Book it: Private eye firm turns pages of prosperity

JEROME A. POLLOS/NIBJ
Confidential Investigations is led by Erin Jenkins, left, president and a senior investigator, and Phillip Thompson, vice president.

 

You can’t help but do a double-take when you see the book cover at Hastings.
“The Private Dick Diaries” title jumps out at you. Written by CJ Vertefeuille based on interviews with Erin Jenkins and Phil Thompson of Confidential Investigations in Hayden, the book is one of the most talked-about local titles. And that’s appropriate, because Confidential Investigations is perhaps the region’s most talked-about private eye firm.
NIBJ recently sat down with Erin Jenkins, president of the 15-year-old company, and Phil Thompson, vice president of Confidential Investigations, to see what makes a business like that tick.

NIBJ: Is this one of those careers where kids grow up thinking, “I want to become a private investigator?” How did you get into it?
JENKINS: I used to own a logging company. I spent six years in the military in the Air Force, as a cop. I got out of the military, came back here, and didn’t want anything to do with law enforcement. So I started logging again. It got to be way too much work. When my wife and I started having kids, it was like I was never home. I had a 2-year-old little boy I didn’t even know and I went, “I gotta do something different, honey.” And she said “You’re right.” Business was good back then, logging. Anyway, we started coming up with ideas. I said, “You know what, I’m gonna talk to a couple of attorney friends of mine, see if there’s something they could use a PI for. They were like “Yeah. Hey, in fact, I got something you can work on.” I started doing it part time in ’97. I still owned my logging business and I was still running it and pretty soon it got to the point where I had enough to pay my bills. We weren’t rich by any means, but I had enough work to pay my bills. Logging was at its height and I sold my stuff out; it was great. So that’s how I did it.
THOMPSON: I had a chance to meet Erin when I was an executive recruiter. We met ‘cause he did some work for me in the past and we became fast friends. Eventually I started going out on small jobs with him when he needed a hand. One thing led to another. My skill sets directly complement his skill sets; his weaknesses are my strengths (and) my weaknesses are his strengths. Based on that principle, (in) 2003 we started kicking around some ideas and (in) 2004 I folded my other business that I had going and came to work here full time.

NIBJ: People have preconceived notions about the kind of investigations people like you do. Is it all glamorous, intriguing work? What’s a day in your life like?
JENKINS: Nine-tenths of the time I sit behind my desk, I talk on the phone and I read reports, numerous reports. The last murder case I’ve been working on there was 750 pages of discovery. There was 44 disks with photos, transcriptions, video, you name it, all there. I literally burned my brain out sitting behind my desk making notes as I go through all this stuff.

NIBJ: Is part of your work determining the credibility of witnesses?
JENKINS: Yes. We go back out and review the witnesses, re-interview them.
We’ll go out to the crime scene and look at the crime scene. (We’ll) see if what is in the police report matches with what is there.
THOMPSON: In certain cases we’ll go out and get witnesses of our own that the police may not have even interviewed. Case in point, the Felony Mayhem case in Cd’A where the guy got his nose bit off? The real story behind that…The newspaper carried the headline of Felony Mayhem in downtown Cd’A, nosebiter in jail and $250,00 bond. Well the kid had just got back from Iraq, he was just minding his own business, having a beer and this guy right next to him was giving him a bad time, tryin’ to pick a fight with him. He tried to avoid this person. He went to the other side of the bar. This person followed him. He decided he needed to leave the establishment, ‘cause this guy would not leave him alone, so he went to leave this establishment. This person followed him outside the establishment and back around Las Palmitas in the parking lot. After this altercation, this guy’s nose is on the ground. By the time the police show up there’s four guys left, the victim and the four friends. So that’s the story the police got.
What really happened: He got into a fight and got bound up so the only thing he could do was bite the guy’s nose off. Only thing he got was disturbing the peace and the case was closed. The victim had 26 crimes. Some of them were felonies; the rest were misdemeanors and he was only 24 years old. So we find actual witnesses to the case and give it to the attorneys, let them deal with it.

NIBJ: Roughly what percentage of your work would you say falls in the criminal category?
JENKINS: I would say the majority of it, 70-75 percent of it is criminal stuff. Other stuff: civil matters — all kinds of civil matters from insurance-related civil matters, from workman’s comp-related civil matters, missing persons — I’ve got a great track record on missing persons. Everybody I’ve ever been assigned to find, I’ve found. Every one of them. Some of them haven’t been alive, but I’ve found them.

NIBJ: This is a business publication, so I’m interested in what you do as a business. How many employees, total employees, do you have?
THOMPSON: Four full-timers, six part-timers. We have a satellite office in Moscow, Pullman, Sandpoint, Spokane. We’re licensed to investigate for Washington. Idaho has no licensing requirements. If you recall, during the [Jim] Brannon case, the city of Cd’A made a big ado about us not having a city of Cd’A private eye license.
NIBJ: Does the city have private eye licenses?
THOMPSON: Oh they have…they absolutely do. But they fail to tell everybody in the news media  that. We don’t live in the city of Cd’A, so they have no jurisdiction, but [in the Brannon case] they wanted to make a big to-do that we were unlicensed… Our attorney sent an “F-You” letter, and it worked.

