For these married Denver detectives, truth is more fun than fiction
Illustration by Patrick Faricy

The voice on the other end of the phone was calm, in control. That part wasn't unusual. Women who call the offices of Highlands Investigations & Legal Services, Inc., often sound unbreakable. If only that were true. This one used an even tone, but it disguised a fire raging in her gut. And judging from the tale she spilled, she had good reason.

The woman and her husband were from out of state. Her husband was a traveling businessman. But she suspected that not all of his business is the kind that's done in public. The worst part was that the louse was supposed to be atoning. She'd caught him cheating before. He'd asked for forgiveness and promised to change his ways. To stop poking women who weren't his wife. Well, she said, he was breaking his promises but making good on his poking.

And this might be her last chance to catch him in the act. She'd had private investigators in two other states track him, but neither had nailed the jerk.

Stop - or Shaun Kaufman and Colleen Collins will shoot.
Anthony Camera
Stop - or Shaun Kaufman and Colleen Collins will shoot.
The couple's book, How to Write a Dick is only available online.
Anthony Camera
The couple's book, How to Write a Dick is only available online.
Private eyes always know the tools of the trade.
Anthony Camera
Private eyes always know the tools of the trade.

Now he was headed to Denver. And, she guessed, straight into the arms and legs of a pretty business associate of his. She just needed the proof.

******

Colleen Collins and her husband, Shaun Kaufman, live in a modest brick bungalow in northwest Denver with two Rottweilers and an occasional teenager. The kids are from Kaufman's first marriage. The fiercely loyal Rottweilers come from fancy breeders. Their names are Aretha Franklin and Jack Nicholson.

Kaufman is a sucker for big dogs. Collins is scared to death of them. But when he moved into her place several years ago, his giant horse-dog Buddha, a predecessor to the Rottweilers, came with him. Collins built a white picket fence, a sign that she was serious about the relationship, but not about letting Buddha in the house. Then, one cold and snowy night, Kaufman opened the door. It's time, he said.

"I almost wet my pants," Collins says. "I was so afraid."

Monster dogs weren't the only new thing to which Kaufman introduced Collins. (She eventually learned to love Buddha, God rest his soul.) Another was private detective work. The two now run their own agency, Highlands Investigations & Legal Services, Inc., taking on everything from background checks to cheating spouses to research for criminal attorneys. They're a real-life husband-and-wife team of private dicks — though they hardly look the part. Kaufman, a former lawyer, is short and stout, with spiky gray hair, a biting wit and a sailor's mouth. His uniform consists of cargo shorts, Grateful Dead T-shirts and Velcro-strap sandals. Collins is tall, curvy, more fashionable, with natural red hair and an easy laugh. A bit older than Kaufman, she describes the pair as "lighthearted fifty-somethings."

In addition to detective work and dog-rearing, they moonlight as authors and recently completed their first book: an instruction manual for fiction authors called How to Write a Dick: A Guide to Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real Life Sleuths.

The writing bit comes from Collins, though the double entendre in the title is typical of both of their senses of humor. Before she was a private eye, Collins was a romance writer. Her first novel is about an English professor named Russell who's set to marry a socialite named Charlotte. But he gets drunk at his bachelor party and wakes up with a tattoo: a red heart on his chest with the name "Liz" etched in it. Liz, it turns out, is a tattoo artist with a penchant for literature. When she meets a drunk, poetry-reciting Russell the night of his party, she falls in love and marks him as her own.

Harlequin, that almighty paperback peddler of sexy beach trash and housewife panty-burners, bought Right Chest, Wrong Name in 1996 and published it as part of its tame "Love & Laughter" line: lots of jokes, a few kisses, but no sex. That suited Collins just fine. She's always preferred plot-driven stories to ones whose appeal lies mostly in tawdry descriptions of thrusting and moaning. Despite its lack of thrusting, the book sold well, and Collins wrote another: Right Chapel, Wrong Couple, about two strangers who get married in Las Vegas to escape from the mob. That book was translated into Italian and given a new title. Poker in Vegas. Talk about a double entendre.

