In recent weeks, U.S. marshals have recovered 72 survivors of sex trafficking in Indiana, Ohio, and Georgia during “Operation Homecoming” in tandem with a string of similar operations occurring throughout the United States. The operation concludes within children from a wide age range being rescued from dangerous criminals who intend to traffic these children with intent to exploit throughout the United States and the globe.
Americans are obsessed with true crime material, particularly those concerning missing children, like the popular Netflix docuseries The Disappearance of Madeline McCann. Due to their sensational narratives, these cases typically revolve around conspiracy within or adjacent to the family. Missing children experts have also said that in a majority of cases, these children are abducted by someone they know rather than a stranger. The reality is that the danger comes from both strangers and family members who sold children into this form of modern-day slavery. Because cases of sex trafficking are not often reported on in extensive detail, social justice warriors have taken to creating hashtags to spread awareness. Among these is the hashtag #SaveOurChildren which seeks to bring awareness to sex trafficking and the pervasive cloak of criminal conspiracy under which it supposedly thrives. From claims that the furniture company Wayfair was selling children by disguising them as cabinets on the website to claims that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are aiding or abetting sex traffickers by allowing access to record numbers of displaced children, awareness of the machinations of sex trafficking are becoming a more tangible fear for many Americans. In Indiana particularly, learning how pervasive sex trafficking in Indiana has been and continues to be can be a difficult reality for those who previously thought of their state as a safe Midwestern state to live and thrive.
Professionals across multiple disciplines and capacities, including medicine, social services, and the criminal justice come across survivors of sex trafficking in Indiana at a much needed, if overdue point of intervention. This leaves many professionals and advocates at a loss, as they only have a limited role in preventing sex trafficking before it happens. Kalyani Gopal, the founder and president of SAFE Coalition for Human Rights recently told the Chicago Tribune, “There is significant underreporting in Indiana due to a lack of training and awareness among first responders. Trafficking victims do not identify as being trafficked for many reasons, Mostly, they see themselves as being with a boyfriend or being used by a family for paying bills.” The reality is that in many of these situations, the “boyfriend” is actually a pimp exploiting the survivor through manipulation and violence. Survivors of sex trafficking in Indiana have often previously been subjected to molestation, domestic violence, and extreme poverty, leaving them with few options or cognitive tools to recognize a pattern of abuse and report it to authorities. This tracks with a Fox59 report from 2019 that states Indiana was one of only 20 states in the country that had no new criminal sex trafficking cases pending in the criminal court system. However, experts and advocates alike agree that this is not indicative of a fall in sex trafficking in Indiana. Kyleigh Feehs of the Associate Legal Counsel for the Human Trafficking Institute said in a public statement,
“There’s no evidence that shows that trafficking in the U.S. has dropped so the fact these prosecutions are dropping means there are more traffickers who are free to continue to exploit victims they have in their custody now as well as a future stream of victims. One of the most effective ways to combat trafficking is to prosecute traffickers, so this decline in cases is concerning ot us and we hope that this data will show that there’s a need to prioritize this issue and to dedicate, have dedicated investigators, and prosecutors who are working to stop traffickers.”
Indiana has been unflatteringly called “the armpit of the sex trafficking industry in the Midwest.” The same set of circumstances that garnered the state motto “The Crossroads of America” makes Indiana a hotspot for sex traffickers. The proximity to the city of Chicago and major interstates that extend to the rest of the country make the path through Indiana unfortunately efficient to move survivors through, often undetected by law enforcement. By the time law enforcement becomes aware of any sex trafficking activity, traffickers may easily have slipped out of state and beyond their jurisdictional reach. Sex trafficking in Indiana is not only allowed to prevail under the binds of the state, but also through general apathy or horror. The inherent problem with combatting sex trafficking is that from law enforcement officials to private citizens, adults in the United States would rather ignore the problem with internal rationalizations involving the assumption that law and order successfully curbs these crimes coupled with general apathy and victim-blaming. In addition, the ever-evolving sophistication of sex traffickers, law enforcement also must work within a broken social system where endangered children and survivors constantly slip through the cracks. In Gopal’s words, “No community is immune.”
When it comes to missing children, sex trafficking is often one of the most horrifying culprits. Survivors of sex trafficking are particularly between 12 and 14 years of age, have been groomed over the internet, and have been lured from their homes into criminal clutches. Unfortunately, children who are reported missing by their families to law enforcement as “runaways” may not get the attention they deserve as endangered missing children—simply because runaways do not want to be found, and law enforcement often prioritizes time and resources elsewhere.
Sex trafficking is deeply exploitive for survivors, but they are not the only one effected by the horrors of sex trafficking. Their families are left twisting when law enforcement is unable to recover their endangered child from sex trafficking. That’s why many families turn to private investigators to find answers when their child goes missing. Private investigators carry similar skillsets to law enforcement in investigative methodology, surveillance technology, and fact-finding. Private investigators are typically self-employed and independent of any chain of command, which means they are not tethered by the same jurisdictional or bureaucratic red tape. This allows private investigators to follow leads from state to state as sex traffickers keep moving to evade law enforcement. Many private investigators are former law enforcement personnel who can assist police in a recovery effort once they’ve successfully located a missing child who has been trafficked.
Lauth Investigations International is a private investigation firm located in Indianapolis, Indiana. Their founder, Thomas Lauth, is one of the nation’s foremost experts in missing children. For over 20 years, Lauth has been working with families of missing children, documenting the factors that led to them being coerced into sex trafficking, and assisting law enforcement in recovery operations to reunite survivors with their families. “It is very important for families to seek help independent from law enforcement in tandem with filing a police report. Unfortunately, law enforcement can be often unable or unwilling to help families of trafficked children because they see them as runaways. Having a private investigator involved at the onset of the case ensure that families with missing children have a greater chance of finding their missing children.
Jayme Closs vanished October 15, 2018 and found alive 88-days later in rural Wisconsin. Photo courtesy WOKV TV.
The recent disappearance of Jayme Closs, 13, and the brutal murder of her parents, gripped the nation for nearly 3 months. Jayme’s abduction, and eventual recovery, has parents now wondering how safe their own children are when traveling to and from school.
On October 15, 2018, Barron Sheriff’s Department received a cell phone call from a local residence but were unable to make contact with the caller. We now know that urgent call came from Denise Closs, 46, just moments before she was brutally murdered in front of her own daughter and just following the murder of her husband James, 56.
Police arrived within minutes of the 911 call made from the home.
When police arrived at the Closs home, outside of Barron, WI, they found both parents deceased from gunshot wounds. Jayme was missing.
For months, law enforcement conducted searches looking for the missing 13-year old, puzzled as to why the perpetrator had murdered both of Jayme’s parents in the home, but not Jayme.
According to Jack Levin, professor and co-director of Northeastern University’s Center on Violence and Conflict, it’s unusual for a double murder to be linked to a missing child case. “You almost never see this,” Levin said.
The Closs home sits along Highway 8, a two-lane highway outside of Barron, surrounded by woods. The highway is the main road through the city and then extends to surrounding areas.
