Kelly Luker needed to learn how to smoke crystal meth. As a criminal defense private investigator in Santa Cruz in the mid-2000s, she had been asked to learn—and be able to demonstrate to a jury—the technique of smoking crystal meth and scraping down particles formed along the inside of a glass pipe. The client was definitely a drug addict, but she had to help prove he wasn’t a drug dealer, too—and that meant proving that he wouldn’t have been able to profit off the amount of “substandard” drug residue inside his pipe—which he was accused of selling.
Luker had never smoked meth, and didn’t intend to start now. She needed a teacher, a propane torch, vitamins and liquid air freshener—not all of which were particularly easy to find.
More than 10 stores and a couple of phone calls later, she got the goods and proceeded to visit her instructor—who, though long clean, demonstrated how to use the torch to melt air freshener tubes and theoretically smoke the more cost-effective meth substitute she had supplied: vitamin B12 pills.
The case was dismissed. Looking back now, Luker says it was this kind of retrospectively funny and sometimes cringe-worthy moment that made the job unlike any other. She amassed a collection of used clothes for clients who looked a bit worse for wear to appear in court in, and her car became her working office of briefcases, tennis shoes, latex gloves and a camera.
It was her job to work with defense attorneys to find the cracks, holes and loose ends in the prosecution’s cases, and try to establish a fragment of reasonable doubt—no matter how repugnant she might have found the defendant. Her work was based on the belief that everyone deserves a fair trial and a chance to prove their case. Even when the evidence was insurmountable, the defense would attempt to prove the possibility of innocence, or at least lessen a client’s sentence in a plea bargain.
For Luker, it made sense that someone had to defend the bad guys, but deep down she struggled with the moral issues around her job.
“It was a challenge, [but] I worked really hard for all of it, and that’s where I had to compartmentalize,” Luker says. “The hardest part was accepting that I would never make the job and my feelings about it congruent.”
Luker writes about the six years she spent as a P.I. in her new book, Private Eye for the Bad Guy. After working as a staff reporter at Metro Santa Cruz and Metro Silicon Valley for around six years, it was natural for her to write about her experiences.
“I had to do something to express my feelings about it, because it was really hard for me,” she says. “If you are a writer, then it’s all material.”
After she was laid off from Metro in 2001 during the economic downturn, it was a scramble to find something to pay the bills. She had a friend working as a P.I. and she thought the job might be fun and a good transition from journalism. After all, she loves asking questions and telling stories. An expert person-finder and record locator, Luker’s number one job was initiating difficult conversations and navigating tense social encounters.
But separating her job from her personal life was difficult. When she started writing the book, it helped her cope with her own past history of drug abuse and sexual violence, and though she was careful to use different names and change specific details of each case, the stories in the book are all completely true and accurate, she says.
“When it came out, I thought the attorneys wouldn’t like what I said and they would come sue me, and then the ex-cons would come butcher me,” she says. “Then I realized that was getting in my own mind. I’m not a New York Times bestseller. It was just something I felt like I had to write.”
Luker delves into some of the most common, memorable and atrocious cases she worked on. From juvenile cases to capital punishment, she says each chapter was meant to illustrate how diverse they were. When asked about defense investigators who love their jobs, she can only name two people, which explains why she needed some catharsis.
“It was really helpful [to write the book],” she says. “It helped me clarify a lot about what my beliefs and feelings were. It was a good escape route from it all.”
She wrote Private Eye for the Bad Guy during the last few years of working as a P.I., which is why she was able to document such meticulous details and descriptions of her various clients and interviewees. When she told people about her work, Luker says their initial reaction was one of awe—they’d think, “Ooh, a private investigator.” Until they actually understood what the job entails, that is.
“I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it, and that was difficult,” she says. “Most people weren’t thrilled with what I did, they didn’t want to hear about it and they couldn’t relate to it.”
There were parts of the work she says she really enjoyed, like taking her dog with her on jobs, and just talking to people around town. It certainly didn’t get boring, she says, especially since there “was never the same thing twice.”
What Luker wants people to know, more or less, is that real-world criminal justice is not like it is portrayed on television. The vast majority of the time, she says, criminals are found guilty or reach a plea bargain. And while Luker’s book isn’t looking for sympathy, it does humanize everyone involved in criminal defense.
“We have awesome defense attorneys here, that’s one thing I took away and I really hope people get,” she says. “I mean, we have really, really good defense attorneys here. These people work their ass off for their clients.”
Sure, they didn’t always win—and much of the time, they probably shouldn’t have—but what Luker’s book so eloquently emphasizes is that despite the odds against them, the defense attorneys and investigators never gave up.
Work in the private investigator business tapered off, and she used the extra time to start her own business. Though she never officially retired from being a P.I., she has no plans to return and spends her time running a small dog boarding service, which she is very proud to say is kennel- and cage-free. The dogs run around the yard, and even sleep in the house, in a sort of ultimate canine vacation.
“I just talk to the dogs now,” she says, laughing. “The conversations are great, and they listen so well.”
Stan By Me
In this excerpt from ‘Private Eye for the Bad Guy,’ author Kelly Luker finds herself grappling with a bizarre work environment
I’d taken to coming into the Cave after 5:00 p.m. The airless, windowless office annexed a former medical building, and its walls still faintly belched ether and antiseptic. My boss, Stephen, ran his private investigation business out of it and paid rent to the law firm that occupied the rest of the building. The lawyers, in turn, relied on Stephen for their investigative needs. They handled mostly county-appointed criminal cases, those the public defender’s office couldn’t.
