Francie Koehler, 73, devoured Nancy Drew books when she was young. While fascinated by the adventures of the feisty, independent teenage detective, Francie never imagined herself as a super sleuth tracking down clues and solving mysteries.
Fast forward to 2016 and that's exactly what Francie has been doing for nearly three decades.
Working as a licensed private investigator, Francie has earned numerous awards for excellence in her field. She has served on investigator committees and association boards, and offered countless hours volunteering her skills to industry-worthy causes.
This spring, the mother of five, grandmother of 16, and great grandmother of two, adds another accomplishment to her distinguished resume: an online criminal justice degree from Saint Leo University.
Small-Town Girl to Big-Town P.I.
Francie grew up in a small farming community in Colorado. After years in retail and corporate management, however, she became a real-life Nancy Drew when she entered the private investigation field. Today, she operates her own agency in Oakland, California, providing investigation and litigation support for court-appointed criminal defense attorneys on cases involving serious felonies including capital crimes.
"We review the entire case – all the discovery, documents, videos, interviews and any records we have – and approach it from a defense perspective. We do everything from pre-trial work to providing testimony once the case is at trial," she says.
In addition, Francie trains newly licensed investigators and is a certified conflict mediator. She teaches interviewing and report writing skills, conducts seminars on identify theft, and volunteers for the Santa Clara University Innocence Project.
Francie also hosts a weekly Internet radio talk show – PI's Declassified! on Voice America Variety – giving listeners an inside look at the field of private investigation.
Here, Francie shares some insight into her educational journey and her career.
How did you get your start as a P.I.?
Francie: I came into the career thanks to a great mentor, and as I found myself getting more involved in investigating, I realized my life experiences really helped me succeed.
Thanks to my management career, I was already used to interviewing subjects for hiring, terminating, promoting, training, and so on. So I felt comfortable with that aspect, which is such an important part of gathering information for cases.
I worked with my mentor for nine years before I started my own agency (and I happened to ask him to marry me 14 years later)! There are so many different areas within private investigating, and I found my niche in helping attorneys with criminal defense cases.
What's the biggest challenge you face as a P.I.?
Francie: One of the most important things I find myself reiterating is that most of the professionals in criminal defense are ethical individuals who are upholding the constitution through their work. So often, these attorneys and investigators are given a bad name, but they are doing a job that needs to be done. Criminal defendants have a right to a trial, and attorneys are bound by law to defend that person.
In most cases, I've found that a criminal defendant is usually a good person who ended up in a bad situation. That even includes murder. There's so much more to any story than the crime itself. And those involved deserve due process.
What makes it a tough career field?
Francie: Sometimes it's hard to maintain boundaries with clients and to stay objective. In criminal defense, you might have a strong belief in either the guilt or the innocence of the defendant but, with most cases, you never really know. We make assumptions from the evidence, and it isn't often someone comes out and tells you they did it. But when you know the person is innocent, the pressure is increased and you work to leave no stone unturned until that case is brought to trial.
What's a typical day like?
Francie: There's nothing typical about the field. The other day, I had plans to meet with an attorney in the afternoon and work on some administrative tasks, but I had to drop everything to pick up a client's lab results and get them to court by noon. Another day, I was scheduled to testify the following day and the attorney called and said the judge moved things up, so that day was rearranged as well. In the middle of all those interruptions, other cases that are not in trial require attention.
It's a team effort in my office. I have two people who work for me – an assistant and an investigator who is out in the field. We keep lists that we go through every few days to distribute tasks and get them done before we move on. Honestly, I'd like to feel more organized, but it's just not that feasible in this field.
Why did you decide to earn a bachelor's degree?
Francie: I graduated from high school in 1960 and I was the only person in my family without a college degree. My grandfather even graduated with an engineering degree in the early 1900s. However, I thought I knew more than everyone else and set off to find my fortune.
Nevertheless, I did not lose sight of completing my education at some point. While I attend approximately 40 hours of continuing education every year, I found that it was important to enhance my skills in a more formal way and gain the credentials relevant to my work. Also I wanted to set a good example for my grandchildren.
What drew you to Saint Leo?
Francie: I started searching for a school in 2002, but I knew I wanted something online because I didn't have time to go to campus. I felt like I wasted time driving, walking and waiting for classes. At the time, online training was relatively new, but Saint Leo had been doing it for a while, and the university had good credentials and a good academic environment.
How did you fit in coursework into your busy schedule?
Francie: That usually happened at midnight or sometime between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m.! But the classes were interesting enough to keep me motivated to persevere. In fact, I liked it so much that I'm applying for my master's at Saint Leo.
What was the greatest challenge you had to overcome to earn your degree?
Francie: There were three main challenges. First, time was an obstacle since I work a full-time plus schedule. Second, family was an obstacle. A husband, five grown children, 16 grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, two dogs and a cat all compete for attention. And third, was finances. I did not want to use financial aid and create a burden for my family.
What are some of the steps to take to become a P.I.?
Francie: The majority of states require you to be licensed, so it is important to decide where you want to work and figure out the requirements for that state.
The private investigation field requires you gain work experience to become licensed to practice on your own. In California, you have to work a minimum of 6,000 hours under someone who is already licensed or work in law enforcement conducting investigations. Once you put in those hours, you can qualify to sit for a state exam. You submit your application along with your fingerprints for background with California Department of Justice and the FBI. Once cleared, then all you have to do is pass your test.
Tell us about your radio show.
Francie: It's called PI's Declassifed! I try to show people that private investigators are not the people portrayed in the movies. We are typically ethical, legitimate and conscientious.
The shows feature discussions with other PIs, experts and attorneys, and we discuss anything that I can tie into investigations. For example, when Casey Anthony was on trial, we talked about her case. Or, we'll discuss cases that involve racism, false confessions, the death penalty, or worker's compensation fraud.
Every year, I spend four weeks with a show I call The Gift of Exoneration. Each week I feature a different person who has been exonerated after a considerable time in prison for crimes they didn't commit. They share their experiences and how their case got resolved to get them released.
It's an eye-opening series, and I hope the show reflects the nature of investigating and why it's such an important field.
Would you recommend becoming a P.I.?
Francie: If you are motivated, you can find a way to become an investigator, and I highly recommend it as a career. It's fascinating, though it does take a special person with a questioning mind and considerable tenacity. It's a 24/7 field, and you always have to be ready to move on a case.
Image credits: Essential Image Media on Shutterstock.com and courtesy Francie Koehler