Gumshoe Diaries

Peeping in keyholes with a few of Knoxville's finest private investigators

Dan Derrick, P.I., watches intently through the tinted windows of his silvery late-model sedan, an urban hunter in an air-conditioned duck-blind. Ensconced inconspicuously in a busy bank parking lot in Athens, Tenn., his eyes are trained like precision gunsights on the doors of an unsuspecting convenience mart across the street.

Derrick's quarry--Mr. X, a local factory worker suspected of fraud in a Worker's Compensation case--is prowling inside. In mere seconds the alleged chiseler will exit the store, climb into a junker pick-up, and putter back to his suburban home less than a mile away. "His back doesn't look so bad now," Derrick mutters as the man saunters out of the quick-mart lugging a heavy black gas can.

Then the president and co-founder of Knoxville's IPS Investigations flips out a cellular phone and conducts a careful, deliberately sketchy conversation with Tony, the IPS agent who has been shadowing X's every move since early morning. "Did you see that gas can? I'll bet he's going to mow the lawn," Derrick says when Tony's white minivan pulls up next to him in a nearby vacant lot. "Get in; we'll use my car."

The two men quickly hitch an elastic rope to the four corners of Derrick's car ceiling, a makeshift clothesline from which they drape a voluminous black curtain between the front and back seats. When Tony crawls into the back with 8 mm Sony camcorder in hand, the drape blocks out the sunlight beaming intrusively through the front windshield, effectively casting a cloak of invisibility over the duo's undercover video operation. "The whole key to this spying stuff is back-light," Derrick chuckles as he sets out for Mr. X's home.

As predicted, Derrick and Tony find their target grinding away at the knotty terrain of his back yard with a sizable push-mower, stooping and thrusting and wrenching in a manner most astonishing for a man whose lumbar region is allegedly in a state of wretched disrepair. Unfortunately, Derrick can't find a suitably secretive vantage from which to capture the show on tape.

"I'm just going to park right up near him and talk to this old fellow," he says after a couple of fruitless passes, easing up next to an elderly gent on a green lawn tractor with a billowing yard-bag attachment. The parking spot, as luck would have it, affords Tony an unobstructed view of Mr. X next door.

"Excuse me, sir, I'm looking for Johnny Powers' house," Derrick says as he gets out of the vehicle, speaking loudly over the locust din of mowers and milking his gentle East Tennessee drawl for all it's worth. "He lives somewhere over here off Sydney Street."

The old man in overalls and a John Deere cap looks up with a quizzical smile, puzzled but not at all displeased to have the company. With a little prompting from the affable Derrick, he's soon expounding on the likely whereabouts of the fictional Mr. Powers, the minutiae of neighborhood geography, and the efficacy of yard-bag attachments ("My wife's been after me to get one of these things...Well, only trouble is you gotta bag it up yeself.")

All the while, Tony crouches unseen in the rear of the sedan, furtively filming away. And less than 50 feet beyond the conversants, Mr. X mows on, blithely unaware that he is razing over his disability claim as if it were a particularly stubborn tuft of crabgrass, dicing up his compensation check in the churning rotary blades at his feet.

When the ruse finally plays itself out, Derrick climbs back in the car and learns that the conversation allowed his partner to capture on tape some five minutes of Mr. X's lawn aerobics--evidence that will almost surely put an end to his extended company-funded vacation. "This is pretty close to hall-of-fame footage," Tony enthuses.

"Hot dang," Derrick exclaims. "Now that's how surveillance is supposed to work."

Subterfuge and surveillance notwithstanding, Derrick's moment of exhilaration was preceded by days of laborious legwork and hurry-up-and-wait tedium. And the broad-shouldered 40-ish former Knoxville police officer says such less-than-glamorous scenarios are fairly representative of what most private investigators really do.

"It ain't like you see on TV," says Mike Cohan, the ex-cop who founded Cohan Investigation upon his retirement from KPD in the mid-1980s. "Someone once said that if you would like a job sitting in a van for hours either burning up or freezing to death, then this is the business for you."

"When I hire new investigators, I always ask them whether they hunt or fish," says Jack Lakin, founder of Private Consultants and Investigations on Gay Street. "If they hunt or fish, I know they have the patience for this job. It's exciting, but in a different way from being a police officer. For the police, your excitement is right there, fighting crime on the spot. We're in the shadows. You don't know we're there until we show up in court."