For a small California beach town, Santa Cruz had a bountiful surplus of crime that kept the public defender and other defense attorneys—and therefore, Stephen—busy. There was too much work for him, but not quite enough for another full-time investigator. Over the years, I would watch him hire other part-time investigators, brimming with optimism as he created multi-tiered inboxes. Within months, or weeks, the inboxes gathered dust as the new blood discovered they could not survive on what amounted to only ten or twenty hours of work some weeks. I managed because I had to. Jobs for anyone, much less women with my resume, were scarce. I’d never quite managed to put together a career, only a string of disparate jobs during those decades in the workforce.
I thought I understood most folks who ended up in trouble. Their crimes were often stupid and ill-conceived, followed by contrails of alcohol and drugs. It was the attorneys that confounded me.
With a private entrance from the parking lot and its own bathroom, our office provided a refuge from the rest of the attorneys and their support staff who fed upon the upper section of the law building’s intestinal tract. But I still needed to invade their territory to use the copy machine or pick up files, and I hated running into the zealously territorial bookkeepers and secretaries who had assigned themselves to patrol it. My after-hours arrival time neatly eliminated those encounters.
I was filling in my timesheet that night when one of the attorneys wandered in to visit. Jeremy liked to chat. His soliloquies could run to the half-hour mark, reveling in complex intricacies of a case or sometimes, when it was a particularly heinous crime, graphic details. But I didn’t get paid for pretending to be social. I sneaked glances at my paperwork while he talked, furtively scribbling tabulations and notes. Jeremy settled his tall figure on the sofa and leaned back, scuffed Adidas stretched out in front of him. Like all attorneys, he kept a collection of business suits, dress shirts, and ties on hand for any courthouse visits. But his everyday outfit of an old T-shirt and baggy sweatpants brought a whole new meaning to “office casual.”
“You going to be here all by yourself a couple of weeks?” Jeremy asked, hearing that Stephen had planned a family vacation. “Yup,” I smiled, as stomach acid bubbled at the thought. “Just me.”
I knew how to write, research, and interview, which turned out to be 80 percent of my tasks. But six months in this line of work had proved not nearly long enough to understand what I was doing. I don’t mean the job itself—that was to make money to hopefully pay bills—but the elusive logic of these tasks that now made up my working day. From what I could tell, we investigators were encouraged to sidestep a problematic truth, and instead, find evidence to support even the most wild-eyed stories our clients and their attorneys cooked up for a defense. Rationally, I understood that everyone deserved a fighting chance, especially against an entity as powerful and well equipped as the People of the State of California. But I sometimes felt like a bat flying without radar. The intuition I’d learned to listen to, which warned me when someone was dishing out B.S., served no purpose in this job. I would eventually learn that truth was a malleable object with prosecutors, law enforcement, our clients, and us. But for now, I was still feeling my way through each week, and the prospect of going it alone without my boss’s guidance unnerved me.
Jeremy abruptly switched the topic to an indicted pedophile whose high-profile case was finally coming to trial. As Jeremy knew, I was headed over to the county jail later that evening to prep his client for a new wardrobe. Perhaps with the right clothes, the jury wouldn’t think Stan was the type of guy who coerced 12-year-olds to do the kind of things news articles always refused to describe. In the first of times too numerous to count, I asked myself how I ended up here. Why was I working to help someone I would have strangled without a moment’s hesitation had he come near my child? I had no answer yet—at least, no honest answer.
“Stan’s going to ask you about continuances, legal documents,” Jeremy went on. “Just tell him you know nothing.”
When it came to crimes like Stan’s, ignorance used to be bliss. But my job now depended on dissecting graphic details. Eventually, I would need to ask victims to explain what, exactly, was entailed in “oral copulation,” “sodomy with a foreign object,” and other legal definitions that threatened to put my clients behind bars. Did he use one finger or two? Did he hold you down by the shoulders or by the throat? That night was still early in my new career, and since I was only putting together a wardrobe for Stan, I had barely skimmed his file. Unfortunately, I hadn’t figured on any evening chats with Jeremy.
“You know what else he did to those girls, right?” Jeremy was dying to unload Stan’s dark deeds on someone.
With no end in sight to Jeremy’s monologue, I tried a new tactic. Pushing the calculator aside, I turned and gave him my full attention. Ever since the case had been assigned to me, I had wanted to pose one simple question to the accused pedophile’s lawyer. Now seemed as good a time as any.
“So let me ask you,” I said. “How do you justify this? You know he molested those girls. You know he’ll do it again if he gets back on the street. Do you have any moral or ethical qualms?”
Jeremy was already shaking his head before I finished.
“Not a one. Never. What these people do after the case is over, that’s not my concern.”
“The letter of the law? That’s what you care about, right?”
“The letter, the spirit, the inference, the implication, the meaning—all of it,” Jeremy replied. “I don’t pay attention to the people involved. I keep a box around me, and all I care about is what’s inside that box—the law.”
I thought I understood most folks who ended up in trouble. Their crimes were often stupid and ill-conceived, followed by contrails of alcohol and drugs. It was the attorneys that confounded me. Jeremy was brilliant and his grasp of legal intricacies awesome. He could have worked on the federal level or made many times his present income from corporate clients in Silicon Valley. Instead, he seemed to enjoy handling a perennial caseload of miscreants who managed to repulse even other criminals. Who was this guy? Perhaps if I could unscramble Jeremy’s logic and moral code, it would help me make sense of what I now did for a living. But it was like pondering hieroglyphics, where only periodically could a familiar symbol be plucked out of the tangled jumble of designs.
I would struggle with these questions for the next several years, but that night I shoved the half-finished time sheets aside and told Jeremy it was time to visit Stan.
Private Eye for the Bad Guy is available at Bookshop Santa Cruz and online at bookshopsantacruz.com.