Day, weeks, and months went by with no sign of Jayme, then 88 days after her disappearance Jayme made her escape.
Former Attorney General and Judge Brad Schimel, who led the Wisconsin Department of Justice investigation of the Closs case, says investigators always had reason to believe Jayme was alive.
After her recovery, Jayme told police she could hear sirens seconds after being bound, gagged and kidnapped from her home. We find out now, the suspect, Jake Patterson, 21, even yielded to sheriff deputies when they were speeding to the Closs home. While Police Responded to the crime scene, Patterson made an 80-mile drive back to his home in Gordon, with Jayme in the trunk of his vehicle.
Immediately, Barron County Sheriff called in the Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation for help. “Within a matter of a couple hours, we can have 40 to 50 agents at the scene of a major investigation,” said Judge Brad Schimel.
CBS 58 Investigates sat down with Judge Schimel, who left office only four days before Jayme was found. “At what point did you stop thinking she might have been killed that night too?” CBS 58 Investigates asked Judge Schimel. “Well, when she didn’t turn up somewhere in a matter of couple days, then we had great hope,” Judge Schimel replied. He added after two people are so brutally murdered, taking the teen alive would be a liability and only made sense if the perpetrator intended on keeping her.
In addition, with hunting season and thousands of Wisconsin residents in the woods hunting, they had even more hope when there were no discoveries of bodies in the woods.
“We believed someone was holding her, which is not good,” said Judge Schimel. We knew that meant this was a very difficult life for her but being alive is a very good thing.”
According to a criminal complaint filed by investigators, Jayme’s kidnapper decided to abduct her after watching her get on a school bus. He was planning on hiding her at a remote cabin until she escaped on January 12, 2018.
Remote cabin where kidnapper Jake Patterson held Jayme Closs for 88 days. Photo courtesy Fox 11 News.
“At that moment,” he said, “he knew that was the girl he was going to take,” the complaint said.
Patterson went to Jayme’s house two times in the days before abducting her.
On the evening Jayme was abducted, Jayme told police, she was sleeping in her room when the family dog began barking. She woke her parents when she saw a car coming up the driveway.
According to the complaint, Jayme and her mother, Denise, hid in the bathroom. They both heard a gunshot, and she knew her father, James, had been killed.
Denise began calling 911 but Patterson broke down the bathroom door, told her to hang up and directed her to tape Jayme’s mouth shut. When Denise complied, Patterson shot her. Following, Patterson taped Jayme’s hands and ankles and dragged her out to his car, throwing her in the trunk and driving away as sirens began to sound, the complaint said.
Patterson had shaved his face and head as well as showered prior to the attack in an attempt to minimize DNA evidence. He dressed in all black. He took his license plates off his car and put stolen plates on while disconnecting the dome and trunk lights.
He took her to a cabin he claims was his, ordered her into a bedroom and told to take her clothes off, the complaint goes on to say.
He put her clothes in a bag and talked about having no evidence. Whenever he had friends over, he made clear that no one could know she was there or “bad things could happen to her,” so she had to hide under the bed.
He would stack totes, laundry bins and barbell weights around her so she could not move without him noticing. The complaint says Jayme was kept up to 12 hours at a time with no food, water or bathroom breaks.
Jayme escaped after Patterson made her go under the bed and told her he would be gone for five or six hours. Once gone, she pushed the bins away, crawled out, put on a pair of Patterson’s shoes and fled the house.
Barron County Sheriff holds picture of Jake Patterson, arrested for the kidnapping of Jayme Closs. Photo courtesy Mercury News.
Once found, Jayme described Patterson’s vehicle to police, and he was apprehended within 10 minutes of her escape being reported.
What Jayme went through while held, we may never know exactly, as the Douglas County District Attorney Mark Fruehauf said he does not anticipate filing charges against Patterson for crimes committed during her time in captivity.
“A prosecutor’s decision whether to file criminal charges involves the consideration of multiple factors, including the existence of other charges and victim-related concerns.”
Patterson faces two counts of intentional homicide, each carrying a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of release. Patterson will be back in court Feb 6, for a preliminary hearing.
Estimates of Missing Children Abducted by Strangers
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) estimates approximately 100 children are abducted by strangers every year. Referred to as a “stereotypical kidnapping,” the United States Department of Justice defines this type of kidnapping as 1) the victim is under the age of 18-years old, 2) the kidnapperis either a stranger or “slight acquaintance,” 3) the abduction involves moving the victim at least 20 feet or detaining them for at least one hour, and 4) the victim is either held for ransom, transported at least 50 miles, detained overnight, held with an intent to keep permanently, or killed.
While this may seem like a relatively low number of children abducted by strangers, it still amounts to thousands of children who, over the years, have been entered into the FBI National Crime Information Center (NCIC), and never been found.
In fact, during the months of January 2018 and May 2018, there were 3,468 children entered into NCIC as Involuntary. This missing person category includes cases of children who police have determined were taken involuntarily, but not enough evidence to make a determination if they were taken by strangers.*Source FBI NCIC Report
According to the FBI NCIC Report for May 31, 2018, there were 14,714 active missing child cases in the United States. Some of these cases date back 30 years and remain active because the missing child has never been found.
The Closs case may be unique in many respects but is not alone.
The Disappearance of Jaycee Dugard
It was June 10, 1991, in the peaceful town of Meyers, California, an unincorporated community in El Dorado County. Meyers sits along Route 50 in the northern Sierra Nevada mountains just 6 miles south of Lake Tahoe.
Jaycee Dugard vanished from her northern California bus stop on June 10, 1991 and found alive 18 years later. Photo courtesy of NMCO
Jaycee Dugard, 11, sporting pink tights and a white shirt with a printed “kitty cat” on the front, was walking from her home to a school bus stop when she was abducted.
As her stepfather, Carl Probyn, watched Jaycee walk up the hill to the bus stop something horrifying happened. Suddenly, a gray car stopped next to Jaycee. Through the window, Probyn saw an unidentified man roll down his car window and begin speaking to his stepdaughter.
Suddenly, Jaycee fell to the ground while a woman jumped out of the car and carried the fifth-grader into the car.
Probyn would tell police he had witnessed Jaycee’s kidnapping and actually gave chase with his mountain bike. Searches began immediately after Jaycee’s disappearance but generated no reliable leads despite the abduction being witnessed by a family member and the vehicle being described as a Mercury Monarch.
El Dorado Sheriff’s deputies, along with California Highway Patrol search for Jaycee after she was abducted by strangers while walking to her school bus stop in 1991. Photo courtesy CBS News.
Years passed, but Jaycee’s family never gave up hope they would find her, passing out tens of thousands of fliers and extensive national news coverage. The town of Meyers was even covered in pink ribbons to honor Jaycee’s favorite color.
In August 2009, convicted sex offender Philip Garrido, visited the Berkeley Campus at the University of California, accompanied by two young children. He was there to lobby for permission to lead a special event at the campus as part of his “God’s Desire Church” program. His unusual behavior at the meeting sparked an investigation that led Garrido’s parole officer to order him to take the two young girls to a parole office in Concord, Calif., on August 26, 2009. It was later ordered Garrido’s house be searched by police.
