Elgin private investigator Edward Herdrich says the highs and lows of his profession range from helping reunite long-lost siblings who had been adopted into different families to the heartbreaking task of telling a mother the son she'd been searching for had just died of an illness.
Still, the best part is that no day is like the previous one, said Herdrich, 50, who this fall will be teaching private investigation classes at Elgin Community College, Harper College and McHenry County College.
His most regular clients are attorneys who want him to track down witnesses or serve papers in cases ranging from murder to white collar crime, as well as businesses who want background checks done on prospective employees, Herdrich said.
There are also wealthy singles who want to know their new date isn't after their money, those who want to make sure their new beau isn't already married, and children who suspect their mother's new "mystery man" is up to no good, he said.
"I like my job, and I love parts of it. I love the good endings. I love the puzzle. Even in the cases that didn't have an outcome that I wanted, I still enjoyed working on them."
Hollywood myths notwithstanding, a private investigator is mostly an information broker, Heinrich says.
"You try to get all the information that you can, you cross-reference everything, and try to come up with an answer," he said.
Herdrich grew up in Des Plaines and got a degree in English and criminal justice from the University of Illinois at Chicago before a three-year stint with the Army's military police. Among his tasks was searching for AWOL soldiers, a precursor to the job he's been doing for about 20 years.
Much of his work can be done from his home office, via online public records or databases available only to law enforcement, private investigators and some security contractors, he said.
But his cases also take him to the Rolling Meadows courthouse to check on criminal records, the Newberry Library in Chicago to dig for old addresses, or as far as Missouri and Texas to solve adoption cases.
Some cases are very rewarding, such as when he located a hard-to-find witness who helped get a drug case dismissed. Sometimes turning every rock will get you nowhere, like when he couldn't find anyone to corroborate a client's version of the facts in a murder case, he said.
But what Herdrich hates the most is not being able to take a case all the way.
"Clients have only so much time and money. Sometimes you can't find the answer because you can't fly to Colorado. Knowing that you could have found the answer is the worst part," he said.
Whether he's approaching a gang member or an attorney, it's all about treating people with respect, said Herdrich, who hasn't carried a gun in at least a decade.
"You have to be part sociologist and part psychologist. The way your present yourself is the way people will -- or won't -- react to you," he said. "I always tell my students, 'If somebody attempts to physically assault you, protect yourself. But if someone is calling you something, or says your mother is this thing or the other thing, you look them in the eye and say, 'Not really, but you've been served.' "