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Inc. Magazine, August 2016

Why Running a Private Detective Business Is as Wild as You Think It Is

Leigh Hearon went from working at Microsoft to investigating high-profile murder cases as the founder of a private detective agency in Seattle.

By Leigh Buchanan, Editor-at-large, Inc. magazine @LeighEBuchanan

As much as people, parks, and politics, crime shapes a city's character. They found his body in that alley. She was last seen leaving this market. You can still make out the bullet holes under the neon Pabst sign. Even Seattle, considered relatively safe by urban standards, has its mean streets. For almost a quarter century, Leigh Hearon has prowled those streets, looking for answers.

If you watch true-crime shows, you may have seen Hearon. Short, straight blond hair. Green eyes. Some of Seattle's most notorious cases—including the murders of punk rocker Mia Zapata and celebrity dog trainer Mark Stover—have fetched up on the doorstep of Leigh Hearon Investigative Services. "I have been fortunate in that my career has always been filled with interesting cases," says Hearon. "The ones that I love the most, of course, are the unsolved homicides."

When such a case comes along, she says, it "is going to eat your life."

Owning a private investigation business isn't quite the pulse-pounding vocation shown on TV. But it's still way more interesting than most people's jobs. Yes, Hearon is more likely to search for clues on a computer than in the ominously silent hideout of a drug lord. But she also trails people, checks alibis, and even assumes the occasional false identity. "I once posed as a Mormon woman looking for a good husband because I needed to infiltrate the Latter-Day Saints," says Hearon, who was investigating a charge of sexual assault at the time.

In addition to her private cases, Hearon works for attorneys, tracking down and interviewing witnesses, investigating alleged fraud, and even helping to develop trial strategies. Jeffrey Kradel, a Seattle criminal defense lawyer, may hire Hearon for dozens of jobs a year. For the past 15 years, she's been the only PI he employs. "Bad investigators just want to check off the boxes," Kradel says. "Good investigators try to figure out ways we can win. Leigh's approach is, let's try to win."

Hearon estimates that 50 percent of her cases have great outcomes. A criminal charge is dismissed. A person is found. Someone gets his money back. Another 25 percent have an OK outcome—for example, a client is still convicted but gets a plea he can live with. The remainder are "complete and utter disasters," Hearon says, such as a recent case in which her 18-year-old client was charged for killing someone by firing a gun in the air at a party. Hearon found another partygoer with a gun and witnesses who said her client's gun was pointed away from the victim. Still, he was convicted and got 26 years in prison.

Such situations are more a failure of the courts than of the investigator. To find the truth—as she usually does—Hearon deploys a simple formula. A little technology. A lot of shoe leather. And a knack for getting folks to talk.

A New Sleuth in Town

Born in what she calls "the sleepy mill town" of Camas, Washington, and raised in the Bay area, Hearon was an early student of the Nancy Drew-Hardy Boys canon. After graduating from Portland's Lewis & Clark University, she joined a "muckraking newspaper" in Oregon, where an article she wrote about a nuclear facility "garnered lots of good outrage." Encouraged, she earned a degree in public affairs journalism from American University, then dallied in law school for a year before returning to the Northwest. When journalism failed to pay the bills, "I turned to the dark side," says Hearon. "I entered the sleazy world of advertising."

Hearon recalls Microsoft, where she worked as a copywriter in the '80s and early '90s, as an idyllic place, with free gym memberships, a great cafeteria, and squirt gun fights in the hallways. But ultimately, "I'm not someone who wants to sit in an office," she says. One day in 1987, Hearon spied a newspaper ad from a detective agency looking to hire a private investigator. She didn't apply but, intrigued, set out to interview working PIs to get a sense of the job, immersing herself in a Dashiell Hammett subculture. "We always met in dingy bars. They all wanted to make a move on me," Hearon says. "They didn't actually discourage me. But they didn't hold out a lot of hope for a female being effective in the job."

The last person Hearon interviewed was Paul Henderson, a former reporter for The Seattle Times. In 1982 he'd won a Pulitzer Prize for a series that exonerated a convicted rapist and pointed authorities toward the real culprit. As a private investigator, "his focus was getting innocent people out of prison," says Hearon. Impressed by Hearon's interview and research skills, Henderson hired her. "For three years, I continued to write advertising copy by day," says Hearon. "But I was a hard-boiled PI at night."

In 1992, Hearon's stock options matured. She bade farewell to Microsoft and hung out her own shingle, charging $125 an hour. She worked first out of her apartment in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood, and then from the top floor of a "fabulous mansion" owned by friends. A veteran marketer, she bought mailing lists of criminal defense attorneys and sent out postcards headlining the "myths of private investigation." She took out an ad in the Yellow Pages.

At the time, "there wasn't a lot of competition," says Hearon. "Most of them were just guys who had been doing it for years. They thought they had the business wrapped up." The handful of women PIs Hearon knew chiefly pursued corporate work. "I didn't want to do employment background checks," says Hearon. "I always wanted to see what the phone would bring."

One day, the phone brought Mia Zapata.

A Punk Rock Murder

Zapata was the charismatic lead singer for a rising punk band called the Gits. In the wee hours of July 7, 1993, she was raped, beaten, and strangled, her body abandoned on a sidewalk. When the police investigation yielded little after five weeks, Zapata's bandmates decided to hire a private detective to keep the case alive. Together with Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and other members of Seattle's famous music scene, they threw a benefit concert to raise the money.

