Sunday, February 12, 2017

My (Almost) Fling with Private Investigation

I was standing in the stacks of the Sutro Library in San Francisco, following a lead on a case I was working. I was not a private detective, but I had aspirations to be one, and my sister-in-law wanted me to find a college classmate whom she had lost touch with, I guess, the minute they had graduated. And she was willing to pay me to find her friend. I offered to do it for free, but she knew that her sister and I were not doing that well, and, besides, my sister-in-law was a successful lawyer.

She had provided me with what she knew about the man she wanted to find. She had tried finding him herself without success. I did not know that I could do it for sure. I had his name and the fact that his father was in the U.S. Navy, although I had a few other details that turned out to be helpful. It was the late 1980s, and my sister-in-law and her long-lost friend were early boomers. They were approaching middle-age, and she wanted to reconnect with him. Maybe share the kind of war stories that ’60s radicals share.

I had no idea where in the United States (or overseas for that matter) to look for the old classmate, whom I will call Tom Phipps. Tom’s dad, however, was liable to be retired, and I knew that the family had lived in San Diego and liked it, so I started looking for Tom’s father there. The Boston private eye, Gil Lewis, was kind of a mentor to me, though not that he ever knew it, but I had read journalist John Sedgwick’s newspaper articles and book (Night Vision,” 1982) about Lewis, and I had picked up a few tips from Lewis. One of the best was, “If you can’t find the person you’re looking for, find someone who is close to them.” (Lewis once tracked down the elusive Howard Hughes by keeping an eye on the only people he apparently trusted, his Mormon companions.)

Tom's dad seemed likely to be easier to find than Tom himself. Sure enough, I found his address in San Diego. There he was in a city directory, but not in the phone book. He had been at that same address for a few years. He lived with his wife, but there was no one else listed in the household. The phone number was unlisted. What to do? Write him a letter? Too slow. (This was well before I or anybody that I knew had email.)

I applied Lewis’ rule again. “If you can’t find the person you’re looking for, find someone who is close to them.” Listed on either side of their street address, Tom’s parents had neighbors. One neighbor was a retired woman who had not been living on the street for very long. On the other side, there was a couple who had been there for years and seemed to be about the same age as Tom’s parents. Their phone number was listed.

I went into the lobby of the library where they had a bank of pay phones. (I won’t explain those to the younger generation, but these were what people had to use before there were cell phones, which just barely existed in 1987 and were over-sized and expensive.) There was an alert, gray-haired woman in her mid-sixties sitting on a bench in the lobby, but I paid little attention to her. I grabbed a phone and called the number I had just gotten for the neighbors of Tom’s parents. We'll say their name was Caine. Mr. Caine answered. I told him who I was and that I was trying to get in touch with his neighbor, Lloyd Phipps. Being of sound mind, Mr. Caine was suspicious and had a lot of questions. I answered them as honestly as I could.

“You’re lying,” Caine said in his most triumphant gotcha! voice. “The Phippses don’t have a son.”

This was news to me, and I had no comeback. I figured this line of inquiry was doomed.

“Hold on,” said Mr. Caine. “What? Oh. My wife says they do have a son.”

Not long afterward, Mr. Caine gave me his neighbors' phone number.

I have often mused about how it could be that Mrs. Caine knew that the Phippses had a son, but Mr. Caine did not. I imagine the couples getting together to share beers, and while Monsieurs Caine and Phipps watched football, their wives went into the kitchen and talked about their families.

When my phone call rang at the Phipps house, Mr. Phipps picked up. I gave him my spiel but he interrupted me. His neighbor had moved quickly to let him know that he had given me their number. So much the better if I didn’t need to explain everything, but I still had to convince him that I wasn’t up to no good. When I explained that my sister-in-law was looking for their son because they had been friends in school, he wondered out loud why, if they were such good friends, they had not remained in touch. I didn’t really know why not, and I told him so, but, apparently, his son had never mentioned my sister-in-law. 

“Does she know that he’s married?” said Mr. Phipps.

This was an issue that my sister-in-law had anticipated, so I assured him that my sister-in-law was married herself—leaving out the fact that her marriage was on the rocks at the time—and that she just wanted to renew a platonic friendship. “I don’t know where your son lives, but my sister-in-law lives in Texas, so I believe that she is anticipating a long-distance sort of get-reacquainted."

Finally convinced, Mr. Phipps got his wife to hand him Tom’s address and phone number, and he read them both to me. I was not expecting this good luck. I had been prepared to give Mr. Phipps my sister-in-law's contact information for him to pass on to his son. I already had my pen and notebook ready, though, and I took down the information. After thanking him, I hung up and turned to go. The gray-haired lady I had forgotten about approached me. I looked at her more carefully. At the time, I was in my thirties and generally not attracted to women over sixty, but I noticed that she was pleasant-looking, neatly coiffed and well-dressed in a light blue suit. (Getting ahead of the story, I have since seen a photo of her from when she was in her twenties, and she was a hottie.) 

