The life of a private investigator is about seeking justice, ferreting out hidden facts…and doing paperwork.
Lots of paperwork.
Expect fewer helicopters and chase scenes than a TV detective would encounter.
“I don’t have a Ferrari,” points out Dennis Eberly, a PI in Rehoboth Beach. Laughing, he adds: “I do wear Hawaiian shirts a lot, though.”
Eberly is a retired police lieutenant from Pennsylvania who took up private detective work after 33 years on the force. “I figured I had some skills to put to use yet,” he says. “I’m not ready to go out to pasture.”
There are 500 or so private detectives in the First State, according to Delaware State Police, which issues the mandatory licenses. Investigators spend their days researching, poking and prying to get to the bottom of complex and sometimes distressing situations, shining light into corners that some folks would prefer remain in darkness.
Eberly relocated to Delaware earlier this year, although he still takes cases in the Keystone State. He accepts a range of investigations, whether that’s providing evidence for a court case or reassuring a client that the person they’re about to hire—or marry—is legitimate and above board. Or he’ll find out if a child’s guardian is abusing substances or otherwise putting the child at risk. He coordinates with a specialist for forensic examination of computers or phones (this gets expensive) and checks into cases involving civil claims or wrongful deaths.
Often, the script flips and the accused will hire him to dig up facts showing they’re innocent. “You don’t always get the whole story from one side,” Eberly notes.
One place where he draws the line is investigating spouses. He did enough work with domestic conflict as a policeman that he prefers to stay out of that now. What he will take on is premarital investigations, ensuring clients know what they’re getting into.
“It’s like buying a car,” he says. “You look at Carfax, right? Or you do an inspection of your home before you buy it.”
No two days are the same, which holds Eberly’s interest. He might be in his home office searching databases, in the courthouse looking up public records or in the field doing surveillance. He might wind up shadowing someone, but you won’t notice him—he has disguises to alter his appearance and uses a telephoto lens so he can remain inconspicuous.
Less glamorously, he’s probably typing up reports. “If you don’t document it in writing, it didn’t happen,” he says.
Occasionally, PI work is out in the open and can come with risk. Eberly serves process papers like subpoenas and notices of lawsuits, and sometimes recipients aren’t thrilled by the news. Once, he pulled up to a house and was confronted by two large, barking Dobermans, but as he carefully pondered his next steps, the threat disappeared. “Thankfully, the gentleman I was serving came right out next to my car door. …I explained why I was there and served him right there,” he says.
A key part of Eberly’s PI work is using his experience to sort good information from bad. “Life can be difficult,” he says. “But it helps when you have factual information to base your personal and business decisions on.”