But "Love & Laughter" soon shut down, and Collins started writing for a line called "Duets": two slightly steamy novels for the price of one. One of her books, Rough and Rugged (she didn't choose the title), was nominated for a Romance Writers of America award. It's about a bitchy L.A. executive named Liney in search of a rugged male model for the Cooking Fantasies magazine spread she's overseeing. At a Wyoming diner, she meets Raven, a bad-boy biker with a broken heart and killer abs...

Raven's scowl smoothed out a little, then he began unbuttoning his fly. Each button made a popping sound as it was opened.

"Don't you want a blanket?" Liney asked.

"No." Pop. Pop.

She wanted to say something — to be the appropriate, in-control vice president. But when she opened her mouth, all that came out was a raspy sound, like air leaking from a tire.

Eventually, Collins was in the panty-burning business full-time. She wrote for lines called "Temptation," "Modern Romance Extra" and the ultra-steamy "Blaze." Though she'd moved to Colorado more than a decade earlier for love, she was now divorced and often hung out in coffee shops, which is where she met Kaufman in 2002.

He was going through a tough time. He, too, had lost his marriage, and was on the verge of losing his law license. He'd had a good run as a defense attorney, including some high-profile cases, such as that of Woodland Park teenager Jacob Ind, who'd murdered his parents in 1992. But addiction got in the way. "I was a drug addict," Kaufman says. "I was really, truly, as defined in the classic, clinical literature.... I'm the son of an alcoholic, the grandchild of an alcoholic. It's an inherited disease."

As he got older, his use of alcohol and marijuana intensified, and it eventually came between him and his first wife, also an attorney. After his divorce was finalized in 1999 and his time with his four young children went from every day to every other weekend, he turned to harder and harder drugs. "I didn't have a lot of purpose when I was away from my children," he says.

His worsening addiction also interfered with his work. There were complaints of inadequate representation, of neglecting cases altogether, of failing to pay expert witnesses. And when he saw the redheaded woman walk into the Peaberry Coffee that day in November 2002, he was working as a paralegal while the state Attorney Regulation Counsel reviewed his case — a paralegal with a lot of free time, which he spent hanging out at coffee shops, cracking jokes and making friends.

"Our eyes locked," Collins says. "And Shaun is a pretty cute guy. We started chatting. And...he's a charmer. And he's funny. And I like to think I'm not so bad myself. We were on our best behavior. Obviously flirting."

Right Guy, Right Coffee Shop.

Collins didn't give him her number, but she did give him a custom pen she'd had made for a romance writers' conference. It was to promote her book Lightning Strikes, about a woman named Blaine whose antique brass bed gets delivered to the wrong apartment. It's the apartment of the man of her dreams — though she doesn't know it yet! The pen gave Kaufman the clue he needed to ask Collins on a date: her website address. Eleven days later, they went to Gaetano's Italian restaurant. The date was epic. After dinner, they went to Quixote's, a Deadhead bar on gritty Colfax, and drank lemon drop shots and kissed while the jam band Garaj Mahal played a live set.

In February 2003, the Attorney Regulation Counsel made its decision: two years' suspension. That same month, Collins and Kaufman made their relationship exclusive. And that summer, he and his horse-dog moved in.

******

The woman had two young children and didn't want to waste any more time. They lived in the South, where the laws allowed fault-based divorces. Translation: The more adulterous the husband, the more alimony for the wife.

The louse, she'd said, is a man of routine. When he comes to Denver, he always stays at the same beige, continental-breakfast hotel in the Denver Tech Center, always rents the same white Toyota Corolla with the unnecessary spoiler, always packs the same JCPenney slacks and dress shirts. He likes to smoke while out of town on business.

