Local ‘P-Is’ say the job is interesting and rewarding — but a world away from its pop-culture image
|Southern California native Joe Dozal is one of 29 licensed private investigators in Whatcom County. His work focuses mainly on conducting interviews for local defense lawyers to aid in their cases.|
No, being a private investigator is not as glamorous as everyone thinks.
But the job does have its moments, like when Joe Dozal is awoken at 3 a.m. by a meth addict ready to talk, or when Tom Solin solves a case involving a tiger injury or discovers more than $100,000 worth of pirated goods.
According to the Department of Licensing, there are 29 private investigators in Whatcom County. The two Bellingham private investigators profiled in this story represent the spectrum of activities a PI can do these days. From working closely — and openly — with defense attorneys to doing camera surveillance and tracking, here are two cases of real-life PIs.
Sherlock Holmes and Sam Spade fans beware: While the following tales include some action and adventure, like any business they also involve mundane tasks such as memo-writing and paperwork.
Focus/specialty: Dozal works with defense attorneys in Whatcom County conducting interviews, mainly with case witnesses.
How he got involved with this line of work: Originally from Southern California (he’s been a surfer all his life and has a hint of one of those Southern Californian surfer accents), Dozal has a political science degree from Western Washington University. He worked as a paralegal and also interned with the public-defenders office, where he realized there was a need for defense investigators.
“I was trying to find a niche I could fit into,” he said. “Once I recognized it, I got my (private investigator) license and marketed myself in a way that opened myself up for business.”
A day in Dozal’s life as a PI: Dozal’s days are spent conducting interviews with case witnesses either in person or by phone, and writing memos on deadline for the approximately 12 attorneys he works with regularly. His hours tend to be irregular as many of his interview subjects call him at odd hours.
“Basically, I turn my phone off at 10 at night and I turn my phone on at eight in the morning, and then I collect all my messages,” he chuckled. He noted several interviews he’s done with meth addicts at three in the morning.
What he likes about his job: Its fun. He likes talking to lots of different people, having deadlines and working with attorneys.
What he dislikes about his job: “Sometimes its heavy,” he said. Dozal’s cases have involved young defendants with felony charges who can’t get student loans or decent jobs if they are convicted. That, Dozal said, can be a bit hard to watch.
Has his work ever led to any major arrests or convictions? Yes, he’s been involved with several murder cases he wished not to discuss.
Focus/specialty: Solin does a wide range of investigation, including surveillance for businesses and individuals. He is also a registered process server, which involves the sometimes-difficult task of serving people legal documents who oftentimes don’t wish to be served.
How he got involved with this line of work: Solin worked as a game warden running covert operations for Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources. Part of his job was to investigate wildlife crime, such as illegal deer sales and wildlife poaching. During his time there, he helped investigate a tiger injury case, and has investigated several more as a PI.
Solin eventually “retired” to Bellingham and then, feeling restless, decided to get his private investigator’s license.
A day in Solin’s life as a PI: “There are hundreds of different types of investigations I can do,” Solin said. Many of his clients are corporations that want to uncover unauthorized people selling their products illegally — things like high-end goods and electronics.
Some are businesses that want to know if a customer will be able to pay, say, a $20,000 bill. Many cases aid legal proceedings, he said.
Sometimes he spends entire days doing surveillance from his car or the woods.”I’ll be sitting in a concealed location and I have to be able to blend in with the environment and not raise any suspicion,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, nobody even knows I’m there,” he said. His equipment includes a camera and a camcorder to document what he observes.
Other days he researches a subject for hours on the computer.
“A lot of times, people just want information,” he said.
Most of his cases are in Whatcom County, but occasionally he’ll have to follow a subject farther if they are driving long distances.
He always knows what he’s getting into, and if that means dealing with a rough crowd, he won’t enter their territory; sometimes, however, subjects will start giving him a second glance or become suspicious of his continued presence.
“A good investigator should pick up on that. You are not ever technically in control of an investigation, you always have to take your actions off what they’re doing,” he said. “If you get too close, they’ll make you. If you get too far behind, you’ll lose them.”
One of the primary — and most banal — logistical barriers? Traffic lights.
“Traffic lights defeat more investigations than people do,” he said. PIs cannot legally speed up and run lights to successfully tail a subject.
What he likes about his job: That he has total control over what he does and the freedom to pick and choose worthwhile cases.
What he dislikes about his job: The hard cases, he said, are the ones where an individual wants him to track a spouse, he said. He’ll usually only accept these if a child could be affected by the case’s outcome.
The PI payoff: Private investigators can make $50 to $100 an hour. About 10 percent of PIs make $200,000 or more a year, but far more make between $60,000 and $70,000. But in order to pull even that much in, the investigator needs to have a good business sense, Solin said.
“Some make $10,000 a year and have 10 unhappy customers,” he said.
In order to get an unarmed private investigator’s license through the state of Washington Department of Licensing, an applicant must:
• Be at least 18, be a citizen or resident alien, have no criminal convictions that directly relate to their capacity to perform the duties of a private investigator and/or hinder public safety, be employed by or have an employment offer from a licensed private investigative agency, complete a four-to six-hour pre-assignment training course and submit fingerprints.
In order to get a license to be an armed private investigator, an applicant must:
• Be licensed as an unarmed PI, be 21 years old, complete an eight-hour firearms certification program through the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, and have a current concealed-pistol license.
To get a license to be private investigative agency (individual, partnership or corporation), an applicant must meet all of the unarmed PI requirements, plus:
• Either have three years compensated work experience in investigations or pass an examination and provide a certificate of insurance for at least $25,000 in bodily injury and $25,000 in property damage or a $10,000 surety bond. The application fee is $500 if applicant is unarmed, $600 if armed.
(From the Washington State Department of Licensing Web site)