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Byline: Amy Dawes Daily News Staff Writer

They're not Sam Spade in pantyhose, and they're not the gun-toting fantasy babes of popular fiction who crack crooks' heads together and solve crimes before the cops do.

But real-life female private investigators do exist, and in some surprising ways, they may be particularly well-suited to the work.

Just ask best-selling author J.F. Freedman, who turned to a couple of the real McCoys for guidance before creating a female private eye for his new novel, ``House of Smoke.''

``If I was in trouble, I'd ask my lawyer to hire a female private eye,'' said Freedman, who lives and works in Santa Barbara. ``Women investigators have certain ways of getting to information that men just don't have.''

They may not be the ways that immediately leap to mind.

The most important assets a licensed sleuth can have?

``Compassion and the ability to be nonjudgmental'' said firebrand private eye Sandra Sutherland, a longtime friend of Freedman's who helped investigate the Menendez slayings and the Michael Jackson child-molestation allegations, among many other high-profile cases.

``Patience, persistence and the ability to listen,'' said Lynn McLaren, a Santa Barbara-based private eye who runs her own firm, Investigations, Etc. ``A lot of women have these qualities just from being mothers.''

Though female private eyes were unheard of when Sutherland broke in 25 years ago, their numbers are increasing. The California Association of Licensed Investigators (CALI) counts 120 female members, just over 10 percent of its state membership.

In total, there are 8,066 licensed investigators in the state, but a gender breakdown is not available, according to the state Bureau of Security and Investigations Services.

McLaren, who has been licensed since 1988, said she knows of only a couple of other women doing investigative work in the Santa Barbara area.

Both women give the thumbs-up to Freedman's gutsy, down-to-earth character Kate Blanchard, an ex-cop who tries to remake her shattered life in Santa Barbara amid a climate of intrigue, violence and promiscuity. ``She's a very credible, three-dimensional detective,'' said Sutherland. But the real-life P.I.s say the work isn't nearly as dangerous as fiction writers make it out to be.

Neither woman carries a gun, nor will they consider it.

``The things that happen in fiction don't really happen in life, thank God,'' said McLaren. ``I have children. If I had to carry a gun for my job, I wouldn't be doing it.''

``The most dangerous thing is having to walk into a really tough neighborhood where I just don't fit in, and that would be dangerous for any outsider. I just try to do it during the day,'' said McLaren, who specializes in criminal defense and points out that most of her clients are already behind bars.

Sutherland, whose clients have included members of the Hells Angels and the Black Panthers, among others, said, ``I've had some unpleasant experiences in 25 years, but not one of them would have been helped by a gun - in fact, they would have been made worse.

``If you produce a gun, you've got to be immediately ready to shoot the other person, or it will be taken away and used against you. That's not a responsibility I want to take,'' said Sutherland, who is married and the mother of three.

So if they're not down at the firing range sharpening their aims, what is it that really takes up a private investigator's day?

The answers vary widely, depending on the line of work they specialize in.

McLaren owned and ran bail-bond businesses in Santa Barbara and Ventura for six years before getting her private investigator's license. Her first job came when a lawyer called her to work on a high-profile death penalty case involving Diana Bogdanoff, a Santa Barbara woman who was convicted of conspiring to murder her husband, who was shot and killed while sunbathing on a nude beach.

Investigators helped get the death sentence commuted after it was discovered that Bogdanoff had suffered long-term abuse by her husband. The case occupied McLaren for two years. (It inspired a nonfiction book, ``A Death in Santa Barbara,'' by Matthew Heller.)

``I got a reputation among the criminal defense lawyers in town from working on that case, and I've been busy ever since,'' said McLaren.

Sutherland, a native of Australia, came to San Francisco in the '60s with her then-husband and became involved in the political and countercultural upheavals of the time. A former preschool director, she wanted to be a writer. Instead, the couple began doing investigative work. ``We wanted to get involved, and we really thought of it as a way to fight back - to equalize things on behalf of the people who didn't have the power,'' she said. ``Some people referred to me as ``the People's Pig.''

But even in the wide-open social climate of those times, Sutherland's career choice met with resistance.

``The field was overlayed with male mythology, with this Humphrey Bogart/Philip Marlowe persona,'' said Sutherland. In the early '70s, she was asked to speak at an international detective's conference. ``About a third of the men got up and walked out,'' said Sutherland, ``and it couldn't have been anything I said - I'd barely gotten started.''

Much like the Kate Blanchard character in Freedman's ``House of Smoke,'' Sutherland also endured a custody battle after she and her first husband divorced. The San Francisco judge granted her only partial custody of her infant son. ``He said, `Quite frankly, with your glamorous career, I don't see how you possibly have time to be a good mother, therefore I'm limiting your visitation,' '' Sutherland recalled.

As a single mother, Sutherland tried to give up detective work, taking a job as a preschool director with a one-year contract. But she felt deadened by the routine. ``The kids finally said, `Oh, for God's sake, Mom, we'd rather have you in a good mood when you get home.' I quit the day my contract was up. And I love the fact that (in detective work) every day is different, every day you're dropping into a situation that you've never been in before.''

One particularly memorable situation involved spending an entire month locked up in a women's prison, working undercover for a district attorney who was investigating corruption among the jailers.

At the same time, a male investigator, Jack Pellicano, was working undercover in the men's section of the prison for the same district attorney. When the two investigators met later to compare their findings, an attraction bloomed.

They married, and formed the firm of Pellicano & Sutherland, which has prospered. Operating from an 1899 mansion in the Haight-Ashbury district, the couple is constantly engaged in high-profile cases.

Currently, they are working on behalf of tobacco industry whistle blower Jeffrey Wigand to expose a campaign allegedly being conducted by Brown & Williamson and the tobacco industry to ruin Wigand's credibility. (The case is profiled in the May issue of Vanity Fair).

But while the majority of private investigators tend to be former cops, Sutherland believes ex-cops don't make the best investigators.

``They lack the social flexibility that is so important if you're going to connect with people and get them to open up to you,'' she said. ``You have to be able to see things from the point of view of your witness, rather than be hostile to that point of view.''

``You can't form judgments until you know what the facts are,'' added author Freedman, who said he learned from Sutherland ``how a good detective approaches her job.''

``She used to work for the Black Panthers. Imagine if you walked into that situation with the attitude that the Black Panthers were everything the FBI said they were. You couldn't do your job at all.''

Despite the perceived glamour, McLaren, who's a single mother, said the work can be somewhat isolating, given the few women who do it.

``One time I went to a meeting of licensed investigators and I was the only woman there,'' McLaren said. ``And men are either intimidated or intrigued by what you do, but most of the time they don't know how to react.''

All the same, she strongly encourages women who are interested in the work to look into it.

``There's a need for more women in the field - there are a lot of women in trouble, either in custody battles or dealing with crazed husbands, who need a woman investigator to talk to,'' said McLaren.

In dealing with either gender, McLaren said, ``I can get inside people's heads a lot easier as a woman, and that's half the job. I've had career criminals open up and cry, tell me their life stories, and I know for sure they wouldn't do that with a man. Their hostility or anger is generally defused when they don't see you as a threat to them.''

Private investigations work also pays well - even a start-up, lone operator like Blanchard in ``House of Smoke'' is able to charge $65 an hour plus expenses, said Freedman, who researched the question with lawyers in town.

Obtaining a license doesn't require a college degree, but it requires 6,000 hours (three years) of experience, which can usually be obtained working for a lawyer, licensed investigator, insurance company, or a police or sheriff's department. A degree in criminal justice or a related field can be applied against the work requirement. A full information packet is available by writing or calling the Bureau of Securities and Investigations Services of the Department of Consumer Affairs in Sacramento, which issues licenses.

As for the personal traits the job requires? ``An open curiosity and a depth of real-world experience,'' recommends Sutherland. ``A willingness to get into uncomfortable situations in the dogged pursuit of a line of questioning.''

And also, in her view, ``a profound dislike of injustice.''

For, unlike fictional prototypes Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, who wore their cynicism like a badge of experience, Sutherland said that's the part she can't seem to get the hang of.

``I have to be convinced over and over again that someone could be evil or corrupt,'' she said. ``Every time I come across someone like that, I think it must be a weird anomaly. I think that maybe after 25 years, I do have a slow learning curve.''


4 Photos

Photo: (1--Cover--Color) She's on the case

Detective wor k comes naturally for women like Sandra Sutherland, one of a growing number of female private investigators

(2) ``If I was in trouble, I'd ask my lawyer to hire a female private eye,'' says writer J.P. Freedman, right, with investigator Sandra Sutherland.

(3) Sue Grafton's popular ``alphabet series'' began chronicling the adventures of ex-cop Kinsey Milhone in ``A Is for Alibi.''

Gus Ruelas/Daily News

(4) ``The most dangerous thing is having to walk into a really tough neighborhood where I just don't fit in, and that would be dangerous for any outsider. I just try to do it during the day,'' says investigator Lynn McLaren.

Michael Owen Baker/Daily News
COPYRIGHT 1996 Daily News
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:May 21, 1996

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