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THE EYES HAVE IT : Fictional Detectives More Romantic, but Real Ones Have Their Moments

Times Staff Writer

They talk nicely. Their shirts are clean. They wear ties. None has hair that looks like an unmade bed. None carries a flask of Jim Beam in the hip pocket.

Could these men possibly be the heirs of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade?

They must be, for they are private investigators. They have licenses to prove it, more than 500 of them in Orange County--men for the most part, but with a few women in the ranks as well.

The private investigators chorus unanimously that their work is nothing like the cavorting on television. Nothing like “Magnum, P.I.” or “Hart to Hart” or Maddie and Dave. They don’t pack pistols, drive the freeways at gut-wrenching speeds with death-defying antics or beat the truth out of bad guys.

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But they do use their wiles, tricks and scams--things like taping a subpoena onto a Frisbee and tossing the disk onto the patio of someone trying to avoid a court date. Or pretending to be a well-heeled investor in order to find out where a man has hidden bank accounts from his estranged wife. Or dressing as a deliveryman to catch an unsuspecting witness and thrust a subpoena into his hand.

And sometimes these investigators do drop hints that they really feel, well, a bit like, hey, that could be them up there on the screen.

“It’s not as glamorous or anything like TV,” says Alan Clow, who lives in Santa Ana, works out of a Newport Beach law office and has added a wispy mustache to his appearance to try to look older than his 31 years. But minutes later in a conversation Clow offers a different image:

“I sort of think of myself as the defense investigator that Perry Mason used to have. What was his name, Paul Drake? I’m more like that, the kind of guy who at the last minute brings in the evidence for the defense that helps show your client is not guilty.”

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Larry Crandall says he’s not a fan of any fictional investigator, including Sherlock Holmes. Yet the chipped and etched window in the door leading to Crandall’s Santa Ana offices has a profile of a man who looks suspiciously like dear old Sherlock, right down to the deerstalker hat and calabash pipe. The profile appears on Crandall’s business card as well.

The fact is, private investigators are in a job that does have moments of romance. They do find missing children. They do help get new trials for convicted murderers--and on occasion get the jailbird sprung on the second trial. They do discover stacks of cash squirreled away by a spouse in a bitter divorce who is trying to hide assets from the other partner.

Sometimes they even sue the sheriff of Orange County, one of the most politically popular officials around--and win. Private eye Preston Guillory was awarded nearly $190,000 last week by federal jurors who found that Gates had violated Guillory’s civil rights by using sheriff’s investigators to harass him.

Much of the trial testimony centered on one of the typically unglamorous things investigators do--trying to serve court papers on someone who doesn’t want to be found, a tedious job of traipsing from apartment to apartment, knocking on doors and often finding no one at home.

Still, there are rewards.

Crandall, for instance, treasures a letter from a Salt Lake City lawyer congratulating him on retrieving a child taken from Utah to California by a divorced parent.

“As you know, about 999 of 1,000 of these kids who are kidnaped by the non-custodial parent and taken to another state never show up again, except on a milk carton,” wrote lawyer Jay D. Edmonds. Were it not for Crandall, “our baby would quite probably be staring you in the face some morning over your bowl of Wheaties.”

Crandall is one of the 570 licensed private investigators working in Orange County, by state count. Across California, 5,619 men and women hold licenses as private investigators.

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Many are former law-enforcement workers, like Clow, who was an Army policeman, a Coronado policeman and then a San Diego County sheriff’s deputy before starting his own private investigations firm in 1984.

But some sort of drift into the job, like Crandall, who says he wound up as an investigator “quite by accident.” To fulfill a Cal State Fullerton course requirement, he worked as an investigator for the Orange County public defender’s office and stayed there full time for several years.

Then he quit to be an airline pilot, but ran into the oil crunches of the 1970s and a change in rules that allowed older pilots to keep flying longer, meaning there were far fewer jobs for hopefuls like Crandall. So he figured he’d try to be a lawyer, and worked as a private investigator in the meantime. Today he remains a PI.

Crandall investigates personal injury cases: Did the person suing for $1 million really hurt his back, or is he out playing football on weekends? He will follow a spouse if the other partner suspects infidelity, though he cautions that if you want to hire him for that, “I tell you to bring a wheelbarrow full of money.” He figures $1,000 to $2,000 for “a brief surveillance” should do it. He will track down missing children. And he does a lot of investigative work for defense attorneys, many of whom are appointed by judges to defend people accused of murder.

Crandall says that “plain and simple, it’s the job of the police and the prosecutors to get to the truth, but more importantly, to get a conviction.”

As a result, he believes that “sometimes you’re not getting the whole story from the police department. . . . It may just be they shut off (an) avenue of investigation because it didn’t mean anything to them anymore. But from the defense side, (when) you’re looking at a case and things look like they may be helping your client, but they just kind of stop, you know that that’s the place where you’d better start and just keep going.”

Clow does a lot of work for criminal defense lawyers too, going out to beat the bushes for witnesses who will help his client’s case--ideally, someone who can provide an airtight alibi.

“I enjoy working the criminal defense cases because that’s the closest thing to police work I think there is,” Clow said.

