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When two private investigators followed John Walker Lindh’s path through Afghanistan, they managed to stay off everyone’s radar. David Fechheimer and Barry Simon, who were hired by Lindh’s Morrison & Foerster attorneys, did their sleuthing without attracting attention from the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. Even the U.S. government remained apparently unaware of their work. “I don’t know that the government knew we were there until the plea negotiations,” Fechheimer said. “That’s good.” For Fechheimer and Simon, going unnoticed is the hallmark of their trade. But in Afghanistan, it wasn’t easy. With various warlords controlling the countryside and U.S. military strikes under way, the two Americans needed local guides that could offer protection and cover for their mission. So they found local commanders and private army guards armed with submachine guns willing to escort them. Their mission: to interview potential witnesses and gather information about the path Lindh took while fighting with the Taliban. “We endured everything from the threat of vaporization [Pakistan and India were threatening nuclear war] to the absence of telephones, rental cars, roads — and the presence of mine fields everywhere,” Fechheimer said. Their assignment is reminiscent of the PI’s romantic image — a rugged adventurer who isn’t afraid to use fists or guns to get the job done. For the most part, though, a gumshoe’s work doesn’t get public attention. While law firms routinely employ them for everything from criminal cases to patent infringement and trade secret trials, they rarely mention the role of their detectives. In the private eye business, San Francisco is known for its plethora of top-notch investigators who are hired by firms around the country. “In the San Francisco legal community we are much more ready to use investigators and think of them as an important adjunct to legal work,” said John Keker, a partner at Keker & Van Nest. Keker said among other things, he uses investigators to help find information about a person for cross-examination. “There is usually at least one person in every case, criminal and civil, where you want to find something out about them,” he said. FERTILE TERRITORY It shouldn’t come as a surprise that San Francisco is a capital for sleuthing. After all, this is the home of Sam Spade, one of fiction’s most famous detectives. It’s also where Hal Lipset, the father of the modern PI business, set up shop. Lipset, who died in 1997, used the skills he developed in Army intelligence during World War II to develop a new kind of investigator, one who collaborated with lawyers on their cases rather than merely taking orders. Lipset’s apprentices, including Fechheimer, went on to train another generation of San Francisco private eyes. Over the years they developed their own PI lore, working on high-profile cases worthy of a Dashiell Hammett novel. There are general practitioners who help attorneys prepare for litigation and specialists who focus on such areas as industrial espionage and corporate due diligence. Their billing rates generally range from $75 to $250 per hour, though they can go as high as $350 per hour. John Gibbons, an investigator and consultant with OSO Group Ltd., said firms use investigators more in criminal cases than in civil matters because many lawyers believe they can get the information they need through discovery. “Some law firms think they can get associates and paralegals [to find information] on the Internet,” Gibbons said. “That’s not enough. You have to dig and talk to people; find the disgruntled employee, ex-spouse — or the corporate deal that went bad overseas that no one knows about.” Patent litigator Henry Bunsow, a partner with Howrey Simon Arnold & White, said he uses an investigator once or twice a year. In one case an investigator posed as a potential investor, getting a tour of a company’s factory and taking photographs that enabled Bunsow’s client to sue for patent infringement. Firms in San Francisco, New York and, to a lesser extent, Los Angeles, most frequently use investigators in major litigation, said Jack Palladino of the detective agency Palladino & Sutherland. While investigators in cities like Chicago and Miami are busy, he said, they aren’t involved in the same level of litigation. “San Francisco is a peculiar market,” Palladino said. “Investigators have more unusual backgrounds here and are given great autonomy, which is not true in most of the country.” Local PIs also get their share of headline-grabbing criminal cases. Fechheimer, for example, worked on the cases of former Black Panther Party members Huey Newton, Angela Davis and George Jackson; mobster John Gotti; and attorney Patrick Hallinan, who was acquitted of money laundering, conspiracy, obstruction of justice and racketeering charges in the mid-1990s. Palladino and Sandra Sutherland also have handled numerous cases in the national spotlight. One of their first major investigations was for carmaker John DeLorean, who was arrested in a government sting operation for suspected drug trafficking, then ultimately acquitted. In the 1980s, Palladino and Sutherland were hired to help billionaire banker Edmond Safra in his libel suit against American Express. Sutherland went undercover, pretending to be a journalist, and obtained evidence that Palladino said showed the credit card company was behind false news reports that Safra was involved in prostitution, heroin smuggling and money laundering. American Express settled the suit before it went to trial. The two were retained by the Clinton campaign in 1992 to track down the source of rumors, particularly those about Clinton’s involvement with various women. They also worked on behalf of Jeffrey Wigand, the whistle-blower from Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. whose story was portrayed in the movie “The Insider.” Palladino appeared in the movie as himself. Recognizing the rich material of PI work, investigator Josiah “Tink” Thompson published a book, “Gumshoe,” which recounts his life as a private eye and his apprenticeship with Fechheimer. The two detectives have worked on several cases together, including the defense of Symbionese Liberation Army member Sara Jane Olson and the defense of Timothy McVeigh, who was convicted of blowing up the Oklahoma City federal building. One of his most memorable experiences, Thompson said, was as the defense investigator for Chol Soo Lee, whose case is portrayed in the movie “True Believer.” Lee was imprisoned for the murder of a Chinese gang member, and his attorneys reopened the case after Lee was charged with killing a prisoner. Thompson found a witness to the gang killing that the police had kept from the defense team, and he later interviewed the real killer’s girlfriend, helping to prove Lee’s innocence. “When the verdict was announced I heard only the word ‘not,’” Thompson recalled. “It felt like a couple hundred pounds of TNT going off. … There was a marvelous explosion.” Stuart Hanlon, who was defense co-counsel with J. Tony Serra, climbed up on the defense table in jubilation. NOT JUST ROUTINE Most of the day-to-day work of an investigator is more mundane, but investigators say those tasks can offer the greatest rewards. “Early on I would have thought the real fun” would be handling cases like that of Michael Jackson rather than poring through case files, said Jacqueline Tully, who has worked on several cases for the pop star. “That’s all baloney. Going to San Jose and reviewing records can be absolutely fascinating and probably more interesting than going to [Jackson's ranch] Neverland.” While the sleuthing business is still dominated by former cops and federal agents, over the past three decades many others have entered the profession, including lawyers and reporters. Women also have risen in the profession. “At the time Sandra [Sutherland] started, there might have been a handful,” Palladino said. “Now 20 to 30 percent of investigators are women.” The PI business also involves many more specialties than it once did, ranging from maritime law to forensics. No matter what your interests are, Fechheimer said, you can carve out a niche in the detective field. He noted, for example, that there is a whole specialty devoted to investigating horse deaths. Many investigators focus on corporate-related work. The OSO Group, formed by former federal prosecutor Gibbons, is known for its industrial espionage work. For example, the agency set up an undercover operation for IBM a few years ago to find out who was buying and selling the company’s high-tech scrap material, which was supposed to be destroyed. Likewise, Cannon Street Inc., founded six years ago by former FBI agents Rick Smith and John Buchanan, primarily handles workplace and due diligence investigations. Whatever their task, though, they say the ability to go about unnoticed is crucial to their success. “I always say the difference between fiction and real life is: In real life, if you do the job right, almost no one knows you did it,” Fechheimer said. “In fiction there are fights, standoffs and all these mistakes. Fictional literature is all about mistakes. Otherwise there wouldn’t be a story.”

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