Legal Legs- A Nashville Investigative Firm

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The Huntsville Times | Nashville Scene | Cosmopolitan

September 1993
Article by Ellis Henican

Want The Crime But Not the Punishment?
Try Picturing Yourself As An Intrepid Private Eye!

Scrap that tough talking, hard-drinking, macho image. These days, a gumshoe can wear heels, carry a silver-handled gun, coolly sip Evian!

It was high noon in Miami- too late for the breakfast special, too early for a drink. For the third day in a row, Diana Cordoba, a blond, twenty-seven-year-old private investigator, was sitting in her red Camaro on a suburban side street, watching the house across the way. The camcorder on the seat next to her was loaded and ready to roll. Ditto the still camera in her lap. The sun bore down like an angry high-school hall monitor. She had light. Cameras. But no action.

Nashville Area Private Investigators

Diana knew he was in there. From time to time, she could see a lamp go on in the living room. Every now and then, she heard his muffled voice talking into the phone. Still, the front door stayed sealed shut like a Ziploc baggie. Why wasn't he making an appearance? Maybe his story was true and he had gotten all banged up from that car accident, she thought. Or else he was the biggest couch slug in all of south Florida. Either way, she'd find out.

This should've been a quick, textbook insurance case. Meat-and-potatoes stuff for a seasoned P.I. like Diana. Subject claims he's been hurt in a rear-end accident and files a huge insurance claim. Neck pain. Back pain. Vertebrae as crooked as a mail-order scam. Client- the insurance company- has major doubts as to his injuries. Dispatches Cordoba to bring back evidence of his suffering- or lack thereof. Easy, except...

Two hours later, still no activity. Frustrated, Cordoba rolled up the car window, flicked on the radio, and decided to haul it in. The day was young- and so was she. First she figured she'd take a little drive around nearby Tropical Park to clear her head. She had been cruising for barely twenty minutes when she saw something strange.

Up ahead, on the side of the road.

Mr. Couch Slug, Mr. Whiplash, Mr. Take-me-out-of-my-misery, steaming uphill on a ten-speed racing bike like he was in the final stages of Olympic training.

How did he manage to get out of the house? Cordoba wondered wildly. Did he sneak out the back door? Did he just happen to leave the minute she drove away? Then again, who cared? She had spotted her prey. And now she had no choice but to shoot.

She moved the car up behind him, trying not to seem threatening. He glanced back, slowed down a little, gave her the once-over, twice. Who was this doll? he flashed her a big, flirty grin. Cordoba smiled back. She reached for the video camera and held it out the window, hoping this wouldn't scare him off. No such (bad) luck. He started waving at the camera. He road with no hands. He steered with his feet. Mr. Bedridden was really a big fat show-off. And she was getting every one of his tricks on tape. So much for his insurance claim. She finally put down the camera and drove away. Case closed.

You can keep your Sam Spades, your Philip Marlowes, your Jake Gitties. Forget about the tough-talking, whiskey-slugging, trench-coat-toting private dicks of yore. These days, in the real world, gumshoes sometimes wear heels, carry silver-handled guns, and opt for brains over brawn. Sometimes they even drink Evian. Yeah, you got it, they're broads. Dames. Skirts. You know, women.

All over America, gumshod girls like Diana Cordoba are moving into the tough guy world of private detectives. They're snooping on unfaithful husbands, chasing down deadbeats, digging in dusty courthouse record rooms, yanking information out of people like so many toothpicks from a club sandwich. They're doing what used to be a man's job- in a way only a woman can.

"You have to take the fact that you're female and use it to your advantage," says Cordoba, who's had her own detective agency for three years now. "When I knock on someone's door for a statement, they're not intimidated by me, so they are less likely to run off or freak out. If I want to infiltrate an area, I'll put on a pair of shorts, a tank top, and pull my hair into a ponytail. Right away, I look like I'm barely legal. Men are big flirts, you know," she says with a laugh. "They love helping little girls."

Big girls too.

Valerie Finello is a tall, immaculately groomed thirty-five-year-old P. I. with just the tiniest hint of a Brooklyn accent. She contemplates her cheese omelet in a diner near City Hall. "You want to know the hardest thing about doing a surveillance in New York City?" she asks. "It's not that the bad guys here are any worse than the bad guys anywhere else. The biggest problem is the traffic. You're right behind someone in your car. You think you've got them nailed. Then you get cut off by a cab. Or a bus. Or a police car. You really want to scream."

