Emmanuelle Welch was a journalist before becoming a PI. Now she tracks down embezzlers and the occasional lost teddy bear.
I'm often asked how I chose the life of a private investigator. In my case it was an accident. PIs tend to be former law enforcement, but not always. I’m French and worked as a journalist before I made the leap.
I used to live in Los Angeles. A men’s magazine asked me to do an article where I would track down people the magazine had written about years earlier and see how they were doing. It was incredibly difficult. I decided I wanted to get better at finding people. A local PI agency offered a course and I did several months of training. Soon I started doing legwork for local investigators. They liked that I was willing to drive miles to interview people and could write a good report. Eventually I opened my own shop.
The private investigations industry is bigger in the US than in other countries. I think Europeans look to the state to solve their problems. Americans are more used to taking matters into their own hands. The litigiousness of American society is also a factor.
I do all kinds of cases but specialize in using social media and open-source intelligence for deep background checks.
One of the surprising things is the variety of specialties an investigator can have. One of my PI friends is a hospital investigator who investigates medical serial killers – “angels of death” who kill patients. I’ve also met bitcoin transactions experts, forensic genealogists, even experts on animal nose prints, which can be used for identification. Some PIs investigate cattle rustling. An animal welfare investigator told me about cases involving occult animal sacrifices. There are also people who gather forensic evidence from artificial intelligence programs like Alexa.
Even the more common specialties are incredibly varied. Cheating spouses, custody battles, landlords investigating tenants, corporate background checks, insurance fraud, litigation support. CEOs in Silicon Valley have PIs on speed-dial to find employees who’ve leaked trade secrets or violated non-compete clauses.
Hollywood studios used to hire PIs to make sure their stars stayed out of trouble. I’ve heard of a PI employed by insurance companies who would pretend to be a liquor company promoter. He would call celebrities and offer to ship them free alcohol, then track how much they took to see if they had a drinking problem.
The PI industry has a cynical image but our work can really help people. Prosecutor’s offices sometimes hire outside investigators to work on cold cases. The Brooklyn district attorney and nonprofit organizations like Investigating Innocence use the work of PIs to exonerate people. Some investigators work for public defense organizations, looking for mitigating factors to save defendants from death row.
Once a public defender’s office in Texas hired me because an elderly Quebecois man had been ensnared in a drug mule situation. He spoke no English and it was his first time ever leaving Quebec. He was naive and had been exploited by a woman he believed was in love with him. I was able to show that he wasn’t guilty and didn’t understand what he was doing. I may have helped save him from serious prison time.
Because I speak French I work with a lot of clients in Europe. Once I was hired by a Frenchman to track down a rare, left-handed violin, buy it for him in the US, then personally escort it to France. Another time a family was interested in hiring me to try to find a teddy bear their son had left in a Manhattan hotel. I was initially perplexed why the family was so concerned about the teddy bear, but I think the son had autism and really needed his bear.
I’ve worked on several cases involving a French individual suspected of embezzlement hiding in plain sight under Instagram-worthy skies in Florida or California. French embezzlers love palm trees and fast cars.
My French accent is also useful in fieldwork: I pretend to be a dumb tourist. That being said, most of my research these days is internet-based. Until recently, public Facebook searches revealed far more information than most people realize – if you knew how to manipulate URLs, that is. Then Facebook changed the code and made my job a lot harder. But of course PIs and intelligence analysts immediately developed new ways of looking under the hood.
Social media is a two-sided coin. People present such perfectly curated images of themselves on their public accounts. But on websites like Reddit, where they post anonymously, you can see their more conflicting emotions and sometimes their great despair.
In popular culture, the stereotypical PI case involves marital infidelity, but a lot of domestic cases aren’t actually instigated by a spouse. It’s a relative: “My brother has been dating someone and there’s something about her that doesn’t seem right” – that kind of thing.
The most emotionally heavy and ethically difficult cases are child custody. Parents ask for your help because their ex-spouse has kidnapped their children and brought them to another country and their government isn’t moving fast enough. You have to make serious judgment calls in these cases. Is the child in danger? Which parent are they safer with?
The #MeToo movement has brought a whole new slew of cases. Lawyers hire PIs to investigate accusations against celebrities. A lot of time it is a matter of interviewing witnesses who were, say, at a nightclub at a certain time. Title IX – the statute governing sexual misconduct in universities – has also created this cottage industry for PIs defending academics accused of misconduct.
I love the gadgets – pen recorders, button cameras, cameras disguised as coffee cups. But they make me paranoid. When I travel I always sweep my hotel rooms or Airbnbs for surveillance devices left by voyeurs. They’re more common than people think.
I don’t carry a gun. I’ve rarely felt unsafe, except when I was younger and worked as a process server. You have no idea how people will react to receiving court papers. Though I had one woman who was delighted to be served with divorce. She was jumping up and down, saying: “Thank you! Thank you!”
In New York, where you have a lot of conservative religious or ethnic groups, people often want the services of PIs because they are trying to prevent their children from marrying outside the group.
Once an Orthodox Jewish man was convinced his daughter’s fiance was secretly gay and taking his daughter for a ride. The fiance had refined, somewhat effete tastes that didn’t fit the standard American image of masculinity. But I didn’t see any evidence he was gay. He was just European.
People are surprised when I tell them this, but sometimes being investigated by a PI is the best thing that can happen to you. You might learn potential liabilities about yourself that you didn’t know. And if your background is clean, that’s a huge psychological relief.
Source: The Guardian