Guns, Gams & Gumshoes

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Finding Missing Persons: Old-Fashioned But Still Valid Gumshoe Techniques

Posted by Writing PIs on June 23, 2014

A lot of people think today’s PIs just sit at computers and look up information.  That’s partly true — today’s PIs do a fair amount of research online, but that doesn’t mean the old, tried-and-true ways of investigating on foot aren’t still sometimes the best way to find information.

Hitting the Street, Knocking on Doors

Hard to believe there was a time without computers and databases, but once upon a time a sleuth looking for a missing person had to hit the streets, knock on doors, conduct surveillances, and do research on-site at court houses and other places.  Some of these seemingly old-fashioned means are still valid, and sometimes even more useful, than digging electronically.

A Little Girl Was Missing

Seven or so years ago, we were driving in rush-hour traffic, tired after a day researching records in several courthouses, happy to be going home and calling it a day…then we got a call on our cell phone: A five-year-old girl had gone missing.

It was a case we’d already been working on. The little girl’s biological father was struggling with mental/drug issues, and the little girl’s grandparents, who had custody and were concerned for her well-being, had hired us to investigate his lifestyle. Just that morning, before we’d left for our courthouse work, we’d researched where the father might possibly have moved to (he’d withheld his new residence address from the grandparents) and we’d located a plausible street address, although we hadn’t double-checked it yet.

After getting the call, we quickly drove to this new possible address. It was an old Victorian home remodeled into four apartments, and we ran to the apartment we believed he lived in, but no one was home. Peering through the windows, we saw the place was empty, with trash and moving boxes piled inside. We began knocking on neighbors’ doors. No one answered. Being a little after five p.m., we guessed that the other residents hadn’t returned home yet from work.

Relying on Random Wi-Fi Signals

Those were the days before we had smartphones. Often, if we needed quick Internet access while in the field, we’d try to pick up a Wi-Fi signal via one of our laptops. Sometimes we’d have to drive slowly down a street to find one of these signals!

This day, we lucked out and picked up a signal right away. After successfully accessing the Internet, we looked up the county assessor’s office and researched the owner of the Victorian apartment building. After another quick search to locate his phone number, we called the landlord, gave him the father’s name, and asked if he had recently lived in the apartment that was now empty and filled with trash and packing boxes. The owner denied knowing the father, and claimed there had been another tenant who had lived in that unit and she had recently moved, but he didn’t have a forwarding address. Later we learned the owner had lied to us.

But at the time, we were stymied. From our research of the father several days before, this address had definitely popped up in our searches. Maybe he was living in one of the other units with a roommate?

We Decided to Do A Trash Hit

We spied a dumpster behind the apartment building and decided to check its contents, see if there were any clues to the little girl or her father. This is what’s called a “trash hit” — you literally go through the trash. We had definite procedures for conducting trash hits in our investigations, but this time we were on a time clock and did it dirty and fast: We jumped into the dumpster.

We found a box addressed to the father at this address! So he did live here — or had lived here. We now believed, despite what the landlord had said, that the father was the tenant who’d suddenly moved in the last day or so. Digging through the trash, we found a few children’s items, including some yogurt cartons. We called the grandparents and described the items — when we described the yogurt container, the grandmother started crying.  She explained that was her granddaughter’s favorite kind of yogurt.

A Long Evening of Research

We peeled the return address label off the box addressed to the father, and drove back to our home office, where we started a long evening of research, which included many calls to local law enforcement, to locate the little girl. To bring this story quickly to a happy ending, by the time the sun came up, we had located the little girl and her father — they were 2,000 miles away at a relative’s.

You can see how much physical work was involved in making this discovery. Visiting a location, knocking on doors, making phone calls, and eventually crawling into a dumpster. A few weeks later, the grandparents sent us a thank you card with a photo of their granddaughter. It’s one of our treasured mementoes.

Other Tasks a PI Might Conduct to Locate a Missing Person

Additional techniques include:

  • Researching court records (such as evictions and traffic violations that might contain information that indicates where the person might be living, their type of car, their workplace, or associates who can be interviewed about the person’s current location.
  • Pulling driver’s records at the DMV (to pinpoint everything from a person’s physical description to their signature to recent addresses).
  • Interviewing people who may have known the subject (for example, past and current neighbors as well as relatives, past and current landlords, co-workers and known associates).
  • Surveilling places the person was known to frequent (friends’ or relatives’ homes, bars, workout clubs, etc.)

Our current nonfiction book A Lawyer’s Primer for Writers: From Crimes to Courtrooms is now available on Amazon. Audiences: Writers crafting legal thrillers, fans of legal movies and TV shows, researchers & armchair legal eagles

Click on cover to go to book's Amazon page

Click on cover to go to book’s Amazon page

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