With over 20 years of experience in investigations, Zora shares her insights for achieving success in a challenging career niche, and always being open for more…
I was born in small town Minnesota, where I also spent the first 18 years of my life. I was lucky to have an industrious immigrant father and progressive artistic mother who emphasized the value of education and travel, thereby giving me a more global perspective. I was a fast learner and finished high school at age 15, studying over the summers for 8th and 12th grades. I finished my Bachelor of Arts just as I turned 18 and went on to Vancouver, Canada, to finish a Master of Arts in international geopolitics at age 20.
Although I pursued the next step towards obtaining a PhD and enjoyed the intellectual stimulation in academia, I found that I was motivated to more actively participate in events as they unfolded instead of just studying them. My natural curiosity and desire to understand people led me to a career in investigations, which is a process of always seeking a deep level of information, often about very interesting topics.
For several years, I pursued mainly criminal investigations while living in Arizona, where I enjoyed the independent frontier spirit and mainly focused on murder cases, including those based in the Navajo Nation. After several years, I decided to relocate to Los Angeles to take advantage of a larger pool of potential cases (and the spectacular weather and beaches). Moving to California was one of the best decisions I made, as it provided me with opportunities that I was unlikely to find in smaller jurisdictions. I also benefitted from networking with members of professional organizations such as the California Association of Licensed Investigators.
In my early years while becoming established in LA, many more senior investigators were helpful with advice and work. Initially my casework mainly involved transports of troubled adolescents and surveillance for insurance fraud and domestic matters, but I focused my specialization on criminal cases. After acquiring my own investigator’s license, I slowly built my practice with court appointments on death penalty cases and smaller-scale federal criminal cases such as drug conspiracies. I had a big break when thanks to a referral from another investigator, I was appointed to a complex federal case involving multiple murders and race riots in the prison systems. Although I was still a young investigator, I proved myself through dedication and hard work and was subsequently allocated to numerous cases involving criminal enterprises, street gangs, and serious violent crime.
For many years, I enjoyed a successful and prosperous career working on some of the highest profile cases in the country, including indictments involving the Aryan Brotherhood, Mexican Mafia and MS-13, among many others. I also mentored more junior investigators, which I greatly enjoyed. There were advantages to the flexibility of court appointments. I could choose which cases interested me, work in teams that I found effective, and set my own schedule. I felt fulfilled making a difference on a daily basis and contributing to a functioning judicial system, while also satisfying my need for intrigue. For example, there was always a bit of a thrill on each trip of many to the Supermax prison in Colorado where I had conversations with some of the most interesting characters imaginable.
I was extremely motivated to work on cases that had international dimensions and was always keen for travel in my personal and professional life. To date, I’ve traveled to over 80 countries for pleasure, work, language and law studies. Seeking new challenges, I went to The Hague (The Netherlands) to attend a two-week intensive course with the Institute for International Criminal Investigations, which focused on investigations of international crimes such as war crimes and genocide. I found this experience inspiring and I set my goal to make a transition into the international sector more permanently.
I knew that this international leap would be very difficult to accomplish, as competition was keen and I lacked an Ivy League pedigree or connections. After some limited participation in a high-profile case with the Yugoslav Tribunal (ICTY), I decided that to fully launch an international career, I had to make a serious commitment to upgrade my credentials. I poured my efforts into obtaining a Juris Doctor law degree at Loyola Law School Los Angeles, with concentrations in International Criminal and Human Rights Law and Criminal Justice. Fortunately, I had a wonderful experience consisting of intense intellectual stimulation in a nurturing environment with professors who did everything they could to uplift students, including those aspiring to international careers.
Doing a law degree later in life was terrifying and difficult but rewarding. I count it as perhaps the best decision of my life (and I try not to think too much about those student loans). Becoming a lawyer made me a better investigator.
