Susan Hansen doesn't work behind a smoked-glass door with her name etched on it. Nor does she swill coffee while snapping photos from a Town Car. The Warren-based private investigator and mom drives a station wagon with two car seats in the back, sips herbal tea and lives in a "crazy tree house" on Prickly Mountain.
Though Hansen studied international relations at Brown University and then worked as a broadcast journalist in New York City, she's been a P.I. for nearly 10 years. A startling confession from a subject during a radio interview earned her an apprentice spot with Nancy Stevens, the first woman licensed as a private investigator by the Vermont secretary of state. Hansen earned her own license in 2003 and now spends up to 80 hours per week tracking down and interviewing witnesses. "I'm like a fact gatherer, really," she says. "I build a wheelbarrow full of facts, and then the attorneys build a case."
Last week, Seven Days built up the Hansen file.
SEVEN DAYS: How did you end up switching careers from journalist to private investigator?
SUSAN HANSEN: After I moved to Vermont, almost 10 years ago, I started doing some reporting for [Vermont Public Radio]. This kid actually confessed to a murder while I did the radio story, which was totally crazy. I was doing a story on how elderly or handicapped people survive winters in Vermont, and was interviewing a guy in his trailer, and he told me to go find this kid who was putting a woodstove in the back of a school bus. But when this kid saw me get on the bus, he pushed past me and ran away from me across a cornfield. So I ran after him in my little platform boots, through the snow-covered field. And then he just confessed to the whole shooting, on tape! Nancy Stevens, who had married my husband and me, heard this radio story and ultimately convinced me to start working with her.
SD: Now, how do most people find you?
SH: It's all word of mouth. I've never advertised. I work mostly for lawyers. A lot of times I'll get calls from people who have gotten my name from another attorney, or they've worked on a case opposite someone I worked for and have seen my work. It's random; the phone just rings and it's a new adventure.
SD: And what types of cases are they, usually?
SH: All over the map. I do criminal, civil. I don't really do any domestic stuff. I don't trail people for angry, jealous husbands. It's kind of like being a paralegal, actually. I do a lot of witness interviews. That's what I'm best at, I think. I'll sit down with the lawyer and do triage. They might say, "OK, we need to talk to these five witnesses" or "We need to get some photos, so go talk to the people; see what happened, talk to the neighbors; talk to the ex-girlfriends who can shed light on the person's credibility." I've worked on homicides, on sexual assaults, arsons and many kinds of felonies and misdemeanors, fraud cases, missing people. You name it. Sometimes I've helped adopted kids find their real parents. You just never know who will call.
SD: How long will a case typically last?
SH: It totally varies. Some cases go on for years. They begin as criminal cases and then become civil cases. Some are short and only last a week or so. I've been on one case that started in '04 and I'm still working on it. It's all about knowing who needs what, and by when. It's sort of like when you wait tables; there are critical junctures where you can't drop the ball. With legal stuff, it can go on for a long time, and a lot of it is about timing; they'll want to let it sit for a bit and then file the motion once they know X, Y and Z. There's a certain rhythm to it.
SD: How much do you need to know about law?
SH: I've really had on-the-job training. I didn't know much about law at all when I began: the rules of evidence, what was admissible or not, when to get an affidavit or not. It's been a great learning curve for me.
SD: Are you surprised by what goes on out there in your investigations?
SH: It's really humbling. It's much more like social work than I ever thought. It's much more about having compassion. A lot of the sentencing part of criminal defense work is: "Who was this person as a 2-year-old, and what happened? Why did they end up facing 30 years at age 34?" That's actually my favorite part of the job. It's a lot of storytelling. For example, with a federal drug case, I might be asked to help with pre-sentencing investigation, or PSI, and that can be fascinating.
This fall I got flown down to New York City and got to interview all these families in the Bronx because some kid got arrested in Burlington for allegedly dealing crack. There's always a much bigger story than the headline. I see how people get really tried by the media all the time. When you have access to the original statements that were made and have met the people, and then read what comes out in the newspaper - wow! It makes you realize we're walking around in a world where most stuff is derivative. Most stuff is fifth-hand. So I feel privileged. As another P.I., Chris Frappier, said to me once, "We've got a front-row seat on humanity."
SD: Have you ever felt threatened when interviewing people?
SH: I don't have a lot of fear. You listen to your intuition. You can't be stupid. If it's a shady situation, I might face my car out and leave the keys in the ignition. I also never say, "I'm a private investigator"; I say, "I'm doing interviews for a lawyer." Some days, I'm just a grunt doing runaround for the attorneys. Oftentimes the only difference between me and somebody who's working in a law firm is that I don't have benefits. But I'm not stapled to a desk; I can come and go, in and out of different forms and work cultures.
SD: The whole freelance life.
SH: The total freelance life. But to be honest, I'm far more freaked out and afraid of the monotony of the 9 to 5, and the direct-deposit check, and of living a miserable life and dying a boring death in a cubicle, than I am about my next paycheck.
SD: So do you see yourself doing this for a while?
SH: I don't really know. My dad is harping on me to go to law school. Who knows? That may be the way to go, or I may end up writing, or painting or running marathons. I feel like P.I.s are really fiction writers. I could not make this real-life stuff up: the webs we weave and the loyalties and the allegiances and the conspiring. It's much better than fiction.
I don't know if I want to be knocking on doors at 60. Maybe I'll live in Mombasa and study marine biology? Maybe I'll move to Amsterdam and study art therapy. Or maybe I'll go live in a yurt in Mongolia and ride horses? I just want to be open to whatever comes. I think if you get really stuck, you're screwed. For me, quality of life is being able to envision all the possibilities.