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The Crook, The PI, & the Kiwi Journalist Stuck in the Middle.
Part One: A serious, bonafide, knucklehead.
Last week I ended up at a friend’s birthday in Auckland. There are good birthday parties, and there are bad birthday parties. This was a good one. Not a dud human in sight.
At some point in the evening, I ended up in a conversation with someone I’d never met before, Daniel — and Daniel told me a story that was utterly engrossing.
Various people tried to drunkenly interrupt us, as people tend to do at parties — but I wasn’t having it. I was engrossed. An outsider would have looked at this busy room of moving bodies and just seen the two of us locked in conversation for about 45 minutes.
So imagine me delight when Dan told me he’d written this whole story down, but never published it anywhere (for reasons that become apparent in his story).
Imagine my delight when I found out Dan loved Webworm, and would be happy for me to publish his story here.
But first, I asked Daniel to describe how this story came to be. To provide some context for the chaos that follows. This is what he said:
“My name is Daniel, I am from New Zealand.
In 2019 I was living in Los Angeles and had a gig as an unpaid intern at the semi-prestigious Los Angeles Magazine. Once the magazine figured out I was a terrible fact-checker, but a decent writer they made a game out of sending me on strange excursions and fool’s errands so that I could write small columns about it from my quaint, antipodean perspective. I tried strange and disgusting ice cream flavours, visited haunted mausoleums with limping psychics, and drank 40-ounce Olde English Malt on the corners of South Central.
Then one day I was scammed out of almost USD $4000 in a rental fraud. I convinced the magazine to hire Brian Wolfe, Private Investigator to help me track down my scammer and bring him to justice. I had seen Brian in his appearances in Nathan For You, and his own Discovery Channel TV show Cry Wolfe and thought him tough, belligerent, and just the man for the job.
Me and Brian went on multiple adventures together, which I outlined in the picaresque article below.
But the magazine never ran the story. Probably running a proper feature article written by an intern, would have set a dangerous precedent that may have toppled the magazine.
So for years this story sat on my computer, and was nothing more than the best party tale in my repertoire. I am grateful it is finally seeing the light of day.
It is fucking insane, but I swear it is all true.”
The Crook, The PI, and the Kiwi Journalist Stuck in the Middle.
Part One: A serious, bonafide, knucklehead.
by Daniel Smith.
It began with a knock on the door.
Silence, shuffling, before a man bursts into the hallway like a crazed jack-in-the-box. His eyes bulge and his arms pinwheel wildly. He wears a dirty white singlet covered in paw prints. The culprit of the prints, a rabid pomeranian, yaps aggressively from between his heels, kept at bay by a leash wound tight around his hand.
This person had just burst from what I had assumed was my house.
“Are you James’s friend?” I asked nervously.
The man jerked the Pomeranian into submission, then blurted dismissively, “You’ve been scammed.”
In 2019, I joined that shamefaced and angry club that many Angelenos blunder into; I became a victim of a rental scam.
The scam was an elaborate property con by a man named James Pamphile. He had seemed nice enough. He was tall and athletic, who told me in a soft voice it was his dream to open a vegan restaurant. I think that’s what got me. He was a vegan. In what world could such an upstanding moral citizen be a scammer?
He showed us around the apartment with a quiet nonchalance. The rent was good but not suspiciously so. He had given us keys which worked, and presented us with a lease that seemed to check out. We also had to move out of our sublet in a week and had exhausted all other options. So to secure the place we paid him the first month and bond.
I found out the rental was a scam, when after days of no response I went to re-test the keys. After knocking on what I thought was my door, I was met with the wild-eyed man and his rabid Pomeranian.
The real owner had legitimately rented his apartment to Pamphile for two weeks, then arrived home to find a stranger naked on his couch and in this way discovered his apartment had been used in a property scam.
He allowed the stranger to get dressed, kicked him out, and thought that it was the end of it. But then came a whole train of people knocking on his door, thinking they had rented his house. I, a bumbling New Zealander, was only one of five people caught up in the fraud.