According to Cohan, private detectives in Knoxville (of which there are more than 30, listed under either "detectives" or "private investigators" in the local Yellow Pages) are licensed by the Tennessee Private Investigators Commission, a 6-year-old governing board that screens applicants and conducts mandatory continuing education classes (on investigative techniques, ethics, and points of law) for all licensees.

Most P.I.s work primarily in three areas, says Cohan--criminal defense investigation, domestic surveillance (usually in instances of suspected infidelity), and disability fraud. Although Cohan himself prefers criminal defense work, he says Worker's Comp is the mainstay for most investigators. "About 80 percent of the people who went to work as private investigators this morning probably went and followed someone with a video camera in a disability case."

What most private detectives don't do, says Cohan, is pick locks, bust heads, wield weapons, or otherwise take the law into their own hands. "I don't carry a gun," he says. "If I'm in a situation where I think I might need a gun, all you're gonna see is the Toyota logo on my tailgate, 'cause I'm going to get in my truck and leave."

Another local investigator makes a finer distinction. Noting that many P.I.s are former policemen, he says the vigilante's instinct is often stronger in those who lack law enforcement experience.

"You can usually break them down into 'wannabe-cops' and 'used-to-be-cops.'" he says. "The wannabes tend to want a piece of the action and wear their attitude on their shoulder. The used-to-bes are more laid back. They know the law, and they know their limits."

"You have to be real careful in what you do," adds Cohan. "We probably do drive erratically on occasion, but we don't break into anything, and wire-tapping will get you a trip to the state pen. If we did most of what they do on television, we'd lose our license and go straight to jail."

If most private investigators live quietly, skulking in shadows, leery of the limelight, then Gary Litton just isn't like most P.I.s. From his hammered gold watch and goiter-sized jeweled rings to his plush potpourri-scented office to his manic, rapid-fire speech, everything about this carefully-coifed 55-year-old former Sears appliance salesman bespeaks glamour, excitement, pizzazz.

On any given morning, Litton is rarely off the phone for more than three minutes at a time, sometimes speaking into two receivers at once, checking in with sleep-deprived investigators even as he holds anxious clients on the line. Rising and falling with the level of his excitement, his tommy-gun salesman's patter is peppered with homespun aphorisms, punctuated by superfluous okays and you knows.

"A man's like a monkey swinging through the trees, you know," he tells one woman. "He won't let go of what he's got 'til he gets a firm grip on what he wants."

To another: "Women don't miss when they suspect these things. God gave 'em good instincts. Men will base it on stuff like a new hairstyle or a trip to the tanning bed. But women see what's going on, you know."

Of the 350 cases Litton and his team of investigators tackled in 1996, some 200 involved domestic surveillance, an area where Litton claims singular expertise. "I've been doing this 24 years, and I'm telling you this is how it works," he tells a client, barking into a cellular phone. "I know how these deals go, okay?"

Litton explains that in domestic work, private investigators rarely catch their quarry in flagrante delicto (in other words, no peeping in keyholes). And for the most part, they don't need to. In divorce cases, most judges require only that the wronged party establish intent (i.e. that a husband has lied to his wife about his activities) and show evidence of a compromising situation (perhaps video of a couple entering a hotel room together) to prove infidelity.

But he adds that domestic cases are nonetheless uniquely volatile in the world of private investigation, fueled at once by all of mankind's strongest and basest drives--fear, lust, greed, hatred, and jealousy. He says he and his employees have been in dangerous situations "many, many, many times" over the years. "It's not a very frequent thing, you know, but lately it seems to happen more often than not."

And with little provocation, Litton will empty his casefile (leaving out clients' names, of course), weaving lurid tales of SWAT teams and tear gas, suicides and shootings, bank robbers on the lam, and kinky sex in cheap motels. He remembers the woman who "popped her husband's girlfriend--dead, dead, dead!" Or the Alcoa wife who "went in and shot up a place. That got out of hand."

But because of such volatility, and because the details of some incidents are easily recognizable, he prefers to keep most of his adventures out of print. "I could write a book, but I'm not ready to write a book right now," he says. "You've got to be careful with these deals, you know?"

Litton admits the P.I. business can be lucrative. Working more than 300 cases per year, he charges a minimum of $500 per job. That kind of volume at that price has helped finance a well-furnished nine-room office space off Chapman Highway, a staff of seven investigators and two secretaries, a stable of Wave-runners and Harley motorcycles, and even the lavish, high-powered nitro funny cars he races on weekends (one of the plaques on his wall commemorates a third place world points finish in International Hot Rod Association competition).