That's what Collins and Kaufman found him doing on the first night after they took the case. The man, in his mid-thirties with an average build and a receding hairline, paced back and forth near the hotel entrance, puffing on a cigarette and talking on his cell phone. For dinner, he ate take-out sushi. As he paced, Kaufman filmed him from the front seat of the couple's own Toyota Corolla, a 1996, sky blue, no spoiler.

To be safe, Collins and Kaufman rented a room directly across from their target. To get it, Collins told the hotel clerk a whopper. She and her husband had honeymooned at this hotel. Could they please rent that same room — the one right across from the no-good cheater — for the night, for old time's sake?

   But Collins couldn't sleep. She played sentry at the peephole all night long, watching the man's door, waiting for a woman to knock. But she never showed.

******

Neither Collins nor Kaufman set out to become private detectives.

Collins spent her early childhood in New Mexico. Her father was a military man who wound up teaching college history. When she was a child, he took the family on trips to Colorado ghost towns. He had a flair for telling stories, especially about the long-gone people who once lived in those towns. Collins inherited her father's flair. She loved reading and writing, and she made good grades.

By the time she was a teenager, though, her family had moved to Southern California, smack in the middle of the political tempest swirling around the Vietnam War. Collins wanted to be part of it. After high school, she attended a state university for a while, then dropped out in 1971 and hitchhiked around Europe for a year.

When she got back, she took a job inspecting potato chips at a Frito-Lay factory, watching the shimmering yellow snacks roll by for eight hours a day. "That was my big wake-up call," she says. "I went back to college."

At the University of California, Santa Barbara, she majored in theater, graduated with honors, and then set out for Los Angeles to become a director. In the meantime, she became a waitress. But she used the stereotype to her advantage when writing her resumé and cover letters. "I said that what I really wanted in life was to be a waitress. I said I'd been practicing very hard, breaking plates and getting orders wrong," Collins recounts. "I said, 'But until I can become a great waitress, I'm willing to work in film production.'"

The letter was good, and it caught the attention of some big Hollywood names. Collins worked for Dick Clark and then Michael Ovitz, co-founder of the Creative Artists Agency (and briefly, decades later, president of Disney). She'd take his calls, divert his wife and carry out cryptic, barked orders.

"Find me Sean Connery!"

"Well, where is he?"

"He's in Scotland!"

But Hollywood was unfulfilling, and Collins next landed a job at the Santa Monica headquarters of the RAND Corporation, the think tank known for churning out Nobel Prize winners. A few years later, she was running RAND's artificial-intelligence lab, making sure the computers were working and maintaining RAND's connection to the first rudimentary version of the Internet. She liked the job so much she went to graduate school to study telecommunications.

Afterward, she moved to northern California to be a technical writer, writing manuals for microprocessor chips. She loved it. She also loved a computer genius who'd designed a machine being used at the University of Colorado in Boulder, so she moved to Colorado and married him. In 1989, while working as a technical editor at Denver's Baby Bell, US West, she decided that in her spare time, she would write her first novel.

Unlike Collins, Kaufman is a Colorado native. He was born at St. Luke's Medical Center, the son of an ER nurse and a musician in what was then called the Denver Symphony. "If it had a reed and made a sound, my dad played it," Kaufman says.

For a time in the mid-1950s, Kaufman's dad owned a record store downtown called Harmony Records. One of the regular customers was hotshot Denver defense attorney Walter Gerash, defender of the Brown Berets and the Black Panthers. He and Kaufman's dad became friends. And young Kaufman, a nerdy kid who loved sports and school, became enamored with Gerash's stories about the law.

"It was just the most awesome thing in the world, to be able to walk around downtown in a cape and represent boxers," he says. (Gerash did both.)