"I wanted this job so badly," says Hearon. To land the case, she substantially cut her hourly rate and was soon chasing down and interviewing hundreds of people. "I would get 10 calls a day," she says. "People would say, 'I think you should look into so-and-so. He used to follow her around to concerts.' Or 'Mia had a relationship with this guy and he didn't take it well. I think you need to look at this person.'" She turned leads over to police, a gesture they did not reciprocate. "The cops really did hate me," says Hearon, validating that detective-fiction trope.

After three years, the money ran out. But Hearon kept going on and off for years, trading new theories with the medical examiner who'd performed the autopsy and chasing leads that continued to pour in by phone, until she'd eliminated virtually everyone in Zapata's very wide orbit. In 2003, police finally fingered the killer, a Cuban immigrant who had struck randomly and then lit out for Florida. The break occurred when his DNA turned up in a national database as the result of another crime. "Thank God for DNA," Hearon says.

Although Hearon didn't personally nab Zapata's killer, the profile of her fledgling business soared as she appeared in endless news articles and programs like America's Most Wanted and 48 Hours. "After the Zapata case, there was an obvious upswing in private cases," says Hearon. "But that was not what was keeping me alive."

Instead, Hearon derived much of her revenue from defense lawyers looking for evidence to keep clients out of jail. Many of those clients were men accused of sex crimes. Hearon points out she would not be hired if the attorney "did not strongly feel that it was winnable case and that the person was not guilty. So I'm not working on cases where someone is just a sick puppy."

Through parts of the 1990s, Hearon had four investigators working for her. "It was the most politically correct assortment of employees," she says. There was the lesbian 911 operator who was gifted at talking to people under duress. The Native American PI whom Hearon deployed on cases involving one of the state's tribes. The senior citizen who could wrangle any piece of information out of a government agency. And the muscular African-American man who was especially helpful investigating Zapata's murder, which took place in a gang-heavy part of town. "I didn't have a problem going out in it," says Hearon. But "sometimes he was a little more persuasive."

Death of a Dog Whisperer

For more than a decade, Hearon has been mostly flying solo, seeking help when she needs it from a computer forensics expert and a former state crime lab employee who conducts blood and DNA analysis. She enlists other PIs for surveillance, which in Seattle traffic is a tag-team sport. "You want at least one car between you," Hearon says. "If she turns right, do you go straight ahead and ask your partner to follow her? It's a fun rush to follow somebody."

The PI game, like all other games, has been transformed by technology. On the minus side, technology has eroded the brisk business Hearon once did in background checks on prospective boyfriends and spouses. But it has also made her more efficient. "My personal best was finding someone's daughter who had been adopted 25 years ago," she says. Using a database, "it took me 14 seconds and 50 cents."

And while nothing else has consumed Hearon like the Zapata murder, she's investigated some headline-snagging cases. Among them was the killing of Mark Stover, Seattle's "dog whisperer," who trained the pets of people like Howard Schultz and Eddie Vedder. Before he disappeared (the body has not been found), Stover had hired Kradel to defend him when drugs were found in his car. The police refused to give Hearon the reports from Stover's arrest; she obtained them only after Michael Oakes--the boyfriend of Stover's ex-wife--was convicted in his death. The evidence pointed to Oakes's having framed him.

Although she was no longer being paid, "Leigh continued to work on the case [after Stover's death] and tried to get some justice for him," says Kradel. Stover was "not the easiest person in the world to like. But Leigh was able to get along with him famously. She really cared about him."

For someone whose profession takes her among the grieving, the sketchy, and the dangerous, Hearon leads a surprisingly rich and balanced personal life. Tuesdays through Thursdays she works cases in Seattle. The rest of the week, she lives on the Olympic Peninsula, a ferry ride away. There, she and her husband, the acclaimed violist Alan Iglitzin, raise horses on a farm that until recently was the site of an annual chamber music festival Iglitzin founded. She recently wrote two mystery novels, out from Kensington Publishing this year. (The first, already available, is Reining in Murder.)

Hearon's fictional detective is Annie Clark, who, not coincidentally, also lives on the Olympic Peninsula and trains horses. "I'm sure that there are parts of me in [Annie]," says Hearon. "She's a feisty woman who doesn't take any crap."

Inc. Magazine, August 1, 2016


Originally Aired February 5, 2011, updated December 27, 2014

48 Hours: Season 24, Episodes 15 & 16: The Dog Trainer, The Heiress and The Bodyguard

Leigh Hearon is interviewed and quoted in the original story, as well as, an update (at 3:53 into this video), Part 1 (at 26:30) & Part II (at 3:10) regarding her investigation into this gripping and mysterious murder case in Anacortes, WA.

Pictured at top right, Leigh with Kiki, one of the Belgian Tervurens used by AZ Search Track and Rescue, after a three-day search in Anacortes for the body of Mark Stover.  This photo was taken at Mr. Stover’s residence, where he had been murdered by Michiel Oakes.




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Originally aired November 14, 2007

Forensic Files: Season 12, Episode 7: The Day the Music Died

Leigh Hearon is interviewed throughout this video about her investigative services for The Gits, but we start at 9:11 into this video for main portion of the interview. (To watch entire video, roll over gray video progress bar and click "Watch entire video.")


Originally aired September 15, 2005

The Investigators: Season 6, Episode 6: Mia Zapata, "The Death of a Rising Star": Crime Documentary

Starting at 21:37 minutes into this video, Leigh Hearon is interviewed about her investigative services for The Gits. (To watch entire video, roll over gray video progress bar and click "Watch entire video.")