In law school, I was able to establish a singular focus and achieved the highest grade in numerous courses, graduating at the top of my class. I learned about international dispute resolution and human rights for several weeks in Cyprus. I studied the law of war in Geneva and received a scholarship to spend a spectacular summer in Paris with Cornell Law at the Sorbonne. I enjoyed invitations to memberships in honor societies such as the Order of the Coif and Alpha Sigma Nu. And I was also honored to co-write an article on the law of war, which was published in the Yale Journal of International Law. I passed the California bar exam on the first attempt (an excruciating experience). I worked in Guatemala while awaiting the results and had the honor of the U.S. ambassador swearing me in, making even my transition to a lawyer an unusual and international experience.
As a result of developing myself as a lawyer, doors opened to many experiential opportunities with international scope. While advocating in a human rights clinic, I participated in real world cases involving abuses in the U.S., Jamaica, and other Caribbean countries. While living in Guatemala, I advised a human rights organization on cases involving international crimes during the civil war, including massacres of indigenous Maya. I subsequently advised a prosecution team in Uganda on a Lord’s Resistance Army case involving war crimes and crimes against humanity. I hope for justice for the vulnerable victims of war and upheaval, many of whom I met, as the Guatemala and Uganda cases continue to move forward.
Those experiences outside of one’s home country can be difficult for the average American to line up but are crucial to enable an international career. I was able to transition into long-term international posts in the United Nations system, for two years as an investigator and legal officer with a peacekeeping mission in Central African Republic, and then for over a year now as a senior investigator based in the Philippines.
I have enjoyed some rich experiences and have now been more actively seeking opportunities to share the lessons I have learned and mentor and enable the next generation of investigators.
1. What do you love most about the industry you are in?
Investigations was my calling in life and the right fit for my personality. My primary motivation is love for the work itself, which I appreciate on an even deeper level with my legal training.
Being an investigator constantly opens opportunities to ask probing questions and satisfy my curiosity. Evidence was one of my favorite subjects in law school, and I continue to find it fascinating to review, gather, and analyze witness statements, financial documents, crime scene photographs, forensic reports, and other types of evidence. I love all the “a-ha!” moments, as well as the mental exercise of analysis.
Investigations also offers a variety of specializations. I know investigators specialized in background investigations, civil litigation support, family law cases, insurance fraud, child abduction recoveries, missing persons locates, birth parent locates, social media searches, undercover cases, workplace misconduct, and the list goes on. I was fortunate that in Los Angeles, it was possible for me to specialize. I was adept at complex large-scale criminal cases and preferred these cases for the intellectual stimulation. Many of these cases also involved sexual and financial crimes, which required other skills, such as conducting trauma-sensitive interviewing or analyzing financial documents.
I also love investigations for the opportunities to work in the field and have contact with a wide range of people. I have conducted investigations all over the world in challenging environments such as prisons, homeless shelters, and refugee camps. I have been in contact with people ranging from politicians to gang leaders to vulnerable victims of war-time violence.
There is also somewhat of a mystique to investigations, sometimes deservedly and sometimes not. There are many tedious tasks in the real world of investigations, but there are also moments of excitement and bizarre scenarios.
Hollywood is endlessly interested in the investigations industry, for better or for worse. I was interviewed for a This American Life segment many years ago called “Wonder Woman.” Every time it airs, I hear positive feedback that it inspires people to follow their dreams. Two movie scripts loosely based on my life were written for Universal Studios and Warner Brothers.
In Los Angeles and Arizona, I was also frequently contacted by writers, directors, and producers to participate in creating or performing in fictionalized films and TV shows. I met many celebrities on these projects and like many of my investigator colleagues in Los Angeles, I participated in acting and re-enacting scenes for film and TV projects. Most of my experiences were light-hearted fun, and I can confirm from first-hand experience that shows purporting to be true or a “documentary” may have a core of historical truth, but usually involve acting, reenactments, staged events, and misleading cuts of the final product.
Ultimately, fame or an acting career has never been my motivation. I love real-world investigations, which demands confidentiality and professionalism rather than attention and sensationalism. Some of the strangest and most exciting stories are the ones that I can never tell.
2. What does a typical day consist of for you?
As a California-based investigator, my day was sometimes an office day, but other times I was out of office for meetings or to gather evidence.
