9 The Neighborhood Investigation – The Complete Idiot's Guide to Private Investigating, Third Edition



The Neighborhood Investigation

In This Chapter

Searching for the know-it-all neighbor

Weaving neighborhoods with liability investigations

Fibbing to the neighbors

Checking out the dirt…literally

Finding other crimes, other times

At some point in your work as an investigator, you’ll inevitably have to perform a neighborhood investigation, usually referred to in the trade as just a “neighborhood.”

If you’re investigating a burglary, for instance, and you’re going to “do a neighborhood,” you knock on every door in the immediate area and interview the neighbors. If you have the time and the budget, you should check with neighbors up to several blocks away. Why? Because burglars don’t usually park their cars in front of the home or business they’re burglarizing. If you want a description of the burglar’s getaway vehicle, it’s not going to come from the guy across the street from the victim.

A neighborhood investigation can be one of the best investigative techniques a professional can use, yet inexperienced PIs or lazy law enforcement detectives frequently overlook it. This chapter gets you up to speed on doing neighborhoods by introducing you to them and showing you several techniques you can employ when conducting them.

Neighbors Know More Than You Think

In almost every neighborhood, you can find someone—perhaps a little old lady or gossipy man—who knows what’s going on all the time. It’s not unusual for that type of person to be peering out her window to see what the fellow across the street is doing.

At one point in my PI career, we were moving the office from one rental space to a newer one. While waiting for the new space to be readied, I ran our operation out of my home. My wife, who worked in a medical facility, had to leave for work by 6:30 every morning. A female assistant, who drove a little red sports car, would come to the house around 9. After about six weeks of this, my next-door neighbor made a point of asking my wife if the cleaning lady who drove that little red car and came to our house every day was any good. She needed somebody to clean her place, too, but not as often as we did. My wife, of course, knew we didn’t have a daily cleaning lady, and it took her a minute to realize whom my neighbor was referring to. My neighbor was just doing her neighborly duty, making sure my wife knew that after she’d gone to work, some strange woman came to our place and always left before my wife got home.

The FBI is big on neighborhood investigations, and so am I, because they work. Sure, they’re manpower intensive, but they can produce good leads.

While I was still with the bureau, I was doing a neighborhood because I had an interest in some people at a certain address. I went to the residence and noticed that the house stood vacant. The mailbox by the front door was stuffed with letters. Don’t tell the postal inspectors, but I thumbed through the mail and wrote down the return addresses. After walking around the house and not seeing anything of further interest, I began knocking on doors and interviewing neighbors. Eventually, in doing this neighborhood investigation, I arrived at the house directly across the street from my subject’s residence. I’d noticed that, at this house, the drapes were drawn. I didn’t think anybody was home, but there was a car in the driveway. As I started up the walkway, I noticed the drapes in the front window move a little.

I rang the bell, and a little old lady came to the door. I identified myself and showed her my credentials. She opened the door and invited me in. Next to a chair by the front window was, no kidding, a pair of binoculars. When she saw my glance toward the binoculars, a sheepish grin spread across her face. After explaining the interest I had in her former neighbor’s comings and goings, she produced a lined pad of paper. On it she had written 45 license plate numbers. These 45 cars had all visited her neighbor across the street during the last month the house was occupied.

I’ve never found anybody that nosy, or that conscientious, since. But I have found a lot of very good neighbors who write down license plate numbers of suspicious cars they see in their neighborhood.

I have developed many, many excellent leads and solved numerous cases by executing the laborious and tedious task of a neighborhood investigation. If the circumstances warrant it, there is no better investigative technique.

The Mechanics of Investigating a Neighborhood

A neighborhood investigation can entail a number of investigative techniques, but by far the most important part of the work is to knock on doors in the neighborhood where the accident took place, the home was burglarized, or the child was kidnapped. You should do this as soon after the inciting incident as possible. If the case is a kidnapped child, chances are, the police will have beaten you there. If it’s a runaway teenager, the police probably won’t be involved at all. If your case does have police involvement and the police have already done a neighborhood, do it again.

In a number of jurisdictions, the police won’t respond to a home burglary if the items taken amount to less than $5,000.

In addition to knocking on doors, you want to try to track down the vehicle the suspect used to flee the scene of the crime. I delve into both of these facets of any good neighborhood investigation in the sections that follow.

Knocking on Doors

Your goal should be to talk to every person who was home on the day and at the time of the incident.