Around the time Kaufman started high school, his family situation became fluid. He moved to California for a while, where his dad was playing music for TV shows like Flip Wilson and Password, and then to Aspen to live with his mother. Kaufman had transformed from nerdy to nerdy-and-a-bit-wild. Once, while hanging out at the house of a wealthy high-school pal, he met Hunter S. Thompson. "There was this weird bald dude in the freaking living room," he says. "There was a pile of coke and some lines cut out on the glass table...and he's drinking a martini and they've been playing paddle tennis."

Kaufman's life became much less glamorous after he graduated from Aspen High in 1974. He moved back to Denver, lived with his grandmother, started college at the University of Colorado at Denver and worked in the laundry room at St. Anthony Central Hospital, washing blood out of sheets. "The whole time I'm working down there, I'm thinking, I want to be a fucking lawyer, because I don't want to do this for the rest of my life." He made it to CU-Boulder, where he majored officially in history and unofficially in girls, the Dead, Judaism and "mystical experiences."

And then, after a year and a half spent working in a Boulder food-stamp office, he saved enough money to attend law school at the University of Denver. Starting in his second year, he worked for Gerash as a researcher, running down answers to questions such as whether Ross Carlson, accused mommy-and-daddy killer, could use his parents' life insurance to pay for his legal defense. Sometimes he got to do investigative work. "I had to go take pictures of a kid who got hit by a car on his motorcycle, and his leg was real fucked up," Kaufman says. "Walter said, 'Take pictures. Show. The. Hurt.'"

Fresh out of law school in 1984, Kaufman landed a gig at the state public defender's office. He got married two years later and began having children, three girls and a boy. He stayed in the public-defender game until 1990, when he struck out on his own in Colorado Springs. Almost immediately, he landed a big case: co-defending a man named Brian Hood, who manipulated his girlfriend, Jennifer Reali, into shooting his wife, Dianne. It was one of many headline-grabbing cases that Kaufman worked on.

******

The louse didn't get any action that first night. Or the next night. But the third night.... There was something off about the third night, the wife had said. Her son-of-a-bitch husband, who dutifully called his sweet little wife every day when he was out of town, had been vague about his plans. She suspected they included heavy petting.

Collins and Kaufman didn't take chances. They rented a hot red Pontiac G6. Not the kind of car that blends in, but one that makes life worth living. Wherever the louse was going, they were going, too, one following behind, the other in front.

At 5:30 p.m., hubby got into his white Corolla and hit the road, hauling ass. Collins and Kaufman were right behind him. When the trailing car got cut off by a red light or a slow truck, the lead car squeezed the brakes and dropped behind the target. The louse exited at Downing Street, headed toward South Pearl. Kaufman's brain started churning. The man liked sushi, and South Pearl, with its romantic gas lamps, was home to one of the best sushi restaurants in town. Sure enough, he pulled up to Sushi Den.

Once inside, he sat down at the crowded bar. The woman who sat down next to him was thirty-something, with frosted brown soccer-mom hair worn in no particular fashion. The same could be said for her black skirt and jacket. She had a wedding ring and a hard exterior. His wedding ring was mysteriously missing.

They sat a respectable distance apart and drank beer. A little later, they left the restaurant, crossed the street and sidled up to the bar at Sushi Den's more dimly lit sister joint, Izakaya Den. They ordered sake. And then more sake. Collins and Kaufman followed them and secured a nearby table with an excellent view. On his shirt, Kaufman wore a tiny camera disguised as a button. He pointed his chest at the increasingly less respectable couple, ordered some pop and waited.

7:43 p.m. The louse's hand is snaked around the soccer mom's chair.

8:01 p.m. They're leaning into each other's faces, smiling sake smiles.

8:03 p.m. They're in each other's faces, kissing sake kisses.

And so it went until they stumbled out onto the sidewalk just before 11.

Listening to Kaufman talk over the years about his work as a lawyer and the ins and outs of successful investigations, Collins came to a conclusion: Kaufman would make a crack detective. He was smart, resourceful and brave, and he knew exactly what to look for.