NIBJ: You started this company and you didn’t get rich, at least early on, Erin. Can you give readers some sense of how profitable a good PI firm like this one is?    (Both laugh.) JENKINS: Up until the last two and a half years we were doing really good. We made a pretty good living at it. We’re not going to get rich doing it. The last two and a half years, it’s been tough. Citizens who have been accused of a crime, the attorney says we ought to hire a PI firm to look into the case and they go, uh, well, I barely have enough money to pay you.
We still get hired to do major cases like capital crimes, murder, drug cartels — that sort of thing — but we do it on a shoestring budget.

NIBJ: You guys came out with a book which is kind of an unusual step for a firm like yours. Is this for marketing or for making money? Or both?
JENKINS: The thinking behind doing the book was, the stuff that we deal with here on a daily basis is stressful, really stressful. If we can’t laugh about it — you’d go crazy. The office here, we really enjoy our opportunity to laugh at things like Are you Kidding me? He really did this? The book is along those lines.
Yeah, maybe we make a couple bucks off it somewhere down the road, but it’s also a lighthearted attempt to go, “OK, well, this is life and let’s have some fun with this stuff that we’re dealing with.” Amazingly enough, it’s really helped us with our marketing.
The book is great but it’s not a literary work of art. It’s designed to be funny. (The author) has been a friend of ours for 18 years… and one day she basically told me she’s a writer and I said, “Oh, let’s talk about this.” We sat down with a digital recorder and I’d tell her the story, she’d write it and I’d edit it. This first book is about repossessions — 18 stories on repossessions.
THOMPSON: The stories in this book are so humorous, one can’t make them up. Fiction would never do this justice. When you can tell a story about repoing somebody’s landscaping, you’ve got someone’s attention. The book definitely opens doors to attorneys who didn’t know us before.
JENKINS: The kind of repos we do have gone out to repo guys who weren’t successful, and they come back to us. I’ve repo-d some interesting things — Harley Davidsons from a motorcycle gang, tractors, you name it, I’ve got it.

NIBJ: What makes the job so stressful? Are you in physical danger?
THOMPSON: We’ve had people threatening to sue us, and Erin is very good at getting death threats on the telephone.
JENKINS: I did a case against a guy who blows up buildings for a living. (Short discussion ensues.) Maybe we better not go there. (Both laugh.)
THOMPSON: What about the guy who broke into our building? You guys [The Press] ran it on the front page.
JENKINS: Some of the information we had on that case turned into some major evidence against a sex offender… A year later, a guy came back and threw an empty wine bottle through the front door, did an F-U, looked into the camera and the rest is history. That’s on World’s Dumbest Criminals.
I’ve had lawyers call and threaten me, saying you better not talk to this person, you better not talk to that person, you better stay away from them, you better not investigate my city, whatever. Some of the repo stuff, people are unhappy when you take the stuff they didn’t pay for.
THOMPSON: One of our “simple” tasks is serving papers. There are some people that will go to unbelievable lengths not to be served papers.

NIBJ: Do you send your biggest and nastiest people out to serve papers? Caleb (Trinkle)?
JENKINS: Caleb. Sometimes Phil.
THOMPSON: In the Plummer area, somebody had killed somebody’s hounds on somebody’s property and they had a history of assault with weapons, both the father and the son. The son had just gotten out of prison.
JENKINS: Some guy came barreling down the street in a pickup, rammed Caleb’s car, jumped out with an ax handle, jumped on top of Caleb’s car and came after him — all over a set of documents.
NIBJ: What did Caleb do?
THOMPSON: He was really calm. Got his recorder out and went through everything the guy did so he had the guy admitting to everything he did. Coeur d’Alene’s finest didn’t arrest him, though.

NIBJ: What makes a great investigator vs. a good investigator?
JENKINS: A professional level of service. That’s really what we’ve got going for us. The guys who work for us are all experts. We’ve got a level of professionalism that’ s unsurpassed. Our integrity — we do not compromise. We do not twist anything, we do not bend anything. It is what it is. We’re going to tell you the truth and you can use it however you’re going to use it.
THOMPSON: Persistence and follow-through. There might be some great investigators out there, but they don’t have the persistence we do, they don’t have the follow-through we do.
JENKINS: One of the other things we have that makes us extremely valuable is we have Caleb — Caleb Trinkle. He’s our surveillance expert, gathering the documentation on video that we need. That guy is a bulldog in finding ways to get video (on fraud). Because of that a lot of state and insurance companies hire us because we’re known for getting video on guys who are wanted for defrauding the system. Caleb gets some video that sometimes I just shake my head and say, “How did you get that?” And he’ll say, “I was on a mountain about 500 yards away and I built a blind up there and sat there for two days. Didn’t leave. I got it.” It’s in the middle of St. Maries somewhere.
THOMPSON: He got video of some poor guy who can’t drive a truck because his back is so hurt. But the video shows the guy taking the tires off a truck and throwing them in the back; we’ve actually got him selling meth in downtown St. Maries. It’s the side benefits of surveillance sometimes.
JENKINS: That’s persistence. Just good quality work.

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