Thursday, July 27, 2006

PI School Part IV: Surveillance

It's been a little longer in between these posts, but hopefully y'all are still comin' back. If you don't know what I'm talking about, scroll down some more and catch up.

The main point that Mr. Biggs hammered home into our tired brains for two weeks straight was that successful surveillance is all about preparation.

Scout out the area you're going to work in, try to become familiar with it, but more importantly get a feel for the clothing worn in the area. You want to make sure to wear clothes that help you blend in. If you're going to tail someone for a few days, especially if it involves travel interstate, you'll also want a change of clothes. Or two.

Ladies and men alike will need an empty bottle or container, one which can be sealed. A thirty second toilet trip in the bushes is enough to lose a target completely.

Make a checklist of things to pack into your car or have on your person.

These can include: still camera, video camera, microphone, notebook, sunglasses, cap, jacket, water bottles (to be used for drinking, and when empty, 'refilled'), maps (you don't want to risk getting lost in an unfamiliar area), a mobile phone (keep in contact with a fellow PI or the client), loose change and notes (handy for road tolls or buses and trains), and a spare tank of petrol (you may be on the road for a long time).

As you can see, preparation means covering all bases, even the ones you haven't thought of. Make a checklist and avoid getting burnt.

Some other tips on surveillance:

Never make eye contact. Simple one, but without practice, difficult. Ladies can use the old compact mirror trick while applying makeup and men can use all kinds of objects for reflections. Nothing beats just kind of looking around, though.

What to do if you get made: drop out of the surveillance immediately. Walk on in the same direction and don't look back. If you have another person working with you, tell them. If the target is suspicious, they may try using a dead stop to fool you into a reaction. Don't fall for it. Keep walking. If your car is parked nearby and you have a change of clothes, take advantage of this and see if you can recapture the target at a known location.

If the target enters a shop or a pub, follow them in unless you know for certain there is only the one exit. Even then, following them in can make you part of the furniture. If they see the same guy waiting for them around every corner, they'll catch on all too soon.

Speaking of corners, take them quickly. Usually you keep a good distance from a target, but if they turn a corner it's best to rush forward and slow down just before you turn. If you let them get too far ahead, it's possible for them to disappear into a shop or take another turn out of sight.

That almost brings us to the end of this series on my experiences at PI school. Tune in soon to find out why I never finished the course in PI School Part V: The Dropout.

Monday, July 17, 2006

PI School Part III: The Law

I originally planned on writing this up in three parts, but it's looking more like five, so you'll have to wait a few more days to find out why I dropped out of PI school.

Monday nights were the PI side of the course, but every Wednesday night I joined the group of bleary-eyed PI-hopefuls on the 6th floor of Building G to learn all about the law.

This wasn't the light mentions of useful parts of government acts that Jim Biggs gave us, this was a miniature law school taught to us by a $300 an hour solicitor who for some reason moonlighted as a TAFE teacher.

With curly, straw-coloured hair, a white-collared blue shirt and a wide red tie, this ex truck driver tried his best to hammer home the details of torts, civil and criminal law, negligence, damages, the statute of limitations, and so on.

What he spent more time doing was looking at the girls in the class across the hall (he always made sure to leave the door open), repeatedly making bad jokes about his wife (who was also a solicitor), and reminding us of the small cases he wouldn't take because he could get $300 an hour elsewhere.

He paced up and down the room, breaking off into tangents and eventually asking the class to help him return to the original subject. He rarely made eye contact, and seemed to take great pleasure in disagreeing with the females in the room.

I'm painting him in a bad light, but most of the time he was fairly entertaining, and some of the case work he discussed was truly fascinating. Some of it was heart wrenching, as he was involved in various rape cases. That was when we saw the truly human side of him and he let down his boisterous courtroom front.

You'll notice that I'm carefully avoiding the details of these classes because I have to confess to finding the study of the law a very dull subject. I also don't want to get sued for slander. As a consequence, the notes I took had more to do with the possibility of creating a slimy lawyer character in a story some day, rather than the ins and outs of individual cases.

The main point that came across from those Wednesday nights was that a lawyer's job is really just a logical puzzle: based on a case, how can we find a section of the law that will get the most for the client?

It would be easy to become dispassionate about the process, after spending eighty hour weeks studying previous cases to find a useful precedent or come up with a plan of attack. Someone has to do it, and as far as I can tell, the system mostly works.

Someone has to do it, but I'm glad it's not me.

Next up, Part IV: Surveillance.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

PI School Part II: The Stories

The most important thing I learned about being a private investigator is that the gathering of evidence has to be within the limits of the law.

A fictional hardboiled PI is happy to beat up, blackmail, or hold to ransom anyone necessary while working on a case. But the real-world PI is not an enforcer of the law, merely an assistant. The PI's job is to tail a suspect and catch them in the act, while paying attention to the relevant government Acts. Like the Listening Devices Act and the Privacy Act.

Here are a couple of stories where they come into play.

