Behind every Wikileaks-type article, every copyright-infringement case and every drug-ring bust, the tedious and tireless trade of investigation is at play. And, far from the common perception of dark shady figures just as comfortable in the boardroom as they are in back alleys, the profession of private investigation is one that, above all, is filled with a certain breed of individuals that just have to get to the bottom of things. We turn the table on four industry players – from investigative journalist to forensic toxicologist – and do a bit of digging ourselves.
This article was previously published in our November-December issue.
According to Kristof Clerix, the most important prerequisite of investigative journalism is time – time to invest in a story, to get to the bottom of it and to reveal the truth to the largest number of people – as well as an editor-in-chief who has your back and who’s willing to take risks, which is crucial as well, because not every lead results in a piece with enough substance. It took him a couple of months of writing faits divers before he actually started diving into more thorough, investigative content, which at the time included two books on espionage and secret services in Belgium. Inspired by Günther Wallraff – who went undercover in the German coalmines, disguised as a Turkish migrant worker in order to denounce the discrimination and misconduct – Kristof’s main motivation is to put public interest issues on the global radar. A goal which he achieved several times already, notably while working on the major financial scandals of the last three years – LuxLeaks, SwissLeaks, Panama Papers and, more recently, the Bahamas Leaks – as part of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, or ICIJ for short. “These last three years have been the most enthralling of my life,”he states, adding that he can really sleep soundly while working in Belgium, which he calls a safe haven for investigative journalists thanks to a series of laws that protect them from governments tapping their phones and hacking into their e-mails (the latter being encrypted anyway). That’s not to say that journalists are entirely let off the hook in Belgium. Indeed, ICIJ colleague and De Tijd journalist Lars Bové has already been summoned by the state security department after publishing a book on Belgian intelligence and security, and federal justice minister Koen Geens is planning to install a law judging press leaks much more severely. “But that’s nothing compared to the fate of most whistleblowers – without whom our stories would never come to fruition – who have either been condemned by a court, or wisely choose to remain anonymous” Kristof continues, and urging governments to strive towards a decent law that protects the Snowdens of the world. And, true to Wallraff, his initial source of inspiration, it’s safe to say that the financial leaks Kristof revealed, together with the 190 – and in the case of the Panama Papers even 376 – journalists worldwide, undoubtedly succeeded in having an impact, on public opinion as well as on society as a whole. “It’s a beautiful thing to see, when writing good stories meets international collaboration, meets revealing the truth, meets having a global influence in a bid to reduce corruption.”Kristof Clerix (1978) is an investigative journalist who is currently working for Knack, following previous stints at De Morgen and MO* Magazine. He is one of three Belgian journalists part of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, along with De Tijd’s Lars Bové and Le Soir’s Alain Lallemand. https://www.icij.org/journalists/kristof-clerix
Dominique and Jan both ended up as corporate investigators and private detectives after a career switch. Jan was once an aspiring psychologist and Dominique had ambitions of becoming a journalist, admitting that “Getting to the bottom of a story, digging into every tiny detail and revealing the truth are things that have driven me for as long as I can remember.”And having a partner of course helps to achieve this goal. “We exchange ideas constantly, and we above all complement each other,”Jan states.
They’re quite aware of the uncommon nature of their job, and admit that it’s, without a doubt, a profession that provokes curiosity amongst their close friends and family. It’s a little-known fact, but Belgium only counts a couple of dozen private detectives that work independently, and the majority of them work closely together, conducting investigations about anything that can go wrong inside a company because of malevolence, which most of the time translates into fraud, theft or work absenteeism. Since 1991, every private detective working in Belgium has to abide to a strict law, installed after a series of scandals involving private detectives in the Nivelles Gang criminal investigation. A frustration for private detectives on one hand, who utter the concern that they now have less rights than a normal citizen, this law has on the other hand given more credibility to their reports in courtrooms. Dominique and Jan take a lot of pride in their profession, too – “We’re contacted by companies who literally have their backs against the wall. Unable to turn to police services, CEO’s turn to us to get to the truth. A detective’s case is above all an elegant way to avoid judicial cases and instead having an out-of-court settlement.”An investigation always starts with online research, along with a thorough screening of the target through social media, company history and detailed personal information provided by the client. According to Dominique, this phase can’t be underestimated as, quite often, desk research alone reveals there to be no case. If necessary, the investigation continues with the actual shadowing of a target. “Of course shadowing is the aspect of our profession that speaks to people’s imagination the strongest, but when we do follow someone there’s an entire process that needs to be followed,” Dominique explains, while Jan adds that “we always start with a recon. This is when we scour the area; take a look at the state of the roads and the neighbourhood. And then, we’re both on stakeout, either following a target on the road or observing statically from afar.” And while breaking the law is out of the question at all times, both are devoted to seeing each case through. Even if that means hiding out in the bushes with a sleeping bag for days.While we can neither divulge the birth year, nor the last names of Dominique and Jan, they do kindly urge you to visit their website www.detectivebelgium.be should you ever be in need of their services.
