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Career Noir 

Pamela Olsen once planned parties for Pacific Heights matrons. Now she interviews prostitutes and murderers as a private eye.

Wednesday, Jul 24 2002
It's just past 9 p.m. and novice private investigator Pamela Olsen is walking down a particularly notorious stretch of Capp Street looking for hookers. At first the street is quiet and Olsen thinks she has chosen a bad time, but slowly, as darkness sets in, women begin to stand casually on corners or saunter with feigned aimlessness while trying to make eye contact with passing motorists.

Olsen approaches one woman and explains she is looking for information about a veteran prostitute who was murdered several months ago. The woman is taciturn, responding to Olsen's questions mostly with one-word answers. She has traces of a black eye but no information about the victim. The next prostitute Olsen approaches has only recently moved to San Francisco from Boston and is unfamiliar with the area.

But luck is with Olsen tonight. She approaches an older woman wearing a black pantsuit and standing next to a paper shopping bag. At first glance she could be waiting for a bus on her way home from work. But only at first glance. She tells Olsen that she knew the victim well and is willing to give whatever information she can.

The statuesque Olsen is wearing a gray hooded sweat shirt over a T-shirt and jeans. But even though she is dressed casually, her manner and bearing are professional. She looks as though she would be more at home in a boardroom discussing market trends than chatting about murder with Capp Street prostitutes.

Despite her appearance and being a relatively new criminal investigator, she conducts the interview like a seasoned pro.

"Did she have a pimp?" she asks the woman, whose eyes seem to have difficulty focusing. "Did she have a lot of regulars?" "Was she cautious about the johns she went with or did she take risks?"

If Olsen doesn't seem like a typical private detective, perhaps it's because just 22 months ago she was the director of marketing for special events at the Gift Center. She was responsible for booking the center's spacious pavilion mostly for corporate socials and fund-raising events for the city's more prestigious nonprofits and their wealthy volunteers. Her employers were pleased with her work, she had excellent benefits, and with bonuses and commissions she was earning a respectable $60,000 a year.

There was only one problem -- she was bored.

"I found the whole thing tedious," says Olsen, who has a degree in liberal studies from San Francisco State University. "I was not challenged, or I didn't feel like stepping up to the challenges the job offered."

Olsen, 38, gave notice and took a $15-an-hour job with John Murphy, an investigator who runs Murphy & Associates, a small firm that primarily investigates criminal cases for court-appointed attorneys.

Now, instead of teleconferencing with Pacific Heights matrons over the details of the annual SPCA Black and White Ball, Olsen spends many of her working hours conducting face-to-face interviews with the denizens of jails, homeless encampments, and seedy hotels.

On a recent hot afternoon in Chinatown, for example, Olsen is canvassing a string of businesses looking for someone who might have witnessed an assault that took place on Broadway.

The beating happened during daylight in plain view, and Olsen assumes that some of the people who work in the Asian-owned beauty parlors, grocery stores, and specialty shops nearby must have seen something. But in business after business she receives blank stares and semipolite denials.

At the end of the day she takes a seat at an outside table of O'Reilly's Pub in North Beach. She sips a cool beer and talks about making her career change.

Among Olsen's current cases are four murders, two attempted homicides, and a death penalty appeal by a former law enforcement officer who was convicted of killing his girlfriend's 3-year-old child.

Despite the violence in her caseload, Olsen has not had any trouble, she says. "I've been doing this for 22 months, and I've never been or felt physically threatened while conducting an investigation."

Nonetheless, Olsen says she tries to be smart by never casually going into dangerous buildings or questionable neighborhoods without having first made telephone contact with the interview subject. If Olsen feels uncomfortable, she brings an associate.

"In most of these situations you get back what you put in," she says. "I make sure they know I'm not a cop and I'm not there to get them in trouble or put words in their mouths."

In fact, Olsen is often more uncomfortable in social situations when people discover her line of work. "There are so many myths and misconceptions about private investigators thanks to the movies and detective novels," she says. "Everybody immediately assumes I carry a gun [which she doesn't] and that I spend my days following unfaithful spouses."

"I couldn't have done this without my husband's support," she continues. "I'm making enough money to get by, and the whole prestige thing has never been that important to me. I own a 1984 Volvo and it runs fine."

Olsen says one of the reasons she made the job change was that she discovered she needed something more than just a paycheck.

"Normally two things are important to me in my work: I need a reasonably autonomous environment, and I need to be challenged," she says. "And on the face of it, this job is a challenge for me. I was raised white and middle class in Santa Rosa. I just didn't grow up around the kind of people I now visit in jail and on the streets."

But the work also gives her a sense of value, she says. Murphy & Associates' clients are facing serious criminal charges, which they are usually poorly equipped to deal with. Most are uneducated, come from backgrounds of economic hardship, and have histories of alcohol and drug abuse. Their social status makes them prime candidates for being legally overrun by faulty police investigations and overburdened court systems, she says.

"Arrest reports, which are often the basis of the district attorney's prosecutions, are poorly written and frequently contain factual errors," Olsen says. "It's absolutely critical they are double-checked, witnesses reinterviewed, and the crime scene revisited to talk to potential witnesses who the police could not find or didn't bother with."

Besides investigating cases for court-appointed attorneys, Murphy & Associates also does state and federal appellate work. Olsen is most proud of her background research for the pending appeal of Curtis Guy, who is awaiting execution in Nevada's Ely Prison. Guy was convicted of murder and sentenced to death even though he was the driver in a murder case and did not actually kill anyone.

"I delved into his background and was able to document some seriously bad conditions and unusual hardship during his youth that could possibly weigh in a jury's decision to commute his death sentence," she says.

Olsen is not sure what her future holds. It is not uncommon for private investigators to burn out, she says, so she still keeps an eye open for new job opportunities. Becoming a private investigator was not her first career change, and she suspects it won't be her last.

About The Author

John Geluardi


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