It's also helped Litton become perhaps one of the best-equipped investigators in town, armed with Pro Trak digital tracking devices (for following cars), radio scramblers, noise generators (to foil potential eavesdroppers), DTMF phone number decoders, state-of-the-art video editing equipment, and even his own UHF frequency. "I've got more tools and toys than anyone out there."

But Litton says the bottom line in his business isn't so much the gadgets, gimmicks, and gew-gaws, but rather the service he provides to desperate, emotionally distraught clients. "We sell peace of mind, okay?" he says. "We give our client a chance to get in the driver's seat.

"He wants a divorce; she's still madly in love with him. She hasn't worked in 30 years; he has. He goes into court saying, 'I'm lily-white pure and I never cheated on my wife and family.' Then we come in and say, 'Not so.' It's trial by ambush, you know? The truth shall set you free."

If Litton is the Vegas showman and carnie barker of local P.I.s, then Cohan is the mannered country gentleman. Lanky as a marionette, well-dressed in white shirt and suspenders, with a speckled beard and thinning reddish hair that converges on a sharp widow's peak, Cohan stresses that most of his jobs consist of "writing down what people say, being as pleasant as possible, and getting out of there.

"I've spoken to folks at the law school from time to time, and I'm fond of telling them that, 'If you just use the manners your mama taught you, you'll be just fine.'"

Unlike Litton, Cohan devotes only a small portion of his work week to domestic cases; he believes videotapes and surveillance notes often do little for clients' court battles and even less for their state of mind.

"Domestic work is the worst part of this business and the part that concerns me most," says Cohan, almost disdainfully. "It's very costly, and judges often don't even care. I tell my clients, 'You need either a lawyer or a marriage counselor. Do that and then you can call me back.' I can't sell you peace of mind. People think they'll catch 'em in the act and then talk about it, and then we'll all get back together. I tell them, 'Folks, it ain't gonna happen.'"

Disillusioned with his work after 10 years with state and city police, Cohan left the Tennessee Highway Patrol and stumbled into his current vocation in 1986 when an old friend hired him to do legwork for his law firm. Cohan's reputation spread through the local legal community, and now he says 90 percent of his caseload consists of criminal defense investigation.

And it's been a helluva ride. Since earning his P.I.'s license, Cohan has canvassed witnesses in child abuse cases, robberies, sex crimes, and killings, including more than 60 murders in the last 12 years. "Murder doesn't come pretty," he says. "I've seen it done every way you can think of."

Most of his jobs boil down to legwork and simple Q&A; only once in his civilian experience has he been in a situation where he felt less than safe--when, during surveillance for a case involving industrial wrong-doing, he found himself trapped by an employee in a pick-up on a one-lane dead-end road. "I did something stupid and got caught," he remembers with disgust. "This guy just kept getting closer and closer, staring at me. But then he slipped up and gave me just enough space to get by. All he saw was 'Toyota', 'cause I was in the car and gone."

But for Cohan, who spent the formative years of his workaday life putting criminal perpetrators behind bars rather than finding reasons to let them out, the most eye-opening facet of P.I. work has been the unflinching perspective it affords of life's gray areas and ambiguities--a perspective that sees people as morally complicated creatures, with hidden virtues and mitigated vices, rather than as simple vessels of guilt or innocence.

"It was initially astounding to me, as an old policeman, to think I could work with the other side of the equation," he says. "To police and prosecutors, Charlie is just a burglar. Now I deal with Charlie, his mama, and his little kid who won't see him again if he goes to prison. And if you get to talking to Charlie long enough, you'll find he has redeeming qualities, even if he did what they say he did. We deal more with the human side, putting some warm blood back in cold-blooded murder."

Then he pauses, perhaps allowing a little bit of the Old Cop inside him to resurface, and adds with a chuckle: "Of course, with some people, you can't find any redeeming social value."

A petite, attractive blonde in her late 30s, Denise, and her young 20-ish female companion walked into one of Johnson City's less reputable drinking establishments eager to watch a popular local heavy metal band strut its stuff. But the two women were interested in more than just poodle haircuts and power chords; they were anxious to see whether the group's young lead howler was in as much pain as he had led his day-job employer to believe.

When the singer emerged shirtless in suffocatingly tight leather pants, nails, lips, and lids painted lustrous black, prowling the stage like a panther in heat over the band's cacophonous din, Denise knew she'd made her case.

