December 15, 2014—15 minute read
In this article, you'll learn:
Sometimes the simple act of finding a person, whether a war criminal, a witness, a spy, an executive, a prodigy, a hero, or a famous journalist, is the most important job of a reporter.
I felt like a kid whose favorite player refused to sign his ball. Then got insulted for his trouble.
But I was no starry-eyed fan. I was a big shot. Or so it might have seemed on the campus of Tufts University, where I served as editor-in-chief of the school’s newspaper and, during my senior year, freelanced for The New York Times and Associated Press. We were riding high—our paper had exposed a number of scandals, and we’d also done a feature on a shy student who played guitar on the streets outside Harvard, the first anyone had heard of Tracy Chapman.
And now a legendary journalist was coming to speak.
I’d long admired the career of Seymour Hersh, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who exposed the infamous My Lai massacre. I’d tried to get an interview with him in advance of his appearance. But my calls to his press agent were not returned. When he showed up at Tufts, I cornered Hersh in the wings of the auditorium moments before he was to address a packed house.
“We wanted to run a story about you but your publicist never called me back,” I complained.
He looked at me like I was the dumbest person on the planet.
“Haven’t you ever heard of the phone book?” he snapped. “My home number is listed in the D.C. directory! Learn to use it. A reporter’s best friend.” He dismissed me with a glare and wave of his hand, then took the stage, where he proceeded to enthrall the audience with an account of how he managed to track down and interview Lieutenant William Calley.
The story made Hersh’s career. He’d learned from a friend that Calley, a young Army platoon leader, had ordered the slaughter of an entire village of unarmed Vietnamese civilians, most of them women and children. It was an atrocity of a magnitude and type unknown by Americans, and Calley was being secretly court-martialed, Hersh explained. “My job was to find out where they were holding him,” he said.
His remarkable tale—which ended with his locating Calley at an Army base in South Carolina, leading to that Pulitzer —and his cold rebuke of me at Tufts made a lasting impression. I came away with the unmistakable lesson that sometimes the simple act of finding a person, whether a war criminal, a witness, a spy, an executive, a prodigy, a hero, or a famous journalist, is the most important job of a reporter.
The question is: How?
There’s no one-stop solution, but the search is a lot easier today than when Hersh was a scrappy freelancer in 1969. The volume of online data, available through aggregation databases, social media, blogs, and official sites, is almost limitless. It’s the old phone book times a billion. But you’ll need skill, instincts, and a ton of practice to become proficient at navigating the forest. There’s no hard science to this part of the craft. Experience and resourcefulness create the art.
A good first step is “pulling a report,” which is reporter-speak for ordering a file from Accurint, Factiva, TLO, ChoicePoint or Clear. These paid-for databases cull personal bits and bytes from many sources, including birth and marriage records, motor vehicle registrations, drivers licenses, property deeds, mortgages, loans, liens, judgments, lawsuits, business filings, professional associations, and the like.
The result is a dossier with the person’s full name, date of birth, partial social security number, likely relatives, financial details, possible addresses, and a phone number or two. There are nuances to the information, which take some practice to suss out, but the basics should be plain. If you have a number or location for your subject, you call or knock on their door. If there’s no direct tie, you look for family members, starting with spouses, then parents and children.
Best case scenario is that your report is accurate, current, and gets the job done quickly. The downside? These summaries are expensive, and the services are generally not set up to handle the needs of an individual. Big media companies maintain accounts with them, as do banks, credit card companies, law firms, insurance providers, and private investigators. But getting your hands on just one report can be difficult and costly.
I know a veteran reporter who, after leaving his job with a newspaper, relied on an unsecured network backdoor to gain access to his former employer’s system, which allowed him to order reports without paying for them. For a while, anyway, until they discovered what was happening and shut the door. So first order of business is contacting the services directly or finding someone—another reporter, a lawyer friend, a banker, a PI—who has access and will help out.
These files are not flawless. The addresses and phone numbers can be out of date. You might not see any obvious family members among the names of possible relatives. People who’ve never bought property, voted, owned a car, or taken out a loan could generate almost no tracking data, especially if they are in their 20s or younger. There are invariably clues—you usually get a sense of where a person has lived—but the picture is far from complete. And of course, if you don’t know the person’s legal name or have the correct spelling, requesting an Accurint report is fruitless.
That’s when your ability to dig gets put to the test.
Your search should always include social media, which exists to help people connect and is therefore ideal for the reporter. When I led The New York Post’s investigative coverage of Peter Braunstein, the crazed writer who dressed as a fireman to get into a female colleague’s apartment, tie her up, and molest her for hours, I alerted my fellow reporters to a tip: Cops had uncovered his online profile. They were using it to build a case against him and find out where he might be hiding during a nationwide manhunt.
Angela Montefinise, the youngest member of our team, had a knack for tracking people via Myspace (this was back in 2005, before the Facebook explosion) and shopping sites. She soon discovered Braunstein created two alter egos, Dr. Groovy and Gulagmeister, on eBay, where he bought chloroform to knock out his victim, a firemen’s bunker gear needed for his ruse, a fake police badge, and enough bomb making material to blow up a small building. Here’s that story.
