Sunday, April 11, 2010

Salem noir

I was talking with Emily one day about life and journalism in Salem and she made the comment that Salem has never had anyone to tell it's story well. The Salem noir story idea had been percolating since I started NVR, but it was only after I bounced it off her during that conversation that I got up the nerve to try it. One of the comments on the website said it read like a dime store novel. While the commenter meant it as a slam, it was the highest praise I could have imagined. I also want to heap praise on artist Scott Lakey who put together the cover of the issue. He had been going with a more traditional Sam Spade-esque figure, but when I sent him early drafts of the story he switched over to his interpretation on Frank Ivester as described in the opening graphs. After I got it back, I immediately called him because it's uncanny how perfect his illustration is to Ivester himself. I wish I had a picture of him to show you how close he got.

The meet goes down at a North Salem hash house that smells faintly of urinal cakes.

Frank Ivester, private eye, has shoulder-length silver hair with a matching French fork beard. His small eyes hid behind gold wire-rimmed glasses are shadowed by a tall forehead. He wears a tactical vest and black trenchcoat over a CIA T-shirt. Not used to being the one on the receiving end of an inquiry, he orders a Coke and asks:

“How did you find me?”

A single question validating the level of paranoia pervasive in classic noir fiction.

Media portrayals from the prose of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett to Rockford, Columbo and Neptune’s Mars Investigations, paint a portrait of a private dick’s work that is most often thought of as taking place in other, bigger places - Portland, L.A., New York.

Their counterparts in the legal system are police detectives and CSI teams - media darlings - but in a town where the ratio of inmates to free-birds exceeds the norm, P.I. work is plentiful. Doesn’t hurt that most major criminal cases in the state eventually end up in Oregon Supreme Court Building downtown.

Their cases don’t typically begin with a femme fatale on great pins sauntering into the office, but private investigator work in the Cherry City may be no less intriguing than a great noir mystery.

Hunter-gatherers in a data-driven age

Private investigator Eric Mason cuts a slimmer John Goodmanesque profile. He’s taken to eating organic, pitted dates to keep him off candy and fast food, and stave off the full Goodman.

On his way to pin down a potential witness, he drives past the Polk County jail in Dallas. A half-hour trek from his State Street walk-up office, he makes the trip regularly, but driving past the jail makes his skin crawl a bit. One of his clients, Phillip Scott Cannon, has been held in a cell there since September 2009.

“I don’t know how he’s doing it,” said Mason. “I don’t know how in the hell he makes it mentally. All he has is this small cell with a little slit for a window. I see him deteriorating and it’s hard to watch,” said Mason.

Pinched for a 1998 triple murder in West Salem, Cannon was convicted in 2000 and had the conviction overturned earlier this year. The prosecution’s case hinged on what’s become known as a “bullet lead” match. Long story short, experts testified that bullet lead from the crime scene was atomically consistent with ammunition found in Cannon’s garage. Once thought to be bulletproof, the chances of a random bullet lead match were estimated at only 1 in 64 million. Since Cannon’s conviction, bullet lead analysis has proven to be a leaky sieve - so unreliable that the FBI has abandoned it.

In a ten-year-long paper chase, Mason tracked documents and witnesses confirming that some in the prosecution’s camp at the time knew the theory behind bullet lead had serious flaws - at the very least, scientifically questionable. The prosecution’s decision to use a lab at Oregon State University’s Radiation Center to go around the police state lab, where some experts had begun to have doubts in the science, also proved damning.

The hunt for new evidence led him to witnesses in four states, across 4,000 miles of asphalt and airspace to the doors of dozens of witnesses, some still addicted to the white drugs they’d been strung out on a decade before.

If anyone knows the value of a private investigator, it’s Cannon.

“A good Investigator can make all the difference in a criminal case, and it certainly has in [mine],” wrote Cannon in a letter to Salem Monthly. “[Mason’s] efforts have been instrumental in uncovering new evidence both in the form of exculpatory witnesses and by examining the voluminous data gathered by other investigators over the years.”