Two or three times a week, I attended meetings hosted by one of the team members (lawyers, investigators, and paralegals) at our respective offices. We would review evidence and discuss strategy and next steps.
Other activities outside the office depended on the stage of my career. In the early years, I might have to position myself for a long surveillance outside someone’s residence after preparing cameras and other equipment. For an undercover case, I’d develop my “cover” and try to get closer to my target, like one case where I posed as a homeless person. For quality control, I’d sit in restaurants or theme parks watching closely the hands of cashiers for theft of cash or signs of ticket scalping outside the box office. For a transport, I’d be on the road at 3am, with parents letting me into their house to break the news to a teenager that I’d be taking them on an early morning flight to rehab, usually in Utah or Texas.
The lion’s share of my career has involved criminal cases, for which a day out of the office consisted of locating witnesses and conducting interviews, often in challenging inner-city neighborhoods of Los Angeles. I also routinely entered jails and prisons in California and all over the country, typically to talk with tough people about tough subjects. Three days a week in a detention facility was the norm. I usually had to ask people about their worst and most traumatizing moments in life, and often with individuals who struggled with mental health or developmental challenges.
For office-based tasks, I reviewed evidence, for example, a “murder book” (as it is called by the Los Angeles Police Department), which contains such materials as witness statements and forensic reports. In international criminal cases, I often reviewed reports and notes from journalists, non-governmental organizations, and international organizations regarding atrocities as documented at the time they occurred. I also conducted research of open sources like newspaper articles or court records and used proprietary databases (accessible to licensed investigators and law enforcement) to locate potential witnesses. I might review copious video or audio files or consult with and coordinate experts on specific types of evidence, such as DNA, tool marks, blood spatter, fingerprints, trauma, medical evidence, or cell site data. And after having interviewed witnesses or reviewed evidence, I drafted and finalized reports – some strictly factual for disclosure, some with my opinions or impressions that remained internal to the team as work product.
Upon becoming a lawyer, I also performed legal tasks, such as research of relevant standards and case law and applying this law to the facts. This is mentally demanding, as it requires not just analysis of facts and law, but also synthesis of different legal standards and judicial decisions. In the international criminal and human rights law worlds, these tasks could be even more difficult given the lack of established case law, so I found myself reaching back to the Nuremberg Military Tribunals and even further to knock out an lengthy indictment or a brief to defend the indictment. This also was challenging because I had to adapt to legal systems quite different from that in the United States.
It has been truly fascinating, and I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to provide effective assistance to many clients and productively contribute to justice.
3. What keeps you motivated?
My core motivating principle is my sense of adventure and the desire to understand different worlds of experience. I have the persistent tendency to always seek challenges instead of just staying comfortable.
In terms of day to day work, I am most motivated when my skills and talents are in demand. I prefer to be challenged with too much or things I’ve never done before than be under-utilized. Even if I might feel overwhelmed at the time, this is when I have learned the most and produced my best work.
After over 20 years in investigations, a central motive for me these days is to give back to the investigative community through training, advice, and mentoring. I am keenly aware that I was only able to succeed through the assistance of others. I have had many mentors and supporters and am thankful that they saw my potential and value. I would like to more fully do the same for aspiring investigators.
4. Who has been a role model to you and why?
For my generation of women, it was very difficult to find strong and independent female role models. Women who had in fact accomplished much historically were rarely lionized in popular culture or even featured in history books. I resorted to fictional characters where available (like Nancy Drew, of course) and created my own personal strong female archetype to guide me – the idealized version of me that I should emulate.
As women have gradually become more recognized as leaders and trendsetters in their own right, I find I most admire women – and men – who came from humble backgrounds and overcame significant obstacles to contribute to society, while also sticking to their principles despite any (inevitable) stumbles. I also prefer to avoid the crowd and give credit to people whose contributions were unrecognized or undervalued by the vagaries of prevailing opinion (which for women, was many).
On a personal level, my father probably was the central example for me of someone who was able to stay disciplined and take a giant leap. He was just a farm boy in rural Yugoslavia and leveraged his brain and determination to come to the U.S. on a Fulbright scholarship, complete a PhD, and become a college professor. He is justifiably proud of the fact that he’s paid tons of taxes over the years, reflecting his success (enabled by many people, especially my mother) and what he has given back to the U.S. through sheer hard work.