Since that time, social sites have become more wary of lawsuits and more proactive about protecting their users’ privacy, especially on Facebook, where users have a variety of options to restrict access. It’s more difficult to get information, but there are still plenty ways to get what you need.
If you think you’ve found your subject on Facebook, you should try to get the person to accept your friend request. But a direct approach might be off-putting, so I recommend liking what they like and trying to friend their contacts first. Then, when you send your subjects friend requests, they will see you have “friends” in common. The idea is to cozy up to their circle. If they accept, you get access to all their personal data and photos.
You can do the same with LinkedIn. A “yes” to a LinkedIn account opens a trove of career data that could put you in touch with past and present colleagues and bosses who might know their whereabouts.
On Twitter, start following your subject and others in their circle. Same goes with Snapchat. Get familiar with all these sites—Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest. Many people use multiple platforms. The first step is to create an account of your own and reach out in every way possible. I find Twitter to be particularly valuable. Reporters commonly use tweets to keep up with celebrities. (Star Trek actor George Takei has made a career out of tweeting and posting on Facebook.) But tweet-tracking is valuable for reporting on ordinary people as well.
The Post notched a front-page exclusive last year after reporter Susan Edelman and I collaborated on a story about the sons of senior members of the New York City Fire Department and how they got fast-tracked to firefighting jobs by becoming EMTs. It was an insider’s way of jumping the crowded line of candidates. We heard the progeny included Joseph Cassano, the son of FDNY Commissioner Sal Cassano. We needed to confirm this detail and get a quote from the son. A source of ours said Joseph was active on Twitter.
What we found shocked us. Joseph Cassano’s tweets verified that he and other ambitious sons didn’t much care for medical work and had gone into the EMT field in order to get hired as firefighters, but he also let loose with racist rants, taking shots at Jews and Martin Luther King while lashing out at the very patients he was supposed to help. There was no doubt this was the right Joseph Cassano—he posted pictures of himself and made references to his well-known father—or that his comments were incendiary.
Shame ensued. Joseph quit his job, his father was humiliated, and more changes were made to the questionable FDNY hiring practices. Check out the story here.
Business Records, Property Records, and More
Combing through social media works by tapping into the online activities of people you might want to find. But you can also reach your subject by following other avenues related to their daily routines. Where do they work? Who are the people closest to them? Do they run a business or a charity? Do they have website or blog? Are they part of a union or professional organization like a bar association? Do they need a license to work the job they have?
One interesting method I’ve used involves the push-button home phone. Let’s say you’re looking for someone—or information about that person—and you know where they work. Call after hours. Many companies offer dial-by-name directory service. When the automated system kicks in, start spelling out last names by pushing buttons, starting with common ones like Smith, Johnson, or White. With repeated tries, you should get some hits. “You’ve reached Joe Smith, account manager, at extension 4735.” Call back during business hours and ask that guy if he knows your subject. If he does, you might get more than the right office number for your subject; you could also pick up valuable scuttlebutt about him.
Property records can be vital to locating subjects. Most cities have them available online, and the information generally includes a detailed history of a building, the owner’s name and address (if different from the property), when it was purchased, and for how much. Free services like Property Shark can help.
Business records are kept by state departments of state, which list histories, owners, agents and other information. Guidestar offers records on charities, which have to file annual reports called 990s as a requirement for tax exemptions. Every state in the country maintains records on professionals who need licenses. It’s not just doctors and lawyers but a range of workers from money managers to massage therapists.
Celebrities, meanwhile, are reached most easily through their own websites, charities, and representatives, who can be found on paid-for-databases such as whorepresents.com (which looks like “whore presents” but is actually “who represents”). The site has a fairly comprehensive listing of agents, managers, and publicists of the famous. If a person has a website, check the domain registration and history through services like WhoIs.net.
Friends, Relatives, and Spouses
Close relatives and spouses are often the best sources. The ex-wife of millionaire playboy Bruce Colley knew about his 2003 affair with Kerry Kennedy Cuomo and introduced me to friends of the couple. The ex, whom I found with an AutoTrack report, was still on good terms with Bruce, despite their break-up. Her help was instrumental in my landing a number of front-page scoops.
There are many times when you’ll have to rely on several angles to piece together a story. That was certainly true when I went searching for Rusty the Russian.
He was a young Brooklyn man who had been aboard the cruise ship with newlyweds George Smith and Jennifer Hagel in 2005 when George went overboard in a notorious mystery. Smith’s disappearance into the Aegean Sea sparked a wave of media coverage, including endless TV speculation and an investigative piece inVanity Fair. My source only knew Rusty’s nickname but said he and his Russian pals were partying with George on the night he vanished.
Two days after Smith went missing, the Russians were at the center of a second scandal when they hooked up with an unknown female passenger for what amounted to group sex that they videotaped. She came forward and claimed she was raped. The ship’s captain was alerted, got a copy of the video, and promptly booted the Russians off his ship in Naples, Italy, despite Rusty’s claim that the sex was consensual. Later, while still in port, the captain invited a magistrate aboard to investigate. She looked at the evidence, but no charges were filed.
