Solo sleuths: Local P.I.s say their jobs are misunderstood

John Hisler, center, talks with a client as a criminal defense investigator during a 2011 trial  in a Collier County Courtroom.  It's one of many rolls Hisler, as a private detective, is tasked with.  Michel Fortier/Staff

Photo by MICHEL FORTIER, OUT News-Press // Buy this photo

John Hisler, center, talks with a client as a criminal defense investigator during a 2011 trial in a Collier County Courtroom. It's one of many rolls Hisler, as a private detective, is tasked with. Michel Fortier/Staff

Victor Ortino, center, ran against Kevin Rambosk and Vinny Angiollilo in 2008 as a candidate for the office of Collier County Sheriff in 2008.  Ortino is a private investigator by trade and has often listed this experience as making him qualified to be sheriff. David Albers/ Staff

Photo by DAVID ALBERS, Naples Daily News // Buy this photo

Victor Ortino, center, ran against Kevin Rambosk and Vinny Angiollilo in 2008 as a candidate for the office of Collier County Sheriff in 2008. Ortino is a private investigator by trade and has often listed this experience as making him qualified to be sheriff. David Albers/ Staff

Sitting down with John Hisler is a little bit like facing your elementary school principal, or your mother. Before you've said a word, you figure he's on to you.

You get the sense that he knows, and that he knows that you know that he knows.

This, said fellow private investigator Victor Ortino, is one of the things that makes Hisler "probably the best interviewer I know."

Hisler, a former Collier County Sheriff's Office investigator, and Ortino, a 2012 candidate for Collier sheriff, are two of a handful of investigators who operate private practices in southwest Florida. Ortino, who is running for the top post in county law enforcement for a second time, has often cited his experience as an investigator as a qualification for the job.

But local private investigators say there are misconceptions about what they do. It's not exactly car chases and dodging bullets, a la "Magnum P.I.," nor is it all stakeouts of philandering spouses.

John Hisler

Specialty: Forensic interviews and polygraph exams

Some of John Hisler's interviews have gone six, seven, eight hours. The longest, at a state prison in Okeechobee, went 19.

Hisler often is sent by defense attorneys who know they're being lied to.

"They know their own client is not telling the truth and they need to know to properly defend the guy," Hisler said. "I always believe everyone in that situation has a need to tell their side of the story. If you take away their fear and their reason not to, they'll tell you the truth."

Hisler started his career as a dispatcher at the Sheriff's Office in 1973, he said. He left his post as an internal affairs investigator in 2001 to become an investigator with the State Attorney's Office and retired two years later to open his own business.

It irks him when he's asked about working "for the other side," or with defense attorneys.

"There is no other side," he said. "You're basically protecting the Constitution when you make an arrest, and you're not to be convicting someone of something they didn't do."

Getting answers, Hisler says, comes from experience. He looks for "micro expressions" and other cues. He tries to figure out what certain people are afraid of and what their motivation is for lying.

He says he does not typically stay in touch with his clients but sends them off knowing he did what he could to protect their rights.

"Some of them I don't even like," he says, "but if they're not guilty, I can prove it."

Victor Ortino

Specialty: civil and criminal cases

For those who question his choice of career, Victor Ortino points to cases that helped clear the names of the innocent and put criminals behind bars.

He most frequently cites an investigation into the hit-and-run death of Michael Moritz, a 68-year-old multimillionaire who was struck in 2002. After he was hired, Ortino kept an eye on suspect Jeffrey Ryals, tracked down witnesses and began to piece together a timeline of Ryals' whereabouts that night.

With additional evidence from the assistant state attorney and the Sheriff's Office, Ryals later was convicted of vehicular homicide and leaving the scene of a hit-and-run crash.

"It's not a five-minute job," Ortino said. "We put in hundreds of man hours in that before we found what we wanted to find and could prove it."

In 1985, Ortino was hired by the defense for Steven Wayne Benson, a man accused of using pipe bombs to blow up a truck and kill his mother, brother and nephew. Ortino says he was fired when he found that Benson had the materials necessary for the bombing and could not be eliminated as a suspect.

"It is what it is," he said. "You can't change truth."

If he is elected sheriff, Ortino says he will sell his investigations business. And if not, he will return to his office in Golden Gate.

Jeff Neal

Specialty: due diligence cases and process serving

There's an info graphic about private detectives on Jeff Neal's Facebook page that he says rings true.

For "what my mom thinks I do," there's a photo of Sherlock Holmes. For "what society thinks I do," it's Tom Selleck as "Magnum P.I." And for "what my colleagues think I do," a bald man peeking through his car window with a wide-zoom camera.

This creates somewhat of a problem when he introduces himself as a private investigator and process server.

"Usually the response is like, 'Oh, like on TV,' and (my) response is, 'Oh, not at all,'" Neal said.

Neal became an investigator about four years ago after prior work in the Marine Corps. and in corporate loss prevention.

Many of his investigations still are for businesses. A construction company might want to know why a crew is taking nine days to do two days of work, or a bar might want to know why certain girls are drinking all night and paying tiny bar tasb. He can do surveillance, interview witnesses or follow a paper trail to find out.

Last year, Neal started taking on process service requests, in which he serves legal papers to people involved court cases. Skills like tracking people down and knowing how to deal with them lend themselves well to both sides of the operation, he says. Persistence, for one, is king.

"Usually the third time, people are like, this guy's going to keep coming," he said.

Carrie Kerskie

Specialty: fraud, identity theft and other financial crimes

Just because Carrie Kerskie investigates white-collar crimes doesn't mean her job's not dangerous.

"You have to be ready for anything," she said. "We're dealing with people who might be skirting the law."

Kerskie, a former financial adviser, predicts the world of identity theft and fraud expanding as career criminals look to make their jobs less demanding.

"A lot of drug dealers switch to identity theft because it's safe and easier," she says. "You can do it right from home, and you don't have to worry about getting shot."

Much of her work tracking down virtual criminals can be done online, too.

"A lot of it is just understanding the technology and following the bread crumbs," she said.

As Kerskie worked on identity theft cases, she realized how little people understood about their information. Last year, she wrote a book, "Your Public Identity: Because Nothing is Private Anymore," so she could help explain how information flows.

People often assume that because Kerskie's a private investigator, she frequently gets clients looking to catch a cheating spouse (she rarely gets those), that surveillance is all she does (it's expensive, so it's not an everyday thing) or that she somehow is able to get around the law (she doesn't).

"We don't have any privileges," she said. "Magnum P.I. was breaking into houses left and right and he never gets arrested."

But for most private investigators, there's less of a battle with law enforcement than a working relationship.

"We work hand in hand," she said. "We're very careful not to step on anyone's toes."

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