Area behind kidnapper Philip Garrido’s home where missing child Jaycee Dugard was found 18 years after her disappearance. Photo courtesy NY Daily News.
Police searched Garrido’s home in Antioch, Calif., near Oakland, approximately 3 hours southwest of Meyers, where Jaycee had vanished from 18 years earlier.
That incident led to the discovery of Jaycee who had been kidnapped by Garrido and his wife Nancy Garrido in 1991. For 18 years, Jaycee, age 29 when found, had been kept in concealed tents, a shed, and lean-tos, in an area behind the Garrido’s house in Antioch, Calif.
Garrido, a sociopath, and pedophile had kidnapped and raped a woman named Katherine Callaway Hall in 1976. He had also abducted Katherine from South Salt Lake Tahoe in a very similar manner to Jaycee’s kidnapping. Garrido was on parole for Katherine’s kidnapping when police stumbled upon Jaycee. She was alive.
In 1991, at Jaycee’s bus stop, Garrido had shocked Jaycee with a stun gun, she remembers feeling a tingling sensation and falling to the ground. Nancy Garrido acted as her husband’s accomplice scouting for young girls for her husband and the one who picked Jaycee up off the ground transporting her to the car on the day they abducted her.
During the 3-hour ride to Garrido’s home, Jaycee remembers falling in and out of consciousness and heard Nancy laughing saying, “I can’t believe we got away with this!” Knowing she was in danger, Jaycee had no way of knowing the hell, life was about to become.
Soundproof shed where missing child Jaycee Dugard was held captive in for 18 years, in Antioch, California. Photo courtesy BBC.
Once they arrived at the Garrido’s home, the pair forced Dugard to strip naked, with the exception of a butterfly ring she was wearing. They then blindfolded Jaycee and placed her in a soundproof shed he had in the backyard where he raped her for the first time, just 11 years old.
For the first week, Jaycee was kept handcuffed in the isolated shed, but things would get much worse.
A few weeks into the ordeal, Garrido brought Jaycee a TV but she was never allowed to watch the news because they did not want her to see the news frenzy surrounding her disappearance. She was only allowed to watch shows of people selling jewelry and found their voices calming, helping her sleep.
Frequently, Garrido would go on 24-hour methamphetamine binges which resulted in rape marathons. He would tell Jaycee dogs were outside the shed to scare her or tell her he was going to place her inside of a cage to keep her fearful of escaping.
While alone, Jaycee kept a journal to deal with her pain and wrote about how she wanted to see her mom. She always ended the note with her name “Jaycee” and a little heart beside. Nancy found the journal and forced Jaycee to tear out all of the pages with her name on them. It was the last time Jaycee was allowed to write or say her own name.
While in captivity Jaycee would give birth to two daughters. The first at age 13 who she named Angel. Jaycee would later explain that once giving birth she never felt alone again.
Jaycee gave birth to her second daughter “Starlit” in 1997.
She now had two daughters to protect.
Even while living in the worst of circumstances Jaycee managed to plant flowers and build a little school outside the shed where she homeschooled her daughters with her fifth-grade education.
For years, the three lived behind the 8-foot fences Garrido had built around his home to keep potential peeping neighbors at bay.
When Garrido had shown up at the campus that fateful day in August 2009 with two little girls, both “submissive and sullen,” Lisa Campbell, the special event s coordinator was concerned and asked him to return the following day. Garrido left his name on a form and left the campus. Campbell then informed an officer who conducted a background check on Garrido and discovered he was a registered sex offender on federal parole for kidnap and rape.
The wheels were now set in motion that would crack the decade’s long-missing child case wide open.
2009, the piece of paper Jaycee Dugard wrote her name on telling police officers who she is. Photo courtesy of NMCO.
Over the years, Jaycee had been directed by Garrido to tell people she was the girl’s big sister and to have Jaycee’s daughters refer to himself and Nancy as mom and dad. When questioned by officers, at first, Jaycee told them her name was Alyssa, claiming to be an abused mother from Michigan who had ran from a domestic violence situation to protect her daughters and living with the Garridos. Not buying the story, officers continued talking to her trying to glean more information. Eventually, Jaycee relaxed and would write her name on a piece of paper. Sliding it to police it said, “Jaycee Lee Dugard.”
Officers immediately asked her if she wanted to call her mom which she replied in disbelief, “Can I call my mom?” Jaycee’s first words to her mother in 18 years were “Come quick!”
Garrido pleaded guilty to kidnapping and raping Dugard and sentenced to 431 years to life at Corcoran State Prison and Nancy Garrido was sentenced to 36 years to life.
While Jaycee Dugard and Jayme Closs were recovered, some children have not been so lucky.
Disappearance of Etan Patz
Etan Patz, 6, walked out of his New York City home in 1979 headed for his school bus stop just two blocks away in 1979 – and he’s never been found.
It was the last day of school before Memorial Day weekend. Etan had asked his parents to let him walk alone the short way to the bus stop for the first time. He carried his book bag and had a dollar to buy a soda at the corner deli on the way.
His parents were not aware of Etan’s disappearance until he had not returned from school. They would later find out the young boy had never made it to school.
Etan Patz vanished May 25, 1979 in NYC on his way to his school bus stop.
Police set up a Command Center at the Patz Manhattan apartment and began conducting ground searches and going door to door, but no solid leads have developed over the years that have led police closer to finding out what happened to him.
His disappearance rocked New York City and to this day haunts the law enforcement officers who have spent decades trying to find him. “Every missing child case is very important, but this was one of the oldest ones we had,” says NYPD Lieutenant Chris Zimmerman.
Etan was the first child placed on a milk carton, hundreds of thousands of fliers blanketed the country and countless new stories, all to no avail.
Etan’s disappearance became more than a missing person’s case but changed the way parents watched over their kids.
With stories like Etan’s and Jaycee, along with the recent disappearance and recovery of Jayme Closs by a predator who targeted her after watching her board a school bus, parents are again wondering what they can do to keep their children safe.
Safety 101 – Walking to and from school
Parents struggle with many things when it comes to the safety and security of their children. One question a parent may ask is how old is old enough to begin walking to and from school or to a bus stop alone.
There has been a huge drop in the number of kids who walk or ride their bike to school regularly. According to the National Center for Safe Routes to School, in 1969, 48% of K-8 grade walked or bicycled to school. By 2009, only 13% do.
While pedestrian injury rates are down since 1995 – mostly due to improvements made to traffic infrastructure, implementing the use of crossing guards and sidewalks, there are no statistics that allow for us to know the dangers of how many children are approached by strangers. How many predators are out there targeting our kids? Though statistically, the chances are relatively minimal your child will ever be abducted by a stranger, it does not lessen our responsibility as parents to protect them and prepare them for anything that “could” happen.
Gavin DeBeckers, author of “The Gift of Fear” and one of the leading experts on predicting and managing violence says there is no magic age when kids can walk or bike to and from school or bus stop.