“My name is Mary Limebrook,” she said. “I couldn’t help overhearing. Are you a private investigator?”

“No,” I admitted, “I’m an amateur.”

“Well, you seemed very professional,” she said. “I work for a private investigator. We’re located in southern California, and I come up here sometimes to do research. Do you live in the Bay Area?

“I live across the Bay in Berkeley,” I said.

“I’ve been thinking that it doesn’t make sense for me to come up here so often. I thought if we had someone who already lived here to help us out, it would be ideal. Would you be interested?”

I said that I would. She explained that she would have to bring it up with her boss, but she promised to do so, and then she gave me a slip of paper from her notebook.



No, this is not the story of how I became a P.I. It turned out that her boss was less interested in saving Mrs. Limebrook’s airfare to San Francisco than she was. I talked to him on the phone a couple of times before I got the distinct impression that he was avoiding me and any commitment. He did send me some brochures—or maybe that was Mrs. Limebrook’s idea. Anyway, after a while, I gave up on Worldwide Tracers and went on with my life, over time doing less and less straight-up people-finding, although I did become my family’s resident genealogist.


Recently, I found that piece of paper that Mary Limebrook gave me that day in 1987(?), and I looked her up on the internet. Not surprisingly, she is no longer with us, which is the reason I feel no reluctance to use her real name. I don't know about Pat Rutherford, but at least he seems to have long since turned over the day-to-day of Worldwide Tracers to his son. The firm was primarily if not exclusively concerned with finding people who have been separated by adoption, something I know about, having been adopted myself. That is how I got into genealogy and people-finding. Mrs. Limebrook turns out to have been an accomplished genealogist herself.

I passed along the information to my sister-in-law, and she sent me a check for a couple of hundred dollars. I later learned that she immediately called her old classmate, and they had a happy reunion, at least over the phone. BTW I never did meet my now ex-sister-in-law face-to-face. She was only ever a voice on the phone, calling California from Texas. 


*    *    *    *    *    *    *

Before I gave up on private investigation entirely, I discovered heir finding. Let me explain what this is. Each state collects a list of "unclaimed property owners," which usually consists of the owners of accounts held by financial institutions such as banks or unclaimed paychecks held by corporations or other entities. One of the oddest examples I ever came across was an unclaimed check held by NBC for Bill Cosby. Rather than go to the trouble of calling someone they knew who would surely know how to get in touch with Cosby, the corporation had simply let the unclaimed check sit in their accounts until the law required that this unclaimed property "escheat" to the state. I always thought this term's similarity to another word was more than just a little ironic since it seemed to me that the state essentially cheated somebody out of their money. Yet it turns out, according to dictionary.com, that the similarity  between “cheat” and “escheat” is not accidental but the result of the transformation of words by dropping sounds. Nevertheless, the relationship between the words goes back to French, and the legal distinction between the two words in English is maintained by the lawyers and the government.

I will let wikipedia do the dirty work of defining the old English legal term:



The term “escheat” derives ultimately from the Latin ex-cadere, to “fall-out” via mediaeval French “escheoir.” The sense is of a feudal estate in land falling-out of the possession by a family into possession by the overlord.


One of the ways that property has been lost to escheatment in the past as well as under present circumstances is that someone dies without an obvious heir, leaving a piece of land or a savings account. Hence the job of finding the owners of abandoned property has come to be called heir finding even though the owner in a given case might not actually be dead, although, I imagine that, in mediaeval times, if one's property escheated to the king when one was not dead, one might soon be.

Each state has its own laws governing escheatment. If you leave your money in a bank account and never touch it for three years (in California, that is; it is five years in some states) or if you were owed a tax refund but you did not claim it for three years, this property must be turned over to the state. In California, the entity that oversees this sort of thing is the Unclaimed Property Bureau in the state controller's office. Of course, the holder of your property must make a diligent effort to try to locate the account owner,according to one government site, but see the Cosby case above for evidence that this legal requirement is more honored in the breach. There is a subsequent five-year period during which your property can then be returned to you before it irrevocably goes to the state. (I will rely on the time limits for California, but they are not terribly different from state to state.)  

California, like most states, has a regular system of mediating between heir-finders and abandoned property owners. If done within the law, the heir finder contacts the owner, makes an often written agreement to represent the owner, and then contacts the state controller's office. The controller will give a fixed finder's fee of ten percent of the total amount of the account to the heir finder and distribute the rest to the legal owner. The ethical questions about who should be doing what here will perhaps suggest themselves. I remember receiving a callback from someone I had contacted about his unclaimed bank account. He complained that he had never lost track of that account, he had not moved, either, making it inexplicable that his bank had never made that diligent effort to contact him. His only sin was that he had not made a deposit or debit for three years, and his account had automatically been put into the escheatment process. I am too nice a guy for this business, so I gave him the information he needed to make the claim on his own. Whether he took action on his own behalf or not, I do not know.

