Sunday, April 1, 2001
Investigator's job more grunt work than glamour
By THAD RUETER
NEWS-JOURNAL STAFF WRITER
DAYTONA BEACH — Sixteen telephone poles north, the street and house disappear into late winter fog. It's going on 8:30 a.m. and private investigator Marvin Powers, sitting in his minivan, is checking to see if the man or woman will head to work.
They told the insurance company they were hurt too badly for work.
Powers spots a white car. A cloud in a cloud. He still has the eyes of a cop, but the car's not the one he needs. He slumps in his seat. Nearby are his notepad and video camera.
He glances at the bakery he's parked by. He bought sweet rolls at this place, back in the days when he carried a .38-caliber revolver and had the beefy face of a hockey enforcer.
Times like this, the waiting, chew a private investigator's hours. Times like this lead to thinking. Powers' thoughts often turn to his recent divorce. Or to The Case.
The Case involves a Florida man who, according to a 1997 newspaper article was convicted of what his prosecutor called "the most severe crime you can commit upon a child." Powers was hired to help the man. This is one of the few criminal defense cases Powers has taken.
Pick a private investigator from the phone book and chances are good he'll be a former cop or FBI agent, now on the justice system's outskirts.
"I've never met a policeman who didn't retire and become a private eye," says California investigator Ed McClain, only half-joking.
Powers spent a quarter century with the Daytona Beach Police Department. He advanced from beat cop to detective to captain before retiring in 1988. Soon after, he became a private eye.
Now he's 61. The radio codes he and his buddies used have petrified in his memory.
Some ex-cops catch the occasional case from a relative who's an attorney. They work for spending money, to kill a few hours or enjoy some action. Powers is a full-time private eye.
He spends hours in that minivan, typically on workers' compensation cases and "slip-and-falls," the term for supposedly nasty spills in, say, store parking lots. Such falls can lead to neck and back injuries and fat insurance settlements.
He charges insurance companies $40 an hour to check claims. He estimates he pockets a third of that after overhead. He drops off subpoenas for $20 a pop, and checks backgrounds of job applicants. Last year he took his first job for a criminal defense attorney.
Powers relies on electronic databases that, in a span of a few minutes, seem to spill everything but the tint of someone's teeth. Within the past decade, the Internet has turned gumshoes into computer geeks, according to investigators from all over the country.
In his 25 years on the force, Powers says, he saw only one innocent person. Police don't arrest innocent people. Instead, there were murderers, rapists, drug dealers. He arrested them day after day, earning decorations, newspaper write-ups, and a 1973 "top cop" award.
On a winter afternoon, Powers eyes a backyard mound of mulch. Another insurance case.
He wonders when the brown pile will shrink. The woman could be using muscles that shouldn't be used if the injury she claims is true.
"It kind of justifies coming back," Powers thinks aloud. "There might be some activity this weekend. It looks like fresh mulch."
Powers' world is largely one of questionable injuries. It's not his job to think too much about guilt and innocence. That's for the lawyers, the courts, the doctor who could say the woman was indeed hurt, but well enough to haul mulch.
In court, medical opinion carries more weight than video, Powers says.
He says his videos and other information combat fraud and help keep insurance premiums from rising. Overall, insurance companies are relying more on private eyes as firms cut in-house investigators, says James Quiggle, spokesman for the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud.
"Fraud is a rapidly growing crime," he adds, so companies "often must bring in cavalry to help overworked staff." Quiggle says the "best private investigators are worth pure gold."
According to private eyes, catching fraud involves more grunt work than glamour.
For Powers, grunt work means feigning a flat tire so annoyingly curious people won't try to peer through the van's tinted windows. It means picking through garbage, up for grabs once it hits the curb. It means waiting for that mulch pile to lose an inch or two off the top.
"I feel like I'm protecting the public. If nothing else, I'm protecting their wallets," he says.
Again, from the newspaper article: Since, by the nature of the crime, there were no witnesses, The Case boiled down to whom did the jury believe, the girl or the man.