You and only you can make the final decision on when your child is ready to walk alone. However, you can expect to see other children beginning this walk around age 9 to 11. DeBeckers says it depends upon cognitive skills, the ability to follow directions and reasoning, directing parents to ask themselves the following questions:
Does your child honor his feelings? If someone makes them feel uncomfortable, that’s an important signal your child should react to.
Does your child know when it’s okay to rebuff and/or defy adults?
Does your child know it’s okay to be assertive?
Does your child know it’s okay to ask for help?
Does your child know how to choose who to ask?
Does your child know how to describe his peril?
Does your child know it is okay to strike, even injure, someone if he believes he’s in danger?
Does your child know it’s okay to make noise, scream and run?
Does your child know that is someone tries to force him to go somewhere, what he screams should include, “This is not my father?”
Does your child know if someone tells them not to scream, the thing to do is to scream?
Does your child know to make EVERY effort to resist going anywhere with someone he doesn’t know?
These questions should apply to your children of any age, even older children are vulnerable to abduction. Keeping in mind, Jaycee Dugard was abducted within the view of her parent, it is important to evaluate the route your child will take and choose the safe route between home and the bus stop/ and or school and practice walking it with your child until he demonstrates awareness.
Remind your children to:
Stick to well-traveled streets, using the same route every day and always avoid shortcuts.
Don’t wear clothes or shoes that restrict movement.
Carry backpacks and bags close to their body.
Don’t speak to strangers and ALWAYS tell a trusted school official, teacher, store clerk, policeman or another adult if someone has made them feel uncomfortable.
Teach them to remember specific things about cars and people.
Let them have a cell phone for emergencies (these can also be tracked by installing a simple and free App called Life 360), which is a locator, messaging and communication app. It is better to be safe than sorry.
Having children walk to and from school or a bus stop has its risks as well as benefits. We all know the risks. However, it is an important milestone in your child’s life and with that comes a sense of independence that comes with being permitted to walk alone or with friends to school or the bus stop. A sense of independence that they will carry throughout their lives and hindering that could stunt this important growth spurt of maturity.
Remember, we can provide our children with tools to keep themselves safe but the tools we teach them early on can also get them through the hardest of times in life.
In the case of both Jayme Closs and Jaycee Dugard, they relied on their innermost strength to survive the most horrific of circumstances. As parents, that’s all we can hope for.
As the Western idealization of a family unit continues to grow and change, more and more parents are either opting to place their child for adoption or adopt themselves rather than have a biological child. As such, adoptions are on the rise. The Adoption Network estimates the number of children in foster care at any given time in the United States is around 428,000. Of that staggering number, about 135,000 are adopted every year. Children are put up for adoption under a wide umbrella of circumstances in varying degrees of frequency, but what is not uncommon is a child’s adolescent or adult curiosity about the exact nature of where they came from. Because adoption agencies have their own privacy restrictions regarding birth parents, adopted children are often left with only a few meager details and options. Private investigators, however, are well-equipped to find a child’s birth parents; with a comprehensive tool chest and a wealth of experience in searching for persons who may or may not want to be found.
The rate at which information technology is developing has been denoted by some as Orwellian, but the ubiquity of public databases and fact-finding software available to the public is higher than ever. Hiring a private investigator may be costlier to the individual than conducting the search oneself, but without the proper tools and expertise, individuals can follow false leads and dead ends for years at the cost of their time and personal finances. Private investigators, especially ones who specialize in locating biological relatives, can cut down the time and expense individuals would ultimately incur during their search. The complexity of adoption laws and procedures (often varying state-to-state) is a knot of cable wires that is difficult for any private citizen to untangle.
Private investigators with a variety of specialties are suited for this work because there is no chain of command in their business. Most notably, private investigators are often their own bosses, with the freedom to pick and choose the cases they want to focus on. Unlike the underpaid, overworked civil servants who work in child services, or the overwhelmed agents at an adoption agency, private investigators only handle less than a half-dozen cases at one time, so an adoption case will not just become another folder in a tall, precariously leaning pile on someone’s desk. There are no jurisdictional boundaries preventing a private investigator from going across state lines, as long as they are licensed in the state or being contracted by a private investigator who is licensed in the state. While there are limitations to what information can be gathered from the state based on the birth-parents wishes, the autonomy of a private investigator is ideal for tracking down either birth parents, or children who have been placed for adoption.
The Child Welfare Information Gateway estimates, of all parents placing their biological children for adoption, nearly half of those parents will then seek out those children after they have reached adulthood. Parents in search of a biological child always have a search advantage as the legal adult at the time of the adoption. They play a pivotal role in establishing the boundaries that might preclude this child from ever contacting them again in the future. Depending on the terms of the adoption agreement, the adoption agency may not be able to release information about anonymous birth parents to their biological children.
The privacy laws surrounding adoption in the United States date back to the beginning of the 20th century, and were put in place to protect the privacy and identity of all parties involved in an adoption. It’s only in recent years that the Adoption Information Act has made it possible for both parents and children to request information about the other in situations where all of the aforementioned parties have waived their right to privacy. Adoption laws have also gone through a metamorphosis in recent decades where parents are required to fill out detailed medical histories for the benefit of the child’s physical and mental health growing up. In addition to information about their own birth (date, location, hospital), a birth parent’s medical background might be the only information an adopted child possesses.
Locating a birth parent or child is a form of investigation known as a skip trace. “Skip” refers to the action of searching for a person, derived from an old colloquialism, “to skip town,” or leave with very little notice or instruction. Trace refers to the process and resources involved in finding the person, such as international online databases, surveillance, and location technology and services. Skip traces in adoption cases can go both ways: A child in search of their birth parents, or a birth parent in search of the child they placed. Private investigators who take adoption skip traces have a mountain of data to sift through, including adoption registries, religion-related services (such as options offered through the Catholic church) and a mountain of databases, including—but not limited to—welfare, child protective services, private adoption agency, foster care, police, court, hospital, and international records.
Depending on the level of information available to either a birth parent or biological child (and subsequently the investigator) adoption cases can have a mixed bag of possible results. In scenarios where a private investigator is unable to find a birth parent, it’s typically because there is not enough information on the record to begin with. Because of varying degrees of regulation across all adoption agencies (both state and private), the level of information and quality of record keeping is a crap-shoot, and investigators often hit dead ends in those types of investigations. In other circumstances, after many long hours of research and investigation, the private investigator is able to locate the birth child or parent, only to report back to the client the subject in question has no desire to reunite with them in any fashion. These are solutions often unsatisfactory to the client, but it is a difficult reality, and the client will have some semblance of closure regarding their questions about the subject. However, in the event private investigators locate the birth child or parent, and the subject is willing to re-initiate contact, private investigators can be ideal liaisons to bringing biological parents and children together in adulthood. They can alleviate some of the most common anxieties surrounding meeting strangers, and have experience with reconnecting displaced parties that will inform a gradual process of reestablishing contact.
