Sleuths

SLEUTHS: Private eyes Frankie Dixon, left, and T.K. Davis at a park in Capitola, Calif., where they’re investigating reports that a UFO was photographed by a man with the Internet name of Raji, who later vanished into cyberspace. (Robert Durell / Los Angeles Times)

Private eye T.K. Davis has worked his share of oddball cases. Once he tracked down a one-armed woman wanted for child endangerment. He staked out a backyard to catch a guy throwing dirt clods into a pool. When you make your living answering life's mysterious questions at $100 an hour, you take a few calls out of the blue.

He works the streets of this suburban town near Santa Cruz, where dog-walking mothers and aging hippies compete for beach time. Oh, sure, it might seem innocent enough, but it can get a little creepy if you let it. People might see things -- unusual objects in the sky, for instance -- and not say a thing for fear of being ridiculed.

At times like that, a private eye comes in handy. He can look around, ask a few hard questions -- even if it means risking his reputation built over 30 years as a deputy sheriff.

That's more or less where Davis finds himself now, behind the wheel of his blue Ford Explorer, with his partner Frankie Dixon. They're cruising down streets, looking at utility poles and trying to figure out: Is that the one in these three pictures, the pictures with the unidentified flying object?

The photographs came from -- surprise! -- the Internet. In May, someone using the name Raji posted them on Craigslist. All three show a lone wooden power pole with its jumble of crossbeams and wires. Hovering just above it is some kind of flying saucer.

The thing looks part campy "Star Trek" prop, part slapdash collection of handyman tools, with metallic limbs jutting from a cylindrical sphere. Examined closely, one of the arms bears some kind of writing.

Raji told people he took the photos in Capitola. Then he vanished into cyberspace.

UFO hunters around the world started buzzing. Apparently, Raji wasn't alone. Elsewhere, other alleged eyewitnesses posted pictures and video of the quirky little craft. It became known as the "California drone" because it was clear from the photos that no human could have fit inside to fly the thing.

Soon, the mystery became too tantalizing to be left to Internet speculators. Somebody who knew what he was doing had to be hired to locate that pole, which might lead to finding the elusive Raji.

Enter Davis, 62, and Dixon, 60.

Men in Black they're not. To cover his middle-age paunch, Davis prefers windbreakers and blue jeans to the crisp suits of Hollywood's extraterrestrial sleuths. Dixon is more Man in White. On this day, he's wearing a Vegas-bright white sweater suitable for the first tee at the golf course -- which is where he spends most of this time since retiring from police work seven years ago.

"See how close that one is?" Dixon says of one power pole, comparing it with a photo. Their SUV is easing along a shady street, its cab cloudy with smoke from Davis' cheap Hav-A-Tampa cigars.

"I like that one," Davis says.

"No," Dixon says, "it's turned the wrong way."

They motor on, scanning the sky.

A onetime captain in the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Department, Davis considers himself an expert in scam artists and nut cases. So his radar went up in January when he got the call from a woman in London.

She said she was from the Open Minds Forum, an Internet group specializing in "UFOlogy." She said she represented people who were interested in the drone and wanted to contact Raji and others who claimed in Web postings to have seen the craft. There was the guy in Bakersfield who called himself Chad. There was the hiker and the bicyclist, both from the San Jose area. Nobody used last names. So far, nobody could be found.

Before calling Davis, the Open Minds group had e-mailed Raji. He told them he snapped the picture from his fiancee's parents' home. They hoped to ask more questions, but he suddenly closed his e-mail account. They spent months looking for him before deciding to hire a professional.

Find the power pole in the photo, the woman told Davis, and you'll find the house. And Raji.