Mason cut his teeth in broadcast journalism as the “wrong guy” reporter. As in, “Youse got the wrong guy.” He was good at it, too. He built strong enough cases through thorough reporting that it was cited at trial when one of his story subjects was freed in 1999. A lawyer friend tipped him off to a potential career as a P.I. working for defense attorneys.

In the grand scheme of private investigative work, defense investigation is the bread and butter for most.

Imagine a murder trial, or any trial for that matter, as a shotgun shack. The prosecution is going to make their case by entering in the front door and making a beeline for the back exit with as few distractions as possible. It’s the defense investigator’s job to push on every window and vent (witnesses, acquaintances, etc.) in the joint, trying to find another entry point that will get them to the same exit.

“We’re looking for a thread of a story that helps us understand our client. It’s the untold story that the cops couldn’t find or didn’t want to find,” said Mason.

Alternate points of entry lead to alternate theories of how a crime occurred. Defense attorneys present the alternate theories to juries at trial.

Mason likes quoting U.S. v. Wade, a federal opinion from 1967.

“To paraphrase, we are obligated to take down the wall of the prosecution, to provide reasonable doubt to the jury,” said Mason. “Up to that point, I thought I was just a fact finder, but we’re there to give the defendant a way out even when we know there’s guilt.”

Private investigator Ed Kraft speaks in an easy baritone rasp, sports close-cropped white hair; his spectacles dangle from a neck strap, and he’s dressed in a burgundy shirt with khaki pants when he sits down to jaw under the staircase of a downtown coffee bar. Like Ivester, he’s cagey at first, trying to work the angles, but he starts to spill after 15 minutes. A former school administrator and coach, he loves the job because he learns something new on almost every case and he does it by listening.

“If I’m out talking to a witness, I’m not going to talk, I’m going to let them tell me everything they think they saw,” Kraft said. “A P.I. who makes it through the first year is probably pretty good at it.”

Whether working evidence or witnesses, most of the job comes down to a single thing, communicating clearly and accurately, Kraft said.

“Cases are won and lost on accuracy, and a prosecutor will nail you on it every time – I learned that the hard way,” Kraft said. “The thing is that investigators are an important part of the legal process, in almost every post-conviction grievance the first thing listed is that the defendant didn’t have an investigator.”

When a client is truly innocent, much of what happens at trial is the result of the work P.I.s do on the streets beforehand.

On nights like tonight, that means tracking down a witness who may be called upon to appear at an upcoming trial. Mason’s dropped in at this same address several times before, but he gets a version of the same story nearly every time: “He ain’t here. He’s at school. Don’t know when he’ll be back.”

He pulls up catty-corner to the house. For a few minutes he watches to see if anyone walks by the windows. A car pulls up to the house in front of the one he’s watching, but aside from a flock of caged, silhouetted birds, all’s quiet. He rounds the corner in his SUV and pulls in behind cars parked in front of the house.

Up a lighted walkway and under a gabled porch, Mason rings the doorbell and dogs inside sing out in a discontented chorus. Yelling follows. Mason stays on the porch and gets another verse of the same song. The witness isn’t at home tonight.

“It’s rare to catch somebody at home the first time, or even the third. And when you finally do catch them at home, they’re going to be pissed off and wondering what the f-ck you’re doing on their porch and watching their house,” said Mason, recalling a recent encounter with a hostile witness. “By the time the hour was over, he was still pacing, he was still chain-smoking, but he was talking to me and giving me information.”

Talking to witnesses, especially those who feel like they’ve put a trial behind them, is fraught with potential landmines.

“You’re almost engaging them in a measure of diplomacy,” said Mason. “Constantly reminding them that if they were accused of a crime, they would want everyone doing everything in their power to get them out of it.”

He makes a mental note to conduct some deeper database searches. Technology has made the job easier in some respects, but collecting evidence-worthy material requires more knowledge than simply pushing the shutter button on a camera or hitting record on a video camera hidden in plain sight.

“There is the hardcore technology side, which is deep databases that we can access, but the best technology in the world is only as good as the P.I. going to verify that the person is actually there,” Mason said.

The less lively aspect of defense investigation deals with evidence.

“We’re outmanned and outgunned,” Mason said. “Every time we take on a case there are hundreds - if not thousands - of work hours waiting for us on the other side of the table.”