Usually, Finello is calmer than this. She has to be, given some of the tight spots she's found herself in. Like the day she was tracking a young woman- the wife of her client, who was in the midst of an ugly divorce case. The woman got into the car of a midlevel drug dealer. For most of an hour, Finello stayed on their tail. It wasn't until both cars were stopped at red light that trouble began.

The man leapt out of the car. He strode angrily up to Finello's window and shouted, "Why are you following me?" As he spoke, his hand slid menacingly down to his waistband and patted it. She wouldn't bet her colorist's life on it, but she could have sworn he was packing a piece.

"I'm not," Finello answered carefully, reaching slowly for her own licensed .38. Technically speaking, it was an honest answer. She wasn't following him; he was following her. Then again, drug dealers aren't known for their attention to technicalities. At any rate, he seemed satisfied with her reply. He stormed back to his car and sped away. Finello stayed put. "I let them go," she says. "I had gotten enough for one day."

Feeling the heat is nothing unusual for this lady sleuth- unlike many female P. I.'s, Finello spent five years on the beat as a New York City cop before going into business for herself. In both jobs, she's learned how to stay low, keep quiet, get tough, and blend in. Good thing too. In the course of her present career, she's had to follow drug dealers in and out of crack houses. She's had to make friends with lowlifes and once posed as a prostitute. "We were hired by the owner of a bus company that time," Finello recalls. "There was a driver who was suspected of spending part of his workday picking up hookers." So she dressed (in)appropriately and waited on his route to see if he would make a move on her. He did. And she took him for a ride- via the police department.

Hey, you can beat a drum, you can beat an egg- but you can't beat a woman for getting the job done right. Finello's own agency has hired an increasing number of women for part-time work. "We worked with one twenty-year-old college student who was a great investigator," Finello recounts. "I put her in a school yard. She hung out, had a soda, asked around, and found the kid we were looking for right away. And in Florida, we paid two young girls fifty dollars each to have a flat tire in front of this guy's house. He came right out to help." Another insurance case, like Cordoba's Another stinking fraud.

According to Finello, "Women have so many advantages over men. On a surveillance, we can disappear into the scenery. We can disguise ourselves- put on a hat, use makeup, wear dark glasses, pull our hair back- and change the we look, just like that."

Which might by why no one can come up with an exact count of how many American women are sleuthing for a living. Some states require a P. I. license, but others don't. The estimated nationwide number is in the thousands- and about 20 percent of all detectives are female. And those numbers don't include the rapidly growing number of college students and other young women who work part-time for licensed firms. These part-timers, paid by the hour or the day, might be asked to befriend a target or slip in where males fear to tread. The ladies' room, for instance.

Whatever the actual count, these new investigators are turning up all over the place. Some, like Kirsten Noyes of the worldwide Kroll Associates, are investigating giant international-fraud cases. Others, like skip-trace expert Joann Kunda, work mostly alone, coaxing out information over the telephone. Still others are computer experts: With just a few punches on a keyboard, they can find out where a subject works, how much money he owes, whom he lives with, and how many speeding tickets he got last year. Talk about user-friendly.

Whatever their specialty, however, these women have one common characteristic: They tend to develop close bonds with their clients. "We're getting people at a time of tremendous emotional crises," says Kentucky based Robyn Cohoon. "Sometimes, I feel like I'm as much a psychologist as an investigator."

This kinder, gentler side has its advantages. "Women may not always compete with men in terms of being aggressive or physically tough, " says Rainer Melucci, a retired New York City Transit Police detective and former president of the Society of Professional Investigators. "But they are some of the best investigators out there today. They know how to use their smarts. They know how to use their charm."

Brains and guile: They can literally mean the difference between life and death. Even in this computer age, tracking suspects does have its dangerous side. High speed car chases, a blown cover, a short talk with the business end of a long gun- they're just a few of the everyday job-related hazards for a P. I. It's no secret that a criminal, perpetrator, or even adulterous husband is bound to have as much common courtesy as an alley cat in a bag. Hence, many detectives choose to carry a gun.

"We've all had our close calls," says Cohoon, who has a three-hundred-acre farm outfitted with radio scanners, transmitters, and a wide array of other high-technology electronic gadgetry. "There's nothing more frightening than staking out someone who's been tipped off. They'll get in your face. your blood pressure shoots right up. I usually try to act indignant: 'What do you mean, following you? In your dreams. What are you talking about? Get a life.' As a woman, that works best for me. But at the same time, I'm praying to God that I can carry it off; all sorts of stuff races through my mind. Am I buned? Where did the leak originate? Will I get hurt?"

