Kimberly Downey said most work in the PI industry involves insurance fraud, which is 82 percent of Complete Investigations’ workload. Photo by Michael Buck
Kim Downey rarely bums a cigarette, but when she does, it’s always on the job.
“I don’t smoke,” she admits, with a laugh.
But sometimes she pretends to, since she has learned that bumming a cigarette from a stranger she wants to talk to is a good way to break the ice. It helps start a conversation, and gradually gets the other person to let down his or her guard and talk about things her clients want to know.
Downey is a private investigator, owner of Complete Investigations in Grand Rapids, which she started in 2004. The firm is licensed to work throughout Michigan and Wisconsin.
Many people who meet Downey at business and social functions are surprised to learn she is a PI and tell her she doesn’t look like one. She is often asked if she carries a gun.
Kimberly L. Downey
“I’ve been doing this for 17 years and never felt that I needed a gun when working in the field,” she said.
In fact, she won’t allow her 10 employees to carry guns, either. She said there is too much potential liability involved and that would drive up her liability insurance rates. Besides, she said, guns tend to escalate touchy situations, whether it’s surveillance work or trying to surreptitiously gather information in a rough part of town.
Downey said she tells her employees “if somebody knows what you are doing, then you’re not doing your job right.”
After graduating from Central Michigan University in 1996, Downey landed a job with a private investigation firm on the east side of the state. She was just turning 22 and had experience in college working with a police department and county court system, and was encouraged to go into police work.
But it was the investigation part she liked, and she spent several years doing investigations for the private PI firm. Surveillance is the entry-level task assigned to new employees, and Downey did a lot.
“I lived in hotels for five years,” she said. “It was a rough life.”
Most work in the industry involves insurance fraud — especially, worker’s comp cases and faked accident claims — and insurance fraud is 82 percent of Complete Investigations’ workload today. However, her first employer had a contract with the Michigan State Police to check out an individual in the Upper Peninsula who was a key suspect in his wife’s disappearance. Downey and a partner, each in separate vehicles, were sent to survey the suspect at his cabin in a remote location, but the partner got lost. They were equipped with two-way radios with a range of only a mile or two.
Downey drove down a two-track road and parked, then crawled several hundred yards through the woods to where she could observe the cabin. While she was hiding and watching, the suspect left the cabin and drove away — and promptly discovered her car. He returned to the cabin, brought out a shotgun and began shooting randomly into the woods.
“I was shook up,” she said, but she stayed out of sight and, after darkness came, crawled back to her car, not knowing if he would be there waiting. He wasn’t, and she took off.
Downey is definitely no cream puff. Her teenage years in Jackson were rough due to an unstable family environment; she said she was largely on her own by age 15. When she graduated from high school in 1992, she started attending classes at CMU almost immediately, working while earning a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice/pre-law and sociology.
One of her internship jobs while in college was as an undercover drug agent for a mid-Michigan police department. She also worked as a coordinator for Mount Pleasant Community Alternatives from 1994 to 1996, working with individuals who had been sentenced by the Isabella County court system.
In 2003, while still working at the PI firm, Downey took on a second job as a sales rep with TAP Pharmaceuticals, which lasted for about four years. She credits that experience with giving her a great deal of self-confidence and the presentation skills to be an effective public speaker.
In 2008, she started a business, Admirroration, an advertising franchise that uses mirrors as the medium, strategically placed in bars, restaurants and other high-traffic locations.
Downey now spends most of her time on her private investigation business as its president, HR manager and chief sales and marketing representative, and while the bulk of her business involves insurance fraud, about 10 percent is pretrial investigations. One of the most high-profile cases she was involved in was the Raogo Ouedraogo appeal in 2011. Ouedraogo and Rami Saba were convicted of multiple felonies in connection with the disappearance and presumed death of Donald Dietz in Saranac in 2007. Dietz, a single and reclusive man, had amassed a savings account of more than $400,000.
Downey was hired by the Willey & Chamberlain law firm in Grand Rapids, which was defending Ouedraogo in his appeal. She said she worked with attorneys Larry Willey and Mike Bartish to conduct the investigation, which included locating witnesses and conducting interviews, traveling to Philadelphia to meet with Ouedraogo's employer, pastor and friends. Downey also conducted a cell phone forensic investigation that included “tower pinging” and created a timeline of events before the trial. Ouedraogo's conviction was subsequently overturned in December 2011 by U.S. District Court Judge Janet Neff, who determined there was not sufficient evidence to prove he had participated in the crime with Saba.
Downey also investigates crimes at the request of the federal defender’s office and has been involved in an ongoing Ponzi scheme investigation.
She has developed a computer forensics division within her investigative services and is expert on recovering data from any computer or electronic device that has memory, including cameras.
“Cyber crime is the new white collar crime,” she said, with many a small company falling victim to theft of valuable data by its employees. Downey said many companies make the mistake of believing their internal IT department is all they need to keep data secure. Indeed, she said her own company fell victim to cyber crime, but she cannot discuss details because a potential criminal case is pending.
For relaxation, she enjoys entertaining on her 34-foot cruiser on Lake Michigan. She also golfs and in her early years was a competitive water skier and instructor. “I used to be extremely athletic,” she said.
“I also really enjoy public speaking,” she said, and educating business people about what she has learned in her investigations, especially those involving insurance fraud and corporate embezzlement. Last fall, for example, she was one of the presenters at a major meeting of the Michigan Adjusters Association in Frankenmuth.
“The more knowledge that is out there, the more we can defend against fraud,” she said. In advertisements and print collateral, she often spells her firm name as COMPlete Investigations, with the uppercase letters being a reference to workers’ comp.
Downey figures there are probably more than 1,000 PI firms in the state, but lately the large national firms have been focusing on Michigan, perhaps because Michigan’s economic recession began earlier than the rest of the country’s and is finally starting to see some recovery in the manufacturing sector.
The national PI firms, which are aggressive in going after clients, “have altered our business in Michigan over the last six years, tremendously,” she said.