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."
At the beginning of the second year, Garcia's husband committed suicide, and life imploded. "Sterling is small," she remembers. "There was a terrible stigma attached to suicide. Everyone talked. Other children said cruel things to my daughters, I don't know why. I did the only thing I could think of at the time. I packed up and went to Milliken, where one of my sisters was in school at UNC."
She lived there for three years, working, attending school and raising her family. After dinner each night, Garcia and her daughters would sit together doing homework at the kitchen table, her favorite piece of furniture. People felt comfortable there, she noticed.
The summer before Garcia was to complete her undergraduate degree in political science, she qualified for an internship in the Weld County Public Defender's Office. Within a few weeks, she knew she would never go on to law school.
"They started me out investigating what they called simple cases--although they're never simple to the client," she says. "I did DUIs, shoplifting. In those days, they didn't have as much video surveillance, so it was one person's word against another's. My job was to talk to everyone on the case, make sure everything was accurate, analyze it, take it apart. I loved it. It was my niche in life."
By 1982, three years after she started the internship, she had been appointed chief investigator in Weld County and was also working several cases in Adams County. Now she was responsible for training new investigators, and she had strong opinions about how the job could best be done. And best was not necessarily the just-give-me-the-straight-dope manner of an ex-cop or FBI man. "I do not believe in ten-minute interviews," she explains. "I do not come on strong. I have no power. All I have is me, and I will stick around as long as it takes. I have been asked to stay for dinner so many times I can't count them."
Once, while accompanying a college trainee to a source's trailer house, she was shocked when the student refused a cup of coffee. "Later on, she told me something about how the house was a little too dirty to drink anything there, or something like that," Garcia remembers. "I said: 'Don't ever do that around me again. That is not how I was raised. If someone offers you something, you take it.'"
You also show them pictures of your granddaughters--two, ages six and ten--or strike up a friendship with their pets. ("Luckily, I love animals. Make a bond with their animals and you're in.") All the while, though, you never lose sight of your objective, which is to calmly examine all the evidence, even the stuff that ought to need no further study. "Like a police report," Garcia says. "I'm not anti-cop, but those reports are not often accurate, either."
Exhibit A: The public defender is representing a sixteen-year-old boy accused of participating in a drive-by assault. Garcia is assigned to investigate. "Notice I say 'assault,' not shooting," she points out. "And I should say 'alleged.' Okay. Alleged. The police report is full of words like 'gang-affiliated' and 'a known gang member.' The report also says that this gang is driving by where some people are setting out in their front yard, minding their own business, and everyone gets out of the car and begins assaulting these people. There's also a third person watching from a second-story window. The cops interviewed this person, and they say this person saw our client get out of the car and participate in the assault.
"But our client says he never got out of the car. I think, wow, he's been fingered, but I start talking to people. I find out there were actually three cars involved. I talk to the witness who was watching from the second-story window. The witness says: Actually, you know, I'm not real sure. There were almost eighteen people milling around, and I'm not sure if your guy was one of them.
"We get the case dismissed."
Here's how Maria Garcia has come to see the world: Just because someone is accused doesn't mean he's guilty--and just because he's not guilty of a particular charge doesn't mean he's innocent.
Just because she's usually met the alleged criminal in a jail cell--long before his family or his lawyer have made contact with him--and just because he and Garcia stand every chance of becoming quite close during the course of the investigation, and just because this man is "at unfortunately such a low point that I just have to help him," she is not absolved of her obligation to iron out every legal wrinkle.
"A high percentage of the time, they're guilty of something," she admits. "But there are always mitigating circumstances. There's always a story someone should know, is what I think."
In order to fill in the blanks, Garcia makes uncomfortable visits to unfriendly people. "Think of interviewing the relatives of a victim beat senseless by your client," she suggests. Think of visiting the parents of a youth murdered by your client, in order to ask--"to beg," amends Garcia--that they not push for the death penalty. "The only way to ask a question like that," she adds, "is just as humbly as you possibly can."
The only way to get close enough to ask it is to show up unannounced. "They didn't let me in the house--not that I blame them," she recalls. "The father just cried for fifteen minutes straight. The stepmother was in my face. It was the first time I have ever been called"--she takes a deep breath--"a fucking Mexican. I had such sympathy for them. I still do."
Garcia would rather be yelled at by someone's distraught family member than a judge any day. "These people are only letting off steam. I let 'em. Then I start in with the questions."
Years ago, while still working exclusively for Weld County, Garcia did this so successfully with a twelve-year-old witness in a sex-abuse case that her boss, Bryan Shaha, used the taped transcript as a training tool for other investigators.
"This was at a time when there were so-called experts saying 'Always believe the children,'" Shaha says, remembering that Garcia's interview helped the witness decide she originally might have made an accusation that was anything but believable. She would never, he thinks, have confessed such a thing to a less sympathetic investigator. "No, Maria was patient and empathetic and allowed this person to say what she needed to say," he recalls. "She takes it to a higher level."
Garcia left that job in 1992 to put in two years doing federal investigations in Las Vegas ("A lot of bank robberies. Whew") before returning to Denver to start her own company. With her sister, Josie Herrera, as a partner/operative handling Greeley-area cases and her younger daughter, Monica Delgado, taking care of secretarial chores, Garcia now maintains two home offices while continuing to spend most of her time on the street.
"I even have a few rich private clients now," she says. "And all those problems poor people have? Rich people have them, too, except they're a little bit more demanding. As a matter of fact, give me indigents any day."
Her further preferences: murders and assaults. "Even though they are so draining, emotionally and physically," Garcia says, "each case is like a novel. The best part is finding out about them. Not just in court, but who they are and what they think."
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This afternoon she will open up an ER doctor, a lawyer, a writer, and a client who landed in jail last night, as well as several other people. Tomorrow she will be back knocking on a door and inquiring of whatever furtive person answers it whether she might, perhaps, ask a few questions.
"What can they say to me other than yes or no?" she muses. "If it's no, I might say, 'I understand. You're upset and angry, but if you would please understand I'm only an investigator, and we might only know what the police are saying you said, and perhaps you would like to tell us what you said, and I only want to find out where you're coming from.'"
After that, nine times out of ten, Maria Garcia and her quarry will sit down at the kitchen table.
Then they will talk.