By and large, women don't get into the business the same way their older male counterparts did. Most male private eyes are ex-cops who retired from police detective squads and continue to work on their own. And while some women have gone into partnership with these guys in order to learn the tricks of the spy trade, others have broken into the area by working for insurance companies, credit-check services, or private-security firms. A few lucky ones have found real mentors among the country's small coterie of veteran female tecs.

Tennessee's Norma Tillman, who specializes in tracking down missing loved ones, has played this big-sister role for a number of female investigators who were just getting started. "I feel like that's part of what I can give back," she says. P. J. Cantrell, a Florida investigator, even teaches a course for novices- male and female- interested in a detecting career. "Men still make up the majority of the seminars," says Cantrell, "but so far, there's been at least one woman in every class. Women have terrific intuitive skills."

Or maybe you can call it a sixth sense. That's what Janice Holt had. A small-town girl from Alabama, she married a good-looking young man from Tennessee, who during their marriage became quite rich. Gorgeous home in a stylish Nashville suburb, two kids so sweet they made your teeth hurt- she had it all. Holt even found time to teach Jazzercise classes at a nearby gym- not for the money, mind you, but to help her stay in shape. Everything was going fabulously, until one day that sixth sense kicked in.

She had been off at a two-day Jazzercise convention, and every time she phoned home, her husband seemed to be out. When she got back in town, he told her a ridiculous-sounding story about being way-laid in a forty-eight-hour poker game.

Holt knew a line when she was being fed one- and it didn't leave a good taste in her mouth.

"I started investigating my husband," she says, "and I opened up a real can of worms." Her devoted husband, she soon discovered, was really a two-timing jerk. Make that a three-timing jerk. Squared. "I found out I was married to a man who led several different lives," Holt remembers. " He had a girlfriend he was supporting; he even paid the rent on her apartment. They had traveled together masquerading as husband and wife. He spent every other weekend with another girl in Knoxville. I thought he was going there for work reasons. Then he had a third affair with a girl who sold him a phone. I'm sure there were more."

Holt got pictures of Hubby and his chorus line of girls. She dug up incriminating credit-card bills. She even got a copy of one young woman's diary, complete with little stars on the days she and Holt's husband had had sex. "It became a game for me," she says. "I didn't want to stop until I uncovered every last person he was involved with." Then she hired a good divorce attorney and turned over all the dirt to him.

After the divorce was final, her lawyer told her that she had a knack for tracking. He urged her to get into the investigating business. Holt wasn't sure, though. Still frazzled from the bitter separation, the last thing she felt like doing was mucking around in other people's lives. Then one day, a friend called her up. "She said, 'I think my best friend is going through what you went through. Would you help her?'" Holt did. And then she did the same for another woman- and then a man who had suspicions of his wife. Before long, she was applying for her private-investigators license.

Although most of Holt's work is comprised of "domestic cases"- divorce, child custody, premarital screening- and is fairly basic, "you can still learn some interesting tricks," she says. "For example, in a divorce case, if one party moves out, but the divorce isn't final, there's no court order, and both names are on the deed to the house, either one of them can go back anytime he or she wants." So frequently, Holt will take her client back to the couple's home. If the locks have been changed, she'll call a locksmith and get a new key made. Then she and the client will go inside and rifle around. "People leave all kinds of incriminating evidence around their homes- photographs, nightgowns, things that might be useful to know about when it comes time for the divorce settlement."

The fact is, being a private eye requires equal parts snooping and deception. "It's part of what we do, tricking people," Valerie Finellos says. "We'll hide somewhere to get a picture or deliver flowers- whatever it takes to get inside. In a disability case, maybe we'll leave a hundred pound package on somebody's doorstep and then wait around to see just how injured the person really is."

There are limits, of course. Breaking the law or impersonating a police officer can get a gumshoe grounded, pronto. "Sleep with someone to get information? I'm not sure I would do that," says Finello. "But meet somewhere in a bar, start a conversation, see where it leads? Sure. An interested man will tell an attractive woman all kinds of things." Face it: She can shoot from the hip and think like a pro, but sometimes a girl detective's gotta do what a girl's gotta do. So she's no angel. Sorry, Charlie.

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