5. How do you maintain a solid work life balance?
I tend to commit to intense growth periods where I have very little personal time (generally this is what I prefer), interspersed with slower periods (usually forced on me) where there is time to reflect and reassess. I’ve had friends tell me that I need to relax and enjoy instead of seeking another challenge, but it is the way I am built.
During my growth spurt in law school, I wasn’t content to just rest during the winter and summer breaks, but instead filled it with opportunities to develop, like going to Lebanon to study Arabic for several weeks and interview Syrian refugees.
I do try to throw in some fun. Living in a hardship duty station in Central African Republic gave me some of my most enjoyable social experiences in recent years, with friends who I dearly miss. Camaraderie and laughter were always present, an important counterweight to some of the heavier matters encountered during a workday in a poverty-stricken conflict zone.
Nowadays during any down time, I fill it with personal travel (in recent months, six countries in Southeast Asia) or seek means for further development, like language classes, investigative training, or continuing legal education. I also seek creative outlets through writing and art and dabble in other ways to use the right side of the brain. I prioritize trips to the U.S. and other places when possible, in order to have precious personal contact with beloved family and friends.
I am also the kind of person who needs quiet time to recharge and I find that surrounding myself with beauty and green space is essential for my sense of well-being. Fortunately, my home in Manila has a garden lined with palm and papaya trees full of singing birds, and a stunning view of the city’s skyline to boot (and fortunately also an awesome pool).
My mother has a brick farmhouse in Minnesota surrounded by forest and decorated beautifully with antiques and art deco and mid-century modern styles, including items we acquired on trips to charming villages in England and France. I follow my mother’s example in decorating my space with cherished antiques and art I’ve gathered from around the world, the latter which often features mythological creatures and symbols that inspire me.
6. What suggestions do you have for someone starting in your industry?
There are many routes to international investigations, but the most common are through a background in law, the military (especially intelligence or law), and/or law enforcement. It is also possible to succeed with a less formal background, such as starting as a researcher for a non-governmental organization or an investigator in the private sector. Most international jobs require at least five years of investigative experience. I could write a book of advice just on the application procedures, but most of all, you need a healthy dose of luck and determination.
For those seeking to establish themselves as licensed investigators in the United States, I can offer some more specific insights.
In California and most other states, attending a school or training will not be counted towards the hours required for licensure, but instead, several years of experience on the job is required. In some ways this makes sense, because many investigative skills are learned through first-hand application and repetition and not through memorization. However, this experience-only requirement also makes entry difficult for young people or those looking for a career transition.
There are two main routes to licensure as an investigator in the United States – through years of service with an organization (such as a police department or insurance company) or while working under the license and supervision of another investigator. There is a background check and depending on the state, there is usually a written test.
Many former police officers going into investigations have some measure of financial security through a pension, thereby allowing for less strain in a new venture. The private citizen route to licensure is more difficult and uncertain and requires determination and resourcefulness. Most investigative agencies are small shops where taking on an employee is an expensive prospect (workers compensation insurance, etc.), so most investigators in California prefer to sub-contract work to other licensed investigators. As with many other career paths, it can be challenge to build experience.
Regardless of the route, I suggest researching the local and national professional associations and attending meetings and conferences to share ideas, network, and find mentors if possible (this applies to international investigations as well). Many associations have email groups where it is possible to obtain educational material and answers to technical questions, as well as post or find direct referrals or sub-contracted work.
Note that in California and many other states, the hours counted towards licensure must be PAID. Be cautious and aware that there may be people out there who will think nothing of using you for free labor. Protect yourself with fee agreements, email exchanges, and anything else in writing that shows that a contract was formed. On private cases, get your money up front and stop work when it runs out. Insist on a replenishment of retainer, even when you are working with people you trust. Do not let clients take you for a “trial run.” This is especially true for celebrity clients and lawyers who are famous. I’ve learned this the hard way, many times, unfortunately. Be firm. Be confident that your time is valuable. And save your volunteering for truly worthy causes.
