Case of the vanishing journalists - Issue 124 - Magazine | Monocle

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We are gathered discreetly with a group of private detectives in the vaulted art deco lobby of a US train station to discuss how we will find a crooked former cop we want to interview. Suddenly we spy a holster on the ankle of one of our comrades. Inside the holster is a Glock. Inside the Glock are bullets. Even though we have worked as private detectives for years, this experience (wrapped, we acknowledge, in a cliché) is still shocking.

We do not carry weapons and we are not the ruffians of Raymond Chandler novels. Before we became PIs we were journalists, armed with ballpoint pens tucked behind our ears and notebooks stuffed in our back pockets.

When we abandoned our careers as reporters to become gumshoes, our anxiety levels spiked. Although reporters and investigators share space on a Venn diagram – both track down documents and interview people, then craft narratives – our egos missed the bylines and it was not easy shedding our well-hewn professional identities.

We left journalism because, although we had our share of successes, we knew the industry was faltering and we sought (and found) better compensation. Having spent careers as generalists, we fell for the thrills of the investigative hunt. And we got lucky: we met, through social circles, private eyes whose jobs we coveted.

The mythology that cloaks our new trade justified the risk of our defections. Although most of our clients come to us through litigators (lawyers know where the disputes are) we could not have predicted that our ability to uncover hidden information – which often reveals wrongdoing – and make sense of it would draw us back into the orbit of the industry we so apprehensively left behind. Our firm, Quest Research & Investigations (QRI), is routinely retained by documentary filmmakers, investigative reporters, podcasters and television producers.

Most private-investigation companies avoid such clients because the industry was built around disputes such as civil lawsuits or criminal proceedings, or catching people stealing from their employers. Although we do that too, we court – and allow ourselves to be courted by – media clients, who we hope will be valuable collaborators. And also because storytelling is still in our blood.

One way to understand our firm’s collaboration with the media is to view it as part of an industry effort at innovation. Traditional journalism models continue to struggle after a generation of upheaval; advertising revenue (once the foundation of the newsgathering business) is scant for many, compensation for reporters has failed to keep up with inflation and subscriptions for many print publications have been suffering for decades.

As publishers and editors experiment with new ways of generating revenue and providing content for readers, viewers and listeners, so new models have emerged. Branded content is a trend, as is podcasting. Another is not-for-profit organisations such as ProPublica (“investigative journalism with moral force”) and The Marshall Project (“journalism about criminal justice”). Storytellers are experimenting with new tactics and technologies: big-data scraping and analysis, DNA-driven genealogy and social-media crowdsourcing, to name a few.

In this spirit of media innovation we have just begun a collaboration with documentarians Michael Epstein and Lucian Read, to produce a series of films that will track our reinvestigation of cold cases. The focus of the first season will likely be the gruesome, unsolved killings of four teenage girls in a strip-mall in Austin, Texas, in 1991. The Yogurt Shop Murders, as the tragedy is sometimes called, has been cited as the end of innocence for the capital of the Lone Star State.

Our modest hope is that the project will symbolise a new kind of relationship between investigator and film-maker, between fact finder and director. Epstein’s films include House Two, which exposes a slaughter of civilians by the US military in Haditha, Iraq, and a cover-up by the Department of Defense. In the process of pitching the project to studios, Epstein has said that he hopes to blur the lines between our investigation and his creative production – and for them to feed off each other.

In April the creators of Mob Queens, a podcast that chronicles the crooked and courageous life of Anna Genovese (the second wife of Vito “Don Vitone” Genovese) engaged us to appear on the show. We helped to guide their investigation into the untold history of the only woman to run one of the five families of the American Mafia. Our contribution: advising on how to track down wiretap recordings, find archival documents from alcohol-licensing authorities and identify new pools of witnesses. (Distributed by Stitcher, Mob Queens is slated to begin streaming in August.)

