Private Investigator David R. Sandberg makes one thing clear up front: He does not want to be known as a "gumshoe," one of those seedy characters made famous by mystery writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.
Unlike television private eyes, Sandberg said he has "never pulled a gun or done a take-down arrest," and, in 15 years of practice, he said "I've never paid people off or muscled people for information." Nor has he photographed a wayward spouse in flagrante delicto.
Instead, the 40-year-old, part-time college instructor is distinguished by his heavy reliance on computer investigations. He mines databases for information that helps him locate witnesses, refute prosecutors' allegations and create sympathetic profiles of defendants facing the possibility of death.
It is what Sandberg calls the "academic approach" to investigations, a method that separates him from the stereotypical retired cop, and the fictional gumshoes of TV and novels.
Sandberg, who has handled some of the highest profile murder cases in recent Orange County history, is currently applying his computer skills on behalf of Rodney King's efforts to win a civil judgment against the city of Los Angeles. But wait a minute! What's that on his desk, and on his business cards? It looks an awful lot like the Maltese Falcon, "the stuff that dreams are made of," in the famous words of Humphrey Bogart.
There are also three black stone birds in his office, including one cast from the movie's original mold. The walls are lined with more than two dozen posters, photos and caricatures of Bogart, and, sitting on a shelf is a dead ringer for Sam Spade's battered fedora.
Sandberg shrugs at the apparent contradiction, including his ambition to write mystery novels of his own one day.
"I liked his image in the movie," Sandberg said of Bogart's role in "The Maltese Falcon." "He was an honest man . . . but effective. I like that image. That's why I associate with the image."
The antithesis of Sam Spade, Sandberg is a family man and law school graduate who has not passed the bar exam. He presides over a high-tech agency across the street from the Orange County Courthouse that is crammed with computer consoles, loose-leaf instructional manuals and all the accouterments of modern investigation.
Although he made his reputation conducting murder investigations, Sandberg's 14-person firm is rapidly becoming more involved in investigations of business prospects and future spouses.
Rather than tough-guy dialogue, Sandberg prefers the high-tech language of electronic mail, mining databases for information on the public record and legally available through a variety of sources.
"I have my whole office in here," he said, gesturing to his small laptop computer notebook, an inseparable traveling companion.
Sandberg is especially proud of a software system he helped develop called "autocase," which organizes information on large, complex cases in a way that brings it to any attorney's fingertips.
"Managing the mass of documents that support a major trial is critical," Sandberg said, and attorneys he has worked for over the years agree.
"The cross referencing we were able to do because of his computer work really helped to keep everything straight," said attorney Gary Pohlson, who worked with Sandberg on a recent murder case he described as "very complicated."
"His work is excellent, very thorough," said John D. Barnett, another prominent Orange County criminal attorney who has worked with Sandberg.
Like many private investigators, Sandberg usually shuns the kind of attention that has come with the Rodney King case, despite the fact that he has worked on some of the highest profile murder cases in recent Orange County history.
These include the case of Richard L. DeHoyos, who was recently convicted of murder for killing a 9-year-old girl; Maria (Rosie) del Rosio Alfaro, an Anaheim woman sentenced to death for the murder of another 9-year-old girl; Randy Kraft, a Long Beach man sentenced to death for killing 16 Orange County men and boys; and Sheryl Lynn Massip, an Orange County mother convicted of second-degree murder by a jury for running over her newborn son, but later freed by a judge.
One of his most critical tasks, Sandberg said, can come after a client has been convicted of murder, and must face a second phase of trial to determine whether the death penalty is appropriate. The investigator uses all of his resources to create a portrait of the defendant and why he may have committed the killing.
In the DeHoyos case, for example, that meant traveling to Panama to pick up the threads of the Texas drifter's early life.
"Finding people in other countries is very difficult," Sandberg said. He and DeHoyos' lawyer, Milton Grimes, were able to locate 16 of the 18 people they needed as character witnesses and to corroborate DeHoyos' claim that he suffered brain damage in a fight in Panama. A jury, however, recommended that DeHoyos be put to death.
In all, Sandberg has investigated 60 capital murder cases, most of them on assignment from the county for indigent defendants. He estimates that about half of his workload comes from county assignments, but that he is paid at less than half the $70 per hour charge listed in his brochure for private clients.
Sandberg said it is his reliance on technology that makes working for the county economical, for himself and for the taxpayers.
The Bronx-born detective grew up in New York and New Jersey, spending several years in England and Spain with his mother and stepfather, who was in the military. Sandberg played basketball at the University of Connecticut, where he majored in political science and criminal justice.
After a stint as a probation officer in New Jersey, he took a job in Orange County as an investigator for the public defender's office. During his five years with the county, he attended Western State University's College of Law. Thanks, in part, to difficulties with the bar exam, Sandberg said, he avoided the "error" of becoming a lawyer.
Sandberg left the public defender's office in the early 1980s, and, through a colleague, met Grimes, who was representing his first defendant in a murder trial.
"There was a lot of chemistry there," Grimes recalled. "He seemed to be honest, intelligent and wanted to do a good job. He was always available any time I called," including midnight calls during trials.
"He really worked hard and tried to do a good job," Grimes said. "We got to be friends," and, as a result, Sandberg has handled all Grimes' murder cases since. For that reason, Grimes said he didn't think twice about asking Sandberg to do the Rodney King investigation.
"I have an immense amount of trust and confidence in him," Grimes said.
"He's very cordial," Grimes said. "Very personable. He does not have that ex-cop approach to people, which often comes off as an attitude of superiority or intimidation. That's a plus in this business. There's a skill in using tact in getting them to open up."
Sandberg's computer organization, Grimes said, "saves a lot time. It's very good for retrieving and double-checking information.
Sandberg is quick to acknowledge that much of his success is due to his relationship with Grimes, though the partnership is a "demanding" one.
"He has driven me to reach greatness for him," Sandberg said. "He can trust me. I get business done for him."
Sandberg eschews physical disguises, another staple of television detectives.
"I can't fit in in a barrio," said Sandberg, a tall, stocky man with a high forehead and a short mane of brown hair that hangs below his collar. "I don't try to do that."
Sandberg declined to discuss firearms, saying only that "I have never been in a position where common sense did not avoid a confrontation."
While many detective agencies like to hire retired police officers, Sandberg said he looks for "anybody with a good, strong, creative desire to gather information," including young college graduates and student interns.
Most of all, Sandberg said, he likes the variety of experience that comes with being a private investigator.
"Never have I disliked coming to my office," he said. "I have never been bored."