"A bit of an oddball in this business"
While snooping for signs that a suburban salon was illegally shooting up its clients with Botox, Sarah Alcorn ’90 went undercover: “I wore too much makeup and acted like a ditz.” Searching Boston’s homeless shelters for a junkie who’d witnessed an armed robbery, she feigned dishevelment and “dressed in sweats.” Once she donned a brunette wig and sunglasses to tail an alleged adulteress at a hotel. “I like to fit into any canvas,” says the petite faux blond while scrolling through the database of public divorce records at the Middlesex County Probate and Family Court for background information in an assault case. “Changing personas appeals to me.”
A fine-arts concentrator at Harvard, Alcorn worked on props and set design in Hollywood (hence the fondness for hairpieces) before becoming a private criminal investigator 17 years ago. Chameleonic versatility and cleverness aren’t the only traits she exploits to succeed in a field traditionally dominated by tough men—but they have helped. “I spend a lot of time knocking on doors and getting people who don’t want to talk to me to talk to me,” she reports. “Some people respond to the P.I. who’s an ex-cop and might throw his weight around a little. I find the social worker/nice lady vibe often works better for me.”
She has worked on at least a thousand cases, including an ancillary trial connected to the Boston Marathon bombing, and is on the defense team in the high-profile murder of Boston toddler Bella Bond, whose body washed up on Deer Island last year. Some 25 other current cases range from sexual and armed assaults, financial frauds, and robberies to adult murders, drug deals, bar fights, and domestic abuse. She also takes on civil suits and divorces, along with the occasional missing-person search.
A few years ago, on an icy February night, Alcorn was out looking for a mentally ill teenage runaway. Worried that he might freeze to death, she urgently checked police stations, shelters, parks, and hospitals, and questioned homeless people sleeping outside. It turned out “the kid had his parents’ credit card and was staying at a four-star hotel. Living like a lord,” she says. “The lesson there was: Follow the money.”
It also clarifies that detective work is rarely glamorous. Alcorn spends most of her workdays alone, logging hours at the computer trawling social-media sites and proprietary databases for authorized law enforcers and private investigators, like IRBsearch and Locate PLUS, or talking on the phone, trying to reach relatives, friends, and other potential witnesses who can shed light on a crime or a defendant. She gets out of the office to document crime scenes, collect information at courthouses, libraries, and archives (often a tedious process, even without the wheedling), attend hearings or trials, visit inmates, and drive around neighborhoods looking for people.
“People would not enjoy watching real detective work,” says David J. Prum ’80, a former longtime private investigator who was Alcorn’s mentor and then business partner until she opened her solo practice, Greystones Investigation, in 2005. It’s not about building a broad, alluring narrative, but “getting raw information, exactly the words and intention around ‘what A said and B said and C said’ and laying them all down and keeping it all straight in your head while you’re trying to get the story out of the next person,” he adds. “In a complex case, it’s like needlework or dissection: you have to be precise and have extreme patience and tolerance” for pinning down minutiae.
In the larger scheme, Alcorn’s daily doggedness reinforces the integrity of the criminal-justice system, she hopes, and helps keep jury trials “healthy.” Prosecutors rely on police detectives to gather evidence, primarily of guilt, but defense attorneys hire private investigators, like Alcorn, to dig up information that exculpates, or at least raises reasonable doubt among jurors. About half her cases involve indigents with assigned public defenders—“low-paying work, but abundant and interesting,” she says. (More lucrative corporate and security work, or insurance investigations, are “boring.”) Early on, she enthusiastically sought to “Put away the bad guys! They’re a bunch of scumbags!” she recalls—“I am not a bleeding-heart liberal, by the way”—but she soon saw enough to conclude that with the “full weight of the police department, the prosecutor’s office, the Commonwealth against them, the little guy or the little woman needs help,” even if it’s just mitigating the charges against them.
She points to an old Cambridge case, where a police officer reported seeing a drug deal in a park. When she went to the scene, not only was the distance between the deal’s alleged location and the officer’s position too great to see “a little baggie get passed between hands,” she says, but the transaction supposedly happened at night—and the view was “blocked by trees.” “There’s no way anyone could see that. It was absurd,” she declares. “Now, was the alleged drug dealer a questionable character? Probably. However, in this case it doesn’t matter if he dealt drugs 50 times before. They can’t just make up stuff to get a guilty verdict.”
One of the few times she has felt threatened came while investigating a police shooting, and someone—either a fellow private detective or a law-enforcement officer (she believes it was the latter)—used an authorized database to link her to the case. “They published my name and address and my parents’ address and wrote ‘This is the woman,’” she says. Police misconduct occurs, she says, but “I do wonder to what extent a lot of police officers are suffering from a kind of PTSD, and so [they display] this hyper-vigilance. It doesn’t excuse [misconduct] but it maybe explains some of the behavior. I am not anti-police; I think it’s a very tough job.”
Within an often overheated, adversarial system, Alcorn’s duties are surprisingly neutral. She finds out what witnesses saw and think they know to be true (the accuracy of eyewitness testimony, once the bedrock of guilty verdicts, is increasingly being contested by scientists and in the courts), and what they will say on the stand, taking notes that can lead to depositions. She reports “whatever it is: good, bad, or indifferent.” If someone tells her the gun was in her client’s hand, she needs to know that’s what will surface at trial.