"The first thing he does is wiggle his butt, fling himself backwards, and hang off the stage by his legs," Denise chuckles. "Then he got up, dove into the audience, and started slam-dancing."

Between songs, the women asked the budding rock deity if they could videotape his performance (under the pretense that Denise's son was a fan). Not only did the youth grant permission, says Denise, he staged a command performance that forever etched itself in her memory--as well as in the 8 mm tape that would later break his case.

"At one point, he literally knocked over the table next to us, leaped up onto ours, and started gyrating," she says. "It was a hoot. When we watched the tape later, all you could see was his crotch waving back and forth in the video."

Perhaps Knoxville's only self-employed female private investigator, Denise (she prefers not to use her full name lest she jeopardize her anonymity in the field) broke into the business eight years ago when she was interviewed by Cohan about a fraudulent physician she had seen. The daughter of a law enforcement family, she started talking shop with the former cop, who convinced her that her gender would be an asset in his line of work.

And he was right. Whereas most male investigators rely on shelter and subterfuge, conducting cumbersome surveillance operations from ill-positioned buildings and discreetly-parked vans, Denise says she often works in plain sight of her target.

"Women can get away with ten times more things than men," she says. "I'll drive into a neighborhood on a sunny day, grease up, and sun myself on the hood of my car for six or eight hours at a time, and neighbors just smile and wave.

"Women are less threatening, so it's much more likely someone will let us in the door and answer our questions," she continues, and then adds with a sultry smile, "And if I sit next to a man in a bar, the last thing he's liable to think is that I'm a private investigator."

By the same token, she says some of East Tennessee's backwater troughs are better-suited to intrepid male specimens than to a small, unarmed woman. "I don't much like working in Newport, Oneida, or LaFollette," she says with a droll grin. "But I won't take a case where I think I might be in any real danger."

Like many local P.I.s, Denise relies mostly on word-of-mouth and attorney's referrals to find work--her business number isn't even listed in the Knoxville directory. She's versatile; her caseload is split broadly between employee fraud, domestics, and criminal defense.

And she's no stranger to the tricks of her trade--she keeps a pile of wigs, glasses, hats, and clothing accessories handy in her trunk ("another thing about being a woman--it's very easy to change your looks"), and often uses video or audio recording equipment to catch frauds and philanderers in the act. (She once recorded a violent encounter between a man and his abusive wife over a cellular phone that sat unnoticed on the dashboard of the man's car.)

But Denise values wits over widgets; she says her most important tools are her instincts, her senses, and an ever-present pad and pen. "I stick to the basics--me, my eyes, and my ears. Because just when you're really depending on that tape recorder video camera, it'll break down. I believe in notes, notes, notes."

So what motivates these men and women to put in long hours in decidedly uncomfortable places in the service of truth and alimony--to endure hot cars, seedy bars, and bad company just so they can tape, snap, scribble down, and otherwise commit to record the often wretched and debased details of someone else's life?

Reasons seem to vary. There's a certain stripe of benevolence involved, to be sure; Jack Lakin speaks with obvious emotion when he remembers the mother and daughter he reunited after a particularly ugly domestic kidnapping case. And Cohan, the hard-line blue-suit turned witness for the defense, proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that it's never too late for an old hound to learn new tricks.

For some, there's also an undeniable element of thrill-seeking and voyeurism, a giddy sense of anticipation that no matter how long and tedious a surveillance may be, there's always the promise of an exhilarating pay-off or an undisclosed secret at the end. As Litton says, "It's a fascinating deal."

And given that most private investigators charge a minimum of $50 per hour (plus expenses), and seem to have little problem finding work, the business offers to its more successful practitioners unquestionable financial rewards.

But according to Lakin, the mathematics of private investigation involves a whole lot more than just dollars and cents. "There are 200 or 300 policemen in Knoxville, and when you look at the number of criminals and frauds out there, they're way outnumbered."

As he speaks, Lakin is sitting in minivan in a dank parking garage on a chilly morning, waiting for a suspected disability cheat to show up at an appointment--and perhaps show his hand. Lakin has spent the last five days following the man, learning his habits, filming his movements, waiting sometimes 10 hours at a time for that one tell-tale slip that, when captured on camera, will make a world of difference to the employer that pays his bills.

"There are some things that public authorities will never be able to keep up with. And as long as those things go on, people will always be able to turn to us."

© 1997 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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