Life has an infinite potential to get messy very quickly, and a child being placed for adoption is one of the consequences of the indeterminate. Fortunately, private investigators not only have the sleuth skills to find persons under all circumstances, but an acute ability to read people that benefits the precarious nature of the cases they take on. When a birth parent and child are open to meeting again under more pleasant circumstances, private investigators can build strong bridges across decades of separation, confusion, and curiosity.
You receive a phone call and hear the voice of someone you don’t recognize. They tell you they have your child and will kill them unless you pay a ransom – they direct you not to call police or you will never see your child again.
What would you do?
You tell the person on the other end of the phone not to hang up. You don’t want to disconnect with the one person that can reunite you with your child. You plead for your child’s safe return. “Please don’t hurt her. I will do whatever you want,” you say. And, you would!
They demand you go to the bank and wire a ransom of several thousand dollars. Do you call the police? Do you pay the ransom and hope the thug will return your child to you safe?
A child going missing is every parent’s worst nightmare, and for those who do have a missing child – living with such ambiguity is said to be the most traumatic of human experiences.
Sounds like a situation that only happens in the movies, right? Or, something that only happens to the wealthiest people in society.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has declared virtual kidnapping a violent crime and issuing warnings to parents that scammers are targeting parents and demanding a ransom in exchange for the safe return of children they kidnapped . . . well, virtually kidnapped. Police throughout the country are following suit, issuing warnings in their communities.
Police throughout the country are following suit, issuing warnings in their communities.
What is a Virtual Kidnapping?
A virtual kidnapping scam is an attempt to dupe victims into paying a quick ransom. The virtual aspect of the scam involves staging a scene on the phone to convince a person that a loved one has been kidnapped, following with a demand for ransom.
According to the FBI, “The success of any type of virtual kidnapping scheme depends on speed and fear. Criminals know they only have a short time to exact a ransom before victims unravel the scam or authorities become involved.”
Typically, the scam is executed by calling a victim claiming they have kidnapped a loved one, then demand a ransom in exchange for the loved one’s safe return.
Valerie Sobel is one such person who did receive a call from a person who said, “We have your daughter’s finger. Pay up or you’ll get the rest of her body in a body bag.”
Petrified, Sobel rushed to a money transfer location to pay the ransom, wiring $4,000 to the person who claimed to have kidnapped her daughter.
Valerie made many frantic phone calls to her daughter’s cell phone and after many hours had passed, her daughter Simone called her back totally confused but safe.
Basically, scammers call random numbers hoping to find a person who they can convince, while other times these scammers research Facebook and other social media platforms for names and numbers. If a scammer calls 100 people, chances are at least one will instantly pay.
Another way it may go down is a scammer calls you and you hear a child crying, “Mom, please help me.” Panic immediately sets in. You think it is your child. Then a man’s voice comes on the phone and calls you by your first name. This legitimizes the caller and you immediately ask them to just tell you what they want. What mother would not empty her bank account in exchange for her child’s safety.
If you don’t think you could become a victim, please read on.
Virtually Kidnapped Daughter
According to the Washington Post, Wendy Mueller lives in historic Leesburg, Va., and never thought she would become a victim of a virtual kidnapping scam.
One afternoon, while standing at her kitchen sink, she received a call from a number she did not recognize but answered.
She heard screaming and it sounded like her 23-year old daughter’s voice begging for help.
Then a man’s voice tells her, “we have your daughter.”
The caller told Mueller to put her phone on speaker, get her purse and phone charger and get into the car.
The man asked, “How much cash can you get right now?”
$10,000,” Mueller replied.
The man told her not to contact anyone for help or they would kill her daughter.
Mueller’s daughter attends college hundreds of miles away and she had no way of knowing her daughter was safe.
“They told me they were actually targeting someone else, someone they would be able to get a lot of money for. But they said my daughter intervened when they tried to grab him. And that sounded exactly like something she would do,” Mueller said.
“I was terrified,” Mueller continued. “They told me they wouldn’t hesitate to kill her.”
The caller had told Mueller he had hacked her phone and knew every move she was making. For hours, he told her to go to small stores and offices across Northern Virginia, where she wired the max amount of usually $1,900 each time to names and addresses in Mexico that the caller had given Mueller.
Mueller cross-crossed the state following his directions and making payments, until nightfall came.
Mueller had kept asking to speak to her daughter.
“They kept promising me: ‘As soon as you send the last one, you will talk to her,’” Mueller said.
The caller told Mueller he was a professional and part of a group of kidnappers – a huge organization – who do this all the time and kill.
The man told Mueller they had placed a set of headphones on her daughter so she could hear everything, so her daughter would know if her mother did anything to cause her death.
Mueller thought of stopping passersby but didn’t want to chance the kidnapper knowing.
“It was torture,” Mueller said.
As it turned out, her daughter was in class, safe and sound. Mueller had been scammed.
No one is immune
Thousands of families throughout the country have become targets of these malicious scammers.
According to FBI kidnapping expert, Agent Eric Arbuthnot, several organizations use these scams regularly to make money.
“Thousands of dollars in ransom,” said Arbuthnot. “And you’re talking about a criminal organization that is capable of doing more than one kidnapping at a time.”
According to Arbuthnot many of the cases have been happening on the West coast and along the border involving criminal organizations from Mexico, some claiming to be members of the cartel.
The FBI has seen recent increases in California, Nevada, New York, and Texas and increasing on the east coast.
Monroe Police Department in Connecticut said by using social media, scammers can identify a victim, look up relatives, and reference names of family members and friends to make the call appear legitimate.
FBI Supervisory Agent Christopher Johnson said his office in St. Louis, Missouri, deals with these types of crimes. “Scammers will often mention specific facts about the parent or victim, likely from information they were able to obtain online.”
Authorities say about one in five kidnapping cases are successful resulting in the criminal getting their ransom and not getting caught. While extortion has been around for decades, virtual ransom kidnapping calls are increasing around the country.
With this emerging scam, the FBI has launched a nationwide campaign to warn parents to fight back against “virtual kidnapping.”
If you receive a virtual kidnapping ransom call
Unlike traditional kidnapping schemes, a “virtual kidnapper” has not actually kidnapped anyone. According to Federal Bureau of Investigation, if you receive a call from an individual demanding a ransom for the safe return of a kidnap victim, it is suggested you quickly evaluate the following to determine if you are receiving a legitimate ransom call:
Caller insists you stay on the phone.
Call does not come from your child’s cell phone.
Caller tries to stop you from contacting the kidnap victim.
Call includes demand for ransom to be paid via wire transfer.
Ransom amounts may decrease quickly.
Knowing what to do
Police say it is best to hang up the phone but:
If you engage the caller, don’t call out your loved one’s name.
Deliberately try to slow the situation down and ask to speak to your child directly.
Ask “proof of life” questions like, “How do I know my loved one is okay?”
To gain confirmation if your child is an actual kidnapping victim, ask questions only your child would know such as the name of a pet.
Listen very closely to the voice of the person speaking, if possible record the call.
If possible, have someone else try to call your child’s cell phone, school, by text, social media, etc., to confirm their safety.