The work resembles social anthropology, in its conscious avoidance of moral judgments. “People waste a lot of time trying to understand crime in moral terms,” David Prum notes, “but crime is a completely normal human activity.” There are lawbreakers devoid of a moral compass, he explains, “just like some people are color-blind,” but among the thousands of cases he has worked on, “I’ve only run into a few stone-cold psychos. And it’s obvious when you do. You can’t fake that, nor would anyone want to.”
Instead Prum, who like Alcorn has theater experience, looks at many crimes as “bad performance art. What you see in courts is the result of a lot of young men—because the majority of violent crimes are committed by men between the ages of 16 and 24—who are stuck in a malignant narrative. They are dramatizing themselves, acting out to have an impact on their environment, not to be noticed but to notice themselves, expressing their beings in the face of a reality that ignores them.” He has never carried a gun because “What’s going to happen in a tense situation when a bad guy with a gun knows you’ve got one? He’s likely to use his first. I’ve been in bad situations with armed people and simply walked away. It’s not worth their while to attack if they see you leaving.”
With this in mind, Alcorn favors Mace over a gun. She approaches the job, at least when interviewing potential witnesses, largely as a creative employment of empathy. “The ability to imagine other people’s states of mind,” Prum calls it—to “care about what they are going to share with you.” Often, for witnesses and victims, these are the grittiest details of the most traumatic event of their lives. Alcorn, he says, has an “incredible curiosity about other people—not because she is superficially interested in what she can get out of them, but because she is genuinely interested in the person sitting in front of her.”
Alcorn admits to an abiding “affection for morally ambiguous people.” Where it stems from, she has no idea, but she seems to root for the “Tony Sopranos of the world.” And she finds crime—“why it happens, how it happens, how it’s solved, forensics, the incidental narratives—infinitely fascinating, you know?” She is also nosy. Engaging with thousands of people and visiting their homes, seeing how they live, offers “a view of the range of humanity that most people don’t get to see.” A hoarder’s home where “every single item was pink or purple, even the Christmas decorations. Floor to ceiling, filled with pink and purple clothing, boxes, toys.” The backyard of a house in the country where a murder had taken place, that was strewn with a dozen deer legs sticking out of the frozen ground—“someone had been dressing deer back there”—and a dead cat.
Thirsty from an early age for such extreme sights, Alcorn moved to New York City after graduation to work in theater production, then quickly on to Los Angeles. There, she focused on production design, like creating props for Bottle Rocket, idiosyncratic director Wes Anderson’s first movie (she was also his girlfriend for a year). Her Hollywood career ultimately “tanked,” she says, “mostly because I was bottoming out on partying and bad activities.” In 1997, she returned to Boston, moved in with her parents (her father, Alfred Alcorn ’64, writes academic murder mysteries), and got sober through a 12-step recovery process that she still abides by, finding that “doing the next right thing” serves her well.
Once clear-headed enough, she decided to put her love of research (likely inherited from her father, she adds) and preoccupation with crime to constructive use. She applied to become an FBI agent but, fortuitously, around that time met Prum through mutual friends, and “basically stalked him until he hired me.” (He confirms that.)
Alcorn had already been victimized by then, and responded with stealth. An ex-boyfriend had been stalking her (“to the tune of trying to break down the door of my apartment”) and despite a restraining order, he didn’t stop. Alcorn staked out his house, followed him, and called the police on her cell phone until they served him with a restraining order-violation notice.
After five years as Prum’s apprentice and an interview with the Massachusetts State Police (both requirements for her state license), she officially became a private detective—and, along the way, got married, had a daughter, Juliet, and soon divorced. She loves the jolt, what she calls the “hit,” of moving from “playing Barbies” on the carpet at home to, an hour later, locking up her valuables and “being processed” through the metal detector by guards at a prison in order to interview a murderer.
As a Harvard-educated, artistic single mom, Alcorn knows she’s “a bit of an oddball in this business.” At educational workshops, conferences, and meetings of the Licensed Private Detective Association of Massachusetts, most of her colleagues have been “male, Republican, ex-cops with bellies,” she says—and “total sweethearts, helpful and accepting of me.” More women have entered the field within the last decade, however, and Alcorn, who stays abreast of the latest forensic procedures, legalities, databases, and technology through conferences and seminars, enjoys following the expertise of two of them—“location/background gurus” Cynthia Hetherington and Michèle Stuart. At a recent course on conducting Dark Web searches (for typically illegal content that exists apart from the publicly accessible Internet and search engines), Alcorn says Hetherington warned that, “from a cyber safety perspective, it’s like walking with open cuts into a room full of vampires.”
Humorous—were it not true. Criminal work is steeped in “the darker side of human nature,” Alcorn acknowledges. “It is psychically taxing, if nothing else.” More than 90 percent of her cases result from people doing “something stupid to get money to get drugs, or being on drugs or alcohol,” she reports. Without insight into the addict’s frame of mind, and her own hard-earned recovery, she wouldn’t have lasted in the job “because there is so much hopelessness and death.” Every day she meets people struggling just to get by and build a clean life who are consistently “hobbled by the system.” A witness she recently spoke to is on probation and therefore on call for drug testing, meaning that even at work (and he feels lucky to have a job, she says), for a spot-check, he must leave his post, take a long, round-trip bus ride to the site, and pay $11 for the test. “How is he supposed to do that, and keep his job?” she asks.
Alcorn can’t help identifying with some people, especially women, especially women who drink. “I’ll show up in court sometimes and see some woman whose hair is all messy, her eyes are sunken, she’s got handcuffs on, she looks completely confused, she’s hit someone with her car,” she says. “And I am no different. If I had not chosen the path that I took, I could be that woman, you know?”