At the Kirkwood Kaldi’s near his office, we sat across from each other in a booth with our drinks clasped tightly in our hands to keep warm. After a brief conversation about the weather, Zach told me he owns a PI firm (that’s a private investigator) called Cornerstone Intelligence and he got his training as a special agent with the Department of Defense in the military.
Immediately following high school he enlisted because, “I wasn’t the best student in the world.” While serving, he earned his degree in criminal justice. For almost 10 years, he worked in places like Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and Panama gathering intelligence on national security crimes like espionage, treason, terrorism, sedition, and sabotage. The way he describes it, he would find people with specific pieces of “intel” that the military wanted and “entice” them to share it. I had to ask if entice was a euphemism and he laughed. He said the biggest motivator was typically money, but some people gave him information because they felt it was the right thing to do for their country.
Finding people with information, chatting with them, and then giving them a reason to share what they know was his favorite part of the job. So, don’t try and lie to him, he’ll have you figured out. I was dying to know the tricks to read someone but he disillusioned me by saying it’s only helpful to a point. The reality, he says, is that after awhile you just get a sense if someone is being honest or not.
In 1992 when Zach joined the military, he couldn’t do his work in the United States because of intelligence collection laws here. “They have a little bit more latitude than they used to, which is a good and bad thing, I think.”
Six months after joining he was in Somalia because of the internal fighting, aiding with Operation Restore Hope (securing trade routes to get internationally provided food to the people). The movie Black Hawk Down is based on these events.
Later he was in Panama. Before 2000 the United States owned property on both sides of the Panama Canal, but that year we gave it back to the Panamanians. Zach was there for the clearing of the military bases and he sighed as he told me it was an awesome thing to experience.
Once he was finished with the military, he moved out to San Francisco where he worked in radio sales and journalism for awhile. He wasn’t really qualified however. “The guy that hired me actually loved my resume. He was all into the whole spy thing and he thought my resume was so cool. I was totally unqualified for the job. I had NO business in that job at all.”
Thank goodness he ended up working at a PI firm in L.A. where he was much more qualified. Eventually he opened his own firm, met his wife, and his daughter was born. She was the impetus for coming back to St. Louis.
Because they were both originally from this area, they wanted to come back to be near family. Plus, what’s not to love about our city? “If you’ve ever lived in a big city, everybody loves St. Louis, because it’s small enough that it’s manageable. You can be anywhere in 20 minutes, traffic is not bad, there’s great sports fans.”
So he opened up his own office here called Cornerstone Intelligence. When we met he had been hired to investigate three homicide cases to augment law enforcement because the families weren’t happy with how things were going. One incident was in South City where an individual was sexually assaulted, killed, and then the house set on fire.
“I tell people, there are definitely two different worlds. There really are. There’s the, you know, you’re generally a good person, you surround yourself with good people, happy, feely, things are great. And that’s great, and if you can live that way and stay out of the other world, more power to you. But unfortunately my work takes me to… we call it the dark side, quite a bit. And I mean… there are people out there that will hurt people just for the joy of hurting people.”
The work Zach does is definitely not always that intense. “You know, people have this image of PI’s as like this Philip Marlowe, one man office, chasing shady spouses, kind of thing. You know, a lot of what we do is more corporate. We work for a lot of law firms, you know, we do everything from criminal defense work, to civil and criminal investigations.” He also works with child custody investigations, missing persons, insurance work, general liability claims, and political opposition research (is that where we get some of the dirt in those ads?).
I expected a dramatic answer when I asked which case sticks out the most in his mind, and it was, but because he was able to really help the woman who hired him. It was a fraud situation. A man asked a woman to invest $250,000 in his gold mine and she agreed. Years later she approached him for some of her return so she could invest it and that’s when the excuses started. When Zach approached the man… “he blew sunshine up my rear.” That’s ok. Cornerstone Intelligence had someone pose as an investor and found out the details. The case was handed to the IRS, the man pled guilty, and now he’s in prison. “Nothing exciting. But she got her money back!” Money, fraud, gold mines, IRS, prison. Just another day!
Then there are the crazies. Zach thought it was a prank the first time the paranoid guy from New Jersey called. “He’s the tin foil hat guy, right? He’s the guy that will tell you he’s being irradiated with some sort of microwave weapon device thing.”
We were down to the last dregs of our drinks and I was hovering at the edge of my seat listening to Zach’s stories. It was getting late, however, so I asked what his favorite thing is about St. Louis. “Yea, having a 6 year old, you can’t be in a better town. There’s so much to do here. I mean, it really, on the weekends, if you’ve got a kid, it’s like… it’s, what do you want to do? You’ve got your pick of half a dozen things.”
I've told you Zach's story. What's yours? Sign-up for coffee with me!