Over the years of my career as a Private Investigator I came to really enjoy doing missing person’s cases.  The puzzle of finding people who have disappeared, voluntarily or not, fascinated me.  But I had one other type of work that I came to specialize in, and that was criminal investigations.  These cases ran from simple robberies and thefts to complex murder cases.  Almost all of these cases were done for the accused as Defense Attorneys and families hired me to “prove innocence.”

Don’t get me wrong here, the police do a fantastic job.  My contracts with the people who hired me to do criminal cases always included the fact that I would find evidence only, regardless if that evidence proved the accused innocent or guilty.  I made it very clear I was not in the business of “getting a guilty person off.”

Art Lee
Mystery Writer Art Lee

But once in a while I was able to prove an accused person innocent.  One such case involved a man in jail in Las Vegas, accused of the murder of his girlfriend.  His attorney hired me, and his brother and mother paid my bill.

The man was a 27 year old ‘gypo’ truck driver (a driver who intentionally avoids weigh stations and inspection stations because the truck’s load is often over weight or illegal in some way).  He was living with a 30 year old prostitute in a bad area of Las Vegas.  His girlfriend was brutally murdered one night.  So as not to offend sensibilities, I will not describe the way she was murdered.  The next day, her boyfriend was arrested and charged with the murder.  He had a long criminal record including twice arrested for assault when he beat his girlfriend.  The police had their man.

I went to Las Vegas and interviewed the man in prison before his trial.  The man was, as I like to say, ‘not the brightest bulb in the chandelier.’  But he had a story that, if true, would free him of the charge.

He said he had been given a gypo driving job to Salt Lake City.  After arriving there he began to hitch hike back to Las Vegas.  He told me that a woman he described only as middle aged and cute (he used a foul word to describe her that I will not include here) picked him up.  She was driving a new blue Cadillac that had Washington State license plates, but he didn’t know the numbers of the plates.

He told me he never asked her name and could not give me any more information about her, except that shortly after picking him up, she suggested they stop at a motel and spend the night together enjoying, as he described it, “rough sex.”

The following morning he woke up, and she was gone.  He made it back to Las Vegas that evening, and the police were waiting for him.

My first stop was at the trucking company who he said had hired him.  It seemed obvious that if he were out of town he could not have murdered the woman.  But the trucking company denied all knowledge of the man.  That, to me, was also obvious, and I guessed as much before going there.  The company wasn’t about to admit to a crime to get the accused out of jail.

I caught the first flight to Salt Lake City, rented a car and took the same route back to Las Vegas the accused told me he had taken.  This occurred in the early 1980’s, before the common use of computers everywhere.  Motels, especially cheap motels, used cards to keep guest information on.  So, I stopped at every cheap ‘no-tell motel’ along the way and paid the desk clerk a few dollars to see the registration cards for the day in question.

Shortly after lunch and after about a dozen stops, I found a flea bag motel that had a guest card for that day, signed by a woman who signed her name ‘Mary Smith’, paid in cash, with her car listed as a Cadillac, and with a Washington State plate number.  I paid twenty dollars for the card and took it with me.

I made it back to my office as quickly as possible and ran the plate number, which turned out to be a phony number.  I ran Mary Smith through the DMV records and found none who owned a Cadillac.  So I obtained from Washington State DMV a listing of all Cadillac automobiles not more than three years old and blue in color.  There were several dozen as it turned out.

I eliminated owners who were older than 50 years old and younger than 30.  I was left with twenty-one cars.  Seven were registered to females only.  That was a place to start, and if nothing came of it, I would run backgrounds on females owning cars with a male.  I ran a background on each of these and eliminated owners who were unlikely to be driving all the way to Salt Lake City and back – their employment would make it unlikely.

One owner stood out in this search.  A woman, 39 years old, was in corporate sales for a very large and prominent Seattle hi-tech firm.  Call it intuition, training, or just a gut feeling.  I went with the gut feeling.

The next day I was on a flight to Seattle where I rented a car and drove to this woman’s office.  She was reluctant to speak with me and her reaction, obvious fear, told me I had the right woman.  I convinced her she really did need to speak with me in a private conference room in her building.

I showed her the no-tell motel’s registration card and told her I knew it was she who picked up my accused.  It didn’t take long for her to start crying, and I used that to its best advantage.  Explaining that she was the only person to keep my client from being found guilty of murder, I told her she had to return to Las Vegas with me and give a written statement to the police and District Attorney.  She refused.

I didn’t argue with her; I didn’t want a scene where she worked.  So I simply stood and told her that I was going to see her husband and tell him all about her trip from Salt Lake City.  I knew she wouldn’t let that happen.

That afternoon, she and I were on a jet to Las Vegas where she did make a statement that freed my client.

Make no mistake, most of the people arrested for a crime or serving time in prison are guilty as sin.  But once in a great while you do find an innocent person behind bars.

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