Take good notes while you’re talking to the neighbors. Keep track of whom you’ve talked to, what they saw, who was home at the time of the burglary, and who wasn’t home at the time you knocked on their door. If a wife tells you she wasn’t home when the burglary occurred, but her husband might have been, make a note of it. You’re going to want to go back and talk to that husband, even though the wife says the husband didn’t see anything.

Let’s take burglaries as an example. Chances are, when the PI arrives on the scene, it is going to be some time after the burglary occurred. Remember the son in Chapter 8 who stole the safe from his parents? The police didn’t do a neighborhood investigation in that case. Had they done one, they might have found that the neighbor across the street had seen the young man at the home during the time of the burglary. We’ll never know, though, because the police didn’t ask. (I didn’t do one either, in that case, but I would have come back and done it if the son hadn’t confessed to the crime.)

Obviously, you have to narrow the time frame of the offense. You do this by interviewing the victims, their family, and the immediate neighbors to get a fairly specific idea of when the burglary occurred.

When you’ve established the approximate time, try to figure out the point of entry and exit. These two points aren’t always the same. If the burglars entered through the back door and there are neighbors across the back fence, theirs should be the first door you knock on—not because they’re suspects (although you need to keep an open mind), but because they might have noticed someone cutting through their backyard and climbing the fence to get into the victim’s yard.

The only way to do a thorough neighborhood is to talk to each and every neighbor—not just a representative from each home, but every person in every house who may have been home at the time of the burglary. That’s a lot of work and requires multiple trips through the neighborhood.

You can cut a corner in a neighborhood investigation by getting the phone numbers of each home visited. Then instead of going back to the residences to speak to those who weren’t home on the first visit, you can call and conduct the interview over the phone. A face-to-face interview is better, but your budget may not allow for repeated trips back to do the neighborhood.

Don’t forget to talk to the neighborhood kids. Kids are typically all over the place, riding bikes, walking to friends’ houses, and just hanging out. Kids notice strangers and strange goings-on.

Finding the Getaway Car

Most criminals use some sort of transportation to flee the scene of their crime. Certainly, if it’s a planned crime, getting to and from the scene of the crime is an important part of the plan. Now, we all know that criminals are not always the smartest folks, but usually they try to think a little bit ahead. In solving burglaries or property crimes, the PI has to put himself into the mindset of the criminal. If you were a not-very-bright criminal, how would you make your escape? Where would you have parked the getaway car?

Examining the list of items stolen can give the PI an idea of how far away the getaway car may have been. If the burglars stole a big-screen television, they didn’t carry it very far. If they took only jewelry and small items, the car might have been several blocks away.

Why do we care about the getaway car? In movies, the getaway car is always stolen and not traceable back to the criminal. In real life, most getaway cars belong to the criminal or an associate. If you can identify the getaway car and run the license plate, you’ll probably catch the criminal.

After you’ve identified where the getaway car might reasonably have been parked, you know how far out to conduct the neighborhood investigation. It’s possible that a neighbor spotted the getaway driver, sitting in the car with the engine idling, and wrote down the license number. If so, you just hit the jackpot.

Working Premise Liability Cases

Premise liability cases always involve an allegation of negligence on the part of a property owner and some sort of injury to the plaintiff. The underlying incident that starts the whole case rolling may be an assault, a rape, a homicide, or something as simple as a slip and fall on a banana peel or a dog biting a neighbor.

If the inciting incident of a premise liability case is a slip and fall in a grocery store, you obviously don’t need to do a neighborhood investigation. You can only hope that the store manager took down the names of customers and store employees who witnessed the accident. However, in most premise liability cases that take place outside a commercial establishment, such as in a parking lot or an apartment complex, a neighborhood investigation is definitely warranted. Keep in mind that, for our purposes, the neighborhood does not have to be residential. Employees of neighboring stores make good witnesses.

One such case I worked involved the alleged abduction and rape of a young girl from her residence. It was in the heat of a southern July day, at about 2:30 P.M. Julie, a 15-year-old girl living with her mother in a large apartment complex, was brought into the hospital emergency room. She had been beaten about the face, and her bottom lip was swollen and bloody. She was alleging rape. Physical examination confirmed her allegations, and the sheriff’s office began an investigation.

Julie stood only 4 feet, 10 inches tall. Her mother had gone to the store for cigarettes and told her daughter not to let anyone into the apartment while she was gone. Julie said that while her mother was out, someone knocked on the door. She thought it was her mother returning. She went to look through the peephole installed in the door, but the hole was too high for her to see through, even standing on the tips of her toes. She opened the door, and an unknown male grabbed her by the hair, dragged her through the apartment complex to a wooded area behind the apartments, and proceeded to rape her.

