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Front Page - Friday, April 8, 2016

Confessions of a private investigator

Kay Baker

Kay Baker is a private investigator working under the banner of Phoenix Investigative Services, the company she founded last year. - (Photo by David Laprad)

Kay Baker knew the man was lying. The trick was getting him to tell the truth.

A licensed private investigator, Baker had done her homework before going to see the man at his rural home outside Chattanooga. And her job was ostensibly simple: serve him a subpoena. But he wasn’t making it easy.

“When I arrived at his house, it looked like no one lived there. It was kind of run down. When no one came to the door, I went around back and took some pictures. Then I returned to the front yard, and a man came out of the house,” she says.

Baker does sometimes carry a gun (and if the holes in the center of the paper target taped to the back of her office door are an indication, she’s good at using it), but this time, she chose a different weapon from her arsenal: her smile.

“I acted casual. He was wary of me, though, so when I told him who I was there to see, he said I was looking for his brother,” Baker says. “But I had a general description of the guy, and he looked like him, and I knew from doing research that his brother was actually dead.”

Instead of confronting the man, Baker spent the next few minutes talking about his cat and engaging in breezy conversation. She was persistent, though, and the man eventually confessed to being the object of her search. The encounter might not have been the stuff of great reality TV, but Baker got the job done.

“When people find out I’m a PI, they think I hide in trees and behind trash cans taking pictures of people having sex in a park,” she says, laughing. “But that’s not what I do.”

While Baker’s career might not be good fodder for a PI potboiler, her work does benefit her clients, most of whom are lawyers. Under the banner of Phoenix Investigative Services, Baker does investigations for criminal and civil cases, consults on trial strategy, locates and interviews witnesses, performs background checks, and delivers subpoenas – among other tasks.

Although Baker does hit the streets on a regular basis, her primary investigative tool is her laptop, which serves as a window to a world of information her clients need. “I’ve worked a variety of cases,” she says. “I had one in which the woman I needed to find moved around a lot and would change her phone number from time to time. I followed all of the leads and eventually tracked her down.”

Whatever the task, Baker is no brash gumshoe. Rather, she prefers to use an amiable approach when dealing with people. It’s not that Baker can’t stand her ground when the situation demands it, she simply believes in the adage about honey catching more bees than vinegar. “I don’t go in like a jack-booted thug,” she says, laughing. “That’s not how it works. People are usually nice to me because I’m nice to them.”

Baker says the benefits of using an investigator can extend beyond the routine services she provides. For example, if Baker interviews a witness, she can save her client’s derriere if the person changes his or her story during the trial. “If a witness initially tells a lawyer the light was red, but then during the trial says the light was green, the lawyer can’t testify to the contrary,” Baker says. “But if a witness I’ve interviewed changes their story, the lawyer can call me as a rebuttal witness. I can be sworn in because I’m not representing any of the parties.”

Baker understands the workings of the legal system because she’s an attorney herself. Her 16 years of legal work include two stints as an Assistant Attorney General at the Georgia Attorney General’s Office in Atlanta, a short stretch as the Deputy Executive Secretary with the campaign finance regulatory agency, also in Atlanta, and several years as an Assistant District Attorney for the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit in Northwest Georgia. This work gave Baker a background in evidence her clients appreciate.

“I understand what might be important versus what might be chasing a rabbit down a hole because it won’t be relevant or admissible,” she says.

While Baker’s legal background has proven to be valuable to her clients, the attorneys who hire her generally need her skills as an investigator. This is where another phase of Baker’s career comes into play: her time as a Special Agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in San Diego, Calif. From 1995 to 2003, Baker acquired a wealth of experience while working a variety of assignments for the agency. Some of her tasks included investigating international terrorism, kidnappings, bank robberies, public corruption, and crimes against children; training other officers on how to handle these crimes; and writing and reviewing wiretap and search warrant applications.

At the time, Baker didn’t know the FBI was preparing her for PI work. But every assignment challenged her to either acquire new skills or polish the abilities she’d already learned. Especially valuable were the untold hours Baker spent interviewing witnesses, as they taught her how to gain the trust of different kinds of people and encourage them to open up to her.

