women more as mothers, sisters or aunts than as authority figures. A woman can knock on doors or look or act confused and no one thinks twice about it, she said.

John Nardizzi, a Boston-based PI with a law degree and author of “Telegraph Hill”, discussed getting people to look from behind the peephole to opening the door and giving information. Vallejo’s David Corbett, who came to private investigations from an acting background, told the audience an investigator’s most effective opening line with a witness: Can you help me? Corbett is now a master craftsmen as a novelist.


Reflecting on being around police detectives and private investigators for nearly 25 years the good ones just have “it.” And just an in fiction and TV, these effective investigators can be quirky, gruff, charming, and maybe annoyingly persistent. But if you don’t have some personality and powers of gab and persuasion you won’t be an effective private investigator, unless you just want to do database research or be a surveillance guru.  But the researchers and good surveillance people have high value as well. You need the human touch to breathe life into many legal-type investigations. What I love about investigations it it’s usually a deeply human endeavor. (Over the years I have had various assistants and sub-contractors help me out, and I think I have selected them on personality as much as on qualifications.)

Some quick acknowledgment of investigators I have known who have “it,” charisma, big personalities, gravitas or force of will.

B.J. Sullivan, now a PI and retired from Sarasota, Fla. Police Department. He was the architect of an international smuggling investigation spanning the late 1980s and early 1990s that netted 60 defendants and $210 million in assets. B.J. could coax words from a log.

John Nazarian, my former boss in San Francisco, has ensconced himself in Los Angeles these last 15 years where he has become the de facto Private Eye to The Stars.  He is a marketing genius and smart enough to surround himself with good people. John introduced me to Bobby Jakucs, retired Marine colonel and retired LAPD homicide detective.Do you think Bobby has any credibility issues on a witness stand?

Kathy Boyovich retired this year from more than 30 years of service as an investigator for the Alameda County District Attorney. I met her when we independently investigated Gypsy crooks George and Sylvia Yonko.  On the day she retired, and needing knee surgery from an occupational injury, Kathy was hobbling up stairs to help me on another fraud case.

In Oakland I have had the pleasure to know private investigators Steve Gore and his wife Liz Litov, who for decades had successful private eye careers. They are incredibly gracious and I could see why witnesses would talk with them. Gore now is also a successful novelist.

Fire and Ice: My Sleuthing Mentors

“I punched him. His teeth hit the wall like Chiclets.” Okay, so maybe my first private investigator boss John Nazarian didn’t pull tough-guy stuff like the fictional line above but he wanted you to believe he did.

The year was 1994. I was 29 and had uplifted everything–job, friends and family–to move from Florida back to Berkeley where I had gone to grad school. The plan was to get on as a reporter at the Chronicle or the San Jose Mercury but those jobs don’t exactly drop from trees. Time was running out. I wasn’t going back to the minor leagues of daily journalism. I started calling private investigators in the Yellow Pages as I was changing careers.

John was a former cop and San Francisco sheriff’s deputy turned private investigator. He gave me stuff he didn’t want to handle, like stakeouts and lame domestic cases. I more or less took to it like a duck to water. I did surveillance in an old baby-shit yellow Dodge Dart I had bought for $500. The car sometimes stalled when I took corners too fast, orI had to start the engine by connecting the battery points with a screwdriver. And yet I persisted.

John had an office on Townsend in San Francisco in an old garment factory that would now be about a block from AT&T Park. Know what I liked about the life? Weird hours, cash, sleaze, intrigue, goofiness, the pressure, excitement, boredom and getting results. Sixteen years later I still dig the gestalt.

I never thought John’s investigative skills were top-notch, and God knows my education combined with report-writing acumen still dwarf him, but you could never compete with John for success or for marketing genius. I tried to learn from him how he handled private clients and from his dealings with attorneys. The one thing you can say about John; he is never cheap. He lavishes gifts on his favorite lawyers and keeps up great contacts with information brokers and other sources.

He is also shrewd about picking the best people to be on his investigative team. He charges around $400 an hour or so but he puts retired L.A.P.D homicide dicks on his cases. He is now pretty much the PI to the Hollywood stars. But he told me that private investigators too often sell their services for cheap. His maxim was always: You get paid to make people’s problems go away.

If John Nazarian was fire, then Glen Maxwell was ice.

Glen came up through the Army, Ohio State University and a background as investigator for a major insurance company. While still getting the 6,000 hours to earn my license, I worked under both John and Glen. Maxwell and Associates handled workers’ compensation and sensitive investigations for such clients as the Oakland Unified School District, Safeway, etc.

Glen also taught me a ton, like how to take a recorded statement. He used to have us dictate our reports. When you prepare reports in this format you learn to shape your thoughts and words with a minimum of clutter. He taught me that all your stutters, ums, “you knows,” etc. can show up in a statement transcript.

Glen was a sharp dresser. He walked into a room and you knew he meant business. I worked for Glen part-time for about two years handling investigations of stress claims and other alleged work-place injuries. He taught me how to be an accurate and fair biller of time and services.

Glen works with his wife Petra. I would drive to their office in Vallejo to turn in reports. They used to have nice, classy Christmas parties for us in places such as Napa. They are good people.

In my practice today I have a foot each in these investigative realms: the straight-forward, more formal cases and mythical stakeouts of sleazy motels and domestic matters.

I can thank my teachers for making me not only a well-rounded investigator but for showing me how to be a solid businessman.

A Haunting Murder in San Francisco

Let’s face it: Most of my cases are snoresville. Party A ran over Party B; Bouncer A might have punched Patron B, or Driver A collided with Driver B. At times I feel like an insurance adjuster.

The longer I do this work the more it takes for a case to linger in my brain. The one with staying power though is the case of Gary Murphy, a man I followed who was later assassinated in a San Francisco half-way house in June 1998.

The case served as a wake up call for me to screen my clients better. I was green at the time, and it was my first doozy of a caper. A woman, Bonnie Ford, hired me to follow and get the goods on the father of her grandchild in a nasty child custody case. I brought in a more senior, and notorious private eye, John Nazarian to help with the client and the case.

What a nightmare of a client, a nightmare of a case. I learned Gary Murphy had been murdered about three months after I stopped working for Ms. Ford. I had a little solace because Murphy was killed in a place where I had previously not tracked him to, and therefore my client did not know about it from me. I also later found out that my client had a restraining order against her.

Investigative reporter A.C. Thompson, formerly of the Bay Guardian, did a great job reporting the story. Check it out at

It was a wild case. Nazarian received the bulk of the payment for the case, paid to us in a Ritz cracker box pulled from the freezer and stuffed with cash, about $15,000. The last I heard, my former client had gone back to Canada. It also bothered me that San Francisco police did not do much. I recall talking to people involved in the case who had not even been interviewed by police. Nazarian and I had each other, protecting us from the scrutiny of cops after we voluntarily went to police to give statements.