To buy time, repeat the caller’s request and tell them you are writing down the demand, or tell the caller you need time to make arrangements.
Don’t agree to pay a ransom, by wire or in person.
Don’t deliver money in person.
Immediately call your local FBI office and police.
According to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), as of March 31, 2017, there were 86,618 active missing person cases in the FBI database, with 8, 792 entered as involuntary.
Experts agree that an actual kidnapping with a ransom demand is quite rare but all experts urge parents to be vigilant.
It is said, ambiguous loss is the most traumatic of human experiences, and when someone you love goes missing, it is a trauma unlike any other.
Ambiguous loss occurs without understanding or closure, leaving a person searching for answers. Ambiguous loss confounds the process of grieving, leaving a person with prolonged unresolved grief and deep emotional trauma.
Ambiguous loss can be classified in two categories, psychological and physical. Psychological and physical loss differ in terms of what and why exactly the person is grieving.
Physical ambiguous loss means the body of a loved is no longer present, such as a missing person or unrecovered body, resulting from war, a catastrophe such as 9/11 or kidnapping, but the person is still remembered psychologically because there is still a chance the person may return. Such is the case with a missing person. This type of loss results in trauma and can cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Psychological Loss is a type of loss that is a result of a loved one still physically present, but psychologically absent. Psychological loss can occur when the brain of a loved one is affected, such as traumatic brain injury or Alzheimer’s disease.
When a person goes missing, loved ones are left with more questions than answers, leaving them searching, not only for the missing person but for answers.
Professor Emeritus at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Pauline Boss is a pioneer who has studied ambiguous loss since 1973, and her decades of research have revealed those who suffer from ambiguous loss without finality, face a particularly difficult burden. Whether it is the experience of caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s disease, or someone awaiting the fate of a family member who has disappeared under suspicious circumstances or a disastrous event such as 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, the loss is magnified because it is linked to lack of closure.
Those experiencing ambiguous loss find it difficult to understand, cope and almost impossible to move forward with their lives without professional counseling, love and support.
Experiencing grief is a vital part of healing, but ambiguous loss stalls the process of grieving, sometimes indefinitely. With the possibility a missing person may be alive, individuals are confounded as to how to cope.
Parents and family members of missing persons say there is no such thing as closure. Dr. Pauline Boss says the idea of closure can lead us astray – it’s a myth that needs to be set aside, like accepting the idea grief has five linear stages and we simply come out the other side and done with it.
Five Stages of Grief
It is widely accepted there are five stages of grief:
While many helpful programs are focused on these various stages, they are not necessarily experienced on order, nor are they inclusive to other issues that commonly arise, and they certainly do not include what a family experiences when a loved one goes missing.
In my nearly 30 years working with families of missing persons and unsolved homicides, I have witnessed all stages of grief and ambiguity, finding the profound effects of a loved one going missing is multi-generational and all encompassing.
Family members of missing persons must live with people’s misconception that the individual or family must move on. Like PTSD flashbacks, a missing loved one is a traumatic event that does not end, and each life event is a reminder the individual, is gone without a trace.
Those of us who have never experienced having a loved one disappear, tend to react to situations using our own experiences and may relate the disappearance of an individual to the death of someone we have loved passing away. The problem is, with a missing person there is no place to grieve, to visit, no physical body to mourn.
Constant daily uncertainty is a major source of stress, emotionally, physically, psychologically and with a missing person, the uncertainty does not dissipate. When others expect one to move on, they commonly do not understand circumstances simply do not allow it.
It is not uncommon for families to experience all phases of ambiguous loss taking a toll both physically and mentally. While I was there to help, I often found myself the one who was thankful as I was blessed to see and meet, the most amazing, strong, and courageous individuals. Getting to know these families made me face my own vulnerability and the fact this can happen to any family.
The most moving of my recollections is of a young mother who had gone missing under suspicious circumstances. Her mother had contacted me and knew something terrible had happened to her daughter, insistent police needed to investigate more aggressively.
She had been missing a year during Christmas of 2002. Her mother called me to discuss her daughter’s case and told me that her granddaughter had written a letter to Santa and wanted to read it to me.
The little girl wrote:
“Dear Santa, I am not writing you for toys this year. The only thing I want for Christmas is for my Mommy to come home.”
My heart broke for this little girl. Little did I know, fast forward fifteen years later, I would be having a conversation with the same child. She had grown into a beautiful young lady and miraculously living a normal life despite growing up without her mother who remains missing. Not all are so fortunate.
Sometimes we forget how many people are impacted when a loved one goes missing. Children of missing persons, siblings, grandparents, parents, and other family and friends. The impact is immeasurable on the family structure and one needing to be studied further. What we do know, is the trauma of ambiguous loss affects everyone differently and a family can quickly spiral out of control without immediate intervention.
When a person goes missing, children are displaced, families can suffer financially due to loss of income or assets becoming tied up in the legal process, siblings of missing persons, children especially, face numerous obstacles when being raised in a household where ongoing trauma is occurring and they must live in the shadow of someone no longer there.
With missing children, parents are faced with the “not knowing” on a day to day basis. When an adult child goes missing, parents are not only left with the “not knowing”, they also face the possibility of raising their grandchildren.
As with the young girl who I watched grow up, her grandmother somehow found the courage to raise her granddaughter while continuing to search for anything leading to her missing daughter. She had found a balance providing a healthy and loving environment for her granddaughter, while facing she may never see her own daughter again.
Though not the product of abstract academic research, it was written by parents of missing children, with the assistance of law enforcement and youth professionals, containing critical information, guidance and tools parents need to help find their missing child while making every effort to focus on staying healthy. The guide contains much information to simply help families make it through a day.
Many of the parents who helped write the handbook, I had the honor of working with over the course of decades. Following, we will summarize the first 48 hours a family must make it through when a loved one goes missing. While it is focused on families who have missing children, this handbook is an important resource for anyone with a missing person in their life, regardless of age.
While the handbook contains steps to take to effectively work with law enforcement, media volunteers, how to disseminate fliers, and more – the most important part of the handbook is Chapter 7 focusing on maintaining health, preparing for the long term, the importance of not utilizing substances and medications to deal with the loss, and uniting with your remaining children focusing on their security and potential emotional issues.
“Hanging onto my sanity for a minute at a time often took all of my energy. I could not begin to look several days down the road,” said Colleen Nick, mother of Morgan who vanished June 9, 1995.
When your child is missing, you are overwhelmed with questions from police, neighbors, family and friends, and the media. At times, a parent may be faced with decisions they never thought they would have to make. One can begin to feel isolated, confused and utterly desperate with nowhere to go for support, but there is hope and it is found in the experience of other parents of missing persons who are courageous, and in my opinion, heroic.
The First 24 Hours (A Child is Missing: A Family Survival Guide)
Request police issue a “Be On the Look Out” (BOLO) message.
Limit access to your home until police have arrived to collect evidence. It is important not to touch or remove anything from your child’s room.
Ask for the contact information of the law enforcement officer assigned to your case. Keep in a safe place.
Provide law enforcement with facts related to the disappearance of your child, including what has already been done to find the child.