I was angry, but the police and the bank said there was nothing they could do. So seeking retribution, I took my troubles to a man who means business, Brian Wolfe, P.I.
Brian Wolfe speaks hard and fast in a tough Boston brogue. I first heard of him through his appearance on the comedy central show, Nathan for You, on which deadpan comedian Nathan Fielder roped unwitting business owners into trying out his zany marketing concepts. In Brian Wolfe’s case, Nathan Fielder challenged the P.I. to track him down, and attempted to bamboozle him with 11 “Nathan Fielder” doppelgangers.
Following this TV appearance Brian Wolfe finangled his own show on Discovery Channel, Cry Wolfe. The show’s press release described scenes as doing everything from “using from elaborate disguises to digging through the trash, Wolfe uses his tried-and-true P.I. tactics to uncover the reality behind his clients suspicions.”
Brian stomps through the scenes, gruffly investigating. This was no soft-faced internet sleuthing ala Catfish. Brian Wolfe was the real deal. A hard-nosed investigator who wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.
This was the man for the job.
Brian Wolfe hadn’t heard of Los Angeles Magazine and was unimpressed by my credentials. He told me he was currently working on a case involving a certain Grammy award winning singer whose name rhymes with Cluno Bars, but any further details Wolfe was sworn to secrecy.
What Wolfe would say was that he had been shot over ten times, stabbed over twenty and if I wanted to embark on an investigation with him, I would have to sign a declaration to surrender my right to legal action should anything happen to me.
The declaration, hastily concocted in my amateurish legalese read; “I, Daniel Smith, on my own volition, will attend a “ride-along” with Brian Wolfe... If anything should happen to me (such as being shot, stabbed, punched, attacked, harmed physically or emotionally etc.), then it is not the fault of Mr. Wolfe... I have no legal standing to seek recompense from Mr. Wolfe should anything go wrong. If anything goes wrong, it is my fault alone.”
This settled, we arranged to meet the next day.
Brian Wolfe walks into the San Fernando Valley Starbucks like it’s his own personal saloon, and it kind of is. The Private Investigator conducts most of his business here, at least the initial meetings that kick off a case. Brian is a former Quarterback and looks it. His tall frame is compartmentalised into taut blocks of muscle. His silver hair flips back like the crest of a lacklustre wave. He walks in such a spitting image of John Wayne that I check his boots for spurs.
I explain my situation to Brian, to which he replies, “You my friend are a serious, bonafide, knucklehead”.
He clarifies that I may in fact be a rare case of a “double-knucklehead”. Firstly for getting scammed, and secondly for thinking that the Hollywood PD would take this seriously.
With a sneer he pulls out his phone and pulls up a search engine that looks like it was designed when computer screens were black and green. Despite the antique investigation software, Wolfe quickly finds my man, and proudly spins his phone to show me that he’s gotten his birthday and close family members. I told Brian that my own google search had given me that.
After a few moments of thick-fingered boomer scrolling he says, “Didjya Google search find you this? We got an address for some apartment downtown, says he rented it a week ago.”
I began to get excited imagining Brian Wolfe kicking down the door while I watched gleefully from the corridor.
“What’s the next step?” I asked.
“The next step,” Wolfe said, gruffly throwing down his phone, “is we review the information.”
It turned out that reviewing the information was less exciting than it sounded. Wolfe quickly decided that it wouldn’t make for a good story to go straight there and catch the crook, and he would need to show me examples of his skill set for the story before we left.. So he showcased his college football skills throwing “rockets” in the Starbucks parking lot, then we followed a stranger to their home so that Brian could showcase his pursuit driving.
But after this, Wolfe grew tired and said we’d have to catch Pamphile another time. We called it a day.
Brian Wolfe is a busy man. For weeks I had been asking him to check out the address, but he had been busy with cases that didn’t pay in vague promises of magazine exposure.
