Personal Stories of America at Work
Private investigator Nancy Poss-Hatchl uncovers hidden facts to help straighten out tangled lives
Undercover with a soldering iron
I have a B.S. in Chemistry and an M.A. in Anthropology. I was looking for work after a divorce from my husband of twenty years. While I was married, I was primarily a homemaker. After the divorce, I wanted to be as independent and autonomous as possible. It was 1974, and I needed to develop a career, though my children were still young teenagers.
A friend of mine was a secretary for some private investigators. They had an opening for an undercover operator who was bilingual, and I am fluent in Spanish. They had me go undercover into a small electronics factory where three employees had died from a drug overdose. They wanted to know if there was a drug ring operating within the company. I worked as an undercover operator under a pseudonym and with a fake address.
I was hired as a manufacturing employee. During the next three months, I learned to solder and discovered that there was in fact a drug ring operating at the company. Every Friday, on payday, they would pass out little packets of whatever drug you wanted in the restrooms. They took orders. Cash or check. It was like a store. Much of the middle management, including the manager and supervisors, were involved in the operation.
Only the president, vice president, and head of security knew that I was an undercover worker. One day they called me and said, “Don’t go back to work.” There was concern of a leak, and they feared I would be attacked if I went in. But with the information I gathered, they were able to bring in the police to go into the restrooms on payday and arrest the people with the goods.
The case of the runaway forklift
After that first case, I wanted to get into something a little less hazardous, especially as I still had fairly young kids. I was hired as an insurance investigator. Insurance defense work has been the backbone of my business. I also do corporate work, like when corporations are merging and want to check out the other business and its people.
A company can hire for workers’ comp, or an explosion in the factory—I’ve had so many cases that they blur together. I had one case with a brand-new forklift. It careened down a hill. The brakes went out, there was no control, and the driver was killed. It flipped over at a construction site. I got there when the dust was just settling. The OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] people arrived at the same time. I looked at what happened, took photos, and interviewed people. The worker who was killed had been removed. I found the trail of the brake fluid spurting, so I knew that the brake line had failed. I took photos of that and showed them to the OSHA inspector. It was a brand-new forklift, so it wasn’t supposed to have brake line failures. I took the broken brake line into evidence. Apparently, it was made improperly and was a different brand than the others. It looked like a replacement had been stuck in. I couldn’t begin to guess why. I took it into possession, signed it into an engineering lab that tested it. That was the story. What the outcome was, I don’t know. I imagine the brake line company was sued by the widow.
In cases like that, you have to look into how many children the victim has. Do they have an elderly mother they were supporting? Ex-wives who they were supporting with alimony? Any illegitimate children? Any full-grown children, perhaps with special needs? All of these people potentially have claims. I look into the whole history. Insurance companies hate surprises. They like to look at everything when they’re looking at a claim: the good, the bad, and the ugly. When you die on the job, especially in a workers’ comp situation, the people you’re supporting are called “qualified dependents.” I had a man who was electrocuted in a factory, who had three mistresses and two wives. He was a busy guy! They have to prove the support with banking records.
Robberies, accidents, and attempted murders—all in a day’s work
When they were building the World Trade Center in Downtown L.A., a crane knocked a construction trailer off a cliff. Everybody inside the trailer was killed: secretaries, Human Resources people, people employed by various contractors. We looked at the crane: Was it leased? Who manufactured it? What history did it have? Who owned the land? Who was the developer? Who was the general contractor? All these people have potentially deep pockets. And they all get together, and they all have their attorneys, and the attorneys all have their investigators. We had meetings for months, from the day of the accident. It’s different from what a police detective looks at, because I’m not necessarily trying to prove innocence or guilt. I’m looking at the whole situation. Who, what, where, why, when. I’m looking at the whole story, but without the intent to prosecute. It’s just like an investigative reporter.
I have been to meetings where we discuss the profile of a typical private investigator. Most of us, if we’re good, have a tendency to dissociate. Almost like a counselor. We dissociate from the troubles at hand, and from the people, like spies do. We pull ourselves back.
