On The Trail

(Illustration By Fredrik Broden)
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By Christina Breda Antoniades
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 9, 2008

In Hollywood, the private eye gets all the action. When the cops can't solve a crime, it's the P.I. who jumps in to unravel the murder mystery, crack the international espionage ring or track down the missing heir. And he (or she) does it in style. Think Thomas Magnum of "Magnum, P.I.," with his Ferrari 308 GTS -- zero to 60 in seven seconds -- and, let's face it, near universal sex appeal. More recently, teen investigator Veronica Mars managed to pull off a low-frills, offbeat kind of glam on her erstwhile TV series.

But in real life, many private investigators spend much of their time at a desk, pounding the virtual pavement with a computer mouse. And though they may spend time tailing a cheating spouse or sniffing around for clues to solve a murder, "investigators do much more than that," says Bill Lowrance, a private investigator, lawyer and president of the Private Investigators Association of Virginia.

On Page 4, we talk to a few local investigators to learn more about real-life private eyes. And in case you're wondering, none of them has ever engaged in a gunfight while zipping in a helicopter over the glittering waters of Hawaii.

Pr ivate investigators assist in custody cases and insurance scams, provide legal support in civil and criminal lawsuits, and help find hidden assets, missing persons and more. Some specialize in corporate work -- vetting potential business partners or solving theft or intellectual property cases -- while others do a mix of private and business investigations. We talked to four of them to get the inside scoop on being a P.I.

-- Christina Breda Antoniades

Robert HoffmanDirector of Checkmate Investigative Services in Columbia

Hoffman, 56, founded Checkmate Investigative Services in 1982 and today does all types of investigations, including insurance fraud, criminal defense work, background checks and domestic cases.

Why this? I had a master's degree in criminal justice and was in the U.S. Army military police, with specialized training in fatal accident reconstruction and as a counter-sniper sniper. There's not much call for that outside of police departments, and it's a long wait when you apply at police departments. So I thought I would take a job with insurance-claims units. I was going through the Yellow Pages, and at the end of the insurance [section] was a section for investigators. Until that moment in time I didn't even know private detectives were real. I thought they died out in the '40s or were a made-up thing.

Tools of the trade: Computers are the single biggest investment now assisting private detectives. But advances in digital photography and digital video and cellphones have also helped. GPS devices are also a big plus.

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