When I finally got him on the phone, I begged him to give me a few more hours. I told him about the other people scammed by Pamphile. A young songwriter and his four year old child now posted up in an airbnb. A woman halfway to LA from New York when she realised she would arrive homeless. A young man, out of five thousand dollars cash borrowed from his older brother. An older Angeleno native struggling to believe she was scammed in her hometown.
After hearing the victims extended beyond the bespectacled New Zealander that was starting to get on his nerves, Brian agreed to continue the case.
To catch a scammer the complexity of Pamphile, Brian suggested we use an age old Private Investigator technique, which in his thick Bostonian accent sounded like ‘ROOSE’.
“A what?” I asked.
Wolfe raised his voice. “A ROUSE! What, you need me to spell it for ya? R-O-U-S-E, ROUSE!”
As I spelled out the word in my notebook, Brian told me about his wide array of disguises, from Fed-Ex man to incognito neighbour. The Rouse consisted of getting into one of the aforementioned disguises, staking out the potential address, and by hook or by crook, IDing your man.
Brian Wolfe is pissed off, but rightly so because I am 40 minutes late. My Uber had become embroiled in a Downtown gridlock caused by the visiting president Donald J. Trump’s motorcade. As I ran the last three blocks to the address, Homeland Security agents swarmed the sidewalk in their vests and sunglasses like sunburnt jocks at the end of a rave, dangerously devoid of all dopamine.
Wolfe was on the corner, sweet-talking a parking officer into letting him leave his car past the 2-hour limit. When he saw me, I got roped into his spiel.
“This guy’s a writer for the L.A. Times,” Wolfe barks, finger pointed at my chest.
I attempt to correct him but Wolfe cuts me off. To pay penance for my lateness, I am told to buy him and the parking officer a coffee. After the parking officer doddles away sipping on a Frappuccino, Wolfe lays into me.
“First ya make me stand on the corner like an asshole! Then you finally show up, and look how you’re dressed!”
Fearing I would be spotted by Pamphile, I had worn a stained, old hoodie, a dirty cap and large sunglasses.
“I’m in disguise.” I offered feebly.
“Some disguise,” Wolfe yelled, “you look like a damn knucklehead!”
Wolfe himself was wearing a white polo shirt, Bermuda shorts and leather sandals, looking like a guy whose beach plans had been cruelly thwarted. From his description of the ‘Rouse’ I had assumed his costume would be more elaborate. But Wolfe insisted all you needed was a prepaid FedEx courier box and you could get in anywhere you like.
But unfortunately, the box is little help as the apartment building is only accessible by keycard. We move in for a closer look at the glass front door and get a wary side-eye from the security desk.
Adjusting his plan, Brian tells me this is a delicate part of the operation. We need to hang around the door until someone leaves, but not close enough that the security get suspicious. “They will be keeping a watchful eye on account of all the riff-raff,” Brian says, squinting at me, “It doesn’t help that you look like a bum.”
As Brian speaks, a squat man exits. I make a grab for the door but it closes before I get to it. Brian says he is beginning to doubt if he should even take me in there if my door-grabbing skills are anything to go by. As I wonder how to win back Brian’s investigatory trust, an old lady exits.
This time I get to the door and we slip inside.
Upon our entry, the security guards perk up. They have been watching an older man in beach-wear and a young guy who looks like he slept on a bench loiter outside their building for almost 10 minutes. One of the guards starts marching towards us. Brian grabs my arm and pulls me into an elevator.
“What floor?” he barks.
Brian punches Four but the light doesn’t change. Before we can second guess our plan, the lift starts moving.
Brian breathes relief, “I can’t believe that worked.”
I’m not sure that it did. My suspicions are confirmed when we step past the man who called up the elevator out onto the 11th floor.
Without wasting more time on the elevators, we try to find another route to the fourth floor.
The apartment walls are mirrored, which lends a crazed funhouse feel as we half-jog through the corridors. After a few minutes in circles we find a door marked ‘Fire Exit’. Before I can consider whether this is a good idea, Brian has the door open and we are walking down the concrete emergency stairwell.