Story I: The Travelling PI

Jim Biggs has been a private investigator for decades and has built up a number of friendships in the business. When a PI buddy in Victoria asked for some help, Jim was happy to oblige, but only as a favour: he couldn't legally charge for the job, his license was only for NSW. But this ended up being an advantage.

The Victorian PI was having trouble catching a worker's compensation dodger. The suspect knew who the PI was, and so avoided heavy lifting in public, but that didn't stop an outsider from kicking up some trouble.

With NSW license plates on his car, Jim looked the part of a perfect tourist. He parked near a spot where the suspect was laying down some bricks, building a wall. Hard work for someone with a bad back.

Here's where the law comes in: you can't take someone's photo and use it as evidence without permission.

Being a tourist, Jim asked the suspect for a photo, who posed for it with a grin. Six months later, that grin was wiped off his face when Jim walked into the courtroom. The suspect pointed at Jim and said one word:


Story II: Sacked By A Chain

This time round, Jim was hired to help stop workplace theft in a small company. The company held weekly BBQ and beer events for its employees, but for the last few weeks the cases of beer had gone missing. They were stored in a small brick shed in the middle of the company's courtyard, hidden from the street.

Jim planted a listening device inside the doorway to the shed. The door was locked up tight with a chain and padlock as was usual. Parked across the street from the company's main building, Jim sat with headphones on and waited. Why? Well, the Listening Act tells us that you can't record a conversation and use it in court without the permission of all parties involved.

Sometime close to midnight, Jim heard the chain on the shed's door rattle. He called the company manager and they rushed over to the courtyard where they found a couple of the employees breaking in with a pair of bolt cutters. The employees confessed to stealing the beer and both of them got the sack.

The dodgy duo never spoke a word. The only sound recorded was the rattle of the chain.

Stay tuned for one more round of PI shenanigans in PI School Part III: The Law.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

PI School Part I: The First Night

As some of you may know, I enrolled in 'PI school' last year. Sara Gran innocently asked me to tell her all about it, so I thought I'd write up a multi-part post here. I have written some of this in a previous incarnation of my blog, but since that's not around any more, I thought it was time for a new and improved version.

Investigative Services Certificate III is the course that every aspiring private investigator in the state of NSW must complete to become a fully licensed PI. I can't say I had it in mind to complete the course, I'd even tried cajoling the head of the faculty into letting me pick and choose subjects. That ended up being far too complicated, so I simply enrolled in one semester (half a year) of the two semester course.

The Monday night class was filled with tired people of all ages, doing the course for interest or because they were thinking about a career in the police force. The teacher was Jim Biggs, a private investigator that has run a large agency for twenty years. Before that he was in the police force, and before that I'm sure Australia didn't have television. In his unobtrusive brown cardigan, he had that Brylcreemed Aussie politeness of older folks. It's a combination of excusing yourself when you cough and peppering conversation with the word 'bastard'.

He kicked the class off by telling us that being a private investigator was nothing like it is on TV. Jim used to watch shows like Magnum, PI, complaining his way through them, but the pain came to be too much and he stopped watching altogether.

Before we had the chance to get excited about the idea, he laid down the ground rules: no guns, no red Ferraris.

If you're not a cop in Australia, you have to have a pretty damn good reason to have a gun license. You need to do a course in security and you'd have to regularly escort VIPs or large amounts of cash before you'd even apply.

A bright red, flashy car is another big mistake. If you're trying to tail someone with an exotic vehicle, it's pretty easy for them to spot you in the rear vision mirror at every turn. Something like a ten year old monkey shit brown Corolla is a far better choice.

Getting down to business, Jim told us how he could get hold of the textbook for the course in a large shipment from Queensland at a special price. We couldn't hold it against him if he made a little profit. After all, he was risking the cash up front.

Quickly changing the subject, he took us through the Commercial Agents and Private Inquiry Agents Act (1963), and filled the dead air with anecdotes from his life as a PI.

Come back for some of these in Part II: The Stories, coming to a blog near you.

Right near you.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Almost Perfect Crime

To slowly reintroduce myself to the blogging world I thought I'd cheat by posting someone else's writing.

Still, it's a cracker of a yarn.


A Coroner’s inquest is due to get underway today into the 15-year-old murder of a man whose body was buried in someone else’s grave in what one detective described as almost the perfect crime.

Rocco Andrew Iaria disappeared in September 1991, just before he was due to go to trail on charges of being involved in a theft of up to $700,000 from a wealthy Victorian tomato farmer.

In February 1998 gravediggers at Pine Lodge near Shepparton reopened a woman’s grave in preparation for the funeral of her husband, who was to be buried with her. In the grave, on top of the woman’s coffin, they found another body sprinkled with lime and wrapped in black plastic.

It was Rocky Iaria. He had been killed with a shotgun blast to the head.


Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Even Longer Between

I'm still alive. Still here. Just not in a blogging mood of late. Call it a short-term blogging holiday.

Pull up a pina colada and lay back. Stretch your legs. There's no rush.

Regular blogging will return when the mood hits.

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P.S: Speaking of holidays, Happy Independence Day to all those Americanites out there in crime blogging land!