As an example, the paperwork for Mason’s latest aggravated-murder assignment tips the scales at more than 33,000 pages.

“On most cases you spend a lot of time reading, and making notes on what you’re reading, and then saying to yourself: ‘Okay, we’re in deep sh-t, how do we get out?’” said Mason.

Just as Mason has had success in working with witnesses, Ivester counts among his great successes the rediscovery of evidence. On a homicide case in Alaska with the defendant headed to retrial after the first one ended in a hung jury, Ivester started by sifting through the prosecution’s mountain of evidence.

“Any kind of extraneous information helps us build alternate theories,” Ivester said.

A group of men were dipping the bill when one got so sauced he ended up passed out on the couch. When he awoke, the party was over and his only company was the corpse of a drinking buddy - dead from a gunshot wound.

“Somehow a tape recorder got turned on, we’re still not sure how. You can hear the client passed out asleep on the couch and his buddies trying to get him up to get him home. They were all sloppy drunk and they decided to leave him there,” said Ivester. “Later on the tape, the other guy can be heard cleaning and playing with his .44 Magnum. You can hear him put a bullet in it, spinning [the chamber] and pulling the trigger. Then ... bam.”

The tape was broken during evidence collection, put in an envelope to be fixed and transcribed, and lost before the first trial. It was Ivester who rediscovered the tape, which cleared the defendant of the crime.

“It cost $80,000 in attorney’s fees, but he didn’t spend the next 40 years in jail,” Ivester said.

The Edgy Stuff

If the heavens and the earth were created in seven days, John Rose figures he started doing private investigations on the eighth.

Rose is a natural raconteur; every question sparks another story. He teaches private investigation out of his home. His office sits beside his classroom. File cabinets lining one wall are filled with the contents of more than four decades in the business. He uses film he took working cases 20 years ago to teach the classes he offers today. Atop one of the filing cabinets is a tangle of keys and locks. At 80, Rose embodies the other side of private investigations – private client work. He was the first chief of police in Turner and, later, a state tax auditor. He quit that job to become a state insurance investigator.

“I had wanted to do something where I could sit on my ass all day, but as an auditor, the businesses you audit put you in a clothes closet and for eight hours you sit in there. I’d put myself in a prison with a lady who stuck her head in every few hours and asked if I wanted coffee,” Rose said.

He was venting in a coffee shop in Salem when another acquaintance overhead his conversation. He told Rose they were opening a new investigative office with field representatives, he said, as an auditor, Rose would probably fit in real well.

Rose asked, “Where in the hell is your office?”

The man told him. Rose said he’d be there in five minutes. In 1967, he quit the state job with a partner to become a private investigator. In 1968, the company went broke, but he stuck with the job.

Rose made his name and many cases working insurance fraud claims. In colloquial terms he was a “roper,” tracking down individuals who were suspected of defrauding worker’s compensation plans and getting them on film doing manual labor - chopping wood, usually.

The year after he and his partner went broke, he made $100 large on his own. He opened the Academy of Legal Investigators in 1986 because “every time I wanted to hire somebody they didn’t know sh-t.”

Private client work comprises only a small portion of the work that the most investigators do because, as Mason puts it, it’s “the edgy stuff.”

In some instances, the client doesn’t want one moll talking to another moll - or either of them talking to his wife.

“These are people who lead complicated lives and sometimes they want protection and countermeasures; other times they’re just looking for someone to find a runaway child,” Mason said.

In the minority of cases, someone suspects their spouse of cheating and wants them followed. Those situations can prove stickier than they seem on the surface, Ivester said.

“I hate those cases; I’ve done a few, but very few. People don’t realize if I get video of a guy with a woman and I give it to the spouse, they can go out and get a gun and the liability falls on me,” he said.

If he does manage to get the requested proof, Ivester hands it over to the client’s attorney.

On the other hand, Ivester has worked private client cases that made him feel just as proud of his work as any he has done in criminal defense. One local man dropped a probate case in his lap a few years back insisting that there was more money in his parents’ estate than was evident in the paperwork.