For other podcasters we have found deceased drag queens, advised on proving police corruption, built family trees and investigative timelines and discovered the identities of anonymous fraudsters online. And there isn’t a tanning salon in Porn Valley that we haven’t had a shufty around to track down elusive witnesses.

Finding and interviewing people, especially those reluctant to speak or who work hard to mask their identity and location, is at the core of investigative work. Our journalism experience is crucial: as reporters we interviewed financiers and CEOs for Fortune, profiled politicians and business titans for The Independent, covered presidential campaigns and reported on terrorism trials.

In November 2017 our firm was hired by rapper Meek Mill’s management company and legal team. He had just been imprisoned in Philadelphia for violating the terms of his probation. Meek’s many advocates – among them the law firm Reed Smith, the billionaire Michael Rubin and Jay-Z’s Roc Nation – managed our wide-ranging assignment, which began with an examination of the judge who ordered Meek back to prison (Meek had been convicted a decade earlier on gun and drug charges) and ended with our discovery that the underlying police investigation had been led by a detective with a chequered past.

A six-part Amazon Prime series called #Freemeek is scheduled for release this summer; it includes behind-the-scenes footage of our firm’s investigation and talking-head interviews with the firm’s partners. Among our work was overseeing more than a dozen investigators who travelled up and down the eastern seaboard of the US, and to the Caribbean, to track down former cops, confidential informants, civil litigants, congressional staffers and felons. We interviewed retired narcotics detectives at their homes, met former convicts under house arrest and were surveilled by sources who were sceptical of our motives. We also met Meek in prison, picked apart police reports to identify misconduct and sifted through thousands of pages of documents.

Our discoveries: the Philadelphia Police Department was aware that the arresting officer had a disciplinary history and may have lied to get the search warrant at the beginning of the criminal case. Partly as a result of those findings, Meek was released from prison – although he is still on probation.

Our firm specialises in large, complex investigations but every private detective agency has its own DNA. Some shops are staffed by former police officers and experts in surveillance; others employ research analysts and conduct pre-employment due diligence. Others have a narrow focus, such as a geographic region (Southeast Asia, say) or a technology (unmasking counterfeiters who operate on the Dark Web).

Some media companies, broadly defined, rely on us. That’s because not only are we a team of people who obsess over investigative assignments but we also strive to buck the stereotype of the hard-boiled rule-flouter and adhere to a largely journalistic approach.

We are more expensive than freelance journalists but we have more tools than most: powerful databases, proprietary software, the ability to extract deleted information from hard drives and relationships with firms like ours around the world, for example. Although our work is similar to journalism, we have a broader mandate (such as collecting evidence for a trial) and different standards of evidence depending on the client.

We also conform – and it’s absurd that this even has to be stated explicitly – to many ethical tenets that our competitors do not. We do not engage in subterfuge or surreptitiously record interviews; we seek to deputise instead of antagonising witnesses; and we do not conduct corporate espionage.

Alas, not all private investigators are so inclined. Recently we met a client – who had hired our firm to track down some stolen assets – who interrupted our briefing. “We appreciate the work,” the client began, affecting a tone suggesting that he did not, in fact, appreciate the work at all. “But can you ‘Black Cube’ this case a bit more?”

In using a verb that’s derived from the proper name of a private intelligence company staffed by former Mossad and Israeli Defense Force operatives (long accused of using questionable tactics), this client was asking us to commit crimes. Black Cube, it has been reported, has employed classic tricks of the clandestine services: fake identities and fictional companies as cover; pretexting; surreptitious recordings; and lying. The company was engaged, most famously, by film producer Harvey Weinstein through his lawyer David Boies to gather compromising information on women whom Weinstein had reportedly victimised and journalists whose articles he sought to quash.

