Features & Columns

Cluing In

How former 'Metro' journalist-turned-private-investigator Kelly Luker learned the hard truths about a profession shrouded in mystery

Intro | Private Eye for the Bad Guy Excerpt

How former 'Metro' journalist-turned-private-investigator Kelly Luker learned the hard truths about a profession shrouded in mystery

Kelly Luker needed to learn how to smoke crystal meth. As a criminal defense private investigator in Santa Cruz in the mid-2000s, she had been asked to learn—and be able to demonstrate to a jury—the technique of smoking crystal meth and scraping down particles formed along the inside of a glass pipe. The client was definitely a drug addict, but she had to help prove he wasn't a drug dealer, too—and that meant proving that he wouldn't have been able to profit off the amount of "substandard" drug residue inside his pipe—which he was accused of selling.

Luker had never smoked meth, and didn't intend to start now. She needed a teacher, a propane torch, vitamins and liquid air freshener—not all of which were particularly easy to find.

More than 10 stores and a couple of phone calls later, she got the goods and proceeded to visit her instructor—who, though long clean, demonstrated how to use the torch to melt air freshener tubes and theoretically smoke the more cost-effective meth substitute she had supplied: vitamin B12 pills.

The case was dismissed. Looking back now, Luker says it was this kind of retrospectively funny and sometimes cringeworthy moment that made the job unlike any other. She amassed a collection of used clothes for clients who looked a bit worse for wear to appear in court in, and her car became her working office of briefcases, tennis shoes, latex gloves and a camera.

It was her job to work with defense attorneys to find the cracks, holes and loose ends in the prosecution's cases, and try to establish a fragment of reasonable doubt—no matter how repugnant she might have found the defendant. Her work was based on the belief that everyone deserves a fair trial and a chance to prove their case. Even when the evidence was insurmountable, the defense would attempt to prove the possibility of innocence, or at least lessen a client's sentence in a plea bargain.

For Luker, it made sense that someone had to defend the bad guys, but deep down she struggled with the moral issues around her job.

"It was a challenge, [but] I worked really hard for all of it, and that's where I had to compartmentalize," Luker says. "The hardest part was accepting that I would never make the job and my feelings about it congruent."

Luker writes about the six years she spent as a P.I. in her new book, Private Eye for the Bad Guy. After working as a staff reporter at Metro Santa Cruz and Metro Silicon Valley for around six years, it was natural for her to write about her experiences.

"I had to do something to express my feelings about it, because it was really hard for me," she says. "If you are a writer, then it's all material."

After leaving Metro in 2001 during the economic downturn, it was a scramble to find something to pay the bills. She had a friend working as a P.I. and she thought the job might be fun and a good transition from journalism. After all, she loves asking questions and telling stories. An expert person-finder and record locator, Luker's No. 1 job was initiating difficult conversations and navigating tense social encounters.

But separating her job from her personal life was difficult. When she started writing the book, it helped her cope with her own past history of drug abuse and sexual violence, and though she was careful to use different names and change specific details of each case, the stories in the book are all completely true and accurate, she says.

"When it came out, I thought the attorneys wouldn't like what I said and they would come sue me, and then the ex-cons would come butcher me," she says. "Then I realized that was getting in my own mind. I'm not a New York Times bestseller. It was just something I felt like I had to write."

Luker delves into some of the most common, memorable and atrocious cases she worked on. From juvenile cases to capital punishment, she says each chapter was meant to illustrate how diverse they were. When asked about defense investigators who love their jobs, she can only name two people, which explains why she needed some catharsis.

"It was really helpful [to write the book]," she says. "It helped me clarify a lot about what my beliefs and feelings were. It was a good escape route from it all."

She wrote Private Eye for the Bad Guy during the last few years of working as a P.I., which is why she was able to document such meticulous details and descriptions of her various clients and interviewees. When she told people about her work, Luker says their initial reaction was one of awe—they'd think, "Ooh, a private investigator." Until they actually understood what the job entails, that is.

"I didn't have anyone to talk to about it, and that was difficult," she says. "Most people weren't thrilled with what I did, they didn't want to hear about it and they couldn't relate to it."

There were parts of the work she says she really enjoyed, like taking her dog with her on jobs, and just talking to people around town. It certainly didn't get boring, she says, especially since there "was never the same thing twice."

What Luker wants people to know, more or less, is that real-world criminal justice is not like it is portrayed on television. The vast majority of the time, she says, criminals are found guilty or reach a plea bargain. And while Luker's book isn't looking for sympathy, it does humanize everyone involved in criminal defense.

"We have awesome defense attorneys here. That's one thing I took away and I really hope people get," she says. "I mean, we have really, really good defense attorneys here. These people work their ass off for their clients."

Sure, they didn't always win—and much of the time, they probably shouldn't have—but what Luker's book so eloquently emphasizes is that despite the odds against them, the defense attorneys and investigators never gave up.

Work in the private investigator business tapered off, and she used the extra time to start her own business. Though she never officially retired from being a P.I., she has no plans to return and spends her time running a small dog boarding service, which she is very proud to say is kennel- and cage-free. The dogs run around the yard, and even sleep in the house, in a sort of ultimate canine vacation.

"I just talk to the dogs now," she says, laughing. "The conversations are great, and they listen so well."