Her father and mother, as her guardians, were suing the apartment complex, alleging that the peepholes were installed at such a height as to make the apartments unreasonably unsafe.

The crime scene in the wooded area indicated a struggle may have taken place there, and articles of the girl’s clothing were still there, along with a packet of spilled cigarettes. At the time we were called in, nearly six months after the incident, the crime was still unsolved.

I began interviewing neighbors and came up dry. Nobody had seen or heard anything. Several of the people I talked to had been home at the time of the assault. It seemed unusual that the girl had been dragged, kicking and screaming, past the swimming pool, through the apartment complex, and down a hundred yards or so through an asphalt parking lot, and nobody would admit to having heard or seen any of it. Perhaps this might happen in New York City, but I found it unlikely in this southern town.

Some of the people I talked to had been at the swimming pool but were not there continuously. They had gone inside to get drinks and such, so the girl’s story could have been true. Nonetheless, I smelled a rat.

In talking with the apartment residents, I had several tell me they knew the girl had been friends with a couple of boys who hung out at a certain corner market. They gave me a good description of those boys. I spoke with the manager of the market. Of course, the boys weren’t there, but the manager said they came in every afternoon between 2 and 5 P.M. It was already after 5, so I went back the next afternoon at 2 and waited. Eventually, two boys came in who matched the description I’d been given.

I spoke with the two youths, and they admitted that they knew about the assault. In fact, those two and a third boy had been in the woods smoking pot with Julie at about 2 P.M. the afternoon of the rape. The third boy, let’s call him Leroy, had wanted to have sex with Julie for a long time. When Leroy began putting the moves on Julie, these two told him to leave her alone because they knew she was underage. Julie seemed mildly cooperative, but my two informants didn’t want anything to do with that particular scene, so they departed, leaving Leroy and Julie alone smoking more pot.

It’s apparent that Julie probably got scared and changed her mind, but Leroy was determined and finally beat her and raped her. It was a terrible crime, but it didn’t happen because the peephole was too high in the apartment door. It happened because Julie had some questionable friends.

The rape didn’t actually occur on the apartment grounds, so my client, the owner of the apartment complex, was off the hook. I provided a copy of my report to the sheriff’s office, and Leroy was eventually charged with the crime. Why was a PI able to solve this case when the sheriff’s office couldn’t do it with all its manpower and forensic evidence? Because the investigating detectives didn’t perform a thorough neighborhood investigation. Remember, I did my neighborhood investigation six months after the incident, and I still got a good lead from it. Suppose I’d been able to do it the day of the rape or the following day. Had the sheriff’s office executed a proper neighborhood investigation, they probably would have found Leroy hanging out at the corner market still bragging about what a good time he’d had.

Being Discreet with the Neighbors

Interviews are successful if you build the bond of trust with the person you’re interviewing. Part of that bond of trust is that the interviewee is confiding in you and expects you to exercise discretion with the information he entrusts to you.

Almost without fail, during an interview, the subject will say something like, “Well, I don’t really want to get involved. I have to live in this neighborhood, even after your case is over.” And that is very true. He knows that if he rats out the lady across the street, she may try to get even with him at some point. That’s a very real fear people have. You’ll be long gone, but he’s still living across the street from her.

If you promise the subject that what he says is “just between you and me,” he won’t believe it and he will know you’ve just lied to him. If you say that, you’ve just broken the bond you’ve worked so hard to build. He knows you’ve got to report the results of your interview to your client. He knows that a lawsuit or criminal investigation is going on, and he may end up in court testifying.

How do you handle that situation? By being completely honest—well, almost—with the interviewee. Tell him that most of these cases never go to trial. Ninety-nine percent of the time, these types of lawsuits are settled out of court. Of course, you have to share the information that you get from him with the attorney for your client, but you will not share it with anyone else. Unless the case actually goes to court, the other side will never know what your interviewee says. If it does go to trial, he will likely be subpoenaed and will have to testify anyway. By cooperating now, he might help settle the case, which would prevent him from going to court and testifying.

Keep in mind that some people might enjoy going to court and testifying. Your interviewee may get a big kick out of saying what he has to say about his neighbor across the street and doing it in front of her. If that’s the case, play on that. Encourage him to tell you all he knows now; if it’s good enough, you can practically assure him of his day before the judge. To be successful, evaluate whom you’re talking to, determine what motivates him, and manipulate him accordingly.