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In one case he recalled, a young man being defended by the lawyer who had hired Clow was a gang member who had been present at a fatal stabbing. He was charged as the murderer by prosecutors.

The defendant led Clow to a young woman who was also present at the stabbing but who had refused to talk to police. He started getting more details from her each time he talked with her. Eventually he told an investigator in the district attorney’s office that he had reached the point where the woman would tell him who the real killer was.

“I went out there and they wired me one time and spoke with her. And then the next time we had her come in” to the office. In the office with Clow was the prosecution’s investigator, who the woman thought was a lawyer.

“She thought she was talking to a defense attorney and helping the defendant,” Clow said. “And she was helping the defendant get off. But she never would have come forward and named the killer if she thought she was doing it for the police and the district attorney’s office.”

Although Clow and all the other investigators said they take pains to make sure they work within the law, he said he was sorry to have betrayed the woman’s trust.

“I had lied to her, but I was doing it because I was doing my job to clear a person who hadn’t done the stabbing, the person we were representing,” he said. “So I was torn between feeling good because he got off, and feeling bad because I put her in this position more or less of danger, where she had to name the killer and come forward and testify against him. And that was her whole reason she didn’t want to (talk to the police) in the beginning.”

When prosecutors charged the actual assailant with the murder, the woman refused to testify and disappeared. “She was just scared to death about testifying because she knew that when you testify against a gang member they’re going to retaliate,” Clow said. “Our guy got off. . . . But unfortunately there’s still a murderer walking around on the streets. . . .”

The murderer of Carl Lawson is still walking the streets too, but private investigator Toni K. Bovee is convinced that the killer isn’t her client--and a jury agreed.

Attorney Jack Earley said it was Bovee who persuaded him to handle the defense of Rami K. Darwiche, who was convicted of a 1981 murder and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole. After the California Supreme Court issued new rules on jury instructions, another appeals court overturned the verdict, giving Darwiche a new trial.

Bovee “really believed (Darwiche) was innocent, and she made a believer out of me,” Earley said. And last October Earley made a believer out of a second jury, which found Darwiche not guilty. The next day, in a highly unusual event, nine of the jurors in the second trial showed up for an Earley-hosted lunch at a Santa Ana restaurant to congratulate Darwiche and toast his future.

Darwiche and his 1981 roommate, Sam Monsoor, both admitted being in the car with Lawson, a Placentia hair salon owner, when Lawson was shot to death. But Monsoor and Darwiche blamed each other for the shooting. Monsoor was acquitted of the shooting at a separate trial.

Bovee said she believed one reason Darwiche was originally convicted was that “8 years ago there was a lot of political unrest with the Lebanese terrorists and I believe Rami was blamed.”

Bovee said a previous attorney for Darwiche had asked her to help on the case and the more she spoke with Darwiche and with people who knew him, the more she was convinced that he was telling the truth. “The things he said really fit the evidence,” Bovee said. “I didn’t get one bad interview about him.”

Like Crandall, Bovee once considered going to law school, and her first husband was a lawyer. After working for 7 years as a consultant who advised lawyers on what jurors to pick for trials, she said she decided that if she got a private investigator’s license she could do interviews herself on cases, rather than relying on others.

Bovee said that she starts off assuming a client is innocent and finds that when she gets deeply involved in a case, working until 10 p.m. and plowing through foot-high court files, it’s sometimes like reading a novel. “I just want to get to the next page, to see what’s next.”

One case she remembers was that of Robert Washington, a black man she believes was innocent but who was convicted of killing a woman.

“I think that was a case of prejudice,” Bovee said. “And that is something that runs rampant in Orange County. It’s underlying. It’s scary because it’s not on the surface. Like when you go to the South (for) jury selection, you know you’re dealing with hard-core prejudice. You know it. It’s out front. . . . But in Orange County, ‘we’re more sophisticated’ we like to think, and everybody sort of shoves their feelings under a lot of stuff. Attorneys have to work harder at getting that out, ferreting out that prejudice and bias. Yet, I like Orange County juries, I really do. . . . It’s just that it’s a little harder to get those things.”

While Bovee, Crandall and Clow do a lot of work for lawyers defending accused murderers, Dave Edgar prefers working for corporations concerned by such things as competitors pirating copyright material, and for individuals trying to get money owed to them.

In one recent case, Edgar said, a San Francisco man owed his ex-wife more than $60,000 and had been ordered by a court to pay up. The debtor refused to do so, saying he had no money.

Edgar said that when he learned the man was looking for investors for a business, he began writing to the San Franciscan, being careful not to let on that he was an investigator.

“This particular (man), he was looking for some financing,” Edgar said from his Tustin office. “And I was to become the middleman to help him get the financing. When we were done, over about a 3-week period, he had divulged all his financial data to us, thinking that we were going to help him get financing. We were just ‘individuals with contacts to someone who might help him.’ ” The information “is what our client needed in order to secure a writ to attach” the money the man was hiding.

Even after he knows where the money is and has tipped off his client, Edgar said, “we try to keep the scenario going so that the individual, after he has been hit by a writ, doesn’t suspect we had anything to do with it.”


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