I don’t think you’d get much of an argument from anyone that 2020 was a giant pile of diarrhea. And if the first seven days are any indication of what is to come in 2021, we might be literally up shit’s creek without a paddle.

The private investigation business was not totally up shit’s creek in 2020. According to an informal poll I did on LinkedIn last week, the opinion of others in the investigation business was a bit mixed:

Each year, I typically like to reflect on the previous year and to come up with some kind of a “plan” to do better. I use the word plan loosely, as over the years I have tried a bunch of different ideas. It’s not a New Year’s resolution, because New Year’s resolutions are stupid. I just try to self-audit and figure out what I need to do to make the next year better.

I’ve already signed up to learn a few new skills, I’ve got some cool ideas percolating in my head, and we are doing a rebranding thing that I am excited about.

This year, however, my goal is to communicate better. Because the world needs to communicate better.

Let me illustrate with a little story.

A fun little fishing expedition…

A few weeks ago, a local successful businessman whom I have known for several years texted me. He asked me if I had any resources to track down the owner of an old auto repair company that had gone out of business 50+ years ago in a small Fairfield County, Connecticut town. All he had was the name of the business, Murano Auto Repair (not the real name), and an old address.

Under normal circumstances, I would probably have grilled a potential client about the reasons for wanting to find the person, but I thought to myself, “This sounds like a fun little challenge.” Besides, I was sure this was going to be more an exercise in searching old newspapers and Ancestry.com, rather than investigative databases, which might need some permission. And I was pretty sure the guy wasn’t an axe-murderer. 

However, I didn’t have any sources at my fingertips to find information about the shop. Corporate records and old newspapers would probably be a good start. State licenses for running an auto repair came to the top of my head. Or calling the local library to see if they had any sources. But this was 50 years old, and I didn’t think this was something I would be able to do quickly.

Judging by the text, I was guessing that he didn’t really want to spend any money. That’s a big problem in my business; everyone thinks what I do is easy. Just a few clicks of the mouse.

But it’s not. Twenty years of knowledge, sources and experience might get me there a lot quicker than most people, but it’s almost never easy.

That being said, I am a sucker for a challenge. I was bored the night he sent it and I took the bait.

Hook, line and sinker.

Taking the bait…

Corporate records were a dead end, and a few quick database searches were useless as well. I couldn’t find any businesses at that address called Murano Auto Repair—or anyone even reporting the address. Even doing some advanced googling turned up nothing.

This made me suspicious—like maybe he had the information all wrong—so I wasn’t about to waste my time.

After digging through some old newspaper archives, I found an advertisement from the 1950s that showed the business address and phone number. I then found some old articles that talked about how the auto repair shop had been in business for three generations. A little while longer and I was able to find an article about the owner, Mr. Sexton (not his real name), and then one about his wife, Susanna, and an unnamed son who were running the business.

So I tracked them down. First, it turns out Mr. Sexton died in 1976. Mrs. Sexton took a bit longer to find; she lived until 1995. So now I had to find her next of kin. Luckily, a 1940 census (the most recent census available) showed that the Sextons had three children: two daughters, Ruth and Sylvia, and a son, Steven. I knew finding the two daughters would be tough; they had probably been married and changed their names long ago, before any electronic databases would have been keeping track of them.

But Steven? I was pretty certain I could find him. The census from 1940 said he was eight years old when the census was taken, so I had a pretty good idea of his age.

I found Steven. He was now living out in Arizona, in a nursing home with his wife. I sent the businessman his contact information.

“You’re fucking amazing,” he texted to me.

“If this is what your job is like, I’m envious!”

It felt good. Despite not charging anything for this, it was a fun little exercise. 

Kind of like a skill sharpening. And it was a nice goodwill thing, even if I didn’t make any actual money.

But a few weeks later, the businessman reached out to me again by text, saying that he had spoken to Steven Sexton at his nursing home and “he doesn’t remember” if his family owned the auto repair. “He doesn’t remember” sounded a bit suspicious.

He also tried speaking to the wife, but she hung up on him.

“I was so excited; thought you were onto something.”

Looks like I wasn’t onto anything after all…

Looking back, I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by that comment, but in the moment, it got to me. Nobody likes being wrong; especially me. 

I was certain I had the right guy.

In fact, I still am.

Maybe the guy had dementia. Or there could be a million other reasons why he couldn’t remember or didn’t want to remember. But, oh well.

I told the businessman I could track down one of Steven Sexton’s two sisters, but I knew that would take some time, and I was busy enough (and not certain enough that I could find them) that I didn’t want to put too much time digging into this for free.

But the businessman kept digging. He had come across a phone number of an unnamed auto repair in the same town from the 1970s and was wondering if I had access to old phone books to see whether the phone number was for the Murano Auto Repair we were looking for.

I sent him an ad that I had come across, which showed the phone number and address for the right auto repair, which didn’t match.

He responded, “The ad gives me the answer to the question! They did work at the address shown! That’s the only information I was seeking. Thank you again.”

Wait, what?

I was digging through 1940 census records in the wee hours of the night to find the owners’ children.

“I thought he wanted to find the owners or their next of kin,” I said to myself.

Turns out the businessman was involved in a property deal and wanted to know if the auto repair had previously operated at the property. You know, chemicals, liability issues.


You see, the businessman thought he knew what he wanted, that he could just call the family of the owners, who would tell him, “Yeah, that’s where we were.”

Of course, it’s not that easy.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate…

That one simple question might have saved us both a lot of time, and saved me resources and expenses. I made it way more complicated than I needed to.

He could have simply asked me whether there was any way to tell me if Murano Auto Repair was at 100 Park Place in Wilton, Connecticut in the 1970s.

Or I could have simply asked, “Why do you want to find the owner?”

Also, things often get lost in translation through the written word. My competitive side had gotten to me and had taken his text the wrong way. 

In our fast-paced world of firing off texts or emails, not taking the time to talk through things, reading just the headline, or assuming you know what people mean, things can easily get jumbled, misconstrued or conveyed wrong.

I think a lot of the problems we have in the world right now stem from the fact that we don’t communicate with each other well.

We don’t say what we really mean because we don’t want to piss people off. Or we do the opposite—say too much without thinking about how it might affect people.

On the whole, human beings are terrible listeners too. We only listen to what we really want to hear. Or we just skip over the stuff that is not what we believe.

Or we don’t pick up the phone and talk things through.

Ineffective communication leads to misunderstandings, conflict and mistrust.

I don’t know about you, but I have complications in my life that I don’t need to inflame with poor communication.

So I’m gonna do my part and communicate better.

Starting right now.

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4 replies
  1. Tom S.
    Tom S. says:

    Brian, your article is so true, effective communication is so important, but lacking in today’s society. I enjoy your articles, thanks for sharing.

  2. Paul C
    Paul C says:

    Brian, I love reading your thought provoking articles. This story reminded me of a group exercise I participated in some time ago. The group were given a long rope and then blindfolded. We were then told to form a triangle with equal numbers of people on each side. Many ideas and suggestions were immediately put forth and enthusiastically attempted until one participant observed, how will we know we have been successful if we don’t know what success looks like? Now, when I am asked to interview someone I almost always ask, What is the objective of this interview? The blank stare I get in return informs me the person is attempting to solve a problem blindfolded!

    • Brian Willingham
      Brian Willingham says:

      Interesting Paul. I am working on a case right now, where the family went through a tragic death and doesn’t really have an end-goal in mind. So I am gently trying to nudge them in the right direction…


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