A private eye hovers between your privacy and your exposure.
If you're going through a messy divorce, don't put embarrassing receipts in the trash, or invite the girlfriend or boyfriend over for drinks. If you're vying for a high-profile job, but have criminal convictions or compromising debts, you should come clean.
Powers says he won't videotape anyone in a bedroom, nor climb a tree or fence to spy. He says he doesn't break the law; indeed, the state says Powers has a clean work record as a P.I.
A competent private eye has always had the skills to dredge information. But the Internet has spread a P.I.'s reach across the world, helping him do work the police often must make a low priority, like identity theft and missing persons.
Records searches that once took days or months now might take five or 10 minutes. Sure, much of the stuff is available to anyone with a Web connection, but a P.I.'s nimble fingers often snag the information quicker and cheaper. Powers calls that "finesse."
Some people say the Internet has narrowed the zone between privacy and exposure.
Perhaps that's true. But many private eyes, who remember how easily they could obtain tax returns and Social Security numbers, say privacy safeguards created in the 1990s have made investigations more difficult.
"There are a variety of laws that are swinging" toward more restrictions, says Jonathon Tal, a California-based investigator. Private eyes throw most of their criticism at the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, enacted in 1991 and twice amended.
In general, the act allows ordinary people access to their credit reports. What private eyes hate is that for certain types of investigations, the act requires a P.I. or employer get written approval from the person being investigated. That can ruin needed stealth, private eyes say.
They fear that public concern about electronic privacy invasions is rising. Private eyes condemn criminal invasions of privacy, but investigators worry about tighter privacy laws.
The man was sentenced to life without parole for sexual battery. Powers says he went over the transcripts of The Case and came away believing the man's claim of innocence. Twelve years out of the department and, he says, his "frame of reference" has changed. He says money had nothing to do with it.
A different winter morning, and Powers is on State Road 40 to Ocala. The scenery is endless rows of trees, and the van's engine drones.
He will serve five subpoenas today. One hundred dollars for a two-hour round trip.
He's delivered subpoenas to police before. He says sometimes the cops are polite after learning he was one. Occasionally he's "treated nasty."
Today's cops, he says, are unfamiliar, too hard, not the same as in his day. "They don't have the heart behind the badge like we did," he says.
He wishes he were still on the job. "I felt important when I went to work every day, helping people," he explains. Serving subpoenas is important work, too, Powers adds.
Powers wants to retire from private investigation in a couple years, after he finds a woman to devote his attention to. But he plans to hold onto subpoenas. Deliveries will put him on the street from time to time and give him some extra cash.
It's 11:08 a.m. Powers parks and unfolds a map. Even though he's previously been to the office building where he'll serve his subpoenas, he needs a few minutes to find it.
By noon, he's heading back toward Volusia County on the two-lane road. It's a sunny day, and Powers has the air conditioner on. Every so often he gets stuck behind a slow car.
These monotonous moments bring thoughts of old police buddies. When he says their names, his face perks up. The same look comes over him when he talks about what he'd like to do before retiring: solve something big, work what he calls "the mother of all cases."
Powers had known about innocent guys going free after years on death row. And he had taken a criminal defense course to round out his expertise; the more expertise, the more credibility in court, he says. But it was mostly a gut feeling with The Case, that sixth sense police develop.
Ex-cops can make great private eyes, says Bruce Lyons, a Fort Lauderdale criminal defense attorney and former chairman of the American Bar Association's Criminal Justice Section.
They know how to find and interview witnesses, and understand the ins and outs of crime scenes. "They can assist you in framing the defense," he says. But first they have to crack that cop mentality, what Powers terms the "tunnel vision" that sees no innocent people.
Powers insists he's cracked the mentality. It happened bit by bit over the last 12 years. No epiphany, no rush. More like a drift away from the department, at least the way he explains it.
One morning he leans back in a chair in his office. Plaques and pictures from his cop days decorate the walls. "Can you imagine," he asks, "if you alone can find the evidence and show somebody's innocent? This is more important than a slip-and-fall."