The reality of private investigation is a lot less glamorous — and a whole lot sweatier — than the movie version. Surveillance often entails long days spent lying low in the back seat of a car with the air conditioner turned off, waiting for someone to leave his or her home. During the longest shifts, investigators will keep a container on hand in case of a bathroom emergency.
Brianne Joseph, founder of Sly Fox Investigations — Louisiana’s only all-woman detective agency — says these conditions deter many people from working in the field. But knowing the impact a piece of evidence could have on people’s lives, especially in a child custody case, makes the uncomfortable conditions of collecting it worthwhile, she says.
“It's either pee in a container, or watch this child get abused — I'm going to pee in a container,” she says. “It just puts it in perspective. I'm sitting out here all of this time, and I'm about to get the evidence that's going to put this child in a better situation, but I have to pee. Am I going to leave the case and jeopardize getting this one piece of evidence that could really help this child, or am I going to pee in the mayonnaise jar?
“I sleep really well at night knowing that I helped somebody,” she adds.
Sly Fox, which has offices in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, is Louisiana’s only all-female detective agency, and its team is made up of women of different races from different backgrounds. The agency specializes in cases of child custody, infidelity, insurance fraud and workers’ compensation fraud, gathering evidence for clients ranging from everyday people to what Joseph calls “super lawyers” — attorneys who handle high-profile, multimillion-dollar lawsuits.
The agency is an intentional anomaly in a heavily male-dominated industry. Trade publication PI Magazine estimates that of the roughly 60,000 private investigators in the United States, only 15 percent are women.
Women of color are even less represented in the field. Joseph says about 3 percent of private investigators are black women like herself — numbers which inspired her to launch her own detective agency in an attempt to change the face of private investigation in Louisiana.
Getting in the door wasn’t easy. Joseph recalls visiting local attorneys to hand out her business cards — often not hearing back from them. Realizing she needed a different approach, she started sending out samples of her work to show potential clients her capabilities. Once the agency got more detectives on board, she tried sending white investigators to do the marketing.
“Initially, that was like the biggest challenge — getting people to actually give us the work because we weren't popular or well-known, or just because we were women and it was a male industry,” she says. “But once I got in and they saw the work, (they said), ‘Oh, she did that?’ Then the word started traveling.
“The fact that I was a young black girl, I think, had a lot to do with it because it was an older-white-males industry. But over time, it just didn't matter anymore.
“I really believe that women are naturally good investigators,” she says. “We're fact finders. We are detail-oriented and we're just naturally inquisitive. … so I was just interested in teaching more women how to become investigators.”
Sly Fox detectives can blend more easily into different neighborhoods and are often able to get witnesses to talk to them as a result — an advantage Joseph says attracts many of the agency’s attorney clients. “You have this old white guy that goes into this black neighborhood, knocking on the door trying to talk to them — they don’t get answers,” she says. “But then they send me and they talk to me."
In child custody cases, Sly Fox detectives may be looking for evidence that a child is being neglected or is at risk. Joseph says seeing the impact of child custody cases was one of the most rewarding parts of her job when she began work as a PI. A desire to work more child custody cases helped drive her to start her own agency.
“I felt that I could make a bigger difference and a bigger impact if I stepped out on my own and created my own thing and had more control over the types of cases that we work,” Joseph says. “I also wanted to do more child custody cases and cases that would impact families and children and help put them in a better situation.”
Many of the cases Sly Fox handles are related to insurance fraud. Joseph says while the individuals making claims in these cases usually are injured to some extent, it’s often not to the degree they claim. “They might be suing for $30 million, some crazy number, when it really should only be a $15,000 claim and they don't want to get off the bed for the rest of their life,” she says.
That was the case when a woman sued the City of New Orleans for tens of millions of dollars in injury claims. Sly Fox detectives caught her dancing and partying.
Finding evidence against fraudulent claims not only decreases the amount insurance companies and defendants have to pay out, but it also deters insurance companies from raising premiums as a result of these claims, Joseph says. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) estimates the total cost of non-health insurance fraud is more than $40 billion annually and costs U.S. families between $400-$700 in increased premiums.
“We lose so much money [in] insurance fraud each year in the country,” Joseph says. “The evidence that we provide dramatically cuts that number.”
Other cases, particularly those of infidelity, are more emotional. Detectives sometimes have to play counselor and console someone who receives evidence their partner is having an affair. But Joseph says she believes it’s important for the person to know the truth so he or she can take the steps to move on.
“Infidelity hurts,” she says. “To have that type of trust broken, it's very hard for people. … It’s a very painful process, but then there's a healing process. There's an opportunity for them to move forward and to get in a better situation.”
While much of private investigation does involve long stakeouts, detectives must stay alert their entire shift, equipped with a full tank of gas and ready to take off on a moment’s notice. That’s because at times it does remotely resemble the movies, and detectives experience the adrenaline rush of following a car, masquerading as someone else or deploying a hidden camera.
“We’re pretending all the time in this job,” says Maria, a Sly Fox detective who asked her last name not be used. “You learn to remember things — colors, clothes, positions. Before this job, I didn’t remember anything.”
Maria says she loves the adrenaline rush of the work, and she has some wild stories to prove it — from improvised moments where she narrowly avoided her cover being blown to one incident where she ended up causing a police barricade on the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway.
Now that Sly Fox has been around for 13 years, the agency has established itself as a fixture in the community, recognized by the state Senate in May for its “groundbreaking” work. Now that she’s found a solid team of detectives — five in Baton Rouge and three in New Orleans — and a steady client base, Joseph says the agency is “smooth sailing.”
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She plans to expand the brand’s presence to include YouTube videos educating the public on collecting evidence for and winning child custody cases. She also wants to open a “spy shop” to sell child-safety products.
Joseph has a friendly demeanor and an infectious laugh, but when it comes to business, she’s strict and dogged, earning a reputation among her employees for running a tight ship.
“One of our girls told me I was ‘particular,’ so I don't know if that's code word for ‘bitch,’” Joseph says with a laugh. “You can't want to claim the top spot if you're not able to maintain a certain level of excellence — and in order to be able to do that, there's a certain amount of effort that goes into it.”
And if an employee’s work doesn’t meet Joseph’s expectations, they hear from her.
“I just want to be the best,” she says. “I don't wear mediocrity well. I don't want to just half-ass anything. If we're going to do it, we're going to do it, and we're going to strive to be the best at it.”
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