“When I was with the bank robbery squad, I might interview the bank’s president because he had witnessed the robbery, and then I would talk with the homeless guy who was in the alley when the getaway car drove by,” Baker says. “The Bureau taught me how to speak with people and gain their trust.”

One of the things the FBI didn’t need to teach Baker was the importance of accuracy. Like all good attorneys and PIs, she has an innate understanding of the importance of veracity – even when it’s not convenient. “My job is to get information to the attorney, whether it helps or hurts the case. You may not like what I tell you, but you can trust that it is accurate and the truth,” Baker says.

One can trace Baker’s ethical stance back to her reasons for pursuing law enforcement as a career. Born and raised in Atlanta, Baker grew up to believe people should always do the right thing and take the responsibility for their actions when they make a mistake. “Law enforcement allows me to be a part of making that happen, whether as a DA or an investigator,” she says.

Baker’s long history with the law began at North Georgia College, where she studied criminal justice. As she approached graduation, her political science advisor suggested she go to law school. Intrigued, Baker took the LSAT. Her results drew the attention of the Georgia State University College of Law, where she earned her Juris Doctor. When Baker received a job offer from the Attorney General’s office, she took it. “I just went where the universe seemed to be leading me,” she says.

Although work took Baker to San Diego in 1995, family brought her home eight years later. While she enjoyed being with the FBI, she was lobbying for a transfer home when 9/11 happened. The fallout from that incident bumped Baker down the seniority ladder, prompting her to leave. “I had a job I loved, but at the end of the day, if you’re not happy where you are physically or in your career, your life will suffer,” she says. “So I found a job in Atlanta.”

Family also played a part in Baker choosing to leave the practice of law and begin working as a PI. Frustrated by the amount of time she was spending traveling for the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit, she sat down with her husband, Brian MacLean, early last year and told him she couldn’t continue to spend her life in a car. He reminded Baker of how much she had liked being a Special Agent, and suggested she become a PI.

Baker was uncertain. She had spent her career working for other people and receiving a regular paycheck. Fortunately, her husband helped her to see the bigger picture. “He encouraged me to think about what was going to make me happy, and I realized I had reached a point where I wanted to enjoy what I was doing,” she says. “If I could make it work financially, why wouldn’t I?”

Before committing to the idea, Baker did what she does best: her research. In addition to talking with dozens of attorneys about what they needed from a PI and whether or not they would use a service like hers, she learned the ins and outs of launching a company, wrote a business plan, and obtained her PI license. Baker then opened Phoenix Investigative Services last fall after setting up operations at the Business Development Center on Cherokee Boulevard.

She could not be more thrilled. While Baker takes plenty of jobs that require only a few hours of her time, she’s also working a number of complex cases, including some involving murder. She also has a federal drug case under her belt.

Baker looks at the dry erase board hung on a wall in her small, sunlit office. It’s packed with notes and lists written in different colors. Some of the items have a line through them.

“One of the things I like about being a PI is taking a piece of a case, doing the work, and being done with it,” she says. “When I was a prosecutor, cases would go on for years. That was frustrating. I like to make it through my to-do list.”

Baker still works hard, but there is an end to her labors and time for other things. She is currently training for the IRONMAN event scheduled to take place in Chattanooga in September, and her daily routine includes caring for the four rescue dogs that are a part of her immediate family. Baker’s affection for animals does not end at her front door, but extends into her community through her service on the board of the Humane Educational Society. Baker is also a member of the Southeast Tennessee Lawyers Association for Women, the Chattanooga Women’s Leadership Institute, and the Chattanooga Bar Association (for which she recently joined together with attorney Lee Davis, Judge Tom Greenholtz, and PI Beth Miller to co-teach a CLE about ethically using an investigator).

Baker’s experience in law enforcement has given her skills on which she can bank, and life has taught her to do what makes her happy. Fortunately, she’s reached a place where she can utilize the former to achieve the latter. That makes even the days when she has to work a little harder to get the truth out of someone good ones.

“At this point in my life and career, I’m grateful to be living in Chattanooga doing what I enjoy, both personally and professionally. What else is there?”

To contact Phoenix Investigation Services, contact Baker at baker.phoenix2015@gmail.com or (423) 521-0551. For more information, visit www.PhoenixInvestigativeServices.com.