Time for a word about private investigators.
TV dramas of the past left the impression that the primary reason to hire a PI is to tail an unfaithful spouse. There was always the obligatory scene in which a semi-shady-looking private detective appeared with a stack of 8-by-10-inch photos as proof of infidelity and slithered away with a check from the not-so-shocked husband or wife.
Certainly, that is one of the services a PI can provide, but today licensed private detectives are much more valuable than just that.
These days, police departments are too busy, underfunded and undertrained to follow up on every complaint. Corporate espionage, computer hacking, identity theft and missing persons reports abound, and it is the ranks of private investigators that often come to the rescue.
Private detectives can also offer a valuable extra set of eyes when it comes to reviewing old police files and, specifically, working to help those who were wrongfully convicted.
Take the PI team of super-sleuths Bob Rahn and Kim Anklin of Management Resources Ltd. They are the unsung heroes in the recent case of exonerated prisoner Jonathan Fleming, who spent 25 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.
In August 1989, a man named Darryl Rush was murdered outside a Brooklyn, N.Y., housing project. Fleming’s car was seen speeding away from the scene, and an eyewitness said she saw Fleming. At trial, the jury heard evidence that Fleming was 1,000 miles away — in Orlando, Fla., with his family — at the time of the murder. His attorney produced airplane tickets, video, photos and hotel and telephone receipts, and several members of the Fleming family testified that Jonathan was with them at Disney World when the murder took place.
But the prosecutor maintained that there were 53 different flights Fleming could have taken back to New York to commit the crime and that he then could have quickly returned to Florida. Despite the fact that no evidence was ever produced showing Fleming took any extra flights, he was convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
Fleming’s mother never gave up the fight to free her son. Over the years, she hired a couple of different private detectives, who took her money but did little. Finally, last year, the family found the PI team of Rahn and Anklin.
“We took a small retainer for a few weeks worth of work,” Anklin told me.
They started their investigation by poring over a boxful of old legal files, including the original police reports, which revealed solid leads never pursued. Rahn and Anklin visited the crime scene, took measurements and realized the eyewitness could never have seen the murder from her vantage point. After they tracked her down, she admitted she had been high on crack that night and had recanted her statement to police three weeks after the murder.
“We realized pretty quickly that Jonathan didn’t do it,” Rahn said. “There just was no physical evidence except that one faulty eyewitness.”
The retainer soon ran out, but this dogged team decided it just couldn’t abandon the case.
“Jonathan’s mother begged us to keep working,” Anklin said. “And I told Bob, ‘This case is going to haunt us the rest of our lives if we don't do something.’” During their frequent phone calls with Jonathan, they promised to keep working to help win his freedom.
The PIs discovered that buried within a police report was the name of a witness who was never mentioned in court. They tracked her down, and she said she had told police the murder occurred right outside her window. She had seen three men looking for the victim (one had a gun in his waistband) and heard the victim being menaced by them right before the fatal shot. She had given police two of the men’s names, but detectives never followed up, thinking she was not trustworthy.
Rahn and Anklin also found a witness who swore that right after the murder, she had seen the trio and overheard their conversation.
“She heard them say to each other, ‘Is he dead?’ and ‘How many times did you shoot him?’” Rahn explained. One of the men was her brother, and she said that when she later confronted them, they admitted to committing the murder. The jury never heard this witness, either.
The PIs reported their findings to the Brooklyn district attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit, and together they set out for South Carolina to question one of the three men. Almost unbelievably, he confessed to his part in the murder and identified the other two guilty parties. He also admitted he had been the one seen fleeing the scene that night in Fleming’s car. Fleming had entrusted him with the keys while he vacationed in Florida.
On April 7, 2014 — exactly one year after Rahn and Anklin took the case — Fleming, now 51, was exonerated by a judge and walked free. His lawyers are now suing “everyone,” as they put it. If they win a monetary settlement, Rahn and Anklin expect they will finally be compensated for the more than 1,000 hours of pro bono work they put in on the case.
Naturally, not all private investigators are so honest and devoted. And most won’t work without being paid. But this pair has suggestions should you ever need to hire a PI. First, check out PIs on the Internet.
“Make sure they are properly licensed,” Rahn said. “See if they have any complaints against them. Ask for references from the PI, and call them. And any investigator worth their salt is going to be a member of a professional organization — probably more than one.” Also, check to see that the investigator has experience in working your type of case.
“Google is your best friend,” Anklin said. “But use your common sense with what you find out. And ask a lot of questions — just like the Flemings did with us.”
— Diane Dimond is the author of Be Careful Who You Love: Inside the Michael Jackson Case. Contact her at [email protected], follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.