Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

What does it take to be a private investigator? A PI shares the thrills and hazards of her job

Denise Scaffidi. Photo: Tricia Romano/Crime Library.

Denise Scaffidi has been a criminal defense private investigator for the past 21 years. In 2001, after working on murder cases in Seattle and San Francisco, she was made the lead investigator for one of the most notorious serial killers in recent years—the Green River killer, Gary Ridgway. In addition to running her business, Scaffidi is currently teaching at the University of Washington’s Private Investigation certification program which was recently ranked the best in the country by PiNow (and full disclosure, where I am currently a student.) Scaffidi talks about how she became a private eye, what that involves, and the hazards of the job.

Becoming a Private Investigator

Crime Library: What made you decide to become a private investigator? Who sits around and says, ‘I’m going to become a private eye?’

Denise Scaffidi: I did when I was 12.

CL: What inspired you? What 12-year-old mind thinks I want to be a P.I .?

DS: I believe it was from TV. A few years after that the first female P.I. came on, Honey West.

CL: So you watched her and thought that she was cool?

DS: That was what I was going to do. Yup.

CL: What was it about it that attracted you to it?

DS: I think it could have been her blue sports car with leopard skin upholstery. She had a pet ocelot named Bruce and she used martial arts.

CL: So now, you don’t have ocelot and a blue sports car.

DS: No, I have a bull terrier, which is close to an ocelot. Oh, and a Jeep.

CL: After you got a job in San Francisco at the National Labor Relations Board where you investigated labor law violations, you went into proper P.I. work. But you are mostly self-taught.

DS: During those three years at the National Labor Relations Board, I also started studying criminal investigation on my own. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, because I did not want to be a police officer or a detective. So I read every book in the San Francisco library that had anything to do with criminal investigation. I also got my P.I. license in Sacramento, California during those three years, because you had to have three years’ experience before you could apply for a license. In San Francisco they had this weird—law… rule—I don’t know what it was—that for unsolved murder cases, when they reached a certain age, like a year or two years, they were open to public to investigation by non-police officers. So I worked on two murder cases.

CL: Just on your own?

DS: Just on my own.

CL: When you are working on a murder trial, what is your job?

DS: Well, basically you start from scratch and re-investigate the entire case. You look at everything that’s been done. You figure out which witnesses have to be re-interviewed, what wasn’t done by the police, what needs to be done by me, what witnesses may not have been found and where they might be. Re-interview all the witnesses with an eye for contradictions that they made in different statements or contradictions between them and other witnesses, make charts of witnesses and what they’re gonna say. Interview most all police officers on a case because these officers are notorious for writing these really brief summaries of what they’ve done, they leave out so much that’s important. My job is to be objective as far as I’m concerned and to re-investigate from the get-go, from scratch. I look at the evidence, I go to the scene, I meet with all the forensic witnesses, the cops, the lead detective, always with an eye to what defense there might be for the client.

CL: You see it with fresh eyes?

DS: Yes, and also our client is going to be telling us witnesses for the defense, which the prosecution knows nothing about. So I’ll interview them first to see what they have to say.

CL: When you are investigating cases are you trying to prove that they’re not guilty or innocent?

DS: Not my job.

CL: What if you’re certain you’ve got a guilty client?

DS: Happens all the time. Not my concern. I don’t care if they’re guilty or innocent; my job is to provide a competent investigation. My information goes to the attorney; the attorney’s job is to defend them.

CL: Has there ever been a case that the crime has been too upsetting or the person is just you just can’t get involved and you want to absolve yourself of it all?

DS: Never. I’ve got clients I couldn’t stand and I think I do 100% for them. The ones I really like I do 120.

CL: How did you become involved with the University of Washington Private Investigation Certification course? What is different about this program?

DS: Well, first of all, it’s a nine-month program. The first semester you learn the legalities of not only private investigation, but what to investigate and how to do it legally and how to get your license, what you have to know to get your license. The second semester is mine, and that’s the basics of investigation, the foundations of investigation, and then criminal defense investigation. And the third semester is, civil investigation, and how to run the business. So, what’s different.

CL: Okay, so when you tell people you’re a PI, and they’ve never met a P.I. before, what are the preconceptions they have?

