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Just as the Rev. Robert Fulghum contends that everything he really needs to know he learned in kindergarten, Bethesda, Md.’s Susan Giller believes that all the skills that have made her a successful private investigator for more than two decades were acquired in the summer following her sophomore year of college, when she sold encyclopedias door to door. “We had a super sales trainer,” Giller says. “He taught us how to get in the door. That’s really the key to everything I’ve done since.” And she has done a lot. A former social worker and journalist, and a nonpracticing lawyer, the 5-foot-3-inch redhead may not look like your idea of a private investigator, but Giller is an accomplished and much-praised P.I. “She’s relentless, dogged,” says Stanley Reed of Bethesda’s 44-lawyer Lerch, Early & Brewer. “She’ll get what you need.” Reed says Giller has worked on some major criminal cases for his firm. “Susan is the one to go to if you run into dead ends,” he says. “She’s amazing, very resourceful,” says Alexandria, Va., solo practitioner John Zwerling. “She can find out more from somebody who doesn’t want to talk to her than other investigators can talking to a cooperative witness.” Zwerling recounts a time that Giller and a lawyer paid a call on a potential witness in a murder trial. The witness at first refused to speak with Giller and the lawyer about the case. Giller, Zwerling says, struck up a conversation with the witness about the witness’s garden gnomes. Soon, the witness’s hostility turned to cooperation. Giller’s client roster is wide-ranging, and the work she does, which she bills for hourly, is varied. About half her time is spent working for attorneys, she says. For them, she has done investigations in criminal defense and major personal injury cases, among other matters. She also has a contract with a local school district for which she’s done residency investigations and other work for the past six years. Giller says she spends the rest of her time doing corporate investigations to help money managers determine investments. This entails, among other things, background research on executives and businesses. In the course of an investigation, she may find herself going to business conferences, company headquarters, and stores, as well as talking to customers. Giller prides herself on her customized service. “I try to do the work myself. I want to do quality work and have a personal relationship with my clients. But when I need specialized expertise, I have a network of people I work with and can call on.” But when Giller maintains that she learned all her investigating skills over one summer selling encyclopedias, she’s oversimplifying. When you review Giller’s education and job history, you can’t help but conclude that becoming a private investigator was her destiny, that everything she had accomplished up to that point was in preparation for her hanging out her gumshoe shingle. Armed with a master’s degree in community organization from Catholic University, Giller started doing social work in the mid-1970s for Action for Children in Trouble, a D.C. predelinquency program. It was on this job that Giller had an epiphany. She was making a house call on a woman whose 15-year-old son had been skipping an inordinate amount of school without the mother’s permission or knowledge. Seated on a well-worn sofa and talking to the mother who occupied a chair across the tiny living room, Giller spied out of the corner of her eye a critter scurrying across the floor. When she asked the mother if she kept any pets, the woman replied no, but that her apartment was overrun with rats. Unsettled by the admission, Giller decided that the best way to keep her composure and get through the interview without seeing more vermin was to focus her eyes on the floor in front of her. When she glanced downward, however, she saw two rats, as complacent as house cats, lounging by her feet. In order to help the mother and her family, Giller contacted the District’s War on Rats program. The D.C. housing inspector was eventually called in on the case and subsequently condemned the building. But because of a shortage of public housing, the family had nowhere to go. They stayed in the apartment, which because of the condemnation was now without heat, water, and electricity. The family’s plight convinced Giller that the problems visited upon them and other people in similar straits were too great to be treated effectively by an undermanned and overworked bureaucracy. “Problems were systemic and needed to be exposed to the public and could not be remedied solely on an individual basis.” To this end, Giller decided to become a newspaper reporter. After taking graduate courses in journalism at American University, Giller embarked on her journalism career in Homestead, Fla., with the South Dade News-Leader, which had a circulation of 15,000. Over the next five years, she worked for the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Sun-Sentinel; The Record, in northern New Jersey; and finally Long Island, N.Y.’s Newsday, which boasted 600,000 readers. She found her greatest satisfaction in writing investigative articles that uncovered fraud in social programs. For example, for the Sun-Sentinel, Giller wrote an article in 1976 uncovering the sloppy practices of the rabbi responsible for overseeing the meat markets, bakeries, and delicatessens of Broward and Palm Beach counties that sold kosher foods. According to the article, the rabbi’s misfeasance “creat[ed] doubts for Jews that the foods they’re buying have been prepared, delivered and stocked according to the provisions of the Torah or Jewish laws.” For Newsday, she reported in 1980 on a program that provided community housing for the retarded in which landlords were charging the New York state government two to five times the fair-market rental value for their homes. Her reporting led to a grand jury investigation of criminal activity in the program and to four indictments. While Giller found investigative reporting gratifying, she also found that the job made demands on her time that she was unwilling to accept over the long haul. So she took a leave of absense from Newsday to attend law school at American University. In order to pay for law school, she started doing investigative work for attorney Philip Hirschkop of Alexandria, Va.’s Hirschkop & Associates. Using a combination of the skills she honed as an encyclopedia salesperson, a social worker, and an investigative reporter and her newfound legal knowledge, Giller found that private investigation was a perfect fit. As Hirschkop told Washingtonian in May 1985, when the magazine featured Giller in its “People to Watch” column, “If a guy approaches strangers and says, ‘I’m a private eye,’ they shut off, but Susan is like a Jewish mama. They talk with her. What they don’t know is that she’s very tough.” Giller says that being a private investigator was “so in sync with my personality,” that she decided to remain a P.I. even after earning her law degree and passing the bar in 1983. “I prefer getting out and about,” she says. “I enjoy meeting and interviewing people. I have a skill for that, and I like the variety of work it provides.” She says that her law degree and legal knowledge have been valuable to her. “Being a lawyer increases your credibility when testifying,” she says. “And by knowing the rules of evidence, I am less likely to waste time in an investigation pursuing evidence that’s useless or inadmissible.” Why does Giller prefer P.I. work over the practice of law? “I like the fact that I’m in and out of a case in a short time,” she says. “When you’re a lawyer, cases often drag on.” She cites one case she worked on that is now in the D.C. Court of Appeals but has been in the court system for 14 years. “I like to do my work efficiently and move on,” she says. When asked about her most memorable cases, Giller immediately recalls a missing-person case from the late 1980s that she says is perhaps her favorite. Her client was a lawyer in California who was in his 60s and had not seen his daughter since she was 5 years old. His ex-wife had disappeared with the daughter soon after their contentious divorce 31 years earlier. While he could never locate and contact his daughter, he did try to send her birthday gifts for a number of years in care of the girl’s maternal grandparents, who lived in Alexandria, Va. Yet these gifts always came back to him marked “Return to sender.” Giller says it took her about a month of sleuthing to find the man’s daughter, who was by now 36 years old, living in a small town in North Carolina, married, and the mother of a newborn infant of her own. Giller informed her client of her discovery, and he rushed to North Carolina for a reunion. But rather than try to contact his long-lost daughter directly, he first approached her husband, who broke the news to his wife. At first, the man’s daughter refused to see him, believing that he had abandoned her and her mother without ever making a sincere effort to contact her. Luckily for Giller’s client, he had saved intact every wrapped gift that he had tried to send her over the early years of their separation, including a mint condition classic Mickey Mouse watch. The gifts preserved in their original wrappings went a long way to convincing the man’s daughter that he indeed harbored genuine feelings for her. And a father’s long-hoped-for reunion with his daughter finally took place. “They had this a big reconciliation,” says Giller, “and he sent me a picture with her and the baby.”

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