The Very Grand Inquisitor

Maria Garcia is a listener of such intensity that strangers at the coffee shop where she's sitting feel her presence as a prickle on the backs of their necks. With both hands on the table, she sits, listening, making mental notes of everything.

If this meeting were work-related, she would jot notes obsessively: what the waiter is wearing, the expired plates on the car in the west-facing lot, the down-and-out appearance of the woman three tables away who is reading a romance novel. All of it could be part of the story. Some of it might be the key to a crime.

"I say 'alleged' crime," she corrects. "Or I say my clients have been charged with a crime. Because you never know."

Maria Garcia stands barely five feet tall and usually wears an understated suit. While she occasionally does her listening in attorney's offices, more often it's in blatantly terrible neighborhoods. She interviews people in crummy hotels, in jail cells, on the porch of a crackhouse at midnight. Cops, district attorneys and criminals have been known to identify her as "you know, that tiny little Hispanic grandma investigator lady." The description is accurate but incomplete.

Her weapons of choice consist of a cell phone, a tape recorder, notebooks and a handful of business cards identifying her as a private investigator. Maria Garcia does not carry a gun. While working, at least, she has never been afraid.

"I have never felt I was in danger," Garcia says. "I have only been assaulted once--by a female in her fifties. Let's see. She was the grandmother of an infant. Our client, her son-in-law, was accused of sexually assaulting this infant. I went to see this grandma, and we were sitting at the table. She had my business card in front of her, telling her I work for the public defender's office, and she had agreed to let me turn on my tape recorder. Five minutes into it, she stopped and said, 'Hey, who are you working for?' She grabbed my recorder and ripped out the tape. She grabbed my sleeve and threw me at the wall. I focused on the tape; I had to have it. She went running to call the cops. I went out to my car and waited. Sure enough, they showed up. They told me she was very upset and that maybe I should leave. I left, but I had the tape."

Garcia is aware that all of this sounds very hard-boiled. She assures you that it isn't, not really.

"People are always asking me if my job is anything like that P.I. guy on TV--what's-his-name," Garcia says. "Maybe it is, but not with me. What I am is the most non-threatening person in the whole world."

For this reason, and for others less readily apparent, the word on the street--at least on the public defender's side of it--is that Garcia is the best investigator money can buy.

"If I really want to know absolutely everything, I use Maria," says attorney Dick Ott Jr., who worked with Garcia in the Adams County Public Defender's Office and still hires her for investigations in his private practice. "For some reason, people can't shut up around her."

Even the non-accused. The second most popular question, after the Magnum opus: How can you defend those scumbags you have for clients? But Garcia takes little offense. "My answer to that," she says, "is that no one appointed me God or jury, and I very much enjoy what I do."

In no small way, this is because she knows she could be doing something much less challenging. For many years, she did. Married at nineteen to a K-Mart mechanic lately returned from Vietnam, she became a mother at twenty and again at twenty-four. As a part-time job, she cleaned motel rooms at 70 cents per. In the small town of Sterling, where she spent her childhood and early twenties, this was about all you could expect.

"My father was an Assembly of God minister, and he and my mother stressed education," she remembers, "but all that meant was graduate from high school. And the other messages were that if you were a girl, you needed to get married and settle down, find someone to take care of you."

For a while Garcia's husband did that, but he was deeply depressed in a way that would later become all-too-familiar among Vietnam veterans. She helped out, moving from the motel job to a better position as a PBX operator at a local college. There she often fell into conversation with a student ten years younger, who kept telling Garcia she should go to college. "And I kept telling her I barely made it out of high school," she says. "I told her I was of mediocre intelligence--if that. I just had no motivation. But finally I got into some classes, and damned if I didn't make the dean's list. Suddenly, I was very excited. I had always been interested in the law, and suddenly I saw that I could perhaps be a lawyer, even though it took seven years of school. That was the first year."

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff