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John Lehe: computer sleuth.

Give him a name, or better yet, a name, social security number and a date of birth, and in a matter of minutes, John Lehe can tell you what type of car a person drives, their college major, what jobs they've held and whether or not they've ever been involved in criminal or civil litigation. Want to know more? No problem.

From the comfort of his uncluttered downtown Anchorage office, Lehe can access not only Alaska public records, but also thousands of databases nationwide, and tell you that your subject graduated cum laude, was inducted into a business fraternity and that he was salesman at a Colorado ski shop in the mid-1980s.

And that's not all. He can also tell you the value of any real property owned, whether or not the person has ever been the subject of a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation and, if relevant, the total market value of investment portfolios handled. Want to talk to the neighbors? Here's a list of their names and phone numbers.

"In an hour, I could produce a lot of information on you," says Lehe. That much has become obvious. "It's kind of like putting a puzzle together. You just keep gathering more information. It was all leg work before. But now it's computers."

In the last decade -- and especially in the last three or four years, according to Lehe -- computers and sophisticated software have taken a lot of the leg work out of traditional investigation. And although many in the field continue to follow the proverbial paper trail, more and more rely on computer know-how and easy access to thousands of national and international data bases.

"It's a quicker, more expeditious way of getting information," says Alan Hart, director of the National Association of Legal Investigators. "Why spend hours at the courthouse if you don't have to?" Lehe agrees, pointing out that he spends most of his time in the office at the computer or on the phone.

Reared in Florida and trained as a Marine Corps intelligence specialist, the 34-year-old former paralegal describes himself simply as a private investigator. Others might be more apt to dub him a hi-tech computer sleuth.

Digging Into Databases

By dipping into thousands of nationwide computer databases that range from hunting and fishing licenses and vehicle registration records to bankruptcy filings and educational records, Lehe can assemble a fairly comprehensive sketch of a person. And all from information that's been made public. (This is not the same as public information. For example, a social security number is not public information, but it is included in several records that are.)

"As more and more database get put on-line, it's more and more accessible, and John knows how to get it quickly and how to read it," says Erin Marston, an Anchorage defense attorney who's hired Lehe to work with him on several cases. "He's just aware of what's available in the public domain."

"It's astonishing to me what he can find," says Traeger Machetanz, a former Anchorage attorney who now practices in Seattle and occasionally hires Lehe to do investigative work. Machetanz considers the amount of information available to Lehe and others in his field "sobering," and adds good-naturedly, "If there's anyone I wouldn't want to be enemies with, it would be John."

Both Marston and Machetanz agree, however, that hiring Lehe can save them and their clients time and money. And although some research can be done by attorneys in-house, both say Lehe has access to far more information and, equally important, he understands what he finds.

"I think most law firms do not have the in-house resources that John has," says Machetanz. "Most are not as computer-oriented. John just picks up the electronic trail and goes with it. This electronic tracking is quicker and cheaper because you don't have to spend time tracking down information and interviewing people who aren't useful."

Adds Lehe, "When you do this type of work, it's like being a librarian. You have to know where to go to get the information and how to read it."

Marston says he's learned that getting Lehe involved in the early stages of a case is often helpful and eventually saves the firm and its clients money. Because he's familiar with legal issues, Lehe understands what information may be helpful and can approach his research with specific issues in mind, says Marston. "We are learning that John is a wise investment."

Hi-tech Hidden Surveillance

In addition to computer searches, Lehe also provides hidden surveillance, a service often requested by insurance adjusters in suspicious injury claims.

"We do not have the time and the resources to go around and wait for something to happen," says John Murray, an adjuster with the Anchorage office of Northern Adjusters. Juggling a caseload of up to 300 claims doesn't leave Murray the time to do the video-taping frequently required in such cases. Hiring Lehe to document suspected fraud can often save insurance companies thousands of dollars in fraudulent claims.

"I've seen the results of my work," says Lehe, referring to a case in which an insurance company was prepared to pay a woman $950,000 for a supposed injury. After Lehe filmed her moving about with ease, the settlement was reduced to $50,000.

After being discharged in 1984 from the Marine Corps, Lehe went to work as an in-house investigator for a North Carolina law firm, mostly working on criminal, personal injury and domestic cases. He studied criminal justice at Florida but didn't graduate, then worked as an investigator in Jacksonville. In 1989, he took a leave of absence to visit a brother living in Alaska.

Ready for a change, Lehe determined that there was enough work for him and worked for the next two-and-a-half years as an investigator for two Anchorage law offices. In April 1991, he and his wife invested $25,000 in savings and opened Stealth Group, a private firm specializing in comprehensive background investigations.

By the end of 1992, Lehe and his two part-time investigators had handled 310 cases, involving everything from insurance fraud and pre-employment checks to tracking down a young woman's biological parents and doing background checks on prospective nannies.

During 1992, his first full year of operation, Lehe estimates he took in $133,000, 60 percent of it profit. And he expects his caseload to increase, with projected sales this year to reach as high as $200,000. "There's an incredible potential for this type of business," says Lehe, who usually charges between $60 and $75 an hour, plus computer access fees. Those fees range from $2.50 for a three-year driving record to $175 for tracking a person's bank account.

Transients Drive Demand

Demand for his services, say Lehe and others, is fueled in part by Alaska's largely transient population. In addition to investigating questionable insurance claims, Lehe does a lot of pre-employment checks on prospective employees. Employers are growing cautious in hiring because of increased threat of lawsuits for negligent hire or negligent retention.

"Companies are facing a lot of liability now for not doing thorough checks on potential employees," says Lehe. "Failing to check someone's background can get you into a lot of trouble."

As an example, Lehe cites the case of a trucking company wanting to check a prospective driver. While Alaska driving records may not turn up any infractions, a nationwide search may reveal a string of convictions for drunk driving.

Lehe has a varied client base and works for attorneys on both sides of the aisle, a fact Marston says gives Lehe added credibility. Marston and others also praise Lehe for his professional approach and demeanor, something not all investigators offer. "I think what makes John stick out is that he's very professional, which is necessary when he's testifying," says Marston.

Lehe says it's important for him to feel good about a case before sitting down to the computer, so he often asks potential clients as many questions as they ask him.

"I turn down a lot of cases," says Lehe. "I ask a lot of questions before I take the work. I need to feel comfortable, and I need to feel like I believe the person hiring me. You have to be very careful in doing this type of work. You have to know what you're doing ... It takes a person that has some discretion."

Jack Reed, founder and chairman of IRSC, a multi-million dollar California-based information brokerage firm, agrees. "You have to use discrimination in handling information," says Reed, a pioneer in the computer information business in the early 1980s. "You really have to understand the proper use of information."

Lehe says he's turned down several criminal cases he wasn't comfortable with and that he steers clear of domestic cases.

"I don't spy on husbands and wives. I don't check out boyfriends. I tell them they probably need a counselor instead," says Lehe.

He also gives clients all the facts -- not just those that might bolster their case -- and refrains from offering his opinion. "I just give the facts," says Lehe. "I don't summarize the information."

Which leads -- finally -- to the obvious question: Is there too much information available to the public?

After a pause, attorney Machetanz says, "That's a tough question. There's a lot of crooks out there now. I think we need to know who we're dealing with.

"We're not in it to be electronic peeping Toms," he adds. "It's legal, so it can be used. Would I want it used against me? No."
COPYRIGHT 1993 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:electronics in criminal investigation
Author:Hill, Robin Mackey
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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