Surprises abound in the cloak-and-dagger world of the Philadelphia area’s private investigators
by Bill Donahue

A woman in a trench coat and fedora opens the door to a darkened office, where a lone desk lamp highlights the profile of a man in his chair. A cigarette smolders in an ashtray while he pours two fingers of scotch into a glass, ice tinkling against the crystal.

“What can I do for you, doll?” the man says as he eases his face into the light.
“I hear you’re a man who knows how to find out things, a man who knows how to find people,” she says breathlessly. “I need your help.”

This is the world in which most Americans believe private investigators—also known as professional investigators—live and breathe. Only problem is, according to real-life private eyes, this world does not exist outside the realm of television, film and gritty noir novels.

“There’s a definite difference between reality and perception,” says Joseph Gill, owner of Gill and Associates Inc., a private-investigation firm based in Philadelphia. “It’s not a dangerous job. Neither myself nor the seven full-time investigators [on my team] carry guns. … Having done this for 25-plus years, I’ve never had an incident.

“It would be better if I told you my day was filled with high-speed chases and shootouts, but it’s not.”

Gill was on track to become a federal agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms before launching his own firm, which works on civil and criminal matters alike. Most of the firm’s assignments come from plaintiff or defense attorneys looking to build evidence to support active cases. The firm typically bills clients at a rate of $89 per hour.

Part of what has kept Gill motivated and engaged since opening for business in 1985 is the fact that change is constant. One day he could be doing surveillance work as part of a divorce case, the next he could be trying to locate someone for a particular client—an insurance company, say—and the next he could be conducting background/asset investigations.

“What makes a good PI a good PI is attention to detail,” says Gill, who was born and raised in Olney. “Like a good baseball player, you’re always thinking in advance, along the lines of, Should I go here or there? If I’m following someone in surveillance, it’s, How am I getting there safely?”

The job does, of course, have the occasional cloak-and-dagger element. Gill once got a call from a criminal-defense attorney asking, rather cagily, if he could be at a certain airport at a certain time and take a 14-hour trip to a certain place for a certain number of days to investigate a certain person of interest overseas. He agreed, after getting some additional information, and ultimately found himself on a plane to Dubai investigating a matter more or less related to homeland security. Yet another time he was asked to send a team to Jamaica to investigate a vacationing American billionaire, whose wife suspected her husband of being less than faithful.

The variety is also what has kept James T. Zogorski in the field, so to speak, even after several decades in law enforcement. Six years ago he started his Newtown-based firm, Digital Forensics Consultants, while working as a computer-forensics special agent for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Zogorski began his career as a military police officer and also spent time doing undercover drug work in Bucks County, doing homeland-security investigations and, perhaps most interestingly, working undercover as a special agent trying to “take down” sophisticated drug-smuggling rings in Miami and Key West, Fla.

Today Zogorski’s firm uses sophisticated systems and analytics to scrutinize digital media stored in the memory of virtually any device, from a personal computer or gaming system to a cell phone or GPS system, and provide forensics analysis and litigation-support services to business owners, attorneys and law-enforcement professionals. Costs for services range from under $1,000 to more than $5,000, depending on the client’s needs.

“If you’re looking on someone’s computer, you’re looking inside their life,” Zogorski says. “And you get some surprises.”

Compared with his previous jobs, Zogorski’s stress level is almost nonexistent. His most stressful times now come from coping with unreasonable client demands—a jilted spouse wanting to uncover proof of an affair on a cell phone, or an employer seeking evidence of fraud on an employee’s desktop computer even though such proof does not exist.

“This information is not debatable,” Zogorski promises. “Electronic records follow you everywhere. You can examine a GPS in a car and do forensics showing that someone was at this location or not at this location at a certain time.”

‘Not Glamorous’
The murky culture of PIs has been a topic of fascination for years. Primetime TV shows such as “77 Sunset Strip,” “Moonlighting” and “Magnum, P.I.” were popular dating back as far as the 1950s, and PIs continue to have a home in the mainstream media now. The HBO series “Bored to Death,” for example, is about a novelist who, out of boredom and to stir up fodder for future books, moonlights as an unlicensed PI.

Perhaps surprisingly, the barriers to entry are relatively low, according to Gill. Through the district attorney’s office, one can get licensed as a PI in Pennsylvania as long as the prospective PI has a list of five people vouching for his or her and proof that he or she has done previous investigative work—say, newspaper reporting, insurance adjusting or law enforcement—according to Gill.

Even so, good PIs need to make continual investments in equipment and training, not to mention additional licenses and insurance. (For his part, Gill is licensed in Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.) But there is no substitute for the hard work, knowledge and intuition needed to make a good detective great.

“You have to be well equipped to do this kind of work,” says Zogorski. “You have to use fast, state-of-the-art computers. And software licensing—that’s one of our biggest expenses. You need hard drives, you need duplicators and you need training. Constant training is a must, because everything changes with technology.”

Zogorski and Gill both remain immensely proud of their work. Even so, Gill does not bring up his occupation in social situations for reasons one might not suspect.

“When you bring up what you do,” he says, “every single person says the same thing: ‘I would be a good investigator.’ They then proceed to tell you some little thing they did in their life that makes them think they have those skills. They don’t always understand what it takes, and how hard you have to work to outwork someone else.”

Surveillance is one example, though he is always careful to stay within the confines of the law, with some very minor exceptions.

“Part of the art is tailing someone but not getting too close that you’re made,” he says. “You go through a yellow light sometimes, and eventually you might have to go through a red light—safely. But the bigger problem, investigatively speaking, lies in the guy you’re tailing not looking in his rearview mirror and not thinking, Hmm, that guy just went through a red light.

“Surveilling people sounds interesting, and it is,” he continues, “but when it’s 100 degrees in the summer and you’re sitting in the van with no air [conditioning] because that van has to give the impression that it’s parked unattended, it’s not for everybody. If you have to go to the bathroom, you have to use the Snapple bottle or whatever else within your imagination. When you’re sitting in the van for eight hours, those eight hours seem like 80. It’s not glamorous. It’s not all high-speed chases and shootouts.”