Old School, New School for The Private Investigator

photo74Two concurrent events. I found a draft copy of my investigative thesis for graduate journalism school nearly 25 years ago and then last week completed an online class in social media and background investigations. I’ve investigated for a quarter of a century so I’m taking stock of the changes and differences from then to now.

I’m about to do what I don’t like about the internet: give advice. Who needs a list of “Eight must see vacation spots in Bulgaria” or “Five sure-fire ways to cure your slice”? Most advice articles bring on a case of MEGO, My Eyes Glaze Over.

In the last few years I have divided old school and new school private investigator methods. But it’s an artificial split because each is essential. Old school was door knocks, phone books, court records, public records requests, people skills and connections. New school is digital information, social networks, data mining, text messages,  cell towers and “digital fingerprints.” My knee jerk reaction downplayed the “new school” aspects. I was suspicious of them because I perceived lawyers and fellow private investigators putting too much emphasis on them at the expense of human intelligence (Humint).  It would be just as myopic to scoff at the methods of the old, shoe leather detectives who still get a lot of information with surveillance or looking up information on microfiche down at the library or courthouse.  I’m convinced that in 2015 to be an effective investigator you have to be up on modern methods but possess the best traits of yesteryear.

I never found a publisher for the thesis article so I’m excited for its first appearance out of the library of North Gate Hall at UC-Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. My story called “Papa Don’t Preach” tells the events leading to the murder-suicide in Antioch, Calif., involving a Vietnam veteran father and his teen-age daughter. The article is about the father, Thomas Lockwood, who battled mental illness and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and his daughter, Jennifer Lockwood, who fought to break free of her father and start a new life. (Jennifer was a big fan of Madonna, hence the article title.) Thomas Lockwood shot and killed Jennifer in June 1990 then shot and killed himself.

Outside the J School in Berkeley

Looking back on my investigation, I’m proud of my work. It was the second time that I had done anything one would call investigative journalism. The first time I investigated was working at a daily newspaper in Staunton, Virginia, and exposing a local poultry plant where numerous workers had been maimed due to faulty equipment and lax training. My methods were self-taught and or acquired working at small newspapers. Part of the fun then was the discovery of information just by happenstance and initiative.

I launched my journalism school investigation after reading a four-paragraph item in the Antioch Ledger-Dispatch about the bodies being found and their deaths labeled a murder-suicide. At the time I was also working as a reporter intern at the Contra Costa Times in Walnut Creek. My story sprang from morbid curiosity: Why would a father murder his own daughter?

The article from five months of research came from: interviews of family and friends, ex-wives, court records, military archives, police reports, autopsy reports, psychologists and psychiatrists. Jennifer Lockwood’s grandmother, Thomas Lockwood’s mother, gave me a copy of the diary Jennifer kept in the days and months before her death. A Sacramento County Superior Court judge agreed to my request to unseal some family court records concerning the father’s mental health evaluations. 

People might take issue with the story, that it’s exploitative.  But I wanted to bring light to a bigger issue: the difficulty of some military veterans in accessing medical and mental health services. I also thought another tragic aspect of the story was that Thomas Lockwood never should have been drafted or served in the military. And the most gut-wrenching part: Jennifer Lockwood never had a chance to develop as a bright young woman. 

Then to now. What if the Lockwood tragedy had taken place within the last year? How would my research or investigation be different? I thought about these potential changes after completing Portland, Ore., private investigator Eli Rosenblatt’s three online classes for Social Media and Background Investigation. The internet has changed everything but hasn’t changed much of the process of what a private investigator has to do. It’s made our jobs easier and harder at the same time. It’s another tool or method that needs to be learned and harnessed. 

Eli P.I.

Social media or text messages or other data is now involved in almost every case we work as private investigators and reporters. So if the Lockwood investigation was current I would be searching a lot of social media sites, such as Twitter, Youtube and Instagram, about them in addition to interviewing family and friends. Maybe I would be looking on Facebook or LinkedIn for people who went to high school with or who served with Thomas Lockwood. As Rosenblatt points out in his training, the growth in the number of users of social media is huge. Youtube now has 1 billion users. Instagram went from 1 million to 100 million users in 24 months. The life cycle of the social networks spins faster. Ever heard of Keek, Pheed or Ghost? Me neither. But social networks and companies now spring up in months instead of years, Rosenblatt said.

So why bother scour and search this infinite digital landscape looking for a few particular grains of sand at a vast beach? “Because information leads to other information,” Rosenblatt said. It’s the same reason we search court records, public records, do routine internet searches and use free and paid databases. Surveillance doesn’t just yield results about your subject but it sometimes show who they know and who is in their real network of friends or associates. I would also point that the reason I need to be up on the digital evidence is to “know what I don’t know.” I look better to refer a client to a real expert or bring in an expert than to try to do a task that exceeds my capabilities.

My work now tends to be serving trial lawyers in personal injury and criminal defense cases. I suppose I’m still geared more towards the old school and doing a lot of finding witnesses and witness interviews.

Here comes that icky advice part from an old dude, whether you are student reporter, work the night cops beat or somehow got lost and became a private investigator. It’s just generic investigator advice merging the old and new.

  • Be an optimist. Follow your curiosity.
  • Fully identify yourself and your purpose to your interview subjects.
  • “A closed mouth don’t get fed.” Ask people for help. Try to talk to all potential witnesses. Or as the great Gretzky once said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
  • Witnesses and sources are gold. Cultivate and treat them well without making false promises to them. As a matter of fact, you will need them again and run into them down the road.
  • Be systematic. Map out your investigation and what you are going to check, then stick to it. You are setting yourself up for trouble when you say, “I’m going to check here and here, but not there or there.” Budgets have a way of hindering investigations but try to stick to a system.
  • Relationships develop best in person and not over the phone. 
  • The computer and all the digital stuff is essential but absolutely leave the desk and office in your pursuit of a story or for more information.