DS: They always say, ‘Are you spying on me?’ That’s the first thing they always say. No—I try to explain that I’m a criminal defense investigator, so that’s very different than a P.I., such as who is sleeping with who, stealing from a boss, kind of thing. Every single woman I’ve met has said, ‘Oh I’d be really good at that.’

CL: Why do you think they think that?

DS: We’re curious, we’re sleuths, we hear something and say, ‘Wait—that’s not the story.’

CL: Do you think women make better P.I.s than men in some cases?

DS: I think they do, because of two things: number one, we are the ultimate multi-taskers. We can do the juggling of 25, 30 cases, family, home life, all the other thing we have to take care of. The other thing that we have, which is I think is more important—is we know how to compartmentalize. I don’t believe that most men know how to do that, so they’ll go home with these horrible stories in their head, and they can’t get rid of them. Soon as I leave work, it’s over here (she moves her hands to the side of the table) until I go back to work or until I need to think about it. And it keeps our sanity. I think we’re better at keeping our sanity. We’re also more organized as far as billing, as far as keeping our files organized, our cases organized, our cars organized. I think women, generally, do make better investigators.

CL: So what are your tools of your trade? You don’t carry a gun.

DS: I do not carry a gun. I don’t believe that we should.

CL: But there are some do.

DS: There are some that do. I think in my job as a defense investigator, the most dangerous people I can meet usually will need a defense investigator sometime in their lives. So they’re a lot more apt to protect you than to harm you. I think police are in a lot more dangerous situations than we are, doing our jobs. Plus, it costs an arm and a leg to get the insurance when you’re armed.

Job Hazards

CL: What’s the scariest situation you’ve ever found yourself in?

DS: I remember I had to serve a subpoena on some old woman and I was absolutely sure she was going to shoot me in the back when I walked away. I was waiting for the bullet to hit. That was the scariest one. Another time I had a case where there were three possible scenarios for why the victim had been murdered, and one of them was that there had been a paid hit out on him during the time he died. In fact, it had been put out a week before he died. So I found the hitman.

CL: And you knew it was a hitman?

DS: Mm-hmm.

CL: How did you know?

DS: Well, because this guy had told his boss about what he had been hired to do, and that it was $10,000. And that he came back to him and said that he was going to quit because he had made $10,000. So, I had a friend that was a private eye that was licensed to carry a firearm, so I had him come with me. And I had this young man stay in the car with his gun and I said if “I’m not out in 20 minutes…” All I had to do with this hitman was to serve him a subpoena so that he would have to come to court, he would have to take the fifth, so that he wasn’t admitting to anything. And that would’ve been the reasonable doubt that we needed. So I had him wait in the car and I said if “I’m not out in 20 minutes call 911,” and then come up to the door. But I was out by 20 minutes. That turned out to be a hoot, but, you know, I had to really prepare for that.

CL: What happened when you actually went to serve it to him?

DS: He was in the shower. His little sister answered the door who was probably a freshman in college. ‘Are you so-and-so’s friend?’ I said, ‘I am.’ ‘He’s in the shower.’ I said, ‘I’ll just wait for him.’ She brought me in. She had a TV that was bigger than any TV I’ve ever seen to this day. I don’t know what it was; it was a mammoth TV. And I talked to her about that, ‘Oh, my brother just bought that for me.’ I said, ‘Oh boy, that was probably expensive.’ So he came out of the shower and all he had on was a towel around his waist. And he was about six foot eight.

CL: He was a huge dude.

DS: Huge man. And the only hair he had was on his head; he was completely hairless. He asked me who I was, and his little sister said, ‘I thought this was a friend of yours.’ He said, ‘Who are you?’ and I said, ‘I don’t think you want your little sis to know about our conversation.’ So he sent her away and I told him that I was there because I’d understood that he had been paid for a hit on so and so. And he leaned way down and said, ‘You have got some balls,’ and I said, ‘You haven’t seen anything yet.’ I handed him a subpoena and I said, ‘You’re coming to court.’ ‘You can’t do this to me,’ and I said, ‘Not only can I… I just did.’ And I walked out.

This interview series will continue next week, when Denise will discuss her work on the Green River Killer case.

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