Have a good photograph available of your child and include a detailed description of your child and what your child was wearing.
Make a list of friends, family and acquaintances and contact information for anyone who may have information about your child’s whereabouts. Include anyone who has moved in or out of the neighborhood within the last year.
Make copies of photographs of your child in both black and white and color to provide to law enforcement, NCMEC, and media.
Ask your law enforcement agency to organize a search for your child both foot patrol and canine.
Ask law enforcement to issue an AMBER ALERT if your child’s disappearance meets the criteria.
Ask law enforcement for guidance when working with media. It is important not to divulge information law enforcement does not want released to media possibly compromising the recovery efforts of your child.
Designate one individual to answer your phone notating and summarizing each phone call, complete with contact information for each person who has called in one notebook.
In addition, keep a notebook with you at all times to write down thoughts, questions, and important information, such as names, dates and telephone numbers.
Take good care of yourself and your family because your child needs you to be strong. Force yourself to eat, rest and talk to others about your feelings.
The Next 24 Hours
Ask for a meeting with your investigator to discuss steps being taken to find your child. Ensure your investigator has a copy of Missing and Abducted Children: A Law Enforcement Guide to Case Investigation and Program Management. They can call NCMEC at 1-800-THE-LOST to obtain a copy. In addition, ask them to contact the Crimes Against Children Coordinator in their local FBI Field Office to obtain a copy of the FBI’s Child Abduction Response Plan.
Expand your list of friends, acquaintances, extended family members, landscapers, delivery persons, babysitters and anyone who may have seen your child during or following their disappearance or abduction.
Look at personal calendars, newspapers and community events calendars to see if there may be any clues as to who may have been in the area and provide this information to law enforcement.
Understand you will be asked to take a polygraph. This is standard procedure.
Ask your law enforcement agency to request NCMEC issue a Broadcast Fax to law enforcement agencies throughout the country.
Work cooperatively with your law enforcement agency to issue press releases and media events.
Talk to law enforcement about the use of a reward.
Report all information and/or extortion attempts to law enforcement immediately.
Have a second telephone line installed with call forwarding, Caller ID and call waiting. If you do not have one, get a cell phone so you can receive calls when you are away from home and forward all calls to it.
Make a list of what volunteers can do for you and your family.
Contact your child’s doctor and dentist and request copies of medical records and x-rays to provide to police. Ask the doctor to expedite your request based upon the circumstances.
Take care of yourself and your family and do not be afraid to ask others to help take care of your physical and emotional needs. Your remaining children need to know you are also there for them while staying strong and healthy for them all.
The resounding message here is family members of missing persons must take care of themselves and include others in their journey to help them along when they are tiring.
It was June 9, 1995, on a beautiful evening in the small town of Alma, Arkansas. Alma is located along I-40 within the Arkansas River Valley at the edge of the Ozark Mountains with a population under 5,000 people.
That evening was the first time 6-year old Morgan Nick had gone to a baseball game. Her mother Colleen was attending the Rookie League game at the Alma ballpark and Morgan had whined about having to sit next to her mother in the bleachers. There was a nearby sand pile with other children playing and Morgan wanted to play. It was within eyesight and only seconds away, so Colleen consented.
Morgan Nick, age 6, vanished from Alma, Arkansas on June 9, 1995
Morgan ran to the sandpile, laughing with the other children while Colleen turned her head back to watch the Marlins and Pythons. A player whacked the ball and two runners tied the game, then a run was scored, and the Pythons won the game. The sound of the crowd cheering was deafening.
When Colleen stood up, she could see Morgan’s playmates walking down the hill away from the sandpile, but where was Morgan? It was approximately 10:30 p.m.
The children told Colleen, Morgan was pouring sand out of her shoe near her mother’s car parked nearby. Colleen frantically searched. Morgan was gone.
Later, the children would tell police they saw a man approach Morgan. Another abduction attempt had occurred in Alma the same day and police had a composite sketched based on witnesses of the other incident.
Thousands of leads later, numerous appearances on national news talk shows, even America’s Most Wanted, and Morgan’s mother is nowhere closer to knowing what happened to her daughter. Police have interviewed hundreds of persons of interest, searched homes and wells, and dug up slabs of concrete with backhoes, but Morgan remains missing 23 years later.
The stakes are high when a person vanishes involuntarily.
Morgan’s mother Colleen spent years keeping Morgan’s room the way it was when she vanished. She bought Christmas presents and a birthday present each year, hoping Morgan would someday return to open them.
The emotional toll is beyond words.
On Morgan’s Birthday, September 12, 2014, Colleen wrote an Open Letter to Morgan, posted on the NCMEC blog.
A Letter to Our Missing Daughter Morgan Nick
Today is your 26th birthday. Today marks twenty birthdays without you here. We miss you so desperately and our hearts are ragged with grief. We have searched for you every single day since the day you were kidnapped from us at the Little League Baseball field in Alma, Arkansas.
You were only 6 years old. We went with our friends to watch one of their children play in the game. You threw your arms around my neck in a bear hug, planted a kiss on my cheek, and ran to catch fireflies with your friends.
It is the last time that I saw you. There have been so many days since then of emptiness and heartache.
On this birthday I choose to think about your laughter, your smile, the twinkle in your sparkling blue eyes. I celebrate who you are and the deep and lasting joy that you bring to our family.
I smile today as I think about your 5th birthday. For that birthday, we took you to the Humane Society with the promise of adopting a kitten. You, my precious little girl with your big heart, took one look around the cat room and picked out the ugliest, scrawniest, most pitiful looking kitten in the entire place. Such a tiny little thing, that it was mostly all eyes.
Dad and I used our best parental powers of persuasion to get you to pick a different kitten, to look at the older cats, to choose any other feline besides that poor ugly kitty. It looked like someone had taken the worst leftover colors of mud, stirred them together, and used them to design a kitten.
You planted your five-year-old feet, looked us straight in the eye and declared that this was the kitten you were taking home. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. You would not budge, and you resolutely refused to take a second look at any other cat or kitten in the room. You had a fire of conviction in your heart.
The unexpected obstacle we faced was we were not able to adopt on that Saturday but had to wait until Monday to finalize. For the rest of the weekend and all-day Monday, you fretted and pouted and worried someone else would take “your” kitten home with them. We tried to assure you that no one else would want that cat. We didn’t want to say it was because it was so tiny, or so ugly, or so-nothing-at-all-but-eyes. You could see only beauty and you were in love.
Finally, Monday afternoon came, and dad brought it home with him after work. In that moment, your daddy was your biggest hero because he had saved your kitten.
You tenderly snuggled that little bit of fur into your arms and declared that her name was Emily. You adored your new kitten and she loved you right back. Emily gained some weight and filled out a bit. Her colors started to take shape. We began to see the same beauty in her that you had seen in that very first moment.
Where you went, Emily went. You played together. You ate together. You watched Barney together. You slept together.
Which brings me to the photo. It captures everything we love about you. I would slip into your room late at night and stand there, watching the two of you sleeping together, in awe of your sweetness, and my heart would squeeze a little tighter.