Toxicologist Sarah Wille’s line of work entails checking blood and urine samples for drugs, alcohol and other mind-altering substances from intoxicated drivers to murder and rape cases, while revealing every possible lead in order for a judge to make the right decision in a courtroom. Employed at the Belgian National Institute for Criminology for nine years now, Sarah explains that at the federal institution, research and experimentation go hand in hand. Because every investigation requires a great deal of interpretation, every outcome needs to be placed in the right context. All samples coming into the laboratory are entirely anonymous, and the scientists never discover whose body it comes from, unless they are themselves summoned for a court hearing. “This has happened a couple of times already, and it’s always fascinating to see in which way your own research has helped to put a criminal investigative puzzle together,” Sarah points out. Alongside these practical cases, the most pressing issues for toxicologists worldwide are designer drugs. A continuously evolving market, manufacturing gangs play an endless cat-and-mouse game with the authorities. There’s a list of substances that are prohibited by law, but then there are those who might have an influence on the human mind, but who aren’t yet on this list of dangerous substances. Suppliers are constantly changing the constitution of their product. “We try to find out why and how these substances are dangerous, for public health, guidance as well as justice, but it sometimes feels like a never-ending road.”And while the institution’s slogan – “Doing more with less” – might sound cynical, a limited budget doesn’t get Sarah down. Limited means keep her on her toes, while she also admits that there are more failures than successes. “ As a forensic investigator this is something you always have to keep in the back of your mind. You’re most likely to hit a wall at one point or another, but you have to be strong, handle it, and continue trying, testing, experimenting, until you find the results. For me, what’s most interesting is looking for a solution, answering a problem, and the combination between the unknown and the continuous link with the real world.”As for her own professional journey, she’s come a long way since high school, where, as rumour has it, she was always the first one to faint when having to dissect a rabbit.Sarah Wille (1979) is a toxicology expert at Belgium’s National Institute of Criminology in Neder-Over-Heembeek. www.nicc.fgov.be
Running her own business from her stately home office just outside of Brussels, Sophie Vanslambrouck got into the private detective field after a longstanding career as a judicial secretary. While going through a separation, she suspected her soon-to be-ex partner of infidelity, and unwilling to pay a private detective, she decided to become one herself. “I talked about it with my mother, at first jokingly, but after some online research I took the plunge and put my name down for a course. One year later I had my license, and shortly after I started up SV Investigations, which I’ve now been running for five years,”explains. While others often react in awe when she explains her profession, she states that for her it’s like any normal job. And one she takes seriously too. She’s the only private detective in the country with a quality mark, which she received in the Netherlands, where the profession has a much better reputation. “In Belgium things changed a lot over the years. There used to be many charlatans, and there still are some, most of them old timers who got into the business way back when, with the idea of making easy money. People often think that all we do is sit and wait in cars while drinking coffee, until we take the one photo we need, while charging enormous amounts to companies and private clients.”But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Writing up a report is an often strenuous process that can take hours, but her past as a legal professional helped her acquire enough credibility as an entrepreneur, as she knows how to draft legal documents. Shadowing someone also requires guts, patience and a strong insight in human nature. Sophie proudly states that over the years she has really learned how to anticipate human behaviour, which she cites as one of the most important characteristics of her profession. She then mentions that she isn’t scared to take risks. Her phone is constantly ringing off the hook with clients in dire need of her help. The job is quite unpredictable, and calls for alertness at all time. It’s not uncommon for Sophie to get a call that requires her to be on the road within the hour. As long as it doesn’t include breaking the law to the extent of her license getting revoked, she’s willing to go the extra mile – take driving through a red traffic light, for example, is something to take into consideration, as losing a target is out of the question. “Observe closely and react rapidly, always”, is the mantra she goes by. “We film as much as we can. There are so many things that can happen in the fraction of a moment, so it’s better to play safe and have a couple of hours more editing to do afterwards rather than lose the golden shot.”Sophie Vanslambrouck (1979) runs SV Investigations from her home office in Gooik.
All photography (c) Thomas Ost