“He’d been working on it for three years and hadn’t been able to prove anything,” Ivester said. “Within a few weeks, I’d found I bonds issued by City of Salem for the construction of Salem Hospital. [The state] treasury had the bonds, but the paperwork had been lost. They’d been earning 9 percent interest for 30 years. I also found evidence of a business that had been sold in Canada.”

According to Ivester’s client, several judges, CPAs and attorneys had set up accounts to skim money off the deals, when it was all said and done the estate ended up being worth approximately $100 million.

The Wide Grey Line

Cut to the chase, any P.I. on any case is paid to get the information their clients want.

They work for defense attorneys who work for their clients who are already in the stir with a simple motive of “get me the f-ck out of here, posthaste,” or they work for private clients who have their own agendas whether it’s protecting their hearts or their bottom lines.

There’s no oath of office, no badge, no charge of pursuing of truth at all costs. Then again - strictly speaking - journalists don’t have any of those either.

P.I.s, at least, are required to pass a test and background check for a license issued by a statewide board, which is a grey area in and of itself.

Even licensed P.I.s can be shady. Rose recently sent out a mailing to every licensed P.I. in the state, and it generated a considerable stack of returned mail from P.I.s who have shut their offices or been run out of business for the way they do it. Phone attempts to contact other P.I.s for this story resulted in numerous disconnect messages.

“There are some really crooked investigators right here in the state. It’s just that way,” Rose said. Another motive in starting his school was elevating the profession itself.

Use of guns in P.I. work is a polarizing issue for investigators. Mason and Ivester both carry guns when the situation warrants it. Kraft only agreed to take his first investigation job because he didn’t have to carry a gun.

“There are those rare circumstances when you’re not sure if a cracked out ex-con is gonna shoot through the door, and it’s not like we have back-up waiting around the corner,” Mason said.

Unlike Kraft who simply prefers not to pack heat, Rose is staunchly against the practice of P.I.s carrying weapons.

“The only reason an investigator would have a gun is they don’t have the ability to communicate with people,” Rose said.

Some duties private investigators perform might raise more puritan eyebrows. Some P.I.s make a career of preparing pre-sentence mitigation reports. Mitigation reports are given to the judge in hopes of inspiring leniency. Whereas the prosecution seeks out aggravating factors such as the crime was committed against a child, in front of a child or against a cop, the defense focuses on mitigating factors, the client’s life experiences leading up to the moment of crime.

“We spend a lot of time getting ready for sentencing. If our guy goes down, we want to have everything we need to help the judge understand the circumstances and the other side of the story,” said Mason.

Mason’s current caseload includes Cannon’s case and the recent Woodburn bank bombing, he also worked for the defense of Joel Patrick Courtney, the confessed killer of Brooke Wilberger.

“We’re never happy when a person is killed, but we strive for resolutions that allow people to be made whole to the extent that they can,” Mason said.

Some might think of them as apologists and worse, but “innocent until proven guilty” would be a hollow phrase without the work of first-rate private investigators. Mason likens defense investigation to hacking.

“We make the other side jump through the hoops because it makes the whole system better. When [the prosecution] has to prove things beyond a reasonable doubt it reinforces the standard we all live by,” he said. “A killer is not a killer until twelve good people have voted to convict ... and even then it’s my job to ask more questions.”

P.I.s can literally transform lives. Their work can set innocent men free, shine light on the guilty, reunite families, or break them up. It adds up to them coming off as a cynical bunch.

“There are three sides to every argument: both sides, and then what really happened,” said Ivester.

At the end of the day, their unsung duties are most telling.

As his client sits in the near-windowless cage of his Polk County cell - technically no longer convicted of the crime that put him there - Mason makes time to visit and talk with Cannon through a plexiglass window.

He also fulfills a humble request. He brings Cannon books.

So it goes in the Cherry City, a city that sleeps too much, but generally like any other. Rainier, maybe. The City of Angels may have Philip Marlowe. The Big Apple can stick its Nero Wolfe. Nate Heller can keep leaning into the breeze of the Windy City. Salem P.I.s are beating the streets as hard as any of them, a last line of defense between the accused and a long stretch in the slammer, and occasionally ideal subjects for noir stories themselves.

Case closed.

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