One case I had was attempted murder on the high seas. I had to go down to Pier 41 in Long Beach Harbor. I represented one of the big shipping companies. It was a container ship registered in the Marshall Islands. These huge ships run with very small crews, only about ten to twelve people. The skipper was British. The first mate was the one attacked, and he was Irish. The assailant was Polish. He was fifty-one years old, alienated, strange, and withdrawn. He stabbed the first mate at the helm about fifteen times. I have a theory that perhaps he was a serial killer who could have gone berserk like this many times before at sea and disposed of the bodies.
I took the bloody knife into possession and had it tested for DNA to prove that it was the blood of the victim. We took the assailant’s clothing into possession and had it tested as well. The minute I got on board, they took me to see him and unlocked the padlocked door where he’d been secured. I was the first person he’d seen since the attack. I don’t think he expected to see a little old lady. He seemed more frightened of me than I was of him. I said, “Can I take your picture?” He didn’t speak English very well. They asked if I wanted to take him with me off the ship. I said, “No, I’m sorry. I’m not prepared to take him home.” He was under admiralty law. He had to go to the federal court, to a special branch for crimes out of the area where he was held for extradition.
It’s interesting, when I look back, that I wasn’t fearful going into that man’s room. There were other people around. I wasn’t facing this wild, crazy guy by myself. But generally, I’m not fearful when doing my work. I feel curious. I never feel scared until later when I can look back.
The only case I really got emotionally involved in was when I found my birth mother. I was adopted. My parents who raised me were wonderful people. I wasn’t looking for anyone to “save” me. But my daughter was expecting, and she and her doctor were interested in getting more of my medical history.
After some unsuccessful leads, I eventually found my birth mother through my birth father. He told me her sisters’ names, and their married names and husbands’ names. So I tracked them down and eventually found her. My birth mother was still alive, and in fact still is. She’s now ninety-six years old and learning to play the piano. For a long time, I called her by her first name, but now I call her Mom. I have a whole fistful of relatives.
I don’t do much advertising. My focus is more on screening my referrals. There are too many people who have called and said they want to find someone, perhaps claiming that the person is a dear old school friend. But what they really want to do is snuff her out or break her legs or something. So I really screen the client. If I’m looking for someone, I get permission from the person to give their location to the client.
For example, a father hired me to find his daughter. Years ago my client had come home from work to his wife and baby girl, only to find that his wife had moved everything out of the house and she went off with another man. On top of that, she told her husband if he ever tried to find her, she’d call the police and say that he beat her up, which was a lie. When I found this man’s daughter, she told me that her mother was an evil witch. She said that her mother would never forgive her if she found out that the daughter and her father were in touch. The daughter asked me to tell my client that, “You were a good father and I love you, but as long as my mother is alive, I can’t have any relationship with you.” When I told him what she said, he was strangely comforted.
Privacy laws and technology have brought huge changes to my profession. When I started in this business, everything was wide open: the voters’ records, the criminal records, police records. You talked to the police, and they gave you whatever information you wanted. You could run plates and drivers’ licenses. Little by little these things have been sealed. So the best way to find out about people is by interviewing them and their references.
Just look at the changes word processing and the Internet have brought. I go out and take a picture, upload it to my computer, and send it to my client back on the East Coast. I no longer have to run around buying film, taking it to developers, rushing it through, getting copies made, and sending them out. I’ve never met most of my clients face to face. Some are in Europe. Some are in Asia.
There are a lot of myths around my profession. People want me to kick down doors and beat people up. They think that I’ll wiretap. They think I can get into people’s bank accounts, which is actually a federal offense. I obey the law and fight for it. Like others in my industry, I want to be respected for my ethics and good work, and I am.
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The Working Chronicles
The Working Chronicles captures an intimate look at work in 21st century America through candid interviews with people from all walks of life and all corners of the country.
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