Recently, I had a child support case. The delinquent father, let’s call him Ralph, produced a receipt for his rent to the judge, hoping to establish that he could no longer afford the burden of child support. The receipt looked funny to me, so I went to his supposed landlord. Yep, Laura confirmed that the receipt was a complete forgery.

Ralph and his girlfriend had at one time lived in the rental house but had been evicted months before the date on the phony receipt for not paying their rent. To justify them being three months behind in the rent, they claimed the leaking roof had made the house uninhabitable. Of course, that didn’t prevent them from living there for three months.

Ralph and his girlfriend called the building and zoning department to prove that the house wasn’t inhabitable. They showed a ceiling fixture with water pooled in the bottom. The department condemned the house for rental until a new roof was installed. In reality, Ralph had poured some tap water in the fixture before the house was inspected. The landlord had to put the new roof on at considerable expense. In the child support case, Laura said she would be delighted to testify against Ralph and the forged receipt. She kept calling me asking when she should appear to testify. Sometimes you find witnesses who can’t wait to testify.

On some occasions, the interviewee’s information might get reported back to the client even if the case doesn’t go to trial. In the settlement process, a case might go to arbitration.

Arbitration refers to a process in which the plaintiff and the defendant in a civil lawsuit meet with a third party, known as a professional arbitrator.

If your report contains some really hot stuff, a smart attorney will use those statements as leverage to encourage a better settlement. It’s possible that those statements might be reported to the subject of the investigation, the neighbor of your interviewee, even though the case is settled before trial. It’s not likely, but it’s certainly possible. So the neighbor might find out what your interviewee said.

Keeping an Eye Out for Other Trouble

One final major factor to consider in conducting neighborhoods is the “other crime” aspect. Be aware of your surroundings and what the folks you speak with are telling you. You have to be intuitive and sensitive to the meaning behind their words. Many times people try to tell you something but are afraid to come right out and say it, so they allude to it instead of being direct. You need to have your antennae up all the time.

By listening carefully, you may become aware of other factors that have a bearing on your case. Remember Daniel Black from Chapter 8? He was the fellow who shaved his head in an attempt to fool the witnesses at a lineup. We later obtained a search warrant and conducted a search of his home. In his garage, we found, in addition to the stolen motor home he was driving when we arrested him, a stolen Volkswagen and a stolen Porsche. In talking to his neighbors, they all mentioned that some items around their homes had gone missing. We were able to return bicycles, a lawn tractor, numerous personal items, credit cards, and traveler’s checks, all belonging to the neighbors. Daniel was a thief. And it didn’t matter to him whom he stole from.

As a PI, most of your neighborhood investigations will involve some sort of criminal or fraudulent activity. You might be talking to neighbors about an insurance fraud case. Most investigators don’t consider performing a neighborhood in those cases, for two reasons:

They don’t think of it, or they don’t know how to do a neighborhood investigation.

If they do consider it, they’re afraid that the neighbors will alert the subject to the investigation, and this will spoil any chance they have of getting “good” video of the subject’s activities.

We spent a lot of time trying to catch a man who was the subject of a workmen’s compensation fraud case. We knew he was physically capable of working and had been told that people saw him performing all sorts of physical feats that he’d told his employer he could no longer do, yet we rarely saw him leave his house.

We decided to do a neighborhood investigation. We talked to his neighbors on either side of his house and the ones across the street. Those interviews didn’t turn up any information. Finally, I went around the block and spoke to the family that shared the back fence line. It seems they would see him through the fence nearly every morning chopping firewood. You can guess where I was the next morning with the video camera.

In working any case, you have to use your judgment on whether a neighborhood investigation might bear fruit. Put the neighborhood in your toolbox and put it to use when appropriate. A well-done, thorough neighborhood investigation, although possibly labor intensive, is a good technique. If the FBI is fond of it, you know it has its merits. Most investigators don’t like doing them because they don’t want to spend the effort or have never been taught how. Now you know more than they do.

The Least You Need to Know

Conducting a neighborhood investigation can further your leads on a premise liability case, rape, assault, or slip and fall.

Every neighborhood has residents who know everything going on in the area. Find those people and interview them. In addition, talk to everyone in the neighborhood who was at home when the crime occurred.

Try to find out what how the criminal entered and exited the crime scene so you can track down his escape vehicle.

Be honest with the people you interview. If they feel you’re lying to them, they will not be forthcoming. You can promise them anonymity only to a certain degree.