One day in 2004, as they sat in their back yard, she told him so. Both of their careers were at a lull; his because of his law-license suspension, and hers because Harlequin had closed yet another line.

They decided to go for it, and within six months, they started Highlands Investigations, named for the neighborhood where they live.

Private investigators in Colorado do not need special licenses and are not regulated, though they must follow the law. That means no breaking and entering. No wiretapping. No stealing evidence. No lying to the police or in court.

At first it was hard to find work. Kaufman made fliers and delivered them personally to lawyers he'd worked with, lawyers he'd worked against, lawyers who'd been guests at his first wedding. But many of them knew about his suspension — and about his problems. Only one of them called: Ed Huttner.

The two men had met in law school and become friends. "He was one of the few people who was friendly and welcoming to me," says Huttner, who'd transferred to DU in his third year. "Law school can be dry and boring, and most people there are dry and boring. It's horrific. Shaun was not like that, and neither am I."

Instead, Huttner says, Kaufman was engaging and sharp. He could talk about music or politics or religion.

Huttner and his father own a firm, Huttner and Huttner, that takes all sorts of cases: criminal, domestic, personal injury. Shortly before Kaufman lost his license, he and Huttner had been on opposite sides of a divorce case. Huttner hadn't heard about Kaufman's suspension, but "when Shaun gave me the scoop, I wanted to help," he says.

He gave Kaufman and Collins their first case. A local man had gotten a foreign woman pregnant while on vacation and persuaded her to come back to the United States to have the child. She did, but then promptly disappeared. The father cared very much about the baby and wanted custody. Kaufman and Collins tracked down the mother and child, and Huttner kept hiring them. To this day, they give him a special discount.

"I've never had a complaint," Huttner says.

Slowly, Collins and Kaufman's business grew. So did Kaufman's realization that he didn't want to be addicted anymore. "I didn't want to be some lonely old guy...who just gets fucked up all day long and then he dies," Kaufman says. He remembers the moment when he mustered the courage to stop. It was Super Bowl Sunday 2006. He was in the kitchen, making wings. "I just remember saying, 'Please, God. I want this to be the last day that I'm like this,'" he says. "Everything was falling apart. I couldn't be around people. I couldn't go out because I had to stay home and drink and get high.

"I wanted to be able to get enjoyment from doing everyday things again."

He didn't drink a drop the next day. Or the next. Instead, he stayed in bed, violently puking into an orange five-gallon bucket as his system went through drug and alcohol withdrawal. He was sick for days. After drying out, Kaufman went to his first Narcotics Anonymous meeting.

Kaufman had been good at hiding his problem, and Collins hadn't realized the extent of it until after he'd moved in with her. When he used, she says, "Shaun was a different person. He was a wonderful person, but also a different person.

"None of us can change another person. They have to really want to change. And there came a day when Shaun wanted to change." After he went to the NA meeting, she says, "was when I realized things were changing in the house in a really great way."

A few weeks after that meeting, Kaufman, once an avid runner, took Buddha for a jog. He only lasted a mile and a half, but, he says, "It was the best run I've ever had. I mean, it was like the onion started to peel back, and it was layer after layer of good stuff."

Dan Gerash, Walter's son and a trial attorney in his own right, had also received Collins and Kaufman's flier. He was skeptical at first. "I wanted to make sure I was comfortable and knew that Shaun was getting his head together," he says. "So I started hiring him on very small things, and he did a great job." As Gerash hired him for bigger and bigger jobs, Kaufman continued to deliver. In one case, he located some reluctant witnesses in a gang-related stabbing that helped convince the DA to drop the charges against Gerash's client. "This kid went from twenty to 64 years in prison to zero," Gerash says. "I attribute a big part of that to Shaun's perseverance."

Having left the Japanese restaurant, the louse and his date continued sucking face. They were pretty shameless about it, too, right there in the street, under the gas lamps. Oblivious. So oblivious they didn't notice the short, stout man with the spiky gray hair and video camera who'd been following them all night, waiting for this exact moment.

