It was 3:00 a.m. in the one of the most remote parts of backwater Louisiana. I was following a dangerously unstable man who I knew to be armed. And I was all alone.
How did I get there? To answer, I have to first explain how the work I do has changed over the last several years, along with how much technology has changed. About twenty years ago, I was working as a Private Investigator, mostly around the Gulf Coast. I stayed quite busy, with a variety of types of cases.
One of my clients was a mid-sized petroleum services company. My typical work with them consisted of pre-employment background checks, site security assessments, and occasional investigations into insurance fraud. However, this new case was different. One of their employees, let’s call him John, was causing problems. John was 6’5”, about 300 pounds. He was an avid gun collector and a member of a militia advocating secession from the United States. He was a military veteran who carried around photographs of people he claimed to have killed in combat. And he had taken a liking to one of the female associates at the company. She resisted his pursuit and he expressed his displeasure in increasingly volatile ways. His behavior became so disruptive that the company chose to terminate his employment.
The company hired me to be present at his termination. Additionally, they wanted me to conduct 24-hour surveillance on John for two weeks after the termination to ensure he didn’t approach either company property or the executive who had spurned his advances. Financially, this was a small windfall for my fledgling firm. Two investigators, with billable hours for 336 hours each would easily make for my best month thus far in my firm’s history.
But logistically, it would be a challenge. I already had trouble staffing in some areas. PI work can be difficult, and finding people who were both willing to suffer the long hours and crazy conditions AND had the presence and judgment I wanted my workers to have was proving to be no easy task. I had to assemble an ad hoc team of my existing staff and sub-contractor colleagues to fill every shift. And it meant that I spent my days running my business, and taking the overnight shift every evening.
One thing that helped coordinate this patchwork team was the then-new cellphone options provided by Nextel (yes, I know I’m dating myself). Most PI agencies at the time maintained cell phones for their investigators in addition to radios that could communicate from handheld unit to handheld unit. Each agency would have their own network of radios, and they usually did not communicate with the radios of another agency. As I’d gathered a network of disparate investigators, communicating amongst ourselves might have been a problem.
However, the Nextel phones functioned as a cell-phone AND a push-to-talk radio function that worked with any other Nextel user. It’s important to note that function is what we were relying upon. It’s also important to note that these radios did not connect from unit to unit, but went through the cellular tower. Finally, I would point out that Nextel at the time did not have great coverage in rural backwater Louisiana. You see where I’m going with this.
The actual termination went reasonably well. John had some verbal outbursts, but nothing we hadn’t anticipated. He was being given a severance payment, which I advised the company to make though several disbursements contingent upon his adherence to an agreement to stay away from the company and the executive, as another way of attempting to control his behavior.
So for the subsequent two weeks, John had no job but cash in his pocket. His days were spent mostly sleeping in and getting takeout, and his nights were usually spent at one of the area casinos.
But one night, about eight days in, something different happened. I was in a caffeine-fueled daze of working day and night for over a week, trying to catch up on billing from my surveillance vehicle. A little after midnight, there was motion from his house. My partner working with me notified me over the Nextel push-to-talk that John was on the move. We began following him, coordinating through the radios how we would take turns on point to avoid exposing either of our vehicles to John for too long.
John didn’t go to the casinos. He didn’t go the company’s office. He didn’t go to the executive’s house (at least not that night, but that’s a story for another time). Instead, he started driving south from New Orleans.
Now if you look at a map, driving south from New Orleans doesn’t seem very possible. But upon closer inspection, you’ll see Louisiana’s coast is made up of an interlocking network of winding coastline, inland waterways, industrial canals, and barrier islands. If the state looks like a boot, at the extreme end of the toe of the boot is a tiny town called Venice. It’s a little different from the one in Italy (also shaped like a boot). It’s mostly known for offshore drilling work and fishing charters.
But looking at it at three in the morning on my GPS (a gangly collection of roofmounted antennas connected to my laptop, not a sleek dashboard-mounted instrument today), it looked like I was on a desolate road in the middle of nowhere. The highway was so remote, my partner had to pull over to avoid suspicion, and we were so far out that my phone had lost coverage.
The further we drove, the more my vehicle (the only other one on the road behind John) was exposed, the more convinced I became that John had picked up on the surveillance. I was sure that he was luring me out to a remote place to kill me, and he’d start carrying a picture of me around in his wallet. Urban legend from the heyday of the New Orleans organized crime figurehead Carlos Marcello held that these waters were a great place to hide a body. I was becoming more tense with each passing mile.
Eventually, he arrived at the office of petroleum company. A boat was coming in with a group of offshore workers, and John was just there to pick up a friend. He was not aware of our surveillance, and he had not been planning to kill us. But I was left with the feeling of being completely alone, completely out of touch with any back-up whatsoever.
That feeling of being disconnected is a rare thing in this day and age. I sometimes think about how much easier that kind of PI work would be these days. Cameras are much easier to hide. GPS technology has become much more advanced. Drone video and satellite technology are available for a fraction of what they once cost. Not to mention, people put a lot of their personal information out there already. Some people even write long blog posts about their own personal experiences… can you believe it?
As a parent, I’m glad for the ability to always be connected to my kids. But I sometimes wonder if we miss out on something by always being plugged in. Some sort of introspection. Perhaps some sort of self reliance. In the type of mystery/thriller fiction I read, I enjoy seeing the main character stripped down to his or her essence. I like to see what they’re made of, and if their strength of character is up to the challenge before them.
That said, I would have paid big money for a working radio that night in the middle of nowhere!