Months later, the FBI, which suspected foul play regarding George Smith’s fate, was hounding Rusty. I was determined to find him.
Problem was, I didn’t know his name. So when a colleague of mine at the Post told me he was going to Naples on vacation, I asked him to stop by the magistrate’s office and see if they’d give him any information. He did and was handed a copy of their probe into the incident, which included a name that had to be my guy: Rostislav Kofman. I pulled a report on that name and got a list of relatives, including his father, in Brighton Beach.
A day of knocking on doors led me to Rusty, who told me he hadn’t done anything wrong. But the FBI insisted he admit to having killed George Smith, he claimed. If he didn’t, agents said, they would show Rusty’s fiancee a copy of the sex tape. He refused and they made good on their threat, which wrecked his relationship with the woman. Here’s my story.
And here’s that piece in Vanity Fair, in which reporter Bryan Burrough suggests Smith probably fell overboard after a night of heavy drinking. Burrough asked me about having tracked down Kofman and uses my anonymous quote to describe him.
Being resourceful is critical, and you simply must not give up. I once got stumped over what seemed to be an impossible assignment. The paper wanted me to produce an account of Martha Stewart’s first day in jail after her federal conviction in 2004, but two weeks before she actually began serving time.
“Line up some sources in advance so they can tell you how it goes,” my editor said. My gut reaction was that it couldn’t be done.
The reason? Federal prisoners are off limits. You can’t show up and request an interview like with state inmates; you have to be on a pre-approved list. Stewart was heading to jail in Alderson, West Virginia, to a cushy Club Fed nicknamed Camp Cupcake, which despite its relatively comfortable environs was on high alert. The warden told prisoners if they spoke to the press about Stewart they would be transferred out immediately to a less desirable location. Not that we knew any of the inmates’ names. The federal Bureau of Prisons won’t divulge the list of all those locked up at any facility.
A few days before Stewart was due to arrive, a fellow Post reporter and I began working the prison pen-pal sites and found the names of a few women incarcerated in Alderson. I pulled reports on them and called their family members, reaching the father of a young woman who had been sentenced and sent there for selling crystal meth. He told me his girl called him every Friday night from Camp Cupcake and they’d talk for an hour or so. “Any chance that when Martha arrives you could ask her what that first day was like?” I said. He said he’d ask.
It just so happened that Stewart arrived on a Friday morning. And that night, the daughter came through magnificently for the story.
Risks and Rewards
There are times when you’ll have to take some risks to reach your subject. I took one that could have gotten me arrested during my investigation into the gruesome body-snatching case in New York. The city was outraged. A dentist and group of crooked undertakers made millions by stealing and selling the organs of the dead without permission.
I was tipped off to an interesting thread involving a funeral home director who was suspected of being involved. He listed a cop among his associates on a document. I did not recognize the name of this detective, Joseph Tully, and the report we pulled on him had no current address or phone number. So how was I going to find him?
I wondered why this mortician would pick a police partner. So I started looking into Tully, who, it turned out, was himself also a funeral home director. I suspected that his NYPD job might have something to do with the deceased. Indeed, a records search showed that Tully worked in the morgue at the Bronx Medical Examiner’s office. Could it be that he was steering unclaimed bodies to the corpse-snatching ring? The only way to find out was to question Tully directly, and the only place I knew we could find him was at work.
But it seemed unlikely we would be able to waltz into the Bronx ME’s office and ask this cop if he was a criminal. Nevertheless I went there with a photographer to check it out. The front door was locked and no one was around to let us in. So we went around back, where we found a row of grease-streaked bays for ambulances. This presumably was where they dropped off bodies. No one was around. One of the bays was open. OK, then. Time to just walk right in.
We climbed the bay, took a left, and pushed through big double doors with a sign overhead: “Authorized personnel only.” I was now breaking the law. On one side was a wall of oversized stainless steel drawers where remains were kept. We did not see a soul. The foul smell of formaldehyde and refrigerated corpses was overpowering. We continued down a hallway and eventually came to a small row of offices, one of which said “Det. Tully.”
We knocked. He answered—and freaked out. “You can’t be in here!” he shouted and pushed us back. He denied doing anything wrong. “I’m not the target of any investigation,” he said. But Tully grew more agitated as I grilled him about his relationship with the mortician. He called for security. Two guards showed up, and they hauled us away to their offices.
To my surprise, the head of security was not overly upset over our intrusion. I told him exactly what we were up to and he seemed fascinated that Tully might be linked to the scandal, which was getting national headlines. Ultimately, he decided not to charge us with trespassing. We could not have done the story without confronting Tully, so the effort and risk were worth it. Police never connected him to the ring, but my story sparked an Internal Affairs probe. The NYPD apparently decided to take a hard look at one of their own and ultimately transferred Tully to another location.
With any luck, you won’t have to break the law to get what you need. I don’t generally recommend it. But whatever your methods, you must always persist. The person you want is out there somewhere.
Need reporting advice?
Our seasoned experts will answer any of your reporting questions.