“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor.”
—Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder
The commonly accepted stereotype of a private investigator is one of intrigue and danger, of native cunning, and a willingness to shed shoe leather in all-out efforts to crack a case. PIs have been romanticized in popular culture since the Victorian era, with the film nor likes of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe paving the way for Veronica Mars and Mike Hammer in movies and television.
Typically there is a damsel in distress, a cheating spouse, and inevitably, gunplay.
Arlington-based private investigator Phil Becnel, BA Anthropology ’99, is familiar with all of the above, and while the Mason graduate is endorsed in Virginia to pack a .45, his main weapon, he says, “is persuasion.”
Becnel is managing partner of Dinolt Becnel & Wells Investigative Group, LLC, with offices in Arlington, Maryland, the District of Columbia, and London where his partner, Benjamin Dinolt, relocated in 2010.
And while he tends to turn down infidelity investigations, long the bread and butter of the local private investigator (“I don’t like dealing with the clients; it’s always messy”), he’s more than willing to take on murder cases on behalf of clients on death row. Becnel’s job is to accumulate evidence and testimony that defense attorneys—and often plaintiffs’ counsel—can use in the courtroom. Becnel and his team develop the material and present reports to the client attorney. The writing, Becnel says, is key.
“Mason certainly taught me how to write and be a stickler for details, and the professors held me to a high standard,” he says. “You can be the best interviewer in the world but if you can’t put it in a report that’s valuable to the client it doesn’t get you very far as an investigator.”
Becnel’s college passion was writing. “I wanted to be a writer, and I still want to be a writer,” he says. With an anthropology degree in hand, Becnel departed Mason for Morocco where he intended to write a novel, relying on his savings from working on motorcycles during school to keep him afloat until the best-seller was published. But after a few months “just hanging around” Morocco he learned a valuable lesson: “I decided I really didn’t have enough life experience to write fiction.”
While, for now, writing fiction is on the backburner, he’s published two books of nonfiction, the how-to manual Principals of Investigative Documentation (with Scott Krischke) and Private Investigator Entry Level (02E), the only textbook for the required instruction for Virginia PIs. As such, Becnel is the region’s go-to guy for news media looking for insight into high-profile investigations, even if they’re not his, such as the kidnapping of baseball great Cal Ripkin Jr.’s mother and federal death penalty murder cases.
Becnel, who is president of the trade association Private Investigators Association of Virginia, started out taking a handful of $10-an-hour criminal defense cases from a friend who was hesitant to venture into some of Washington’s notorious neighborhoods to interview witnesses about drug deals, rapes, robberies, and various other street crimes. Becnel, however, had no hesitation.
“At the time I was really interested in the client’s life story,” he says from the conference room of his firm’s Arlington office. “There’s a lot a stake—someone could go to jail for 15 years—and I thought they were all innocent, and I was gung-ho to prove them all innocent.”
And a career was launched, with four assignments turning into 20, then 100. His job was, and remains, to accumulate evidence and testimony that defense attorneys and prosecution can use in the courtroom, even though now it seems he knows not everyone is as innocent as they appear. In fact, it’s the secrets subjects try to keep that occasionally still give him a shock.
“I’m surprised sometimes how deviant people can be,” he says. “And they take such great risks to gratify their deviance. I’ve seen that in a lot of cases, where people act completely irrationally because of how much control that has over their lives. You’d never see it unless you’re an investigator and you’re in their life looking for something else.”
Although he’s managing partner, Becnel still commits substantial hours a week to criminal investigations, but he’s finding his specialty is taking up more and more of this time: behavioral analysis.
Becnel, who is certified in reading body language, interviews potential clients for lawyers who need to confirm the honesty of the client before taking their civil litigation cases. If a judge doesn’t believe the client is telling the truth, there might be no settlement.
Although he’s not an anthropologist, not that that was ever Plan A, Becnel says his studies at Mason prepared him for his future career nonetheless.
“Anthropology is investigating,” he says. “You go into different cultures and try to figure out how they think, or you dig up pottery shards and put the pieces together to figure out what they mean.” In Becnel’s case, he’s putting together the pieces of lives.