The Prying Game Under New Rules

The case began like many of them. A phone call. From a distressed millionaire woman, in Paris. "I want to know who killed my niece and I want to know it before I get back to the United States," the woman told Los Angeles private eye Logan Clarke. The woman's 9-year-old niece had been stabbed more than 50 times in her house in Orange County. The police were on the case but Clarke was dismissive. "They had the same intensity that I have when I go to the pool," he sniffed. (A sheriff's department spokesman said the case was given "priority one" treatment.) Clarke assigned no fewer than 12 of his investigators to the case. In three days, he later bragged, "we told the police who did it, why it was done." Indeed, on Clarke's evidence, the family says, an 18-year-old pregnant girl was found guilty of killing the niece in what was described as a drug deal gone wrong. The perp sits on California's death row.

Sam Spade and Logan Clarke aside, most private investigators really don't spend their days solving high-profile murders. They are glad to earn a few bucks spying on cheating spouses, checking on phony insurance claims or -- for the lucky ones -- doing lucrative corporate or defense work; look at the dozen gumshoes working the O. J. Simpson case. But more crime victims, particularly in private-eye-rich California, are turning to private investigators to help solve cases that normally would be handled by police departments. Many are frustrated that police, swamped with too much crime and too few cops, are neglecting their cases, especially "low priority" offenses like burglaries, fraud and missing persons. Critics worry about a two-tiered rent-a-cop system dividing the poor and the rich; most PI's charge about $65 an hour and some as much as $175. But even the police are reluctantly conceding the obvious. "The victims want to get something done and the police just don't have the time and the resources," says Sgt. Bob Bell of the Long Beach, Calif., Police Department.

Often, investigators say, their clients are well-heeled people who aren't convinced the police have the right man -- or want to make sure they do. Wealthy friends of Nicole Simpson, for instance, have hired a private-detective agency to look for spousal-abuse evidence and "18 other angles," says Pete Peterson, the agency's owner. Why do people hire him? The police "aren't as intelligent as we are for the most part," he says, a comment sure to win him friends over at the LAPD. Josiah Thompson, a Haverford College philosophy professor turned private eye, says police are so overworked that sometimes they tend to focus only on a particular suspect. So families, believing that someone else is the culprit, may turn to private eyes. "Largely because of the lack of resources, once the police radar locks in on a target, all other targets disappear from the radar screen," Thompson says.

In less glamorous cases, like missing persons, police are so busy that they often do nothing unless foul play is suspected. Last year the family of 17-year-old Stuart Tay hired California PI Lee Roberts after police declined to mount a missing-person search for the youth. Within two days, Roberts, backed by seven investigators, cracked the tragic case on the basis of information from a school friend. The teenager's body was found buried in a Buena Park backyard and five of his classmates were charged with murder. Earlier this month the ringleader was sentenced to life in prison.

While justice was served in that case, some cops clench their jaws really hard when they hear such stories about private eyes. "On the whole, I think most officers view them with suspicion," says Marlin Price, Dallas's chief of criminal investigations. One source of tension is that cops aren't supposed to divulge information to PIs in an ongoing investigation, and PIs don't want to tell police confidential information. "It's not like Jim Rockford, who could walk right into LAPD and get them to cooperate with him," admits Sam Webster, a San Francisco PI. William Dear, a flamboyant Dallas investigator, was told to get lost by police when he was hired to find a kidnapped baby. He pushed ahead and located the child in Mexico. While most police departments cooperate, others, Dear says, "resent you."

Another source of irritation is the U.S. Constitution; that is, the police have to follow it, the private eyes don't. So PIs can conduct searches without warrants and turn the information over to police, as long as they were acting on their own and without police direction. Police detectives say it's no surprise that private eyes can solve some tough cases.

Still, the hostility is clearly waning, especially as more and more private eyes come from law-enforcement backgrounds and are better trained. San Francisco PI Stephanie Voss says more women are entering the field, too, drawn by an industry that these days requires more brains than brawn. And if cops still bristle at a private eye intervening in a murder case, they're more willing to slough off lesser cases. Little wonder. In California, according to the Los Angeles Times, police detectives handle two and three times the number of cases per month they did 15 years ago. Over that same period, the number of private eyes in California has tripled to about 7,500. This isn't the way it was supposed to work, but unless taxpayers want to spend more on police, that's the way it will be.