Becnel, 38, founded and owns Arlington-based Dinolt Becnel & Wells Investigative Group, a boutique private-eye firm that earns a big chunk of its income evaluating people’s body language.
He’s not getting rich, but Becnel says the job has its moments, just as journalism occasionally does.
Take the case of the missing mattress, wherein a hotel manager who was fired for stealing a new mattress claimed she was sexually harassed.
Becnel was put on the case. His job was to interview Miss Mattress for an attorney who was thinking about taking her case. Her darting eyes and delayed answers gave Becnel doubts.
The body-language expert recommended the attorney pass on the case.
Then there was the philandering global Fortune 500 chief executive who was making nice with one of his vice presidents. The vice president wanted to sue after the affair cooled and she was demoted.
“We interviewed former employees who had left the company,” said Becnel, who worked for a law firm that was thinking about taking the vice president’s case. “They corroborated parts of her story” — like the executive’s penchant for sending her suggestive e-mails while she was making presentations. “I recommended they take the case,” the investigator said.
She got a settlement. The chief executive got a goodbye handshake from his employer.
Becnel, an entrepreneur who has written two books, earns $125,000 in a good year. That includes $50,000 or so in base salary, plus a bunch of the revenue from his share of interviews. Because he owns 100 percent of the company, he can keep any profits or roll them back into the business.
The six-person firm grosses around $500,000 in a good year. In 2010, it grossed $560,000 and closed the books with $90,000 in profits. But last year a law firm that owed him $27,000 went out of business, and Becnel’s firm incurred an annual loss of $7,000 on $460,000 in revenue.
Most of his business comes from plaintiff’s attorneys who represent clients who want to sue somebody. Because plaintiff’s attorneys generally don’t get paid unless they win, they need to know whether their would-be client is telling the truth — and whether it will stand up in court.
Most of Becnel’s clients arrive through word of mouth, although the firm has a Web site and is on Facebook and Twitter. New clients usually are asked to put up a retainer. Becnel’s payroll is just shy of $300,000, and rent is $30,000. He also pays $5,000 for liability insurance.
The George Mason University anthropology major didn’t set out to a private eye. He fell into it.
When a friend quit her job for a firm that performed court-appointed investigations for indigent clients, Becnel stepped in to fill her shoes. He picked up where the woman left off and started closing cases for $10 an hour.