So many birthdays have passed since then. So many days since a stranger ripped you from our hearts.
My sweet girl, if you should happen to read this, we want you to know how very important and special you are to us. You are a blessing we cannot live without. We feel cheated by every day that goes by and we do not see your smile, hear your bubbly laughter, or listen to your thoughts and ideas. We have never stopped believing that we will find you. We are saving all our hugs and kisses for you.
Please be strong and brave, with a fire of conviction in your heart, just like the day you picked out your kitten!
On this birthday we promise you that we will always fight for you. We will bring you back home to our family where you belong. We will always love you! We will never give up.
Love Mom (Colleen Nick) & Dad
One cannot help but feel the Nick family’s loss. So many birthdays, so many Christmases, so many days wondering if Morgan is alive. How on earth have they done it?
Hope is incredibly important in life for health, happiness, success and coping. Research shows optimistic people are more likely to live fulfilling lives and to enjoy life. In addition, hope relieves stress reducing the risk of many leading causes of death such as high blood pressure and heart attacks.
Having hope takes a special kind of courage I have found so many families of missing persons have mustered during the most difficult time of their lives . . . not just one season but many Seasons of Hope.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2010, there were over 34,7000 licensed private investigators operating throughout the United States. The Bureau projects by 2020, the figure will increase twenty percent—resulting in almost 42,000 PIs. Though they may be great in number, you may never spot one, because private investigators have a unique set of skills allowing them to blend in with all walks of society.
When the average person thinks of a private investigator, it often evokes a handful of stereotyped images. Sherlock Holmes is one of the most famous private investigators in the global lexicon—even if he is fictional. In the United States, the film noire genre gave average citizens a staple look for PIs; long, tan trench coats, matching fedora hats, toting cameras with obnoxiously long lenses. More contemporary private sleuths are often thought of as being clad in all black and wearing dark sunglasses. Because these images have permeated American culture, a private investigator fitting any of these descriptions can instantly have their covers blown. With a surge in surveillance culture and the ubiquity of technology and social media, private investigators in the 21st century must modify their investigative methods to adapt to a world where everyone is watching.
Close, But Not Too Close
Even in a world where individuals often have their eyes glued to a screen, it is easier than ever for a private investigator to have their cover blown while in the field. Rise in the saturation of crime coverage in both local and national media has citizens paying attention to their surroundings more than ever, especially when walking to and from their vehicles, and when developing a home security system. Despite concerns about the proverbial “Big Brother,” invading human privacy, the U.S. began to appreciate surveillance technology as a nation after a CCTV camera captured the perpetrators behind the Boston Marathon bombing in the summer of 2013. Law enforcement investigating the tragedy were able to identify Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in a crowd of thousands, tracking every move they made until the fateful moment when they planted the two homemade pressure-cooker bombs killing three people and injuring hundreds more.
In 2018, the nation saw a rise in law enforcement agencies utilizing drones in their investigations, leading to a new wave of outrage and concern over the violation of privacy and spying. As of December 6th, over 900 law enforcement agencies were reported to use drones in their casework. This heightened awareness in the American population has forced private investigators to redefine their standards for proximity to a subject. Of course, a PI must be close enough to properly observe the subject, and despite their benefits, long camera lenses outside of large events inundated with press can just as likely be the aspect that blows a private investigator’s cover. Being too close to a subject can provoke them to confront the investigator and compromise the entire investigation. This obliterates future opportunities for surveillance and collection of evidence, as the subject will be on high-alert.
Do Your Homework
Prior to a stake-out or any form of field surveillance, private investigators must conduct extensive research about the area in order to move fluidly and avoid detection. Study of local businesses and restaurants can inform a private investigator what the public will be doing in the area, and increase their chances of successfully blending in with a crowd. In order to keep a low profile, PIs must place themselves in the mindset of a local. Places like coffee shops, restaurants, or shopping malls can be ideal places for surveillance, as there are built-in explanations for a person sitting or milling about without purpose for extended periods of time. In situations where this is not the case, it’s important for the investigator to have a method for making themselves appear occupied to cover their presence in an area. Luckily, a person staring at their phone for large blocks of time will raise no alarms with the subject or anyone else. Books, laptops, or accompaniment by an associate for “lunch” are also tried-and-true covers. Many private investigation periodicals recommend conducting as much online research as possible prior to surveillance in order to limit exposure. This means searching public databases, combing news articles, and scraping social media to arm oneself with as much information as possible.
Blending in is the name of the game when you’re a private investigator.
As mentioned above, everyday citizens are more hypervigilant than ever. Subjects with a history in the criminal justice system or with law enforcement will be even more so. As such, the concept of tailing a subject is becoming less effective, resulting in the private investigator “getting made” by their target. Subjects will recognize the same face after multiple sightings, even if it is in a crowd, and strange vehicles parked in the same location for hours at a time are sure to draw suspicion. This is where thorough research with a private investigator’s client can become invaluable. Reconnaissance at the hands of a client can provide the investigator with information allowing them to be more inconspicuous when following a subject from location to location. For example, a spouse suspicious of infidelity can provide the private investigator with their spouse’s daily schedule—what time they wake up, their morning routine, addresses for their employment, frequent lunch locations, extra-curricular activities, the addresses of friends’ homes, the list goes on and on.
Even the most catlike of private investigators will have their covers blown from time to time. That’s why it’s imperative to have a bulletproof cover story. If they’ve done their research, private investigators can be ready with a plausible reason for being in the area, such as house-hunting, shopping, or just being plain lost and in need of direction. These quick explanations will cause a subject to lower their guard and reconsider their suspicion. Just as is the case with any deception, too many details pierce the veil. Being caught with surveillance equipment like cameras or microphones will also require explanation, but in a culture saturated with technology, this can also be easily explained. Camera drawing too much attention? Not if you’re a professional photographer on assignment. Microphone too conspicuous? It’s no longer a stretch to believe the average citizen is a fledgling podcaster or filmmaker recording “foley” or “walla” noise for their project.
As is the case with many professions, media and culture have defined the role of private investigator as one for a man, which often leaves women out of the conversation. However, it could be argued female private investigators have a much better chance of remaining undetected in surveillance. While social code continues to grow and develop, women are often socialized to diminish themselves—to listen, not speak. Follow instead of lead. Men are socialized to be forward and confident in the interest of being some kind of alpha, while women are known to be better at reading a room, picking up on behavioral cues that might inform their investigation, and their perceived gentility improves their chances of a subject or witness trusting and opening up to them. These aspects of our society are the same ones preventing citizens from suspending disbelief when a woman is accused of a violent crime. A woman would never do that. This allows a female private investigator to conduct field surveillance with more freedom.
Technology has spiked over the last 25 years at astronomical proportions, and our population’s socialization has changed dramatically since the invention of social media. While this may have hampered private investigators in their work, the proper tools, flexible strategies, and an analytical mind can get the job done. Whatever a private investigator’s method for remaining inconspicuous in the field, there is no doubt that as society changes, so must their methodology.