The Case of the Missing License

Congress is putting on the squeeze, but Colorado's private investigators still can't agree how -- or if -- they should be regulated.

"My best chance of clearing myself of the trouble you're trying to make for me is by bringing in the murderers -- all tied up. And my only chance of ever catching them and tying them up and bringing them in is by keeping away from you and the police, because neither one of you show any signs of knowing what in hell it's all about.... Getting this all right, son? Or am I going too fast for you?"

The stenographer looked at him with startled eyes and replied: "No, sir, I'm getting it all right."

"Good work," Spade said and turned to Bryan again. "Now if you want to go to the Board and tell them I'm obstructing justice and ask them to revoke my license, hop to it. You've tried it before and it didn't get you anything but a good laugh all around."

-- Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon

In Sam Spade's day, there were private dicks and there were bad guys, and no confusion about the two. Unless, of course, the bad guy our hero was after happened to be another dick.

Sometimes it still works that way. It takes a private eye to catch a private eye. Especially in Colorado, home to some of the profession's sharpest operators and most shameless scammers -- clued-in sleuths and clueless sleaze, all prowling the same purple mountains and golden plains.

A couple of years ago, private investigator Jane Cracraft got a call from a local law firm. The firm had a client who'd hired some shady P.I. to do a little domestic surveillance. The clown took a $750 retainer and skipped. No report, nothing. All the client had was a business card with a name, a company and a pager number. Could Cracraft find the skip and serve him with papers so the client could sue him in small-claims court?

A former Denver Postreporter with a sterling rep as a P.I., Cracraft got on the case like Pollard on Seabiscuit. The man's name was possibly bogus; it didn't turn up in public-records searches, not even on a driver's license. The company was a dead end, too: no business credit report, no state registration. "If there's anybody who's good at hiding," Cracraft says, "it would be a private investigator."

Cracraft called the pager number. The man called back. She told him she was afraid her husband was running around on her, boo-hoo. Could she hire him? The genius didn't even ask where she got his number. He was on her doorstep thirty minutes later, eager to pick up his retainer.

"He bounces up to the front door, rings the bell, introduces himself -- and I hand him the papers," Cracraft recalls. "He says, 'That was really clever.'"

Other crooked P.I.s, the smart ones, are harder to identify. A few years ago, H. Ellis Armistead received an anonymous package in the mail. Inside were copies of his home and cell-phone records, credit-card purchases -- even phone records for his brother, a real-estate broker who lives in another state.

A large man who keeps a surprisingly low profile, Armistead had worked as a cop in Lakewood and a DA's investigator before turning P.I. in 1991. He's since tackled some of the most complex criminal matters in the state, including Columbine (he was hired by attorneys representing gunman Eric Harris's parents) and several death-penalty cases, including Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh's appeal. But Armistead knew the package was about only one case: the 1996 murder of JonBenét Ramsey, which he worked for almost four years, chasing leads on behalf of John and Patsy Ramsey. Sending him his own personal data was a kind of opening gambit, one P.I.'s way of telling another I got your number.

Shortly after the package arrived, his brother received an anonymous fax, offering $50,000 for information on the Ramsey case or for dirt on Armistead. The stunt was par for the course for the Ramsey investigation. The pint-sized beauty queen's murder brought the wolves and wackos running to Boulder, hungry to scoop up the cash the tabloids were offering for inside dope on the case. Some got nailed for trespassing, theft, fraud and worse; others, like Armistead's would-be blackmailer, never got caught.

Dubious private eyes aren't quite as plentiful around here now as they were at the height of the Ramsey frenzy, but the state's reputation in the industry remains a tainted one. "There are many reliable investigators in Colorado," says Eddy McClain, president emeritus of the National Council of Investigation and Security Services (NCISS), the trade's largest professional association. "But there are also a lot of crooks in Colorado. It's a tragedy that all states don't require licensing."

Colorado is one of only seven states that don't license private investigators. Anyone -- a pizza delivery guy hooked on Shell Scott paperbacks, a meth dealer on parole, a panty-sniffer with a rich fantasy life and a pair of handcuffs -- can set up shop here and call himself an "investigator," an "operative" or, better yet, a "personal security consultant." It's a situation that frustrates many experienced P.I.s, including the leadership of the Professional Private Investigators Association of Colorado, a group that has lobbied the state legislature to correct the situation. Cracraft is a past president of the PPIAC, and Armistead is currently its chairman of the board.

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