Almost immediately an alarm starts to howl, a high-pitched whoop followed by a peppy robotic voice saying, “ATTENTION! AN EMERGENCY HAS BEEN REPORTED IN THE BUILDING...”.
We grimly trudge down the stairs, electronic whoops ringing in our ears.
Out onto the fourth floor, Brian quickly locates the apartment. He dumps his half-drunk apology coffee and motions for me to hide around the corner. As soon as I am out of sight, Brian bashes his hand on the door, yelling, “Fed-Ex!”
There is no answer. Brian bangs again, louder. Still nothing. He then proceeds to knock on the neighbours doors but gets no response.
But Wolfe doesn’t just call it a day. He had wasted half his morning waiting for me, gained precarious entry into an apartment building, tripped an alarm system, badly impersonated a delivery man and isn’t about to let that all be for nothing.
We stomp back down to the lobby. At the front desk, guards with silicone earpieces are trying to figure out what is going on. Ignoring them, Wolfe marches into the manager’s office.
Inside the small room the alarm is routed through a speaker system above the manager’s desk and blasts powerfully. The manager has his hands clamped firmly over his ears.
Wolfe slams his Fed-Ex package on the desk as if this is the source of his authority, “I need to confirm if James Pamphile is living in this residence.”
The manager shouts over the alarm that he will need to see some identification.
Brian hands him a beat up old business card, saying cryptically, “I’m an investigator for Los Angeles.”
The manager squints at the card and says, “Do you have anything else?” Brian points at me and says, “I know he doesn't look like much, but this kid is a writer for the L.A. TIMES.”
I open my mouth, then shut it. At this point I am worried we have outstayed our welcome.
Brian somehow remains confident, but this doesn’t sway me into relaxation. Brian Wolfe has confidence like the sun has heat. It’s a tough sort of charisma by force that takes hold of you before you can consider whether you want it or not. But none of this matters when there is footage of us trespassing onto apartment property, opening a fire exit, and violently knocking on half the doors on the fourth floor. Brian can tell I am stressed and gives me a wink. Which helps. Kind of.
The manager hands Brian back his card. The alarm system is still blasting. Brian asks, “Is there any way we can shut this crap off?”
The manager shakes his head, “Once the alarms have been tripped the security team has to check every exit on every floor.”
Brian scoffs, annoyed, “How long is that gonna take?”
The manager winces, “Usually around three hours.”
“Jesus Christ.” Brian shakes his head in empathy, but as far as I can see, not much guilt.
After this, in a masterclass of persuasive Bostonian oratory, Brian convinces the manager to give us the information we are after. With bold charisma alone, he had turned a situation in which we were totally in the wrong, into one in which we were calling the shots.
I am certainly impressed, but Brian is concerned I’m not writing down how good his investigative charm is. I tell him I’m recording on my phone, but Wolfe isn’t satisfied, “Make sure you write, ‘Wolfe is relentless, he never gives up until he gets results’.” I oblige.
The apartment manager told us that James Pamphile had been subletting an apartment in the building , but had disappeared three weeks ago under a cloud of unpaid rent.
Back on the street, Wolfe kicks his sandals against the concrete, dejected. He realises this is not the most clear-cut ending for an article about an investigation and goes in for damage control.
“Maybe at the end of the article you just write: We are still searching, but Wolfe will never give up until justice is served.”
And maybe I could write that, but this was not the end.
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David here again. Sorry to leave you on a cliffhanger, but Dan’s story is a good one and I want to let part one sink in first.
I’m very happy to welcome Daniel Smith to the Webworm family. He’s a journalist and a writer, and he’s also a country musician who’s about to release his debut album on August 18, on a US label called Danger Collective Records.
I love his music video with a horse.
And next week, you can find out how the story of Daniel Smith, James Pamphile and Brian Wolfe concludes. And rest assured: Wolfe will never give up until justice is served.
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