It can be difficult to become an investigator, because unlike a doctor or lawyer, the path to success is unclear and there are few jobs with set salaries. It is even more difficult to make the leap into international investigations as it is highly competitive, sometimes with thousands of people applying for one post. However, there is a demand for competent investigators and the field is growing as the world continues to become more complex and global.
To have success in investigations, the most important skills to develop are interviewing effectively and drafting well-written documents. It is also important to be fair, impartial, objective, and ethical. Always keep your promises, a rule that is even more important when dealing with gang members and convicts, who will respect that you have a job to do if you are straight with them. Keep a firm line of professional distance and avoid conflicts of interest. Personal attributes that are helpful for an investigator is being detail-oriented and perceptive while also capable of unconventional thinking. Having strong investigative instincts and the “gut” factor can also be useful, as long as it is tempered by reason.
Nothing replaces experience learned on the job. People often have the misconception that anyone can do investigations, since there is no uniform credentialing process. But you cannot just drop someone from another type of work into investigations and expect them to produce great results immediately.
A bit of quirkiness seems to be the norm in this business, and there is no shortage of interesting characters. So there is no problem in being a tad odd or eccentric. It is helpful to be the kind of person who does not accept a certain narrative at face value but instead looks at all sides of an argument or situation.
7. What is one piece of advice that you have never forgotten?
Years ago, I benefitted from a huge catalyst in my life. After a frustrating day at a prison in Pennsylvania, a lawyer friend who I admire very much sat me down for an hour to lecture me about how I needed to become a lawyer. At the time, I was considering this option, but was nervous about the expense, the years of effort required, and the possibility of failure. But he insisted that I could do it and that I would not regret it. He emphasized the value of being trained to think like a lawyer.
His words still ring in my ears: Nothing worth doing is easy.
He was absolutely right and I’m very glad I listened to him. I credit him with providing me with the encouragement I needed to successfully take on a huge task and thereby open up the world of opportunities I was seeking.
8. What’s one piece of advice you would give to others?
Apply for everything, everywhere.
One thing may come through that will then enable the next opportunity.
I’ve learned that the only consistent avenue to success is persistence. Chances are you might not achieve exactly what you had in mind, but if you keep pounding on doors, one will open.
As an example, years ago there was nothing I wanted more than to live and work in Europe. I applied for every job and grant under the sun to try to get me there. I watched hundreds of applications wither and die. Instead, life challenged me with opportunities in Central America, and then Africa and Southeast Asia, places where it didn’t even enter my mind to consider, but I am so glad I gained the incredibly rich insight from those experiences.
There will always be mistakes, failures, and setbacks, but you should set your intention. Be prepared for the dance of two steps forward, and one or even three steps back. Try not to limit the possibilities in your own mind, but instead be open to different ways of attaining a path that is consistent with your identity and calling.
9. Outside of work, what defines you as a person?
My motivating principles are adventure and exploration, with the focus on an archetype of a Taoist Scholar Warrior, who develops physically, mentally, and spiritually for the purpose of helping others.
I was attracted to geography in academics because I found the figure of the intrepid international explorer compelling. I became an investigator because it allowed me to seek answers to complicated questions, with a dash of excitement along the way. I became a lawyer because I resonated with the idea of using the law as a weapon to stand up for people.
I see myself as a person with a humble small town origin who was able to break through some barriers of gender and class to create an interesting life.
I became a licensed pilot at age 17, taking my friends spinning above cornfields in rural Minnesota. At age 18, I was hang gliding, floatplane flying, skydiving, and motorcycling. At age 19, I was scuba diving, skiing, and captaining sailboats in the Pacific. At age 20, I did a month-long survival course in the Utah wilderness. I have made choices later in life that reflect this spirit, with a long list of amazing experiences that I continue to cultivate.
I think that when I exit the world, I will be able to reflect and say, “you know what, Zora, you’ve had a good run.”
I feel this even more when uplifting and enabling the next generation’s spirit of adventure and exploration.