After a while, the illicit lovers untangled themselves. The woman headed to her SUV, parked on the street. The louse followed. He climbed in. He leaned back. Her head sunk lower, then disappeared.

Collins and Kaufman retrieved one of their cars and began circling the block, peering inside the SUV each time they passed. On the third go-around, Kaufman rode the brakes until the car was crawling. Collins leaned out the passenger window, holding a different camera. She pointed it at the SUV's tinted window. Suddenly, the louse looked up. His eyes met Collins. She triggered the shutter.

Collins's romance-writer friends were intrigued by her new line of work. Every now and again, Collins, whom they call "CoCo," would e-mail them a wild story about a thirteen-hour surveillance in a crack neighborhood or a tale about how she and Kaufman were hired to find a man's four lost Norwegian elkhounds. (They were at a park.)

"Everybody wanted to be CoCo, because she seemed to lead this glamorous life where she'd go on stakeouts and sit in dark corners waiting for this nefarious person to come by, and then she'd take a picture with a cigarette lighter," says Vicki Lewis Thompson, whose Nerd in Shining Armor landed on the New York Times bestseller list.

Private eyes, both heroic and villainous, have long been a staple of romance novels, and soon, Collins's friends started asking for help. How would a private eye go about installing a bug in an heiress's hotel room? (Most wouldn't. It's illegal.) Is it legal for a P.I. to hack into a crooked businessman's computer? (No.) Is it believable for my tall, dark and handsome detective to follow my blond, blue-eyed reporter through three states as she flees the mob bosses on whom she's writing an exposé? (Not without a miracle.)

The questions led to invitations for Collins and Kaufman to speak at writers' conferences about what it's like to be a private dick. Donnell Ann Bell, a Colorado Springs author who has written five romantic suspense novels, attended one of their workshops. "They'll tell you what you're doing wrong, what you're doing that a private investigator would never do," Bell says. "It's like, 'That's not going to work out for my plot!' But then they'll give you a solution."

Mario Acevedo, a Denver author whose protagonist, Felix Gomex, is a soldier-turned-vampire-turned-private-detective, has also heard them speak. "It's good to hear it from somebody who does it for real instead of the TV stereotypes," he says. Readers, Acevedo says, love to catch an author's mistakes — and Collins and Kaufman have helped him make fewer. "They'll buy the fact that the guy is a vampire," he says of readers, "but I'll have one little [mistake] and they'll say, 'You can't do that! That's not true!'"

" I think they made my P.I. character very believable, and they made the sleuthing scenes more realistic," says Beth Groundwater, an author who splits her time between Colorado Springs and Breckenridge. Groundwater's breakthrough book, A Real Basket Case, is about the owner of a gift-basket business whose husband is arrested for the murder of her hot young masseuse. She thinks her husband is innocent, and she enlists the help of a P.I. friend to prove it. "It was in fleshing out that character that I went to Colleen and Shaun's workshop to learn what P.I.s can and can't do," she says.

As the calls for help kept rolling in, Collins and Kaufman started a blog called "Guns, Gams and Gumshoes" on which they wrote about cases they'd investigated, explained how private eyes operate and included tips for fiction authors.

The blog evolved into the book, and How to Write a Dick: A Guide to Writing Fictional Sleuths From a Couple of Real Life Sleuths was released in July as an e-book, available on both Kindle and Nook. It's a classic how-to, written in a breezy tone with lots of anecdotes. There are chapters explaining what equipment private investigators use (digital cameras, recorders and binoculars, but rarely guns), whether P.I.s can tell white lies (sure) and what to wear on an undercover surveillance (something that blends in so you don't, in the words of fictional sleuth Philip Marlowe, stand out "like spats at an Iowa picnic.")

