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Reluctant Novice

Students Find the Suspense of Detective Work Eludes Them

July 21, 1994|PANCHO DOLL | When he's not undercover, Pancho Doll is a Times staff writer

You know you shouldn't giggle when the man tells you that he's "conducting a frontal surveillance on a female subject." You shouldn't giggle because he's totally serious. That, and he's got a gun in the glove box of his car.

You're in the car, a black, two-door sports sedan, driving in front of a flower delivery truck while keeping an eye on the female driver in the rearview mirror, hence the "frontal surveillance" description that, while it sounds lewd at first, is standard lingo in the private detective business.

Simon Cavazos, a Thousand Oaks private investigator, who also teaches a private investigation class at Learning Tree University, is driving the car. You're riding along, getting a feel for the basics of detective work before attending one of his classes.

"Stakeouts are entry-level work," he says. "I usually assign my associates to it."

It's pretty damn dull, as Cavazos describes it. Spending hours parked outside a warehouse trying to catch employees stealing from the company, checking up on spouses, or in this case, following someone who backed out of a business deal and left his erstwhile partner with a debt that he can't collect.

Cavazos wheels the car hard to the right to catch up with the flower van, which has turned at the previous intersection. He's been following this van since it drove off from a house he had under surveillance.

"We're trying to find out if the subject who declared bankruptcy has a business or a job that he's not reporting. Then my client might be able to collect on the debt."

Cavazos hopes the driver of the flower delivery van might be the man's wife. But when the driver stops and gets out, she turns out to be a stranger delivering flowers and birthday balloons.

Back to sit on the house some more. Cavazos pulls the car into a discreet position, shuts off the engine and the wait starts again.

He's talking about the basics. Be sure your car is plain, no vanity plates, special license plate frames or even parking stickers that would help the observed pick your car out of the crowd.

Check your engine oil level, windshield washer fluid, check for under inflated tires and make sure your tank is full, he says.

Meanwhile your own tank is filling up as indicated by increasing bladder pressure, the obvious result of the coffee you drank to get yourself up for the early morning assignment. You ask Cavazos how is it possible to maintain uninterrupted surveillance while attending to urgent matters of physiology.

"A bottle," he says.

You're not sure if he's kidding, but thankfully the surveillance ends before you have to find out. Later, during Cavazos' class, he says the bottle is probably a P.I. myth. He's never known anyone who carried one.

On this particular night, the class Cavazos is teaching is also on automobile surveillance. You're in the back seat with Cavazos while a nervous student starts the engine to begin her first surveillance. She guns the engine, but barely moves.

"Is your emergency brake on?" Cavazos asks.

Oops. First rule of automobile surveillance: Release emergency brake before proceeding.

You drive to the restaurant in Thousand Oaks where the exercise is supposed to begin. The students have taken down descriptions of the two men they are to look for. Cavazos goes over more basics.

"Turn your head lights off as soon as your car comes to a stop. Don't step on the brake when the car is stopped. That could make it easy for the subject to read your plate. Leave the dome light off."

When you get to the rendezvous spot, some of the other students are already staked out in a red BMW (hardly a plain vehicle) parked in plain view. With their head lights and dome light blazing, they look about as inconspicuous as a highway flare.

The subject pulls into the parking lot, and the two-way radios the students are carrying begin to crackle. On the adjoining sidewalk three more students mill around under a light, taking notes and looking about 50 times more suspicious than the man they're supposed to be watching.

The subject moves to a table at an outdoor cafe where he meets a second man.

Strategies to overhear their conversation or ascertain what they are exchanging are discussed. You suggest getting a table near them. Of course you'd have to order something, and this opens up what could be a broad discussion on how much and how often you can bill clients for food and drinks consumed on the job.

The tutorial on legitimate expenses is cut short when the subjects get into their cars and drive off, student P.I.s in hot pursuit. Your car follows subject No. 2 to a doughnut shop next to Learning Tree, indicating that the exercise is concluding and we will be debriefing soon.

"What do you think?" asks the driver?

"I think he's going to get the jelly-filled," you say.

"How do you know he's not going to go for the glazed," Cavazos asks. "A good investigator never assumes anything."

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