Private Investigators: Help Beyond Police

For private eyes, cracking missing persons cases remains elusive.


Private investigator Michael McKeever scratched his white beard, his SUV parked outside a Russian church near Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. The man hadn’t stirred in the apartment building across the street. It was a slow moment in a stakeout – as usual – and McKeever was trying to remember missing persons cases he cracked. After almost four decades on the job, he has worked surprisingly few.

“It’s not like it seems on TV when, you know, you have that girl with the Buddy Holly glasses and the red hair in her office just banging out all this intel,” he said.

He told the story of one successful case. A 15-year-old girl from New York stole her mother’s credit card and bought one-way bus tickets to Florida for her and three friends. The police told the girl’s mother to cancel the card, but McKeever told her not to. He knew he could follow the trail of junk food and sunscreen purchases. Besides, without money, who knows what the young girl might resort to?

Tampa police stopped one of the girl’s three friends, a 20-year-old man, for jaywalking. After screaming obscenities at the officers, the young man was thrown in the drunk tank. Alerted by police, McKeever and the girl’s mother flew down from New York. She waited in a rental car outside the precinct while McKeever arranged for ten 10 minutes alone with the young man. McKeever told him if Mom waltzed in and pressed charges, the 20-year-old would celebrate his 50th birthday behind bars—“which, of course, was stretching it,” McKeever recalled during the stakeout.

The bluff worked. Within hours, local law enforcement busted down the door of a motel near a freeway. McKeever, the teenaged girl and her mother flew back to New York the same night.

That happy ending was an exception to most missing persons cases, McKeever said.

“Sometimes people have very skimpy information and they think that they’re going to call a private eye and you’re going to have this crystal ball and find out for them,” he said. “So there’s times I’ve just declined cases.”

Most images of private detectives come from Hollywood:  trench coats and fedoras, filterless cigarettes and beautiful women desperate for answers. The reality, of course, does not look like Humphrey Bogart in black and white.

The work of private investigators mostly consists of insurance and real estate fraud cases, as well as infidelity surveillance and “locates”—finding long-lost lovers or the biological parents of adopted children. McKeever and other private investigators say they rarely work missing persons cases for two main reasons: those cases are labor intensive and difficult to crack, which means they are expensive for clients paying by the hour.

The vast majority of locates involve finding people to collect debts, deliver inheritances or reconnect with the parents of abandoned or adopted children —  women, especially, look for biological parents to reconnect or learn about genetic predispositions, investigators say.

To find people who actually go missing, especially those who fly under the radar without day jobs and leases, usually requires coordination with authorities and a level of manpower way beyond the scope of most private detectives, said Brian Willingham of Dilligentia Group, a New York investigative firm.

Homeless people are almost impossible to find, McKeever said.

Another longtime detective remembers the case of a missing middle school student, the son of a wealthy New York powerbroker. The investigator asked names not be printed to protect the client’s identity. The teen went to Disney World. In the pre-911 era, he could pay the airline in cash and didn’t need to show ID.

The private eye, after days of negotiating with law enforcement, managed to get photos and an all-points bulletin — a broadcast on a dangerous or missing person sent to law enforcement agencies —out to every police department in the country.

Private investigator Michael McKeever during a stakeout near Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. Photo by Emrys Eller.

Each year, about 1,000 American children are victims of international family abduction. Nashwa el-Sayed was abducted by her father when she was 2-years-old.

Nashwa el-Sayed is a 24 year old girl who lives and works in Queens, but when she was 2 years old, her father abducted her to Egypt. El-Sayed’s story is the story of thousands of missing children – each year about 1,000 American children are victims of international family abduction. Read more.

Within hours a clerk spotted the teen sleeping behind a dumpster in a gas station parking lot.

“The kid had a very rich father,” the private eye said. The client was able to pay investigators to convince police that this missing person, out of thousands across the country, needed resources. “Otherwise, we never would have gotten an APB out.”

Most private eyes have one or two missing cases they’ve cracked, said Joe O’Brien, a former FBI agent who started a private firm on Long Island. O’Brien said he once hunted down a woman who had kidnapped her son and fled to Honduras.

The child’s mother was charged with kidnapping, but custodial interference cases often fall into a legal gray area, he said; one parent refuses to return kids after a summer break, for example, and it’s not quite a criminal matter.

McKeever said he’ll tell potential clients if their chances of finding a missing person seem grim.

“If there’s no lease in your name, you’re flopping at different places or living on the street and doing drugs, you can just be out there—especially with young people,” he said.

New York City attracts more than its share of runaways and missing persons, McKeever said.

“There’s places to get food, shelters you can sleep for the night—church basements, whatever,” he said.

In a city of 8 million strangers, it’s not hard to disappear, he added.

Back to Part Two