Another Israeli private-intelligence company called Psy-Group (whose slogan “Shape reality” conjures a public relations firm) shut down last year after its alleged nefarious tactics were revealed. These included running online disinformation campaigns to discredit its clients’ adversaries. Anyway, we refused to “Black Cube” anything and responded to our aggressive client by politely firing him. But not before advising him never to hire any investigator who would consent to such behaviour.

There are, of course, countless anecdotes of the private eye gone rogue, the destroyer of reputations, the bumbling hacker, the perjurer or worse. We don’t mean to suggest that we are self-righteous, risk-averse do-gooders, but our company is made up of not only journalists but also people whose backgrounds include labour activism, law enforcement and technology. Those backgrounds have inspired us to take on projects that promote the public interest: supporting lawyers who sue government agencies for civil-rights violations; finding the stolen assets of dictators; and exposing corporate malfeasance, for example.

Among our clients on this front are organisations such as the Innocence Project, which uses litigation and DNA evidence to exonerate the wrongly convicted. It was through a referral from the organisation’s co-founder, Barry Scheck, that we were hired three years ago by film director Amy Berg to help reinvestigate the conviction of Adnan Syed. It was first chronicled in the first season of Serial, the podcast that’s often credited with inspiring the most recent trend of true-crime obsession (and, indeed, the medium of podcasts).

Some of our investigators appear on camera in Berg’s film, a four-part documentary series that’s called The Case Against Adnan Syed and has been streaming on hbo since March – and, since April, on Sky. The film looks at the 1999 murder of the defendant’s high-school girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, in Maryland. Syed’s conviction was vacated twice but then Maryland’s highest court narrowly reinstated the guilty verdict earlier this year.

Among our work for the film was finding alternative suspects and examining their alibis, casting doubt on evidence brought 20 years ago by the original prosecution team, and uncovering new facts about the case. Of course, ours is not the only investigative firm – and it’s certainly not the first – to support film producers and others in the media, although some of those collaborations were revealed to have involved horrific behaviour by all involved. UK tabloid News of the World enlisted private eyes to hack into the phones of subjects and sources, among them members of the UK royal family, a former chief executive of the British Olympic Association and model Elle Macpherson.

In fact, we find that credible media outlets are keen to partner with us precisely because of our commitment to honest fact-gathering and the craft of story-telling: one of our investigators holds a doctorate in English; another has written a novel; a third is at work on a biography of sorts on a notorious fraudster.

In truth, media outlets are just one piece of our broad client base, which includes global companies, large financial institutions, international NGOs, law firms, and labour unions. Sometimes these clients intersect with media outlets in ways we didn’t understand when we were in newsrooms. You may not know it when you peruse this morning’s fare in the business section of your newspaper or app but, likely as not, somewhere in the course of some of those stories’ genesis, a firm like ours has played a part.

We often tell each other that if we ever returned to news reporting, we would now be much better at the job. And it’s true. We understand that just as valuable as using your charisma to persuade an anonymous source to leak you secret documents is the seemingly banal work of the obsessive researcher: creating a byzantine Boolean search string, filing a Freedom of Information Act request or obtaining an archived court record from microfilm reels, for example.

And we have a better understanding of where information lies and how we can get at it. There are some databases that, in the US, you need a PI’s licence to access, but most of the ones we use are accessible to everyone. You just need to know where they are and how to use them.

Our minds are made up. We like where we have landed. Even losing the glory of bylines seems inconsequential now as we find ourselves not just helping craft documentary films and podcasts but increasingly appearing in them too. And as we embed ourselves deeper into the world of private-detective work, we have fun self-mythologising, sometimes by reading the works of another former journalist. “The streets were dark with something more than night,” wrote Chandler. “But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”

About the writers: 
Tyler Maroney co-founded QRI. Before becoming a private detective in 2005 he produced films for Frontline and was a reporter for Fortune; he is the author of forthcoming book Corporate Dick. David Usborne joined QRI after more than 30 years in journalism. He joined The Independent at launch in 1986 as a foreign correspondent, and was its US editor from 2009 to 2016.

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