Brooklyn Bar Association Class Teaches Sleuth Techniques to Lawyers
By Mary Frost
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
BROOKLYN HEIGHTS — Investigative attorneys Charles-Eric Gordon and James Philip Renken appear to be about as different as two New York City lawyers can be.
Silver-haired and affable, Gordon remembers the birthdays of his contacts and grows hot peppers in his garden for a helpful city clerk. He often wields a Sherlock Holmes-type magnifying glass, and possesses an astounding collection of phone books dating back to 1919.
Renken, with short black hair and a neatly trimmed beard, specializes in Internet law, admires Japanese animation and has posted more than 5,000 tweets on Twitter. He can deduce your neighborhood by analyzing your computer’s IP address.
The two attorneys are both Brooklyn Law School grads, and both specialize in tracing missing persons — witnesses, victims, heirs or fraudsters.
Gordon and Renken recently teamed up for the first time to share their very different investigative techniques at a CLE-accredited (Continuing Legal Education) class, “Tracing Missing Persons for Attorneys,” which was sponsored by the Brooklyn Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyers Project.
Both Gordon and Renken also offered their services free to audience members working on pro bono cases.
Gordon: Hitting the Streets
Gordon’s methods include extensive searches of computerized databases like New York City’s Automated City Register Information System (ACRIS) and Google, along with motor vehicle, dog license and voter registration records. He digs through public documents contained in New York City’s ACRIS and property records on the Department of Buildings website.
“Voter registration records are underrated,” he said. “You can get certified documents from the Board of Elections.”
Access to records at the Department of Motor Vehicles is carefully controlled. “There have to be reasons for requesting the information — anticipation of litigation, arbitration, legal proceedings.” Strict controls also limit the release of information from financial institutions.
Gordon’s personal database includes rooms filled with hundreds of old phone books.
“Don’t ever throw a phone book out!” he advised. “Archive them to use in cases where the subject disappeared years ago.”
But his most important technique has nothing to do with databases: “Use the schmooze!” he advised. “Be like Matlock, be friendly. Human intelligence — it’s not just for spies. Intelligence is learning from people. You get more than on a website.
“If you call the same person repeatedly, engage in small talk. A lady at the Board of Elections helps me tremendously. I grow hot peppers for her.
“Speak to family members, go back to a prior address and speak to people there. Go to churches, temples, mosques, hobby clubs, trade organizations. Even if, by law, information can’t be given out, they might reach out to that person for me. If it’s a matter of life and death, the Social Security Administration will forward a letter to an absentee.”
Renken: Unmasking the Internet
Meanwhile, Renken does the lion’s share of his investigations online.
“Facebook, dating sites, game networks, photo-sharing services and online forums for special interests can be a goldmine,” he said. “If you know their nickname you might be able to find images — they tell you a tremendous amount about a person.
“There are lots of auxiliary services, not just Facebook. Find Farmville, or a Bitly account for short URLs.” Like Gordon, Renken recommended starting with Google, then expanding to database services like PropertyShark (for property records).
Renken, who runs a small Internet company on the side, demonstrated how he tracked down the identity of an anonymous person who posted a libelous comment on Twitter. The trail he followed included information gleaned from the person’s J.R.R. Tolkien-related pseudonym and a chain of email headers Renken analyzed.
Renken also discussed the ethical issues involved with Internet gumshoeing: For example, you may “friend” a subject under your real identity, but you may not misrepresent yourself. Motor vehicle and credit information can only be obtained by an attorney with a permissible purpose.
“Don’t let your office staff do a query — do it yourself,” he advised. “If you pull a report and it’s not for a permissible purpose, you can get in trouble.”
Not every investigation can be carried out over the Internet, even by a cyber-sleuth. Renken said he refused a case once that involved defamation in the Orthodox Jewish community.
“I had to turn the guy down. Not only did I not understand the language, I didn’t understand the community. Whether it was defamation depended on the outcome of a rabbinical decision.”
Puzzles of Fun
Not every case turns out the way the two investigative attorneys expect.
Gordon described one situation he handled for a client who was the executor of his aunt’s estate.
“The aunt had been married but it didn’t work out,” he said. “She still loved [her ex-husband], however, and left him a substantial sum of money on the condition he never remarry. After she passed away, the man came to her funeral.”
The executor offered him a ride to the cemetery but he turned it down. He also gave the executor a phony phone number. Several years later, the checks the man had been receiving from the estate were not cashed, and the address forwarding order expired.
“I had to locate him — but he was already dead,” Gordon said. “Surprisingly, he had a secret family, including a grown daughter. He had taken the money for her. He had changed his name, clearly to defraud. He was a polygamist.”
“Do you try to remove the money?” Gordon mused. “You don’t want to hurt the daughter. I suppose he could have argued, ‘I didn’t get married — I was married when I met you!'”
It’s these kind of cases that keep Gordon going. Armed with his magnifying glass, the investigative counsel says he doesn’t have any plans to quit the sleuth lifestyle.
“Where else can you get paid thousands of dollars to solve puzzles and have fun?”