Having finished How to Write a Dick, Collins and Kaufman are already working on their next book, this time about how to do legal investigations for attorneys. The title? How to Be a Lawyer's Dick. And Collins just finished a detective novel based on Kaufman called The Zen Man. She is self-publishing the book, which comes out in October.

The jig was up. The day after their photo shoot with the louse, Collins called the wife's lawyer. We caught him, she said. In the act. At the couple's divorce trial, the guy argued that he'd been sitting back, way back, in his colleague's car to take a nap. Must have been having some sweet dreams. The judge didn't buy it.

The wife, who had thus far seemed unbreakable, had only one painful question when she called Collins. "What did she look like?" she asked.

Collins told her the truth. "You're much better-looking."

Case closed.

One of their book's most popular chapters is about "trash hits," the art of stealing someone's trash once it's been abandoned on the curb and then rummaging through it for clues. It's legal, it's icky, and it can be quite scandalous, depending on what's inside. In short, it makes for great fiction, and even better reality.

On a recent Thursday morning, the couple leaves their bungalow at 4:30 a.m., dressed in dark clothing. "It's going to be one of those Starbucks kind of days," Kaufman says, steering the Corolla north under a sky that isn't yet blue.

Today's target is a man whose ex-wife suspects he is making more money than his child-support payments suggest. She's also interested in whether her ex, a repairman, is using hazardous chemicals at home — especially while he's spending time with the children. Her attorney has hired Collins and Kaufman, who charge $90 to $125 an hour, to find out.

Twenty minutes later, they creep into a neat middle-class neighborhood full of ranch houses and turn a corner. At the target's house, there's a Jeep in the driveway but no trash at the curb. "I'm going to guess that he's a lazy bachelor and he puts his trash out at like 6:30, 7 a.m.," Kaufman says. They cruise by once more, get the Jeep's license plate number for good measure and decide to try again around 7 a.m.

This time, they're luckier. "Oooh, we've got a live one here," Kaufman says as they drive by a blue plastic trash can at the end of the man's driveway. The sun is shining and the neighborhood is waking up. Collins makes a U-turn and stops the car. "Okay," Kaufman says. "Let's hit it." He gets out of the car and walks nonchalantly up the street, pushing up the sleeves of his sweatshirt. When he reaches the trash can, he beckons for Collins to come forward. She drives, quickly but not too quickly, toward him. He stretches his arms over his head, looks around, flips up the trash can lid, yanks open the car door and chucks a full black trash bag into the back seat. It smells. Bad.

"You were great!" Collins gushes as they drive away.

Kaufman smiles. "This is some rank shit," he says, motioning to the bag.

Down the road, they turn in to a dog park. Kaufman slings the bag over his shoulder like Santa, and the two head toward the park's molded plastic trash cans. Wearing latex gloves, they dig in. "Is she curious what the kids are eating?" Collins asks. "There's a lot of junk in here." She finds a Chips Ahoy cookie sleeve, dozens of now-melted freeze pops, two cold slices of pepperoni pizza and wrappers from Taco Bell.

Kaufman finds bank deposit slips and at least four half-full packs of menthol cigarettes. He finds an envelope from a place called P & B Customs in Florida. And he finds five empty tubes of the exact type of chemicals the ex-wife feared they'd uncover.

"Lookie, lookie!" he says.

By now, trash is strewn all around the can and it's starting to attract the dogs. Packs of them. When a Great Dane moseys over to have a sniff, Collins freezes. "Shaun!" she calls out. He rushes over, stands between her and the dog. She clings to him, her knuckles turning white. The dog pees.

Collins decides to return to the car while Kaufman takes photos of their haul, including close-ups of the junk food and the chemical containers. He pockets the receipts and the envelope and then shoves the rest of it into the trash can.

A curious dog-walker mistakes him for a good Samaritan. "Y'all must have been the poop fairy today!" she calls out with a big smile. "Yep!" Kaufman answers. "We're good people!" He peels off the gloves and walks away.

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