Every year (or perhaps twice a year in some states?), each state publishes a list of unclaimed property owners. (This is when the clock starts ticking on the next five-year period during which the property can be claimed before it disappears into the coffers of the state.) A few months ago I saw one such list published by my local newspaper. That is usually the way it goes. If you have some unclaimed property, you probably don't know it, and there would otherwise be no motive for you to scan a massive list of names in fine print to see if you are there. Most escheated property thus ends up in the full possession of the government, which can always think of something to do with it.

There are people who see a gold mine in unclaimed property. They even have a way to get the list of unclaimed property owners before it is widely published. They must pay a fee for this advantage, though. (I vaguely recall that it was in the neighborhood of $200 in California in the 1980s.) They get a jump on everyone else. The advantage to them is that they get to cherry pick the largest accounts of unclaimed property, potentially worth millions. I never paid that fee, but as soon as the list was generally published, I would go to the public library and look at the microfiche copies of the list that the San Francisco Public Library would get from the state. (Don't make me explain microfiche, kids.)

The list was in alphabetical order (the list can also be by county first, then by property owners within that county), but each entry also told how much money was involved. This was the rub. Often, someone had abandoned a bank account of no more than $100, or even less. So after the investigators who paid for the list ahead of statewide publication had picked out all of the million dollar accounts, those of us who waited for the generally published list had to pick through it for the smaller accounts. Even for us, an account worth less than $1000 could hardly be worth our effort, which was why I merely chuckled over the Bill Cosby account with NBC and did nothing about it. NBC owed Cosby a couple of checks, each of which was worth less than fifty dollars. (The entries never tell specifically what such checks are payments for.)

I came up with a strategy of looking only for accounts larger than $1000 and preferably close to $2000. In one case, I found a savings account that had belonged to a woman who had died alone in California. A widow, she had had no relatives in California. I no longer remember my investigative process in this case in any detail, but I went to the library and found her obituary and then searched through city directories for the relatives mentioned in her death notice. I tracked down one of her relatives in Baltimore. The trouble was that most of this elderly woman's relatives were dead, but at least the last name was not Smith, so I was able to be fairly sure of it when I found the right people.

One living man in a Baltimore directory seemed to be related to one of her brothers. I phoned him and told him what I was doing and asked him whether he was related to the deceased property owner. “She was my aunt,” he declared without hesitation. Although a little suspicious of this little windfall, which might have seemed to good to believe, he went along, especially after I explained the process and how his check would be coming from the state of California. I sent him the paperwork, he filled it out and sent it back to me, and I sent it to the controller's office. I got paid my ten percent and, presumably, the state sent him his little inheritance.

That case raises some interesting side questions, evolving from the fact that I was literally an heir finder in this case. The man in Baltimore was probably, indeed, the rightful heir to his aunt's savings account. Obviously, if there had been multiple other relatives, then there would have been multiple claimants to her property, which would have been ridiculous considering that, although I don't recall the amount, I doubt that it was more than $2000. People being people about money, I am sure that some would fight even over their small share of such an inheritance. In this case, though, I had searched pretty thoroughly for heirs, and had come to some dead ends because the woman had several relatives who, like her, had themselves died without heirs. So, I could be pretty confident that the man in Baltimore was probably the only heir to her estate.

That was not the biggest payout I had in my brief career as an heir finder in the late 1980s. Another time, I noticed that five accounts belonged to people with the same last name. Again, it was not Smith, so I became reasonably confident that these accounts were connected. My guess turned out to be fruitful. All of these property owners were relatives of the same man. Individually, each account was more or less around $1000 dollars, but, added together, they came to just over $5000. I located the man, who was actually named as a co-owner of some of the accounts, so I found and contracted with him. He was not hard to find, but few other heir finders would have bothered to contact him because each of the five accounts was so small. As the heir finder for all of the accounts, I received five hundred dollars, most of which I spent on a London Fog raincoat, which I kept until it completely wore out just a few years ago.

The difficulty of making a living out of finder's fees of $200 here and, very occasionally, $500 there, made me realize that there was not much future in this line of work. I decided to get out of it and rely on work with a regular paycheck instead. About this time, I read an article in Reason magazine about various get-rich-quick schemes that were then popular, and heir finding was mentioned among them. I wrote a letter to the editor explaining the problems I had had with heir finding, mentioning the fact that the competition for the big accounts was what made successful heir finding difficult.

Appropriately enough, the copy editor headlined my letter Get Rich Slow.

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